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Eucharistic Saints

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

In our closing conference on the Holy Eucharist, we address ourselves to the immense subject of Eucharistic saints. The very title is misleading. Every saint of the Catholic Church has been deeply devoted to the Blessed Sacrament. In fact, there is no sanctity without the Eucharist.

We have no choice but to choose just seven out of hundreds of saintly men and women who have been outstanding in their devotion to the sacrament of the altar.

I thought we would start with a saint from the fourth century. Why? Because it was in the fourth century that the Church first assembled what we now call a catechism of the principal doctrines of the Catholic faith. Then we will jump to the thirteenth century, when the first major heresies against the Real Presence began to plague the Church. Our next choices will be from what is popularly called the post-Reformation Age when Protestantism deprived whole nations of their fidelity to the See of Peter. Finally we shall look at a few modern saints whose Eucharistic holiness is an inspiration for our day.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem

This doctor of the Church, as Bishop of Jerusalem, suffered deeply for his faith. He was the sworn enemy of the heretic, Arius, who denied Christ’s divinity. His most important writing was the catechetical compendium which has become the standard for all catechisms since the end of the fourth century.

St. Cyril wrote extensively on the Holy Eucharist as Sacrifice, Communion, and Real Presence. His writings are not only clear and uncomplicated, they show us how unqualified was the faith of the early Church in the priestly powers of changing bread and wine into the living Jesus Christ. Among the classic passages that have been quoted over the centuries, the following is typical:

The bread and wine of the Eucharist before the invocation of the holy and adorable Trinity were simply bread and wine. But after the invocation the bread becomes the Body of Christ and the wine becomes the Blood of Christ. (Catechetical Discourses, 19,7).

What is most significant about this profession of faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist is its unqualified clarity. From the dawn of Christian history, faith in the Holy Eucharist as the living Christ has been continuous. Thus we have writers like St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Justin the martyr, St. Ireneus, St. Cyprian, and many others, all attesting to the presence of the living Christ in the Holy Eucharist through the words of consecration at Mass.

This is especially important in our day when professedly Catholic theologians undermine this faith by claiming that it is a later development of Christian thought. Moreover, the earliest Fathers of the Church never dissociated the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist from the priesthood, instituted by the Savior at the Last Supper. So true is this that we may simply declare that Christian Patrology always associates two sacraments: the Holy Eucharist and the Priesthood. Without the priesthood there would be no Eucharist.

St. Thomas Aquinas

For the first thousand years of Christian history there was no serious challenge to the Real Presence. Then Berengarius of Tours (999-1088) attacked the Church’s doctrine by claiming that Christ could not be simultaneously in heaven and in the Blessed Sacrament. He was condemned by the pope and required to profess his faith in the Real Presence. This Eucharistic creed was quoted verbatim by Pope Paul VI during the Second Vatican Council to meet the crisis of Eucharistic faith that has tormented the Church in our day.

By the thirteenth century, Eucharistic errors became so rampant that a special feast was instituted, called Corpus Christi. The pope ordered Thomas Aquinas to compose the hymns for the Divine Office of this feast. Among these hymns was the Lauda Sion Salvatorem, which is worth quoting at some length because it is such a treasure of our faith.

Christ’s followers know by faith that bread is changed into His flesh and wine into His blood. Man cannot understand this, cannot perceive it; but a lively faith affirms that the change, which is outside the natural course of things, takes place. Under the different species, which are now signs only and not their own reality, there lie hidden wonderful realities. His body is our food, His blood our drink. And yet Christ remains entire under each species. The communicant receives the complete Christ - uncut, unbroken, and undivided. Whether one receives or a thousand, the one receives as much as the thousand. Nor is Christ diminished by being received. The good and the wicked alike receive Him, but with the unlike destiny of life or death. To the wicked it is death, but life to the good. See how different is the result, though each receives the same. Last of all, if the sacrament is broken, have no doubt. Remember there is as much in a fragment as in an unbroken host. There is no division of the reality, but only a breaking of the sign; nor does the breaking diminish the condition or size of the One hidden under the sign.

There is an ocean of doctrinal implications in the words we have just quoted from St. Thomas. What should be emphasized, however, is the unquestioning reality of Christ’s complete, which means total, presence in every particle of the consecrated Host and in every drop of the consecrated Chalice.

Over the centuries since the Lauda Sion was composed, this teaching of Aquinas has been the unshaken foundation of what Catholics believe takes place at the double consecration in the Sacrifice of the Mass.

Also to be stressed is the careful distinction that St. Thomas makes between the objective reality of Christ’s presence and the subjective state of soul of those who receive Holy Communion. Those in the state of grace and those estranged from God both receive the same Jesus Christ. But the first grow in God’s friendship and the second deepen their sinful guilt. In today’s world, when so many people receive Communion and so few receive the sacrament of Penance, this disjunction is crucial. Pope John Paul II on his first pilgrimage to the United States pleaded with the American bishops to promote the frequent reception of the sacrament of Confession for the obvious reasons spelled out by St. Thomas Aquinas.

St. Margaret Mary

St. Margaret Mary (1647 - 1690) is the apostle of the modern devotion to the Sacred Heart. From early childhood she was intensely devoted to the Blessed Sacrament. After four years suffering from paralysis, she was miraculously cured by our Lady. Having vowed to consecrate herself to the religious life, she entered the Visitation convent at Peray, where she was distinguished for obedience, humility, and love of suffering. Among the many visions she received of Christ, the most important were those in which Our Lord told her she was to promote devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The writings of St. Margaret Mary are not extensive but they are eminently practical. Besides her autobiography, she wrote many letters to people who asked for her counsel. Among these is a long letter to a religious in which Margaret Mary describes the diverse lives of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Each is a method of honoring Christ during the Octave of the feast of Corpus Christi.

Today the Lord destines you to honor His glorified life in the Blessed Sacrament. That is why He wishes you to enthrone yourself on the Cross. He wants you to glorify Him by carrying lovingly all those crosses which He presents to you, without ever letting yourself grow weary or complaining of their length or weight.
Today the Lord chooses you to honor His life of sacrifice in the Holy Eucharist. Therefore, you must offer yourself to His Sacred Heart as a victim of immolation before the Divine Sacrificing Priest.
Today the Lord has chosen you to honor His humiliated life in the Blessed Sacrament. So you must offer yourself to Him as nothingness to its All. Your whole attention must be concentrated on annihilating self and rejoicing when others help you to do so.
Today the Lord has chosen you to honor His active life in the Blessed Sacrament. As a faithful servant, you must do violence to yourself to labor fervently in the service of your master.
Today the Lord wants you to honor His life wholly given to us in the Blessed Sacrament. You must be as a burning candle with no other desire than to be consumed in His honor. Surrender yourself to the Mercy of Providence and let Him do with you according to His designs.
Today you will be the Sulamitess, the spouse of the Well-Beloved who wishes to honor the Life of love of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Thus you must attend carefully surrendering yourself pure and innocent to please this Divine Spouse.

St. Alphonsus Liguori

The so called Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century was really a revolution. Among the doctrines of faith which the followers of Martin Luther denied was that Christ instituted the priesthood in order to perpetuate His human and divine presence on earth till the end of time. Among the results of this iconoclasm was the martyrdom of many priests who were put to death, even while celebrating Mass, because they were charged with the idolatry of claiming they had the power to bring Jesus Christ on earth in the Holy Eucharist.

By the eighteenth century, God raised up courageous defenders who spoke and wrote extensively in witness of the Real Presence. Among these, the most famous was St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787). During his long life he published some one hundred volumes on every aspect of Christian morals and spirituality. Among these, the most important for our purpose was his book on The Holy Eucharist. Once again the quotation will be extensive but deserves to be made.

Our holy faith teaches us, and we are bound to believe, that in the consecrated Host, Jesus Christ is really present under the species of bread. But we must also understand that He is thus present on our altars as on a throne of love and mercy, to dispense graces and there to show us the love which He bears us, by being pleased to dwell night and day hidden in the midst of us.
There it was that St. Francis Xavier found refreshment in the midst of his many labors in India; for he employed his days in toiling for souls, and his nights in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. St. John Francis Regis did the same thing; and sometimes finding the church closed, he endeavored to satisfy his longings by remaining on his knees, outside the door exposed to the rain and cold so that at least at a distance he might attend upon his Comforter concealed under the sacramental species. St. Francis of Assisi used to go to communicate all his labors and undertakings to Jesus in the most Holy Sacrament.

So the litany of devotees of the Eucharist goes on. They realize that the Holy Eucharist is a sacrament three times over: as Sacrifice Sacrament of the Mass, Communion Sacrament of Holy Communion, and Presence Sacrament. It is this latter sacrament of the Eucharist which the present Holy Father keeps insisting is so desperately needed in our day. The modern world needs a series of moral miracles to be reconverted to the God from whom it has strayed. Who else but the Incarnate Son of God, present on earth in the Blessed Sacrament, can perform these miracles. But His omnipotence, dare we say it, is at the mercy of our faith.

St. Teresa of Avila

The Church in the sixteenth century was in desperate need of reform. So true is this that we may correctly speak of the Catholic Reformation which took place after the Protestant revolution. Among the Catholic reformers was a contemplative nun who has since been declared a Doctor of the Church, St. Teresa of Avila (1515 - 1582)

As might be expected, Teresa of Avila was one of the staunch defenders of the Catholic faith in her day. Unlike her contemporary, St. Ignatius Loyola, she did not organize an academic crusade to defend the teachings of the one, true Church. She was a contemplative who spent the latter half of her life restoring Carmelite spirituality to its historic authenticity. However, under obedience of her spiritual directors she published some of the deepest and clearest expositions of Catholic Christianity. Her published writings span the whole gamut of the Church’s teaching.

Among the doctrines undermined by the followers of Luther and Calvin was the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. The key factor was their denial that the Eucharist is literally the Incarnate Son of God. The crucial issue was the humanity of Christ. There was no problem admitting that the Eucharist somehow signifies or symbolizes the presence of God. What the “Reformers” would not admit is that the Holy Eucharist is the whole Christ with the fullness of His humanity united with His divinity. The following passage from St. Teresa was written in 1575. She describes the deep secrets that God revealed to her after she had received Holy Communion.

Once after receiving Communion, I was given understanding of how the Father receives within our soul the most holy Body of Christ, and of how I know and have seen that these Divine Persons are present, and how pleasing to the Father this offering of His Son is, because He delights and rejoices with Him here - let us say - on earth. For His humanity is not present with us in the soul, but His divinity is. Thus the humanity is so welcome and pleasing to the Father and bestows on us so many favors.

What is St. Teresa saying? She is saying that God the Father bestows on us indescribable blessings through the humanity of His Only Son. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of this truth. Certainly the graces we receive come to us from God. But they come to us through the humanity which the Second Person of the Holy Trinity assumed when He became man.

That is why the Holy Eucharist is called The Mystery of Faith. The Eucharist is nothing less than Jesus Christ. It is not only that God became man to redeem the world by His death on Calvary. God is constantly redeeming the world by communicating through the humanity of Jesus the graces that He won for us on Good Friday. At the heart of our faith is the belief that God assumed our human nature in order to serve as the channel of the graces that we need to reach our heavenly destiny. The Holy Eucharist, therefore, is the principal channel of the light and strength we need to embrace the cross in this valley of tears in order to join the Savior in His eternal glory.

St. Peter Julian Eymard

If there is one person who qualifies as a Eucharistic saint it is Peter Julian Eymard (1811 - 1868). He had been a member of the Society of Mary, but received a dispensation to organize the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament for men, and the Servants of the Blessed Sacrament for women.

His apostolate of the Eucharist met with widespread opposition, especially among priests of his own day. The focus of the opposition was Peter Julian’s emphasis on the real, corporeal and physical presence of the living Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. What Eymard discovered was what the Church had always believed. But he contributed to a major development of doctrine in understanding the reality of Christ’s Eucharistic presence now on earth.

St. Peter had his critics but he also had his friends. Not the least of his admirers was the Cure of Ars who knew Eymard personally. The Cure wrote of Eymard, “He is a saint. The world hinders his work, but not knowingly, and it will do great things for the glory of God. Adoration by priests! How wonderful! Tell the good Fr. Eymard I will pray for his work every day.”

The published writings of St. Peter Julian are now popularly printed in small paperback volumes. I dare say they have been read by millions. One focus of these writings deserves to be specially emphasized. It is the virtues that Our Lord in the Eucharist is now practicing in order to inspire us to follow His example. Among these virtues, none is more basic than His poverty.

Jesus wanted to be the poorest of the poor, in order to be able to stretch out His hand to the lowliest of men and say to them, “I am your brother.”
No man, in fact, was ever born in more wretched conditions than the Word Incarnate, who had the litter of animals for His cradle and their shelter for His home.
As a child, he fed on barley bread, the bread of the poor and during His apostolic life he lived on alms.
He died in a state of destitution that will never be equaled.
And now that He is risen and glorious, He still takes poverty for His companion. Jesus, dwelling in our midst in His Sacrament, is poorer than during the days of His mortal life. His home may be but a poor church, worse perhaps than the cave of Bethlehem; His tabernacle consists of four boards, which often are worm-eaten.
His priests or His faithful people must give Him everything; the matter of the sacrament, the bread and the wine; the linen on which to place Him or with which to cover Him; the corporals, the altar cloths. He brings nothing from heaven except his adorable person and His love.

So Peter Julian goes on. What is he teaching us? He is teaching us that Jesus Christ is to be imitated twice over: once as the God-man who lived a mortal life in Palestine and once again as the same Incarnate God who is now living His glorified life in the Blessed Sacrament. Both levels of imitation are part of our faith. It takes a spiritual genius like Eymard to remind us that Christ is to be followed and His virtues imitated here and now as they are lived by Him in the Holy Eucharist.

Of course this places a heavy demand on our faith. But this is precisely what the Mystery of Faith is all about. It is the Mystery that we are called upon not only to venerate or adore. It is the Mystery on which we are to model our lives here in the valley of tears as a condition for reaching our heavenly home.

St. Therese of Lisieux

We close this conference on Eucharistic saints with the Little Flower, better known as St. Therese of Lisieux (1873 - 1897). Her mother died when Therese was still a young child. She entered the Carmelite order at the age of fifteen and became directress of novices in 1895. The young Carmelite was remarkable for her humility, simplicity, piety, and patience in enduring the acute physical suffering caused by pulmonary hemorrhages.

There is one of her published writings that has been translated into all modern languages and has deeply affected the spiritual life of whole nations. Pope Pius XI had a great devotion to the Little Flower and canonized her in 1925 shortly after he began his pontificate.

In this autobiography, St. Therese is so clear in expressing her thoughts that the reader honestly feels that she is in conversation with Him. One episode that she describes took place when she with her father and sister, Celine, visited the Holy House of Loreto. It is a place where tradition tells us the Holy Family lived during their years at Nazareth. A priest in Loreto was preparing to offer Mass in the Holy House. There Therese expresses the joy she experienced after receiving Holy Communion on that occasion.

It was a totally heavenly happiness which words cannot express. And what shall our happiness be when we receive Communion in the eternal abode of the King of Heaven? Then we shall see our joy never coming to an end; there will no longer be the sadness of departings, and it will be no longer necessary to have some souvenir to dig fervently into the walls sanctified by His divine presence, for His home will be ours for all eternity.

What the Little Flower is saying deserves to be memorized. The Eucharist on earth is both the anticipation and the promise of the heaven where the Christ, who is hidden in the Blessed Sacrament will be seen face to face in the heavenly home where He is awaiting us.

One more quotation from St. Therese should be made. She declares, without reservation, that “The best means to reach perfection is through receiving Holy Communion frequently. Experience sufficiently proves it in those who practice it.” In other words, receiving our Lord in the Eucharist here on earth is the surest guarantee of joining Him in that everlasting home where He is waiting for us.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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