“The year 2000 will be intensely Eucharistic,” wrote Pope John Paul II back in 1994 in his apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente. “In the sacrament of the Eucharist the savior, who took flesh in Mary’s womb 20 centuries ago, continues to offer himself to humanity as the source of divine life” (No. 55).
In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and in the First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, the reality of the presence of the Lord in the Eucharist was made crystal-clear. “This is my Body, this is my Blood,” the son of God proclaimed; and the Church both understood and believed. Indeed, in the first four centuries of the Christian era, the doctrine was hardly ever even called into question.
Early in the 100s, several Fathers of the Church penned moving sermons and tracts on the Real Presence of the Lord in the Eucharist. St. Justin Martyr, for instance, had this to say: “We do not receive this food as ordinary bread and as ordinary drink; but just as Jesus Christ, our Savior, become flesh through the word of God and assumed flesh through the word of God and assumed flesh and blood for our salvation, so too we are taught that the food over which the Eucharistic prayer is said, the food which nourishes our flesh and blood by assimilation, is the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.”
In the first three centuries of the Church, the Eucharist was ordinarily kept hidden in the sacristies of Christian places of worship because of persecutions and fear of sacrilege. Reverence for It, however, was extraordinary, as these words from a sermon delivered by St. Cyril of Jerusalem in the mid-300s illustrate: “If anyone gave you grains of gold, would you not hold on to them with the greatest of care, taking heed lest you lose any of them? Will you not therefore be even more careful lest a crumb (of the consecrated bread) fall from what is more precious than gold and jewels?”
Early in the 400s, in an elegant Latin tract written by St. Augustine, the question of adoring the Eucharist was discussed. The saint made no secret of his view in this regard. “Not only do we not sin by adoring It,” he declared, “we sin by not adoring It.”
In 1264, St. Thomas Aquinas delivered a sermon concerning the feast of Corpus Christi in the presence of Pope Urban IV in a church in Orvieto, Italy. “The joyful memory of the feast we keep today reminds us that it is our duty and privilege to find gladness in praising the Most Sacred Body of Christ,” he affirmed. “O how unspeakable is this Sacrament which sets our affections ablaze with charity. ... It is the fulfillment of Christ’s Mystical Body.”
Early in the 1500s, St. John Fisher, the bishop of Rochester, England, wrote a book challenging a theologian who denied the Real Presence of the Lord in the Eucharist. With characteristic enthusiasm he had this to say: “First, you chide Catholics in general, as if they did not believe in the Eucharist because they do not prostrate themselves day and night before It; and then when you find some who strive to do this, you chide them too and call them superstitious. Had you but tasted one drop of the sweetness which inebriates the souls of those who are religious in their worship of the Sacrament, you would never have written as you have.”
In the late 1600s, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque experienced her first visions of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. They began in this way: “One day I was praying before the Blessed Sacrament, when I felt myself so wholly penetrated with the divine Presence that I lost all thought of myself and the place where I was, and I abandoned myself to this divine Spirit, yielding up my heart to the power of his love. ... It was at times such as this that my divine master taught me what he required of me and disclosed to me the secrets of his loving heart.”
In 1804, while not yet a member of the Catholic Church, the future St. Elizabeth Ann Seton wrote as follows in a letter to her sister: “My dear Ann, how happy we would be if we believed what these dear souls (as Catholic family in Italy) believe, that they possess God in the Sacrament and that he remains in their churches and is carried to them when they are sick. ... How happy I would be, my Lord, if I could find you in their churches. How many things I would say to You of the sorrows of my heart and the sins of my life.”
Later in the 1800s, another celebrated convert to the Catholic faith, John Henry Newman, spoke these words in a sermon on the Eucharist: “O most sacred, most loving heart of Jesus, Thou art concealed in the Holy Eucharist, and Thou beatest for us still. ... I worship Thee with all my best love and awe, with fervent affection, and with my most subdued and resolved will.”
In 1985, in an address to a Eucharistic congress in Kenya, Mother Teresa of Calcutta explained: “With a clean heart we will be able to be all for others and to give Jesus to others. That is why he made himself the Bread of Life. That is why he is there (in the tabernacle) 24 hours a day. That is why he is longing for you and for me to share the joy of loving. ... Parish priests, ask your people to have adoration in your churches whenever you can. The tabernacle is proof that the Lord loves us now with tender compassion.”
Finally, this past September I was in Rome for four days on diocesan business. Returning late one afternoon to the seminary in which I was staying, I stopped to make a visit in a church built in the Middle Ages for pilgrims from Saxony. In former visits as far back as 1954, the church had always been quite empty and rather dark. This time, however, when I entered the ancient front door, I found it flooded in light and filled with men, women and children kneeling in prayer. And elderly priest stood on a little stand in the vestibule attached announcements to a bulletin board.
“Is there a special feast today?” I inquired.
“There is a special feast here every day,” he replied. “And that is the reason why,” he added, pointing awkwardly from his perch to a magnificent monstrance on the main altar. “Yes, that is the reason why,” he repeated quietly and with evident pleasure.