“The Two-Fold Meaning of Belief in the Real Presence”
Homily for Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper
April 6, 2023; St. Mary’s Cathedral
The great Catholic orator Archbishop Fulton Sheen was famous for, besides his oratory, his dedication to praying for one hour before the Blessed Sacrament every day. His example of the daily holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament has inspired countless Catholics ever since, especially among the clergy, to follow his example. What is almost completely unknown is what inspired him to this devotion.
Witnesses to Eucharistic Faith
His inspiration was the story of a small girl in China at the time the Communists seized power in her country in the late 1940’s. He recounts the story in his autobiography, Treasure in Clay, where he writes about the sufferings of Chinese Catholics in the wake of Mao’s revolution. Bear in mind that the Church’s liturgical norm at this time prohibited lay people from touching the host with their hand; this was reserved exclusively to the priest, while the communicants always received on the tongue. In addition, whereas the Church now allows reception of Communion a second time in the same day, back then the strict rule was only one Communion per day. With that mind, this is what Archbishop Sheen wrote:
“… a priest had just begun Mass when Communists entered and arrested him and made him a prisoner in a house adjoining the little church. From a window in that house he could see the tabernacle. Shortly after his imprisonment, the Communists opened the tabernacle, threw the Hosts on the floor, and stole the Sacred Vessels. The priest then decided to make adoration to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament as much as he could day and night. About three o’clock one morning, he saw a child who had been at the morning Mass open a window, climb in, come to the sanctuary floor, get down on both knees, press her tongue to the Host to give herself Holy Communion. The priest told me there were about thirty Hosts in the ciborium. Every single night she came at the same time until there was only one Host left. As she pressed her tongue to receive the Body of Christ, a shot rang out. A Communist soldier had seen her. It proved to be her Viaticum.”
The example of this little girl of only about ten- or eleven-years-old, whose name is not even known to us (although tradition has named her “Li”), is one powerful witness in a whole legion of saints who have sacrificed, even their lives, to protect the sacredness of the Blessed Sacrament. And sadly, Catholics continue to be persecuted and oppressed in China, suffering for the integrity of their faith. And not only Catholics, but people of other faiths as well. This is always the goal of such dictators, to eliminate and make disappear, or at least neutralize, religion, for they know that the power of faith is their only threat to seizing absolute power over their people. So with Catholics they have tried to destroy our core, fundamental belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. They know that this is at the core of our identity, so to destroy the Church they have to destroy this belief in the people.
Nonetheless, the Catholic faith in China perseveres, even in the face of persecution. But what about here? Although less visible and less overtly aggressive, we face perhaps even greater threats to our Catholic faith in our own country at this time. One need only take notice of the steep decline in belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist among self-identifying Catholics.
It makes me wonder if the dream of the soldiers who perpetrated that horrendous blasphemy seventy-five years ago in China is being realized in our own country in our own time. The Church’s belief in the Holy Eucharist is at the heart of who we are as Catholics; without that, we essentially disappear.
What does it mean, though, to truly believe that Christ is present in the Holy Eucharist, that this is truly his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity? There are actually two dimensions to this belief that identifies us as Catholics, which are reflected in the Second Reading and Gospel for Mass this evening.
The Two Dimensions of Eucharistic Faith
In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul gives us his account of what Jesus did at that Last Supper with his apostles the night before he died. The narrative is familiar to us, as we hear it at every Mass. The night before he died: this was our Lord’s last command to us, to do this in memory of him. This is how he left his presence with us until he returns at the end of time. Do we really believe this, down to the core of our being, in our very bones?
If so we will reflect that in our attitude and behavior toward this most precious gift: how we dress for Mass, preserving a spirit of quiet recollection, participating in prayer and song, making every effort to arrive on time and stay to the end of Mass, receiving Communion reverently and correctly, ensuring that we are properly disposed by remaining in a state of grace and taking frequent recourse to the sacrament of Penance. We fulfill our Lord’s last command to us at every Mass, and it is how he wills to continue to be present among us. If we truly love him, how can we not act otherwise? To fail to do so turns his love for us into unrequited love, he who gave everything for us so that we can live with him forever.
And then we have St. John’s version of what happened the night before our Lord died when he was in the Upper Room with his apostles. He washed their feet, assuming the lowliest duty of slaves, he who is their Master. In other words, Eucharistic faith is not to be left inside of church, but to be carried out into the world by sacrificial love. We cannot claim to believe that we receive the Body of Christ in Communion in church if we do not live as the Body of Christ in the world, making him present to those who are hurting, in darkness, needing to hear and receive the Good News that only he can give.
Point of It All
It is not one or the other, as if we could choose between belief in the Eucharist either by showing reverence in church or by serving the poor. There will be no authentic service to the poor and love of neighbor in the sense of true sacrificial love which Christ modeled for us on the Cross if we are not centered in him and cultivate true devotion to him in the most Blessed Sacrament.
What, though, is really the point of it all? It is said that when little Li was martyred, one of the soldiers approached the priest and said to him, “Sir, if in every town there [were] such a little girl, no soldier would ever fight for the Communists!” That is the point of it all: joining ourselves to Christ and his sacrifice, in being a witness that leads others to know him. It is fidelity to Christ to the point of sacrifice that introduces skeptics and non-believers to him, not accommodating ourselves to the spirit of the age, for by doing that we only make ourselves irrelevant, and, worst of all, betrayers of Christ: not imitators of Christ, but imitators of Judas.
The liturgy of this Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper teaches us this two-fold meaning of belief in the Real Presence not only with words through the readings from Scripture, but also in symbol. In an expression of sacrificial love to which we are all called, I will in a few moments carry out the ritual of the washing of feet. And then, at the end of Mass, we will process with the Blessed Sacrament to its place of repose, retreating with Jesus from the Upper Room to the Garden of Gethsemane where he underwent his agony. Let us accompany him all the way to the Cross, that the belief we express in ritual tonight may be a lived reality in all that we do, say and are, for the glory of God and the spreading of His love, light and life in the world.