It is hard to imagine a more pressing priority than renewing faith in the Holy Eucharist. Every generation since the Ascension has viewed its times with urgency. This is the unchanging perspective of those who realise these are “the last days” of human history between Christ’s first coming and His glorious return. No generation has been mistaken in recognising the shadows of the latter times, whether in the mysterious figure of the Antichrist or in the apostasy which will be the Church’s ultimate trial. I recall the words of Blessed John Henry Newman on what he described as “the infidelity to come”. He explained:
I know that all times are perilous, and that in every time serious and anxious minds … are apt to consider no times so perilous as their own … still admitting this, I think that the trials which lie before us are such as would appal and make dizzy such courageous hearts as St Athanasius, St Gregory I, or St Gregory VII. And they would confess that, dark as the prospect of their own day was to them severally, ours has a darkness different in kind from any that has been before it … a world simply irreligious.
Yet we can never lose sight that our times, however darkened, are also illuminated – until the Lord’s return – by the Holy Eucharist, that is, the perpetuation of the Sacrifice of the Cross and the Real Presence of Jesus Christ among us.
In losing sight of Him who is truly present in the Eucharist, we can surely diagnose a central malaise of the Church in this land which now ails families, generations and parishes. It is a malaise which is also at the root of a failure to discern vocations, whether to Christian marriage, the priesthood or the consecrated life – vocations which are all recognised in the light of the Eucharist.
This problem belongs not only to our own times. It is recorded in the visitations of St Charles Borromeo in the 16th century that he came to a village parish church where the Tabernacle was broken and the Blessed Sacrament left mouldering within. He simply knelt and remained kneeling before the abandoned tabernacle the whole night.
Eventually the hapless local priest and people of the district heard that the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan was kneeling alone in prayer and they crowded into the church to join this silent vigil. At dawn St Charles celebrated Mass and left without speaking another word. He had left a silent lesson.
A few weeks ago I was praying in the crypt of Lourdes basilica. I had made the mistake of sitting a little too close to the front in a small, enclosed space. In the course of the hour a long procession of pilgrims or tourists (I wasn’t sure which) passed immediately in front of me. I couldn’t fail to notice, when focusing on the Tabernacle, that only one person and one family acknowledged or recognised Christ truly present.
Some even stood with their backs to the Tabernacle to get a better view of the chapel. Many paused to look at the Tabernacle and photograph it on their iPhones as if it were merely an object of artistic interest.
My thoughts turned to the Eucharistic preaching of the Curé of Ars, who described how in the presence of this Great Sacrament we can be like a man dying in poverty when a great treasure was always within reach which he failed to see. This reminds us why the bishops of this land have made a great invitation to a National Eucharistic Pilgrimage and Congress in Liverpool with the invitation “Adoremus”, which we might express as “Let us adore Him”.
At the dawn of the 20th century Dom Anscar Vonier, the Abbot of Buckfast, memorably said: “The world’s salvation is the Eucharist. This is not a hyperbolical phrase; it is a sober statement of spiritual reality. The world’s salvation is its approximation to the redemptive mystery of Christ. If this mystery becomes the constant occupation of human society, its daily deed, its chief concern, its highest aspiration, then society is saved. Holy Mass is the difference between paganism and Christianity, let us be under no illusion.”
To explain this, I want to turn to a village in 19th-century France where, I contend, the new evangelisation of Western society began. A young priest, John Marie Vianney, arrived in Ars to find not only a broken-down and neglected church, but also a pervasive despair and profound unhappiness. As such, the tiny community reflected in microcosm many contemporary Western societies.
In the years following the French Revolution freethinkers had briefly met in the desecrated church. The parish priest had formally declared his apostasy and left the priesthood to become a married merchant. The people of Ars had become almost impervious to the claims of Christianity – and that is one of the closest similarities to our own society.
That village community had all but abandoned its received faith in the Eucharist. This was manifest in the run-down state of the parish church and within it an abandoned Tabernacle. The mission of Ars, the new evangelisation of that community, began right there. In later years, when the Curé was asked how Ars was converted (along with many other people in France), he would simply point to the place where he knelt in prayer before the Tabernacle.
In this same place we too must in some way begin the wider renewal of faith in the Holy Eucharist. We might say it is something that can only be accomplished on our knees. This we have seen in the vast expansion of Eucharistic Adoration which has marked the past few decades, not only in personal prayer before the Sacrament of the Altar but also in whole parishes, new ecclesial movements and religious communities.
The conversion of Ars was not instantaneous; it required the patient perseverance of years and decades. The Curé saw ignorance as the principal enemy of the renewal of faith. This led him to devote enormous energy to catechesis and preaching.
The celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass, the liturgy, was something in which St John Vianney would urge his parishioners to spare no effort. This was seen in the total renovation of the church building – within and without. It is telling that he would become a nightmare to the suppliers in Lyons who were required to provide the fittings, chalices and vestments for this renewed parish church. They recount that his normal reaction on being presented with the finest items for worship they could find was invariably “Not good enough!” In his eyes nothing would ever be too good that was to be used in the celebration of Mass or to express devotion to the Real Presence of Jesus Christ.
Few of us have direct responsibility for what is used in the Sacred Liturgy. However, the Curé of Ars teaches us by this the internal attitude, the dispositions and preparation with which we must always approach the Eucharistic Liturgy – giving of our very best, we might say.
The goal that St John Vianney set for every parishioner and pilgrim was one and the same: holiness, which we might say is another word for happiness. This happiness was deeper than merely the resolution of the social and moral evils that had bedevilled that tiny village; it saw its community brought visibly from misery to a joy that people remarked on.
However, the Curé’s goal was higher still. He anticipated the central call of the Second Vatican Council, “that all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of love, and by this holiness a more human manner of life is to be fostered in earthly society” (Lumen Gentium, 40). He knew that frequenting the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist was the vital means, for here the grace is given for us to become saints.
Towards the end of his life he remarked that if only the boys and the men had accepted his call to frequently receive Holy Communion “they would all now be saints”. It was an emphatic call to approach the altar frequently, exceptional in his lifetime, when even the most devout would receive Holy Communion only on the greatest days of the year. Yet firmly basing himself on the teaching of the Council of Trent, he insisted on frequent Holy Communion as the food and medicine by which every man and woman and child could become the saint they had been called to be.
Pope St Pius X had astonished the Catholic world by urging all the faithful, starting from the youngest possible age, to receive Holy Communion frequently, by which he meant every Sunday or, if possible, every day. It was, without doubt, the greatest liturgical change of the 20th century. Facing the gathering clouds at the beginning of that century, Pius X realised that no Christian could remain mediocre. We would either respond to the call to holiness or we would cease be Christians at all. I have little doubt that Pius had gained this perspective directly from the Curé and the witness of Ars.
In the language of the 1905 decree which brought into effect Holy Communion from the age of reason, and weekly and daily for all the faithful, in days “when religion and the Catholic faith are attacked from all sides, and the true love of God is frequently lacking”, we can find the antidote by regularly coming to the Eucharist. We will have a growing desire to please God and be more closely united with Him by charity and have recourse to the divine remedy for our weaknesses and defects. In the vision of Pius X, “frequent or daily reception of the Holy Eucharist” would see “union with Christ strengthened, the spiritual life more abundantly sustained, the soul richly endowed with virtues; and the pledge of everlasting salvation more securely bestowed”. This was not an exercise in liturgical antiquarianism or a trivial 21st-century inclusiveness. It was given so that you and I can have the means of becoming saints.
Let us return to the crypt of Lourdes basilica, where all except one individual and one family passing before my eyes failed to recognise the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. If you wonder why the Bishop of Shrewsbury didn’t just close his eyes and get on with his prayer, then it was because those people helped me pray. They helped me to see something of my own neglect, coldness and indifference to this Great Sacrament and to renew my own love for the Lord who desired to remain so close to us. For the renewal of faith in the Holy Eucharist must always begin in some decisive way with you and with me.
I hope that patient example can have a greater impact than censorious correction. It is by approaching the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament with the right disposition that we will recognise the inherent call to holiness in the Holy Eucharist and the vital means to holiness. May the joy of this recognition be reflected in our own joy and the way we celebrate the Mass and put the Eucharist first in our lives, so everything else can be rooted and centred on this mystery of Love which went so far.
St John Vianney had no doubt that the time we spend before this Great Sacrament will be the happiest moments we will spend on earth. A saint of the 20th century, Edith Stein, reflected that it is Christ’s joy to be with us in the Eucharist – a remarkable thought – and our lasting joy to be with Him for time and for eternity.
May this always be true for you and for me.
The Rt Rev Mark Davies is the Bishop of Shrewsbury. This is an edited version of his address at the Evangelium Conference at The Oratory School near Reading
This article first appeared in the September 7 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here