Early in 1998 a committee of clergy, religious, and laity was named to suggest how the Diocese of Bridgeport might best celebrate the Jubilee Year 2000. Committee members studied statements of Pope John Paul II, the Jubilee Office of the Vatican, and the Jubilee Committee of the United States Catholic Conference along with numerous articles about the Jubilee in various theological journals. Here in the Diocese of Bridgeport, they proposed, our celebration should be Eucharistic. In all of our parishes and institutions there should be well-planned programs of Eucharistic worship, and they should be arranged in such a way that Catholics will be at prayer with their Savior in the Blessed Sacrament at every hour of the Jubilee Year in one or another of our houses of worship.
The suggestion was warmly received. Nor was this a surprise. For Eucharistic adoration had been growing steadily across the Diocese over the past several years. A chapel with the Blessed Sacrament exposed day and night was established, for example, at the Saint John Fisher Seminary Residence in Stamford in 1995; and soon thereafter parishes and religious houses were following suit in Ridgefield, Bridgeport, Greenwich, and Stratford. The proposal of the committee, some observed, was nothing more than a welcome development of a powerful spiritual movement already well under way among the Catholics of Fairfield County.
When the plan was made known, however, questions began to pour in. When will this parish or that be taking its turn? Will high schools and nursing homes participate? Is this something new in the life of the Church?
A schedule for each of the parishes and diocesan institutions was published in September. It was announced that high schools, nursing homes, and other facilities of the Diocese with chapels would be taking part. And I was asked to sketch a brief history of Eucharistic devotion in the December 1999 issue of the Fairfield County Catholic.
After pondering how best to fulfill my assignment, I settled on a series of vignettes or, if you will, "snapshots" of Eucharistic faith and piety in the Church's long history. They begin in Apostolic times and continue on into our own. Taken together, it is hoped that they might provide some insight into the Eucharistic devotion of the People of God over the centuries.
- 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 100's several Fathers of the Church penned moving sermons and tracts on the Real Presence of the Lord in the Eucharist. Saint 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, became 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 Eucharist 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 Saint Cyril of Jerusalem in the mid 300's 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 400's, in an elegant Latin tract written by Saint Augustine, the Patron of our Diocese, 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 Saint 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 1500's, Saint John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester in 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 1600's, Saint 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 Saint 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 (a 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 1800's, 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 Jesus 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) twenty four 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. An elderly priest stood on a little stand in the vestibule attaching announcements to a bulletin board.
"Is there a special feast here 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.
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