The Eucharist, the greatest treasure of the Church, in time of tribulations
22 May 2020
By H.E. Bishop Athanasius Schneider
⚜ The following talk was given on 22 May 2020 at the online Rome Life Forum on the theme “Coronavirus in the light of Fatima: a tragedy and a source of hope”.
We are witnessing a unique situation: it is for the first time in the history of the Church that the public celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice has been prohibited almost on a worldwide scale. Under the pretext of the Covid-19 epidemic, the inalienable right of Christians to the public celebration of the Holy Mass has been infringed, disproportionately and unjustifiably. In many countries, and especially in predominantly Catholic countries, this prohibition was enforced in such a systematic and brutal way, that it seemed as though the ruthless historical persecutions of the Church were brought back. An atmosphere of the catacombs was created with priests celebrating Holy Mass in secrecy with a group of the faithful.
The unbelievable fact was, that in the midst of this worldwide ban of the public Holy Mass, many bishops even before the government banned public worship, issued decrees by which they not only forbade the public celebration of Holy Mass, but of any other sacrament as well. By such anti-pastoral measures those bishops deprived the sheep from the spiritual food and strength which only the sacraments can provide. Instead of good shepherds those bishops converted into rigid public officials. Those bishops revealed themselves to be imbued with a naturalistic view, to care only for the temporal and bodily life, forgetting their primary and irreplaceable task to care for the eternal and spiritual life. They forgot the warning of Our Lord: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Mt. 16:26). Bishops who not only did not care but directly prohibited their faithful access to the sacraments, especially to the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist and the sacrament of Penance, behaved as fake shepherds, who seek their own advantage.
Those bishops, however, provided access to the sacraments for themselves, since they celebrated Holy Mass, they had their own confessor, they could receive the anointing of the sick. The following stirring words of God are doubtless applicable to those bishops who in this tribulation, caused by the sanitary dictatorship, denied their sheep the spiritual food of the sacraments, while feeding themselves with the food of the sacraments:
“Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. … Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves.” (Ez. 34:2-10)
In the time of the plague, which had an incomparably higher mortality rate than the current epidemic of Covid-19, St. Charles Borromeo increased the number of the public celebrations of Holy Mass. Even though he closed the churches for a while, he at the same time ordered that there should be Masses celebrated in many public and open places, such as squares, crossroads, street corners. He obliged the priests to visit the sick and the dying to administer them the sacraments of Penance and of Extreme Unction. He ordered public processions to be held, in which people walked a reasonable distance apart, to make reparation for the sins and invoke Divine Mercy. St. Charles Borromeo did not forget the need to care for temporal needs of the sick, but at the same time his primary concern was the spiritual help of the sacraments, with which the sick had to be strengthened. There are many moving heroic examples from history, where priests consciously accepted the mortal danger of administering the sacraments to people infected with lethal contagious diseases.
There is a touching witness from the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Church in the 19th century, about the value of the beauty of the liturgy and the zealous administration of the sacraments in the time of the dangerous and highly contagious cholera epidemic in England. The Catholic Church does not recognize these sacraments as valid, but the fact that these ministers placed such importance on pastoral care during an epidemic should be a witness to us now.
“The ritual innovations of [which] they were accused were entirely rooted in the desperate pastoral needs they encountered. Sisters of Mercy worked with the clergy of St. Peter’s Plymouth in the cholera epidemics of the late 1840s, and petitioned the parish priest, Fr. George Rundle Prynne, for a celebration of the Eucharist each morning to strengthen them for their work. So began the first daily mass in the Church of England since the Reformation. Similarly, the clergy of St. Saviour’s, Leeds, laid what medicines they had on the altar at each morning’s communion, before carrying them out to the many dozens of their parishioners who would die of cholera that very day. These slum churches and their priests are far too many to mention, but their audacity and their piety are to be marveled at. The Church of England, at this time, looked upon ritual as a wicked aping of a Papist Church. Vestments were horrific to most, and yet in places such as the mission church of St. George’s in the East, thuribles were swung, genuflecting was encouraged, the sign of the cross was made frequently, devotion to the blessed sacrament was taken for granted. Confessions were heard, holy anointing was practised. Beauty and holiness were to go into the midst of squalor and depression, as a witness to the Catholic faith in Jesus Christ, the incarnate God, present and active in his world. And, perhaps most significantly, the sick and dying were to receive this sacramental presence as far as was possible. Deathbed confessions, the oil of unction, even, occasionally, communion from the reserved sacrament became the priests’ weapons against, for example, the appalling East London cholera epidemic of 1866.”
St. Damien de Veuster is a luminous example of a priest and a shepherd of souls who for the sake of providing the celebration of the Holy Mass and the other sacraments to the abandoned people who were suffering from leprosy at the Molokai island, accepted voluntarily to administer to them the sacraments, living amongst them and, thereby, to expose himself to the deadly disease. Visitors never forgot the sights and sounds of a Sunday Mass at St. Philomena’s Chapel. Fr. Damien stood at the altar. His lepers gathered around him on the altar. They constantly coughed and expectorated. The odour was overpowering. Yet Fr. Damien never once wavered or showed his disgust. His strength came from the Eucharist as he himself wrote: “It is at the foot of the altar that we find the strength we need in our isolation…” It is there that he found for himself and for those he served the support and encouragement, the consolation and the hope that made him “the happiest missionary in the world”, as he called himself. Mahatma Gandhi, for example, had said that the world has few heroes comparable to Fr. Damien of Molokai. Belgium, the native country of St. Damien, has proclaimed him as the greatest man in its history.
Our time is marked by an unprecedented and widespread liturgical and Eucharistic crisis due to the practical negligence of the truth that the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, is the treasure of the altar and of ineffable majesty. Therefore the following admonitions of the Council of Trent remain relevant today more than ever:
“No other action taken by faithful Christians is so holy and so divine as this tremendous mystery, in which each day that life-giving host, by which we were reconciled with God the Father, is sacrificed by priests to God on the altar, and it is equally clear that you must use every effort and diligence for it to be celebrated with the greatest purity and inner transparency and an outer attitude of devotion and piety.”
This Divine majesty present in the mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist, however, is a hidden majesty. Under the Eucharistic species is the hidden God of majesty. St. Peter Julian Eymard, a modern apostle of the Eucharist, spoke notably on the truth of the hidden majesty of Christ in the Eucharistic mystery. He left us admirable reflections such as this:
“Jesus, with a veil, covers his power because otherwise, I would be afraid. He covers with a veil his holiness, the sublimity of which would discourage our few virtues. A mother talks to her child in a childlike way down to his level. In the same way Jesus makes himself little with the little to elevate them to Himself. Jesus hides his love and warmth. His ardour is such that we would be consumed if we were exposed directly to its flames. The fire is consuming. God is a consuming fire. In this way the hidden Jesus strengthens us against our weaknesses. … This darkness of the hidden majesty requires of us a very worthy sacrifice, the sacrifice of our intellect. We have to believe even against the testimony of our senses, against the ordinary laws of nature, against our own experience. We have to believe only in the mere word of Jesus Christ. There is only one question: ‘Who is there?’ – ‘It is I,’ replies Jesus Christ. Bow down and worship Him! … Instead of being a test, this veil becomes an incentive, an encouragement to have a humble and sincere faith. Man wants to penetrate a veiled truth, discover a hidden treasure, conquer a difficulty. Similarly, the faithful soul searches for the Lord in the presence of the Eucharistic veil as Magdalene searched at the tomb. The Eucharist is to the soul what God is to the blessed in heaven: a truth and a beauty ever ancient and ever new, which man does not tire of scrutinizing and contemplating. Just as in this world love lives from happiness and desires, so also the soul is happy and desires happiness through the Eucharist; the soul eats and is still hungry. Only the wisdom and goodness of our Lord could invent the Eucharistic veil.”
The same saint left us profound reflections about the worship of the Eucharist:
“I have loved the beauty of Thy house. (Psalm xxv. 8.) One day a woman, a good adorer, came to Jesus to adore Him. She brought with her an alabaster box full of precious ointment which she poured upon His feet to show her love for Him and to pay honour to His Divinity and sacred humanity. ‘To what purpose is this waste?’ said the traitor Judas. ‘This ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor.’ But Jesus vindicates His handmaid: ‘What this woman has wrought is a good work. And wheresoever this Gospel shall be preached, this also which she has done shall be told in praise of her.’ This Gospel incident may be applied to the Eucharist. Our Lord is in the Blessed Sacrament to receive from men the same homage He received from those who had the happiness of coming close to Him during His mortal life. He is there to give everybody the opportunity of offering a personal homage to His sacred humanity. Were this the only reason for the Eucharist, it should make us very happy; for the Eucharist enables us as Christians to pay our respects to our Lord in person.
“This presence is the justification of public worship as well as the life of it. If you take away the Real Presence, how will you be able to pay to His most sacred humanity the respect and honour which are its due? As Man, our Lord is present only in Heaven and in the Most Blessed Sacrament. Through the Eucharist we can draw near to the living Saviour in person, and see Him and converse with Him. Without this presence, Divine worship becomes an abstraction. Through this presence we go straight to God and approach Him as during His mortal life. How unfortunate it would be if, in order to honour the humanity of Jesus Christ, we were obliged to go back eighteen centuries! That is all very well for the mind, but how pay an outward homage to so distant a past? We would content ourselves with giving thanks for the mysteries without actively participating in them. But with the Eucharist we can actually come and adore Him like the shepherds; we can prostrate ourselves before Him like the Magi; we need no longer regret our not having been present at Bethlehem or on Calvary.
“On the day of judgment, we shall have the right to say to Him: ‘We visited Thee not only in the poor but in Thy august Person itself. What wilt Thou give us in return?’ Worldly people will never understand this. ‘Give, and give a lot to the poor,’ they say. ‘But what good is it to give to churches? All this lavish expense on altars is wasted money.’ That is the way to become Protestant. No! The Church wants to have a living worship because she possesses her living Saviour on earth. Is not that worth while? But that is not all. To give to the Eucharistic Jesus is a consolation and a joy, as it is also a need. Yes, we feel the need of seeing and feeling our Lord near us, and of honouring Him with out gifts. If our Lord required of us nothing more than interior homage, He would fail to satisfy one of man’s imperious needs; we cannot love without manifesting that love through outward signs of friendship and affection.
“If the sacred linen is clean, if the vestments are neat and in good condition, oh! that is a sign of faith! But if a church is without the proper vestments for the service of our Lord and looks more like a prison than a church, faith is lacking. People give to every form of charity; but beg something for the Most Blessed Sacrament, and they do not know what you are talking about. Is the King then to go in rags while His servants are richly clothed? We have not the right kind of faith, a faith that is practical, a faith that loves; we have only a negative, speculative faith. We are Catholic in name but Protestant in practice.”
St. Peter Julian Eymard said:
“In the worship of God, everything is great, everything is divine. … The Holy Roman liturgy is therefore supremely august and authentic. It comes from Peter, head of the apostles. Each pope kept it and passed it with all respect to the subsequent centuries, knowing how to add in conformity with the needs of faith, piety, and gratitude new formulas, offices, and sacred rites. […] Liturgical worship is the exercise par excellence of all religion.”
The situation of the public cessation of Holy Mass and sacramental Holy Communion during the Covid-19 epidemic is so unique and serious that one can discover behind all of this a deeper meaning. This event has come almost fifty years after the introduction of Communion in the hand (in 1969) and a radical reform of the rite of Mass (in 1969/1970) with its protestantising elements (Offertory prayers) and its horizontal and instructional style of celebration (freestyle moments, celebration in a closed circle and towards the people). The praxis of Communion in the hand over the past fifty years has led to an unintentional and intentional desecration the Eucharistic Body of Christ on an unprecedented scale. For over fifty years, the Body of Christ had been (mostly unintentionally) trampled by the feet of clergy and laity in Catholic churches around the world. The stealing of sacred Hosts has also been increasing at an alarming rate. The praxis of taking Holy Communion directly with one’s own hands and fingers resembles ever more the gesture of taking common food. In not a few Catholics, the practice of receiving Communion in the hand has weakened faith in the Real Presence, in transubstantiation and in the divine and sublime character of the sacred Host. The Eucharistic presence of Christ has, over time, unconsciously become for these faithful a kind of holy bread or symbol. Now the Lord has intervened and deprived almost all the faithful of assisting at Holy Mass and sacramentally receiving Holy Communion.
The current cessation of public Holy Mass and Holy Communion could be understood by the Pope and bishops as a divine rebuke for the past fifty years of Eucharistic desecrations and trivializations and, at the same time, as a merciful appeal for an authentic Eucharistic conversion of the entire Church. May the Holy Spirit touch the heart of the Pope and bishops and move them to issue concrete liturgical norms in order that the Eucharistic worship of the entire Church might be purified and oriented again towards the Lord. One could suggest that the Pope, together with cardinals and bishops, carry out a public act of reparation in Rome for the sins against the Holy Eucharist, and for the sin of the acts of religious veneration to the Pachamama statues. Once the current tribulation has ended, the Pope should issue concrete liturgical norms, in which he invites the entire Church to turn again towards the Lord in the manner of celebration, i.e. celebrant and faithful turned in the same direction during the Eucharistic prayer. The Pope should also forbid the practice of Communion in the hand, for the Church cannot continue unpunished to treat the Holy of Holies in the little sacred Host in such a minimalistic and unsafe manner.
We must also listen to the voice of the little ones in the Church, that is, the voice of countless faithful, children, young people, fathers and mothers of the family, the elderly, who in the visible manifestation of their respect and love for the Eucharistic Lord have been humiliated and despised in the midst of the Church by an arrogant and undoubtedly Pharisaic clericalism. These little lovers and defenders of the Eucharist will renew the life of the Church in our day and these words of Jesus are rightly and deservedly applied to them: “I bless you, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have kept these things hidden to the wise and intelligent and you have revealed them to the little ones.” (Mt. 11: 25) May this truth give us hope and light in the midst of darkness and increase our faith and our love for the Eucharistic Jesus, since when we have the Eucharistic Jesus, we have everything, and nothing will be missed.
 What was the Oxford Movement?, Pusey House, http://www.puseyhouse.org.uk/what-was-the-oxford-movement.html
 Sess. XXII, Decretum de observandis et vitandis.
 St. Peter Julian Eymard, The Real Presence. Eucharistic Meditations, New York 1938, 92-94.
 St. Peter Julian Eymard, The Real Presence. Eucharistic Meditations, New York 1938, 172ff.
 St. Peter Julian Eymard, Direttorio degli aggregati del Santissimo Sacramento, Ch. II, art. V, n. 1.