Thursday, April 09, 2020

Appreciating the Gift of the Eucharist

Bishop Athanasius Schneider

(Holy Thursday 2020: This homily was given on April 9, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Exodus 12: 1-14; Psalm 116: 12-18; 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26; John 13: 1-15.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Holy Thursday 2020]

Athanasius Schneider is a 59-year-old bishop who was born—and who spent the first decade of his life—in Kyrgystan (which, at the time, was part of the old Soviet Union).  He and his family were devout Catholics.  However, because of the atheistic Soviet government, the Schneiders had to practice their faith secretly.  Like many Christians who’ve been forced to live under Communist, totalitarian regimes, the Schneiders risked their lives in being faithful to Jesus and his gospel. So did their priests.  Masses were celebrated in secret, usually in people’s homes.  The priest would come to the family’s house, hear their confessions, celebrate the Eucharist, and then quickly leave.  As Bishop Schneider put it in his new book, Christus Vincit: “We confessed, we assisted at Holy Mass, and then the priest had to flee.”  He had to flee, of course, so that the Soviet authorities wouldn’t catch him doing something forbidden by the government.

When a journalist asked Bishop Schneider how often a priest would come to say Mass in his family’s home in those days, he responded with these words (these really struck me the other day when I read them, especially given what’s going on in the world right now): “It depended.  Sometimes [a priest would come] every six months, sometimes once a year.  It always depended on the priests.  They were sometimes in prison, sometimes under house arrest, so it was a very hard time.  But this was, for me, one of the deepest experiences in my life.  Sunday worship in the family and the Spiritual Communions.  There were some years when we went without Holy Communion.”

Can you imagine that?  A full year without the Eucharist!

I don’t think it will come as a surprise to any one of you that Bishop Athanasius Schneider has, at the present time, a deep, profound appreciation and love for the Blessed Sacrament!  He knows what a great gift the Eucharist is!  When you are deprived of something good for a long time, you tend to appreciate it all the more!  He mentions “Spiritual Communions” there—which he and his family made when the priest wasn’t there for Sunday Mass (and, unfortunately, that was most of the time).  But that was not a substitute for actually receiving Jesus—Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity—in the Holy Eucharist.

That’s what the Schneiders wanted—and that’s why they and their priests literally risked their lives to receive the Blessed Sacrament at holy Mass.

On this and every Holy Thursday we commemorate the anniversary of the institution of the Holy Eucharist by Jesus at the Last Supper.  We also celebrate the anniversary of the institution of the ministerial priesthood.  When Jesus said to his apostles, “Do this in memory of me,” he implicitly gave them the power to fulfill that command.  It was, in effect, the moment of their ordination.

I think it’s been very easy for us in the Westerly area to take the Eucharist for granted in the past, since we’ve never been deprived of the sacrament here, like the Schneiders were in the old Soviet Union.  Masses are normally available every day of the week in several of our local churches—and there are still a sufficient number of priests around.  

But the coronavirus has changed all that for a time—which, from one perspective at least, is not a bad thing.  Our God is so powerful that he can bring good out evil—and one of the good things he’s brought out of this evil pandemic is a greater appreciation for the Blessed Sacrament and the Mass, as well as a greater appreciation for the priesthood—because without the priesthood we wouldn’t have the Blessed Sacrament.  Remember—no priest, no Eucharist!

They say, “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” and “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”  Hopefully that’s been your experience since public Masses began to be cancelled a few weeks ago in the Diocese of Providence and the Diocese of Norwich.  Hopefully you are feeling like the Schneiders felt in between the clandestine Masses they had in their home once or twice a year.  Hopefully you have a growing desire to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord—and a desire to make sure you’re properly prepared to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord.  That, of course, may involve making a good confession sometime soon—before our churches open up again.  I don’t think it was a coincidence that, before the Schneider’s priest celebrated Mass for them, he always heard their confessions.  The Schneiders understood how precious the Eucharist is, and how they needed to make sure they received worthily, in the state of grace.

Let me give the final word today to Bishop Schneider.  In response to a question about the Eucharist, Bishop Schneider says this in his book:
Love desires to be close to the beloved.  There is no way to be closer to us, there is no more humble, fragile, vulnerable, and defenseless way than the Eucharist.  It can only be an invention and a maximum expression of divine Love towards us.Through the sacrament of the Eucharist, Jesus Christ says to us, “I love you.  Not only do I want to be close to you, I want to enter into you through the Eucharist, into your body, into your soul, in the most profound way possible.  I want to be united to your soul by my divinity, to visit you, to even enter into your body, and to sanctify you, to dwell in you.”  The Incarnate God not only dwelt among us on earth.  He is now dwelling on our altars at the moment of consecration in the Mass and He is dwelling in the tabernacle.  He descends always onto the altar.  It was St. Therese of the Child Jesus who said, “Jesus does not descend to live and dwell in the golden chalice, in the tabernacle, but He wants to dwell in our souls.”  This is the Eucharist.  This is love.

Let’s pray today that all properly-disposed Catholics will be able to receive this “gift of love” once again—very soon.