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Faith in the Holy Eucharist
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Our present conference continuing the series on Father Gerald's Priestly Spirituality, the present conference is on Faith in the Holy Eucharist. As we have seen, Father Gerald's preoccupation was the sanctification of priests. Concretely, this meant that priests are to be holy. In the words of the Bishop when he ordains a priest, the Bishop specifies "You are to be holy". In practice, Father Gerald, would synthesize priestly holiness in the possession of three virtues: faith, humility and charity. My plan is to devote three conferences, one to each: faith, next - humility and then charity.
Before we begin the present conference however, I think it might be of some value in exploring and explaining what the logic of talking about priestly sanctity is in speaking to people most of whom I presume would not be priests themselves. Of course, of course, the more priests - not listening to me - I am not worth listening to - but, hearing Father Geralds message, the more Bishops and priests hear and take to heart what he said, the better. But the presumption is that most people who will somehow be affected by what we are saying would not themselves be priests, but religious or of the multitude of the faithful laity.
Why then pull out and talk about what Father Gerald concretely addresses to priests? What is the relevance here of these three virtues to those who are not priests? I have five reasons. This, by the way before, we begin the conference proper:
Back to Father Gerald. The most fundamental virtue that he says a priest must have is faith. And I would add - the most fundamental virtue that any of - we use the word so often it may have lost its meaning - the most fundamental virtue the faithful are to have is faith! We must believe in what God revealed, otherwise - watch the alternative - otherwise, we will not be saved. We must believe that God exists. We must believe that God made the world out of nothing. We must believe that this God who needed no one and nothing created us. And when we sinned, we must believe that God became Man in order that by His life, passion and death we might be saved. Is there one mystery of the faith that from one viewpoint summarizes everything else we are to believe; from another viewpoint that synthesizes everything? Yes. It is not for nothing it is called - and be sure that the definite article always precedes - the Mystery of Faith, The Holy Eucharist. If you believe, if you really believe in the Holy Eucharist, you believe necessarily in everything else that God has revealed. Faith therefore in the Holy Eucharist is THE TEST of whether a person is a Catholic or not. And no one cheats here because God knows whether a person believes or not. Given this foundation, the faith in the Holy Eucharist is the test of being a true Catholic.
Father Gerald goes on. It is this faith dimly realized, only germinating in the young soul, that says He is the source, main source, of priestly vocations. Here is what Father Gerald says:
It is our faith in the Blessed Sacrament that was responsible for most of our vocations, probably - speaking to priests - all of our vocations. We became priests because of the Mass or because of the Divine Abiding Presence in the Sacrament of Love. Vocations to the priesthood have their source - if they could be analyzed and studied - have their source in this formula: I believe that the Son of God has made Himself a prisoner of Love in this little White Host in this Tabernacle for me.
I cannot verify the vocations of other priests - I know this is the source of mine. Father Gerald goes on:
He Who is my God loves me enough to be here as a prisoner of love. Then, I love Him enough to give up the joys and consolations of a Christian home and be His prisoner of Love. A good priest is a prisoner of love of Our Lord because Our Lord is a prisoner of love for him. And in proportion that his faith is living he has that consolation.
There is much more locked up in those few sentences I've read than most people, I'm afraid, realize. If we are going to have even the number of priests that we need and the holy priests that we need, then we must have home and families where faith in the Holy Eucharist is strong. I may have said this publicly sometime before - all I know is that from the dawn of reason, whenever that started for me, to the day that my mother died, I dont know of a single day that she had not attended Mass and received Holy Communion.
As we go on through these conferences, you will begin to see that what we called in the beginning the crisis of the priesthood in the Catholic Church, on closer analysis comes to be seen as a crisis in Catholic families. Of course, of course, there are exceptions. But the need therefore for a deep, strong, unquestioning faith in the Holy Eucharist is the seedbed Father Gerald believes, of perhaps all, certainly of most, vocations to the priesthood.
We go on. If a priestly vocation is even born out of faith in the Holy Eucharist and is nurtured by that same faith among those and with those with whom the future priest lives, once he is ordained, he is as good a priest, as holy a priest, as strong a priest as his faith in the Eucharist. No more, no less. Having taught over five hundred priests, having counseled and taught and still counseling many priests, this is their greatest single need. In one crisp sentence here is what Father Gerald says:
The most difficult cases we shall ever deal with in our apostolate will not be priests who are sinners but priests who have lost the faith. And faith, primarily in the Holy Eucharist.
I can verify that statement and if the occasion required prove it through years of experience with priests. Nothing I will say during these conferences should obscure the most fundamental, the most elementary need in a priest; strong, firm faith in the Real Presence, in the Mass, and as a logical consequence in the priests own identity.
We have one more element to see in our reflections on faith in the Holy Eucharist. What are the implications for all of us? They are so many and so important. I will just touch the surface now. The most elementary aspect of our faith in the Holy Eucharist should be, must be, faith in the Real Presence. In the degree, no more, no less, in the degree to which our faith in Christ's Real Presence is strong, Christ will use us infallibly as a channel of grace to even bring the faith to others, strengthen the faith in others, restore the faith in others. How much more I am saying than any words I could use imply. There is no substitute for a Catholic, no substitute for a strong faith in the Real Presence.
Second implication. This faith of ours in the Holy Eucharist is not only somehow to be, well, preserved, it is to be cultivated. This faith of ours in the Real Presence must not only be retained it must be developed. It must be cultivated. We are to grow in our faith in the Real Presence. And I have two recommendations - again, without going into unusual detail. To grow in our faith in the Holy Eucharist we must come to understand what the Real Presence means. I dare say many if not most Catholics would say Well, what I believe in is a mystery and because it is a mystery, well, it has something to do with mists - misty. I am not supposed to see it. No! Over the years of teaching the theology of faith, how many times for how many years I have been telling my students and I share with you, unless we grow in our understanding of what we believe, our faith weakens, wanes and dies. Who said that? Christ Himself. What we have got to be sure and not merely - Dear Lord, not merely not deny - but not even doubt that the Christ present here on the altar is the same identical Jesus who was conceived in Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, and died on the Cross. This past Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Advent, I had the privilege of distributing First Holy Communion to big, grown Megan, Megan Baird, all dressed in white, from Green Bay, Wisconsin. And in chapel on giving the homily at her first Holy Communion, I said: Megan, do you believe that the same Jesus that you are going to receive in a few minutes at Mass today is the Jesus that Mary held in her arms on Christmas morning? And Megan, out loud, said YES, it's the same Jesus! Thanks Megan - seven years old. Then I told her, Megan, don't you dare, don't you dare weaken in your faith in the years to come. If we are to grow in our understanding of the faith, we must meditate on the Real Presence. We must think about the Real Presence. We must read, prayerfully, what the great masters and devotees of the Holy Eucharist have written, like St. Alphonsus Liguori, like St. Peter Julian Eymard. We must come to know the great masters of faith in the Real Presence. Before I leave the subject, one more, this time a warning. Do not allow - and I would say - for a moment, any ideas from whatever source to enter your mind that are alien to this unquestioning faith in Christs Real Presence. Let no one with whatever sophistry or pseudo-logic weaken your faith in Christs Real Presence.
My last recommendation. If we are going to grow in our faith in the Real Presence, we have no option, we must put this faith into practice. We must use it. Like doing what? Even as I made these notes in preparation for this conference, I thought to myself, what are you putting down as the first shall I say recommended practice - recommended nothing, mandatory practice to grow in our faith in the Real Presence? My first is, you put your faith in the Real Presence into practice by genuflecting before the Real Presence. How we need, how we all of us - bishops, priests, religious, the Catholic Laity - how we need to be reminded that because the same identical Jesus whom Thomas the Apostle acknowledged as My Lord and My God that we should never - no matter who does what - never hesitate to genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament. I repeat, I never thought the day would come when I would have to seriously, in speaking to others including priests, tell them In the name of Jesus Christ kneel down before your Master. We are talking about the implications of our faith in the Real Presence and how that Faith is to be developed.
We must spend time before the Blessed Sacrament. You might say that I have got so many things to do. Pardon the Anglo-Saxon rubbish! The last time that I met the late Archbishop Sheen - I like to keep repeating this - in his apartment in Manhattan as we entered his rooms and the first thing we did - I didn't count how long we stayed there, twenty minutes, maybe half an hour - both an our knees before the Tabernacle. Oh what I couldn't say on this subject. One of the privileges and obligations of a priest is to keep most of his thoughts to himself. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of every believing Catholic examining his conscience and asking himself, How much time did I spend before Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist?
If we are to grow in our faith in the Real Presence, we must pray and beg especially Christ's Mother that she might obtain for us something of her own profound faith. Remember, she did not accompany her Son when He Ascended Body and Soul into heaven. Fifteen or more years, she remained on earth. Is there any question about how deep her faith was - remember she did not yet enjoy the Beatific Vision - how deep her Faith was in the Real Presence of her Son?
Dear Mother Mary, Mother of the Holy Eucharist, except for you we would not have Jesus. Because of you we believe He is in our midst. Help us Dear Mother to see ever more clearly and more deeply that the same Child that you gave birth to in Bethlehem is now on earth - thanks to you. Give us something of the faith that you had. Ask your Son, Dear Mary - we are all blind, we need to see - ask Him to open the eyes of our mind to see with faith that the Jesus whom you now possess in heaven we now have on earth. Ask Him to strengthen our faith so we might be apostles of the Real Presence in the life of everyone whom we meet. Amen.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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