Like most millennials, I’ve received a lot of heartbreaking news via email. I’ve gotten notice of disasters, of deployments, of deaths, and, yes, even of devastating romantic break-ups. I thought I had seen the worst of anything a screen could show me, but I was wrong. None of that prepared me for the email I received last week announcing that in my archdiocese, every means of access to the Blessed Sacrament for the lay faithful was suspended indefinitely.
Life and Death
First, I must admit, I understand the worldly responsibility that compels this decision. The Coronavirus frightens me, for very good reason. So far, given what we know, which is constantly evolving, it’s particularly deadly for the people I care most about, as they tend to be over sixty-five.
What disturbs me about the Coronavirus is the length of time a person can carry it without showing symptoms, combined with the extraordinary ability of the virus to survive on surfaces. A young and seemingly healthy person, therefore, could go to Mass for weeks, all the while stifling the occasional sneeze and unavoidably touching the pews. They’ve left a virus that may then kill the beloved mom or grandmother who sits in their place next.
Media coverage tells us that anywhere from many hundreds to hundreds of thousands of people may be carrying the virus for every confirmed case we know of. If not handled carefully through sanitation and isolation, the virus’ exponential boom could overwhelm our hospital system, resulting in even more deaths than it would otherwise cause. This is, therefore, literally a life-and-death matter which needs to be treated with a life-and-death degree of respect and concern.
So, why would I be heartbroken to hear that a solution was implemented that would prevent these tragedies that I so fear? I should be relieved. But to be relieved more than to mourn would be to forget that the very heart of my Catholic Faith is Jesus himself in the Eucharist.
The Importance of Obedience
I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting we should disobey the legitimate authority of the bishops who made the decision to prohibit our access to the Eucharist. My good director had to remind me recently that God prizes our obedience above all else, and that if obedience means that we must seek the sacraments out of desire rather than receive them physically right now, God will certainly not fail to give us the graces we need in them. I don’t doubt the truth of this for a moment.
What I am saying is that if the physical presence of the Blessed Sacrament is taken away from us, to mourn is to acknowledge who and what we have lost, and this is critical. God has given us suffering very appropriate to this Lent as we contemplate the events surrounding the passion and death of Jesus. It’s the suffering of Mary Magdalene weeping outside the empty tomb.
‘They Have Taken Our Lord‘
In John’s Gospel, three times, Mary Magdalene laments that Our Lord’s body has been taken away. The last time is my favorite, when she complains to the risen Lord himself, assuming through tear-swollen eyes that he is the gardener, before grabbing onto him with exuberant clinginess when she realizes who he is (John 20:14-17). It’s a wonderfully awkward, beautifully human exchange in which no one could accuse her of not loving Jesus or not aching to find him—to find even his body alone.
I love that she got to speak without the benefit of understanding that it was the Lord himself, still present, asking her tenderly, “Woman, why are you weeping?” (John 20:15) I imagine that Jesus asked, not because he didn’t know the answer, but to give Mary the chance to express her love and longing. Perhaps, now that his body is taken away, we too are being given that chance.
In the very next chapter of John, Jesus does something similar for Peter, asking him “do you love me?” (John 21:15-17) He does this three times to allow Peter to express his love in reparation for his three-time denial (John 13:38). In this crisis, we also have the opportunity to communicate our love in reparation for a denial. We can console Jesus’ Sacred Heart in the Eucharist, with love and sorrow for all the times and ways we and others have failed to acknowledge his presence.
Consoling His Heart
Mandated social isolation has led me to some peculiar movie choices lately. I recently saw one (The Tourist) with the implausible plot that Angelina Jolie’s boyfriend, a criminal mastermind presumably in prison, had a face transplant and came to look like Johnny Depp. When Johnny Depp tried to seduce Angelina Jolie, she refused him, saying she was too in love with her boyfriend in prison. She then enumerated the reasons why.
The beauty of the story was that her boyfriend got to hear her words when she couldn’t know she was speaking them to the very person she loved, just like Mary Magdalene did when she thought she was complaining to the gardener. Do we recognize our Lord and express our love to him when he is disguised in the Blessed Sacrament? Do we weep with the same longing to find him now that his body in the Sacrament has been taken from us?
If we do not, then perhaps we lack some understanding of the Eucharist. This Lent might be the time to better discover the source and summit of our Catholic Faith (CCC 1234): the real, actual, literal, absolute, genuine, no-kidding presence of Jesus’ body, blood, soul and divinity in the Blessed Sacrament. It’s the same body—in fact, the same living whole of Jesus himself—which Mary Magdalene sought in the garden.
To Know in Order to Love
If you tend to understand things best through Scripture, Ascension offers an amazing book and study program by Dr. Edward Sri titled A Biblical Walk Through the Mass. If the deep scriptural basis for the Real Presence is new to you, you don’t know who and what you are missing in the Eucharist until you’ve read through Dr. Sri’s book. Once you do, you’ll never want to miss a single chance to be present at the Mass in your life again.
If this excites or intrigues you, you’ll also love books by Dr. Scott Hahn, like The Fourth Cup or Consuming the Word. If the concept is new to you as a young Catholic, or if you are simply as young at heart as I am, you’ll enjoy Fr. Mike Schmitz’s brilliant talk to college students, called “The Hour That will Change your Life“. Or, you might just want to take some time in prayer with the sixth chapter of John.
However, if you tend to understand things best through scientific and empirical evidence, then it is important that you do your own research on Eucharistic miracles—especially recent ones for which sophisticated medical testing was available, like the 1996 Miracle of Buenos Aires. One of my favorite sites at which to begin this journey is called Reason to Believe. An informative documentary is available there to watch for free.
The Thomas in All of Us
Here’s a quick summary. Eucharistic miracles are fairly common occurrences throughout history in which the Blessed Sacrament sheds its outward appearances of bread and wine and instead reveals its actual substance—the truth of Jesus’ words when he says “this is my body,” and “this is the chalice of my blood.” Today, we can perform sophisticated medical tests that reveal consistent results.
To me, the most striking are these:
- The blood type of the Blessed Sacrament appears to be AB+.
- The tissue is living, beating cardiac tissue. (Watch a video of a beating host here.)
- The human cardiac tissue is integrated with apparent bread in a perfectly observable but inexplicable way.
- The cardiac tissue is perfused with white blood cells. This is the state of the human heart destroying itself just moments before death–particularly a death in which massive trauma precedes asphyxiation as occurred during Roman crucifixion.
- The DNA presents an anomaly. A complete set cannot be obtained, as, in no other instance, there exists no genetic information from a human father. This last piece leaves little room for questions that the tissue can only be of Jesus himself.
Just like Jesus allowed his doubting disciple Thomas to examine his pierced heart, Jesus allows us to examine his heart in the Eucharist as closely as we need in order to understand that it really is what he says it is. The Eucharist really is Jesus himself. Can we now mourn more fully over the tragedy that he has been taken away?
Why Reparation This Lent?
Most of us remember devotion to the Sacred Heart as something our grandmothers loved—something quaint that should be commemorated in needlepoint. Let us think, however, about the dramatic reality of what we now understand the Blessed Sacrament to be. Then let us think of Jesus’ words when he revealed his Sacred Heart to St. Margret Mary Aloque:
“Behold the Heart that has so loved men that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming Itself, in order to testify to Its love; and in return, I receive from the greater part only ingratitude, by their irreverence and sacrilege, and by the coldness and contempt they have for Me in this Sacrament of Love.”
Jesus spoke this way in the seventeenth century! He suffered for our indifference to his heart in the Blessed Sacrament then! Today, among us who still call ourselves Catholic, it is said that only one third believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. If we are among the few that believe, my friends, then making loving reparation is up to us, for the sake of consoling His heart as much as for the world.
St. Thérèse and the Blessed Sacrament
To observe another saint beloved by our grandmothers, whose piercing wisdom exceeds the sweetness for which she is sometimes remembered, the Little Flower, St. Thérèse, was awed by the fact that—for love of us—Jesus has made himself a prisoner, trapped in our tabernacles as the Blessed Sacrament. Her understanding was literal, tragic, and absolutely true. For that reason, St. Thérèse longed to make herself a prisoner for the love of him in Carmel.
Both these saints acted with the love of Mary Magdalene in the garden, and their example reminds us that we are called to do the very same. Now that we can no longer visit Jesus in his prison, let’s not allow him to be forgotten, lacking the consolation of our love and desire. If no one else will, let us mourn and weep, for they have taken Our Lord.
Where We Can Find Him
Lots of good spiritual writers lately remind us that Jesus is present in many other ways. He’s present in Scripture, in prayer, in your neighbor, and in the poor, just to name a few. In fact, in the entirety of the universe, it would be impossible to hide from the divine presence (Psalm 139). That’s true, and seeking him even more actively in these places than usual is good advice in our current situation.
However, it’s also true that Jesus is uniquely present in the Eucharist, because, unlike anywhere else, he’s there physically. What’s more, he’s physically suffering. The Mass genuinely makes present to us the sacrifice of Calvary. Being there, at the foot of the Cross with Mary, is something entirely different from appreciating God while you look at a sunset, contemplate his goodness, or love and serve him in any other way.
So, if you are in a diocese where you still have the privileged possibility of being near the Sacrament because of open churches, even if Masses are canceled, please go visit Jesus in the tabernacle or in Adoration. If you are prohibited like me, you can essentially Skype him at live streaming Adoration sites online. (Or if you want to tune in for live Mass, check Ascension’s homepage for its schedule of daily Mass live streams.) On Ascension Presents, Fr. Mike recently shared a story of people spending time in their cars in church parking lots, just to be as near the Blessed Sacrament as they could.
Seeking His Hidden Heart in Suffering
When Jesus, feeling the full weight of the abandonment of his friends, asks us this Lent, “could you not watch an hour with me?” (Matthew 26:40), let our response be “yes!” If we are trapped at home with little to do but watch terrible movies like I did, why should our answer not be “yes” every day? Let us make this Lent one that Jesus will remember for the outpouring of devotion we showed his Eucharistic heart when it was hidden from us as it once was in the tomb.
At times, God allows suffering that he does not desire in order to bring us closer to him. Because he loves us, our suffering in this pandemic certainly piles further injury upon his gravely wounded heart. If we allow it, these times can draw us back to the eternal truths that matter, and, like a good parent would desire, allow us to learn from some consequences so we can be spared graver ones. We can treat this pandemic as one of those times.
What if we responded by running to Jesus with the wild exuberance of Mary Magdalene? I imagine Jesus having to practically, almost comically, peel her away when he said, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father.” (John 20:17). She didn’t give him an inch to doubt her love. Let’s not give him that inch either.
Coronavirus and Crowning Glory
My mom is my favorite human being alive, and she’s over sixty-five. She says that if I share this fact, I will be demoted from her favorite daughter to her least favorite daughter. I am, however, her only daughter, so I will take this risk in order to communicate something of her heroism and wisdom that moved me deeply.
We both shared our shock and tears when we heard about the Blessed Sacrament being taken away. She poured me some tea. After a grateful sip, I said, “Mom, in a way, I am happy that this will keep you safe. It’s no exaggeration that to go to Church, for you, is a life-and-death risk.”
Mom said this: “Chica, some things are much more important than life or death, and the most important thing in this world is recognizing Jesus in the Eucharist and loving him. We have to be obedient to the archbishop, and I wouldn’t want to endanger other lives, so don’t worry, God isn’t giving me the opportunity … but to die because I wanted to be present at Mass? I simply can’t imagine a better way to go!”
You May Also Like:
Jesus: The Way, the Truth, and the Life [study program]
Altaration: The Mystery of the Mass Revealed [study program]
Christ Spans the Centuries in Eucharistic Miracles: Buenos Aires & Lanciano
The Eucharistic Miracle Overseen by Archbishop Bergoglio (Pope Francis)
AnnaMaria Cardinalli sees beauty as a means for evangelization and has performed in the world’s great musical venues. These range from Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, and Carnegie Hall, to the really important ones, like singing on EWTN or teaching Panis Angelicus to the first communicants she prepares with her mom, Giovanna, at their local parish. She is the author of Music and Meaning in the Mass. She bleeds blue and gold. Her Ph.D. in theology is from Notre Dame, and she’s a service-disabled Navy veteran. Her work in Iraq and Afghanistan exposed human rights violations against children, and she remains dedicated to the protection of God’s littlest ones.
Featured photo by Francesco Alberti on Unsplash
This is a beautiful essay that put into words what we are all feeling now and also gives us a good perspective for Holy Week and beyond. Thank you!
Deirdre, it’s such a consolation to imagine that this manages to echo everyone’s feelings to some degree. Thank you so much for the kind comment!