EUCHARIST AND SAINT ALPHONSUS
In the run-up to Adoremus 2018, the Maryton Carmelite convent is running a series of talks. on the 27th May Fr Tim was honoured to speak on the Eucharist and St Alphonsus. If you did not manage to attend the majority of his talk is reproduced below
Last weekend at the Royal Wedding in Windsor we had a remarkable demonstration of the power of the preached Word of God. I cannot remember a Christian sermon receiving such universal acclaim across the religious, political and social spectrums. And for me, what was most striking was the simplicity of the message, going to the heart of the Gospel of love. Bishop Michael Curry had been flown in especially for the occasion and some suggested that he stole the show and was the ‘man of the match’.
Be that as it may, for me, as a Redemptorist, as a son of St Alphonsus Liguori, I appreciated his passionate style and his ability to communicate his conviction that love is of God and was revealed to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. St Alphonsus abhorred the style of preaching which was grandiose and self-indulgent, designed more to enhance the reputation of the preacher than preach the love of God. Famously, there was an occasion when he became so exasperated with the flowery language and style of the preacher that he strode out of the benches, threw him out of the pulpit and finished the sermon himself.
Alphonsus’s passion for preaching the love of Jesus Christ was expressed in his four great devotions:
to the Nativity,
to the Passion and Death of our Lord,
to the Eucharist
and of course to Mary.
Today our focus is on the Eucharist as we prepare for the great event of Adoremus – the Eucharistic Congress – in September. But in the case of each of these devotions you see Alphonsus marvelling at the graciousness of a God who loved us so much that not only did he enter into our experience by becoming one of us and sharing in the pain and suffering of our experience, but he also gave himself to be our spiritual food and drink as well as sharing his mother with us. In the case of the Eucharist, it seems to me that Alphonsus could never quite get over the fact that God had literally put himself into our hands. The fact that at the Last Supper he fulfilled his promise not to leave us by taking the bread and wine and transforming them into himself left Alphonsus overwhelmed with gratitude and desperate that we should develop a deep reverence and love of this gift too.
To understand Alphonsus’s writings on the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament, it is important to have some idea of the religious climate of his day. He was battling with the rigorous, hard-line spirituality of the Jansenists, which left so many of the faithful feeling unworthy of being able to receive Holy Communion. It was to counter this attitude that Alphonsus wrote his moral theology textbooks and urged people to receive Holy Communion frequently and develop a deep devotion to the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. He wrote his 31 visits to the Blessed Sacrament, one for each day of the month, but it is a measure of how he never separated devotion to the Blessed Sacrament from the gift of Holy Communion that he also wrote his Spiritual Communion, which was to accompany the visit each day. Let me pray it with you today:
My Jesus, I believe you are really here in the Blessed Sacrament.
I love you more than anything in the world, and I hunger to feed on your body.
But since I cannot receive Communion at this moment, feed my soul at least spiritually.
I unite myself to you now as I do when I actually receive you.
Never let me be parted from you.
When you read the visits themselves they show just how familiar was Alphonsus’s relationship with the Lord Jesus. He dearly wanted everyone to enjoy a similar familiarity with the Lord and Alphonsus was never slow to invite us to reflect on our own experience and use every illustration he could think of; just listen to this little passage in his visit for the first day of the month:
A Spanish Poor Clare loved to make long visits to the Blessed Sacrament. The other nuns asked what she did during those long silent hours. “I could kneel there forever,” she answered. “And why not? God is there. You wonder what I do in the presence of my God? I marvel, I love, I thank, I beg. What does a tramp do when he meets a millionaire? A sick man when he sees a doctor? A starving man when he sees food? What does a dry-throated hiker do at a drinking fountain?”
Having said that, Alphonsus was a realist and he knew that everyone could not cope with the intensity of his own fervour. It is well documented that if he was celebrating Mass for a congregation he would ensure that it took no longer than half an hour, but when he celebrated privately, after the consecration he would give leave to his altar server (usually one of the Redemptorist brothers) to go because he might well spend a long time simply pondering the mystery that was before him. It is also worth noting that Alphonsus suffered from scruples. He was terrified of offending our Lord and accordingly he celebrated the sacrament of reconciliation every day. But, it is worth noting that he was wonderful with people who suffered from scruples… Dare I say that I know something of the crippling effects of scruples and how important it is to remember that Jesus came to set us free. He prayed to his Father that our joy might be complete and promised us a peace that only he can give. I think we do well to listen to the prophetic voice of Pope Francis in today’s Church remind us that others should experience the joy of the Gospel through us.
If these few thoughts are to be helpful, I think we must ask ourselves how would Alphonsus want his sons and daughters to speak about the Eucharist in today’s world and today’s Church. One of the things I learnt, somewhat painfully, was that the more introspective we become, the more our understanding of everything becomes distorted. I think this matches Alphonsus’s teaching that we do not spend time before the Blessed Sacrament for our own benefit, but simply to give glory to God: the benefit for us then follows naturally.
How do we speak of this great gift today? Let me share some thoughts from my recent privileged experience of celebrating eleven First Holy Communion Masses for the children of Bishop Eton and St Mary’s, Woolton. The reason for so many is that this year at St Mary’s, Woolton, we have experimented by encouraging the families to come in smaller groupings to the weekend Mass of their choice over a five-week period. This has certainly made the experience for the children more personal and intimate. My impression is that it has worked remarkably well and been largely welcomed by all sections of the community. How sustainable this approach will be in the longer term is open to question. You and I are all too well aware of the constraints that accompany the continuing restructuring of the Church in these challenging days.
When helping to prepare the children for the reception of their First Holy Communion, my sole purpose is to try and ensure that they become deeply conscious of the preciousness of the gift they are being offered. I have already reminded you that the challenge for any Redemptorist, presented with whatever congregation or group, is to find a language which is accessible and intelligible for his listeners. Of course, the challenge with First Communion at the age of 8 or 9 is how to help the children understand that Jesus really meant what he said about the bread and wine becoming his body and blood, without them going off into flights of fancy and either leave them disturbed or dismissive. Rightly, in today’s world children are encouraged to question and challenge in a way that I do not remember being asked to myself at their age. It is worth remembering that one of the reasons for the early persecution of Christians was that they practised a form of cannibalism: an accusation strongly refuted by the Fathers of the Church.
I sometimes wonder how Alphonsus would address the challenges we face in the Church today and what language he would choose. I would suggest that as he did in his day, he would make every effort to find the best of everyone’s writings and insights and quote them liberally. Many of Saints Alphonsus’s compositions are strings of quotations from others to prove his point. As we try to cope with our developing understanding of the size and complexity of the cosmos, alongside the extraordinary scientific and medical advances that enable us to live as we do today, I like to think that Alphonsus would be an admirer of Teilhard de Chardin. He was described by Bishop Michael Curry, who quoted him in that famous marriage homily as “arguably one of the great minds, great spirits of the 20th century: Jesuit, Roman Catholic priest, scientist, a scholar, a mystic.”
Teilhard de Chardin was too much for the Church of the 20th century and like some other great Catholic thinkers the Church tried to silence him. With extraordinary humility he coped with the sadness of all that, but I think we can say he has been more than vindicated since his death. Alphonsus was a great champion of the Jesuits at the time of their suppression in the 18th century: I feel certain he would be a champion of Teilhard de Chardin today.
I want to finish by talking to you about his MASS ON THE WORLD and instead of reinventing the wheel, I ask you to bear with me as I share this passage from a book I wrote some years ago.
At this point, Fr Tim read a passage from Take Heart (pp 96-99)