Introduction: The Holy Eucharist, The Presence Sacrament

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Week 1
Reading 1 of 3

If there is one thing Our Lord makes clear in the Gospels, it is the grave need of having our minds enter into what we believe. Remember the parable of the sower? Some seed fell on a path, some fell on rocky ground, some fell among thorns and some fell on rich soil. We know that only the seeds which fell on rich soil were fruitful.

We are also told that the first seedlings which fell along the pathway bore no yield because the birds of the air came and picked up the seed. When the disciples pressed Jesus to explain the parable, He said, “The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the Word of the Kingdom without understanding it, and the evil one comes and steals away what was sown in his heart.” (Matthew 13:19) Because they failed to understand the Word of God, the evil one came like a bird of prey and stole the Word of God from their hearts.

This should be etched in bronze: we need to have the Word of God not only sown in our hearts, but also sown in our minds.

We are living in the most critical era of the Catholic Church’s history. Millions of once-believing Catholics have given up their faith. One diocese alone has recently dissolved forty parishes in one year! There must be a reason. And there is.

The Catholic faith cannot just be believed to be retained. It must be understood. There is no option. We so frequently, and correctly, insist on developing the virtues of patience, charity, chastity, humility and obedience. But the one virtue upon which all the other virtues depend is faith. And it is so important to remember this: we believe with the intellect. Either our minds are thoroughly convinced and our conviction keeps growing with increased intelligibility or the inevitable happens — not only will the other virtues weaken or be lost, but faith itself will disappear. That is why the strength of the Catholic Church in any period of her history depends on the depth professed Catholics understand the faith.

Over the years, I have struggled with too many people, including priests and religious, to keep them in the faith, and I have not always succeeded. You don’t keep the faith today by being just an ordinary bishop, an ordinary priest, an ordinary religious, an ordinary father or mother, or an ordinary Catholic man, woman or child. Only heroic faith can withstand the pressures on the Catholic Church in our day. Given the widespread breakdown of once flourishing Catholic parishes and dioceses and religious institutions, there must be a reason for this crisis. And I repeat, there is.

Weakening of faith produces weakening of commitment in the priesthood, in religious life, in marriage, in the family, in the laity and in all of Catholic society. As we see faith deteriorating all around us, we need to ask ourselves the basic question which underlies this whole retreat. Is there one basic mystery of the Catholic faith whose weakening has been at the root of this crisis of faith? Yes, there is. The single most fundamental mystery of Christianity that mainly needs to be strengthened and deepened if we are to even just preserve the Catholic Church in our day is “The Mystery of Faith” itself — the mystery of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ on earth today in the fullness of His divinity and the fullness of His humanity in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, the Holy Eucharist.

Why a Eucharistic Retreat?

We are calling this a Eucharistic retreat, and as such, the Holy Eucharist will be the central theme around which all the meditations revolve. Our specific focus will be on the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament in order that we might more clearly understand what we believe about the meaning of this most fundamental “Mystery of Faith.”

In this, our opening conference, I would like to address two topics to set the stage for our retreat. First, we will draw on an important Papal encyclical entitled, what else, Mysterium Fidei, “Mystery of Faith.” And then we will outline our plan for this Eucharistic retreat — twenty-six meditations concentrating on Christ’s greatest gift to us on earth, Himself present in the Blessed Sacrament.

Mysterium Fidei

To appreciate why there is such a great need in our day to spend an entire retreat meditating on the Holy Eucharist, we will look at Pope Paul VI’s document Mysterium Fidei, published on September 3, 1965. What is historically unusual about this encyclical is that it was published during the sessions of the Second Vatican Council. This never happens. Popes never publish encyclicals during sessions of a general council. But Paul VI felt bound to express his concerns about erroneous Eucharistic teachings before the council closed.

The Holy Father began by saying he hoped the Second Vatican Council would inaugurate a new era of Eucharistic piety among the faithful. He earnestly hoped that rich fruits of Eucharistic devotion would grow out of the reformed Liturgy. He foresaw, “the Holy Church with His saving sign of His devotion raised on high inviting all who bear the name of Christian to the unity of faith and love and draw them gently together by the working of Divine grace.”

Paragraph after paragraph, the Pope repeats how hopeful he was that the Catholic Church of the future would be strongly Liturgical because she is strongly Eucharistic. Then he expressed his main reason for publishing the encyclical during the Vatican Council. He explains how there were in circulation erroneous theories about the Eucharist, such as “transignification” or “transfinalization” as opposed to the Church’s teaching of transubstantiation (the complete change of the substance of bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood by a validly ordained priest during the consecration at Mass, so that only the appearance of bread and wine remain.)

The Pope said, “Writers are claiming that Christ is no longer in consecrated Hosts left after the celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass. Such opinions do great harm to Eucharistic faith and worship. These erroneous ideas have to be corrected; otherwise the great hopes of the council for Liturgical renewal will be frustrated by the seed of false opinions already sown.” With his customary charity, the Pope does not impute bad intentions to the sowers of these false ideas. He presumes they are still sincere, but misled. However, he goes on to say, “We cannot approve the opinions being circulated and we have the duty to warn you of the great dangers of these ideas involved for a right faith.”

That was 1965. Every single false opinion about the Holy Eucharist that Pope Paul VI mentioned — every one — has been amplified and circulated among the faithful since the publication of Mysterium Fidei. Every single anxiety he expressed in Mysterium Fidei has been traumatically verified.

This is the sub-theme for the retreat. I believe the center of the Church’s crisis in the Western world in our day is the doubt and denial in an ever-widening circle of once-professed Catholics about their faith in the Real Presence. As a result, we see the massive desacralization of the Mass, the hidden tabernacles, the iconoclasm perpetrated on Catholic churches, the reduction of hundreds of Churches to mere social meeting halls and the casual handling of the Sacred Species. These have all been censured by one Pope after another, but the devastation goes on.

Retreat Outline

With this background, we are ready to briefly describe the approach we shall take in our Eucharistic Retreat. During the meditations, we will address three essential questions about this oceanic subject of the Real Presence:

  1. What do we believe when we believe in the Real Presence?
  2. Why did Christ institute the Holy Eucharist as His bodily presence on earth?
  3. How are we to put this mystery of faith into practice?

Whether we are members of a domestic family of parents and children or members of the supernatural family of consecrated life, the future of all family life depends on the faith in the Real Presence. This retreat will help us better understand what we believe about the Holy Eucharist and why Christ gave us the Real Presence. Then we can more fully put this belief into practice. I have no doubt that if we take this Eucharistic retreat to heart and implement it in our individual lives, we shall make a major contribution to the sanctification of the Church, to our own sanctification and to the extension of Christ’s Kingdom in the modern world.

But take note of what we are saying. Our concentration for this retreat is on the Real Presence, not because there are so many mysteries of the faith and we just happened to choose this one. No, we focus on the Real Presence because the future of the Catholic Church in one Western country after another is on trial. Twenty years in working for the Holy See has taught me many things. What I have learned is that the deepest and most devastating crisis in all the 2,000 years of the Catholic Church’s history is what we are undergoing now. And the root of this crisis from one perspective, is the priesthood, and from another perspective, is the Real Presence, without which, the priesthood would not exist.

Christ came to save the world from hell and for heaven, from sin and for grace. Christ died on the cross to redeem the world and win for us the graces for salvation. He continues today to confer and communicate those graces which He won for us on Calvary. This is what makes us Catholics: We believe Christ instituted the Church so that through the Church, the graces of salvation might be communicated to a sin-laden world. The main source of these salvific graces is Christ Himself in the Holy Eucharist, and the foundation of the Eucharist is the Real Presence.

We can feel the gravity of this crisis of faith in the Real Presence when we consider the implications for the Catholic priesthood. The primary reason Christ instituted the Priesthood was to perpetuate His sacrifice of Calvary in the Sacrifice of the Mass. But the whole meaning of the Mass depends on faith in the Real Presence. Thus, without the Real Presence, there is no Mass. And without the Mass, there is no priesthood. Consequently, the whole of Catholic Christianity, the Catholic faith and the Catholic Church depends absolutely on the fact of the Real Presence.

In one declarative sentence: without faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, there is no Catholic Church.

Closing Prayer

Lord Jesus, as we enter this retreat, we ask you to keep our minds alert. Open the eyes of our intellect that we may see more clearly than ever before and see more deeply and more meaningfully what You gave us when You instituted the Holy Eucharist. You fulfilled Your promise by remaining with us until now, and You promised to remain with us until the end of the world. Dear Jesus, make us understand the Real Presence here on earth so that believing in Your Presence without seeing You, we might one day possess You in that Eternal Eucharist, which is the Beatific Vision for which we were all made. Amen.

Used with permission from Inter Mirifica.