Habits of Holiness
With the Apostolic Letter Mane Nobiscum Domine of October 2004, John Paul II dedicated this pastoral year to the mystery of the Eucharist. The Pope wrote: "The Year of the Eucharist has its source in the amazement with which the Church contemplates this great Mystery . . . May the Year of the Eucharist be for everyone a precious opportunity to grow in awareness of the incomparable treasure which Christ has entrusted to his Church . . . " (n. 29).
"In this Year of the Eucharist Christians ought to be committed to bearing more forceful witness to God's presence in the world. We should not be afraid to speak about God and to bear proud witness to our faith" (n. 26).
The experience and teaching of St Alphonsus Maria de' Liguori regarding the Eucharist was in line with the Pope's invitation to Christians to persevere in their most important duty: to proclaim to humanity the great mystery of God's love, especially visible in the Eucharist. Indeed, St Alphonsus was a man whose loving and continual contact with the Most Holy Eucharist enabled him to reach the highest peaks of holiness and theological understanding.
Spiritual theology includes among its sources the witness and personal experience of the saints. Thus, in addition to his books, St Alphonsus has bequeathed to us his marvelous witness and experience of the Eucharist.
From a tender age, Alphonsus studied at the school of the Sacred Host, spending long hours before this great Sacrament. He himself does not hesitate to describe his experience: "Oh, how delightful to be before an altar with faith and a little tender devotion, in a familiar conversation with Jesus Christ!".
For this Neapolitan saint, Eucharistic devotion was not limited, as was customary in his day, to mere contemplation of the Blessed Sacrament. His was an experience of celebration.
Thus, St Alphonsus insisted both on receiving Holy Communion regularly as the best way to participate in the Sacrifice of the Eucharist and, addressing priests in particular, on the manner of celebrating Holy Mass. He therefore considered it in all its details and when alone, he celebrated Mass with unusual intensity.
"When celebrating a public Mass, he never wanted to try the patience of the faithful and would celebrate Mass in half an hour. When he was alone, however, he would let his heartfelt feelings take over. Others could see that his face was radiant with joy, a sign of the inner faith that motivated him. Even the altar server noticed that after the Consecration, he would blush from the intensity of his emotion. Consequently, his confrere was instructed to leave him at the altar and go back to his work".
St Alphonsus felt the need to communicate what he experienced and invited the faithful to share in this experience. This prompted him to write his book, Visits to the Blessed Sacrament (1745): "Pause for a while each day, at least a half or quarter of an hour, before Jesus Christ in the Sacrament in some church. If you do this, you will see the great benefit you will derive from it. Know that the time you spend in devotion before this most divine Sacrament will be the time in your life most fruitful to you; it will be of comfort when you die and in eternity".
His Eucharistic experience is real and thus subject to the dimensions of space and time. "Space" is the altar where Jesus makes himself present; "time" is what permits this experience.
We are facing neither a mere psychological development nor a fleeing from reality; Alphonsus was ever wary of such phenomena.
"One need not meditate to feel the gentleness of divine love; anyone who does it for this reason will be wasting time or it will do him very little good. A person should meditate solely to give pleasure to God, that is, only to understand what God wants of him and to ask God for help in following him".
Furthermore, regarding time, St Alphonsus' only concern was seeing that enough be set aside for a one-to-one encounter with the Lord. If a person makes the most of such an encounter, even a brief one, as St Alphonsus well knew, God will make the most of it and the time spent will not be wasted.
Another important episode in Alphonsus' life involves his vocation.
According to his own testimony, his vocational decision was consolidated through his experience of the Eucharist. He said: "As regards this devotion of visiting the Most Blessed Sacrament, although I practice it with such coldness and imperfection, yet I find myself outside the world where, to my disgrace, I lived until I was 26 years old. You will be lucky if you can detach yourself from the world sooner than I could, and give your whole self to the Lord who has given all things to you!".
This explains the saint's main concern that novices of his new Congregation would approach the Blessed Sacrament "as the burning bush", to catch fire and set others ablaze. It was for the novices that he wrote Visits to the Blessed Sacrament.
St Alphonsus knew perfectly well that the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament in Religious houses is a wellspring of spiritual life for those who live in them, and he wrote: "Especially for us, since we have the honor of dwelling in a palace! This is the King's palace, this house, in which we live side by side with Jesus Christ.
"Religious have such good fortune, for in their houses they can visit this great Lord in the Blessed Sacrament whenever they like, night or day, which is something lay people cannot do".
Alphonsus' contribution to Eucharistic theology can be summed up in the following points:
Eucharist continues the Incarnation and Passion of Christ
St Alphonsus begins with a biblical assertion: God wanted to dwell among human beings, humbling himself to the point of taking on our human nature and thus making possible his encounter with man.
In the Eucharist, the mystery of the Incarnation becomes more concrete because Christ unites himself to the communicant: "My Savior in the Sacrament, O divine Lover, how lovable are the tender inventions of your love to make yourself beloved by souls! O eternal Word, you who became man, you were not content with dying for us; you gave us this Sacrament as company, nourishment and a pledge of Paradise. You appeared among us as an infant in a stable, as a poor man in a workshop, as an offender on a cross, as bread upon an altar. Tell me, must anything else be invented to make you loved?".
God crowned his humiliation through the Redeemer's passion and Cross. The Eucharist is the presence and fulfillment of his redeeming Sacrifice, so that:
the Tabernacle becomes a "prison" of the Lord Jesus: "My Lord Jesus Christ, who for the love you bear men and women are day and night in this sacrament, brimming with compassion and love, you await, call and welcome all who come to visit you".
Communion under the sacramental species makes visible the complete union of Jesus with the Cross; Christ makes himself food in order to be more accessible to us. "To this end, you conceal yourself under the appearance of the consecrated Host, to enter us and to possess our hearts".
Thus, Jesus lets himself be possessed by human beings: "My most courteous Lord . . . when you enter my soul in Holy Communion . . ., then not only do you make yourself present to me but you make yourself food, you unite with and give yourself to me, so that in all truth I can say: My Jesus, now you are all mine".
In this way, therefore, the mystery of the Redemption is completely fulfilled the Incarnation and Christ's Sacrifice on the Cross: "O spotless Lamb, sacrificed on a Cross for our sake, remember that I am one of the souls you saved with such immense suffering and by your death. Grant that you may be mine and that I may never lose you, since each day you gave and continue to give yourself to me, sacrificing yourself on the altars out of love for me; and obtain that I may be totally yours".
the profanation of the Eucharist emphasizes the humiliation that Jesus suffered in his passion: "O Jesus, O Love, . . . I see that most people do not worship you, nor do they want to recognize you for what you are in this Sacrament. I know that these same people have even frequently trampled upon consecrated hosts and thrown them on the ground, into water or into fire".
the benefits of Redemption derive from the Cross of Christ; the Sacrament of the Eucharist actualizes and extends them, enabling us to receive them: "It was not enough for you to become a man and subject yourself to our wretchedness. It was not enough for you to be forced by torture to pour out your Blood for us and then to die, wracked by pain on a tree destined for the most wicked of criminals. Finally, you stooped to appear under the species of the Bread to make yourself our food and thus to unite yourself with each one of us".
The Eucharist: best and most authentic worship of God
On the Cross, Jesus Christ offered a sacrifice pleasing to God the Father. The Eucharist is the best form of devotion that we can offer God.
This brought St Alphonsus to admit that on the altar, God should be offered as a Victim of infinite value from whom, consequently, God would receive infinite honor.
Reasons for instituting Eucharist
Just as the Incarnation and the Cross of Christ revealed God's love, God continues to make his divine love manifest in the Eucharist: "[God] was unable to satisfy his love by giving himself wholly to the human race with his Incarnation and his passion, dying for all human beings; rather, he wanted to find a way of giving himself to each one of us. For this reason he instituted the Sacrament of the altar".
In this Sacrament God becomes food for men and women, and by communicating himself to them he becomes their sweet daily companion. Thus, the Eucharist is the guarantee of salvation, which God brought about and the Son fulfilled through the Cross.
The Institution of the Eucharist responded to the need born from the promise of Christ himself, who assured us that he would be with us until the end of the world (cf. Mt 28:20).
"This loving Shepherd of ours did not wish to separate himself from us by dying. Here I am, for you I stayed on earth in this Sacrament; here, whenever you wish, you will always find me, to help and comfort you with my presence; while you live on this earth, I will never leave you until the end of the world".
The lasting Real Presence
The celebration of the Eucharist and the mystery of Jesus' enduring presence show that salvation is actual and effective for humanity. The permanence of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist also expresses the permanent presence of God's love; indeed, with the institution of this great Sacrament, we were given the best possible sign of divine love, a sign no one could ever have imagined.
"Friends that love one another dearly long to be united so as to be as one. God's immense love for men and women ensured not only that he gave himself wholly to them in the eternal kingdom, but that also on this earth he let himself be possessed by human beings in the most intimate union, giving all of himself to them under the appearance of bread in the Sacrament".
His love, therefore, like his presence in the Eucharistic species and the possibility of having access to him, is permanent and does not end: "My Lord, it could have been enough for you to remain in this Sacrament only by day, when you could have adorers of your presence to keep you company; but what use was it for you to remain also throughout the night, when people close churches and go home, leaving you all alone? Yet I already understand you: love has made you our prisoner; it is love . . . that has bound you . . . and that, night and day, never lets you leave us".
St Alphonsus was convinced he had experienced it that salvation is made present in the Eucharist. This was to lead him to place such great emphasis on frequent participation in Communion.
He was thoroughly familiar with his social context, thanks to his intense missionary activity that impelled him to bring the superabundant redemption to the most forsaken. He also knew well the disorder that Jansenism had caused: by cooling the relations of men and women with God, it did not make it easy for them to be amenable to his desire or thus to participate more often in Communion.
Thus, the intuition of "Spiritual Communion" came to him as an adequate way to be close to the Blessed Sacrament and its benefits.
He was certain, partly due to personal experience, that the desire to receive Communion and be close to the beloved "Prisoner" suffices in itself to enable a person to enjoy salvation. This is possible since the reality of Christ's presence in the Eucharist extends beyond the celebration or Communion itself.
With these thoughts, we can conclude that St Alphonsus' Eucharistic devotional practices were an extension of the Eucharistic Celebration, and Visits to the Blessed Sacrament fits well into this context.
For St Alphonsus, a visit to the Blessed Sacrament was the "practice of loving Jesus Christ", since friends who love each other visit regularly.
This results in greater communion with Jesus Christ, which is expressed in "conforming to God's will: All our perfection consists in loving our most lovable God: 'love binds everything together in perfect harmony' (Col 3:14). But the full perfection of loving God consists in making our own will one with his most holy will. This is the principal effect of love".
A visit to the Blessed Sacrament is the right response to the love of the One who took flesh and made himself food for our salvation, from which we obtain the benefits and help necessary to face our daily difficulties: "My soul, do not continue to be so foolish; seek God alone. Seek the one good in which are all forms of good for you. And if you want to find him soon, here he is, close to you. Tell him what you want, for he is in that ciborium expressly to console you and to hear your prayers".
Through Eucharistic visits, the quality and intensity of spiritual life and a familiar relationship with Jesus Christ become obvious: "Holy faith teaches us, and we are bound to believe it, that Jesus Christ is really present in the consecrated Host under the species of bread . . . You will read in the Visits of other examples of affection that souls in love with God have had by remaining in the presence of the Most Blessed Sacrament . . . Have this experience, and you will see how greatly you will profit from it".
Many priests, Religious and lay people experience the truth and effectiveness of this practice suggested to us by the "Saint of Light", whom John Paul II described as a "giant, not only in the history of the Church but of humanity itself", when they learn to bend their knees and kneel before the One who emptied himself out of love for us; it is only then that we will discover our greatness.
"Satiabor, cum evigiliavero, conspectu tuo!" (I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied) (Ps 17:15).
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