by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
Today, in the church’s liturgical calendar, we celebrate the solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is a feast that represents the central truth of God’s revelation in Jesus — namely his complete, unconditional and faithful love for each of us.
Today also has been designated for several years as a World Day of Prayer for the Sanctification of Priests. In observing this special day of prayer, I will be celebrating at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Shawnee the Chrism Mass that was postponed from its usual time in Holy Week.
At the Chrism Mass, priests will be invited to renew the promises that they made to the church on the day of their ordination.
All of this is transpiring amid our continued efforts to protect our parishioners, as well as the larger community, from the COVID-19 virus. Hopefully, the signs of the slowing of the spread of the virus will continue, allowing us to be able to relax further our current safety protocols.
The implementation of the resumption of public Masses differs from county to county and from parish to parish, because of the unique circumstances of each community.
I have been gratified by how smoothly most parishes have been able to resume public Masses. I am grateful to all of our priests, deacons, parish staff members and lay leaders for all that they have done to address the challenging logistics involved with the resumption of public celebrations of Mass.
I am also grateful for the understanding and cooperation of parishioners.
I am also thankful for those who have taken the time to share their suggestions and criticisms of our policies and protocols. They express a great love for the Eucharist, as well as passion for the importance of the constitutional right for the free expression of religion.
Some have questioned the depth of my faith because of my decision to suspend for a couple of months the public celebration of Masses, as well as the necessity for the safety protocols. Others have been critical that public celebrations of Mass resumed too soon. I can almost guess the news sources upon which the letter writers rely.
At this time, there are very divergent, even contradictory, opinions about the prudent response to COVID-19.
In my Corpus Christi homily this past Sunday, I referenced a passage from the late Father Walter Ciszek’s book, “He Leadeth Me.” Father Ciszek was an American Jesuit priest who spent 23 years in Siberian gulags because he was accused by the Communist regime of being a Vatican spy.
Father Ciszek shared the inspirational faith of some of his fellow prisoners, who were willing to make incredible sacrifices and to risk harsh punishments for the opportunity to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist. At that time, communicants were required to fast from midnight until receiving Communion.
Father Ciszek wrote:
“I have seen . . . prisoners deprive their bodies of needed sleep in order to get up before the rising bell for a secret Mass. . . . We would be severely punished if we were discovered saying Mass, and there were always informers.
“All this made it difficult to have many prisoners in attendance, so we would consecrate extra bread and distribute Communion to the other prisoners when we could. Sometimes that meant we would only see them when we returned to the barracks at night before dinner.
“Yet these men would actually fast all day long and do exhausting physical labor without a bite to eat since dinner the evening before, just to be able to receive the Holy Eucharist. That was how much the sacrament meant to them.”
I also referred to the priest-martyrs in 16th- century England who, if discovered celebrating a secret Mass, would be imprisoned, tortured and executed.
In the English College in Rome, a formation house for men preparing for priestly ordination, there is a wall that lists scores of alumni who were martyred during the period of persecution.
After their ordination in Rome, these young priests were smuggled into England to offer secret Masses. These heroic priests knew that they would probably only survive a couple of years at most. When discovered, public execution awaited them for the crimes of being a Catholic priest and celebrating Mass.
Nevertheless, they were willing to risk nearly certain martyrdom so Catholics in England would have the opportunity to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist.
On Holy Thursday in 2003, as part of the celebration of his 25th anniversary as the Successor of St. Peter, Pope St. John Paul II promulgated an encyclical on the Eucharist. St. John Paul said that he wrote the letter as a means “of thanking the Lord for the gift of the Eucharist and the priesthood.” He said that he wanted to rekindle in the hearts of all Catholics what he termed “eucharistic amazement.”
Our late Holy Father wrote: “Those who feed on Christ in the Eucharist need not wait until the hereafter to receive eternal life: They already possess it on earth, as the first fruits of a future fullness. . . . For in the Eucharist, we also receive a pledge of our bodily resurrection at the end of the world. . . . With the Eucharist we digest, as it were, the ‘secret’ of the resurrection. For this reason, St. Ignatius of Antioch rightly defined the eucharistic bread as ‘a medicine of immortality, an antidote to death’” (“Ecclesia de Eucharistia,” 18).
I ask for your prayers for me and your pastors that we can be wise, prudent and courageous in our ongoing efforts to make the Eucharist and all the sacraments available as possible for God’s people, while at the same time protecting the health of parishioners and the public health of our communities.
I can assure you that no one will be happier than your pastors when our churches can be full again, Mass can be celebrated without masks, congregational singing can be encouraged, social distancing will be forgotten and socializing after Mass cannot only be allowed, but encouraged.
It is my earnest prayer that Catholics will emerge from this pandemic with a deeper love for Our Lord in the Eucharist. May this time when we were deprived of the opportunity to receive the Blessed Sacrament — the antidote to death and the medicine for immortality — serve to have deepened our eucharistic amazement.