The Real Presence
Do any of us truly understand what an incredible gift we have in the Real Presence of Our Savior in the Blessed Sacrament? The Son of God waits for us in the tabernacle, but few take advantage of this incredible opportunity. As St. Peter Julian Eymard wrote, “Man has time for everything, except visits to his Lord and God, Who is waiting and longing for him in His tabernacle. The streets and houses of amusement are filled with people; the House of God is deserted.”
In the Old Testament, no one was permitted into the Holy of Holies, except the high priest, and he was allowed to go in only once a year. Yet we have the true holy of holies available to us almost any time night or day. “Blessed are the eyes that see the things that you see!” It is so amazing that even Catholics have trouble believing It could really be Jesus in His very person.
I remember an occasion when such a doubt came into my mind. Many years ago, I was at all-night adoration in a chapel in Wappingers Falls, New York. A very large fly was buzzing back and forth in front of the monstrance, between the candles, in the darkened church. He was annoying me, so loud and distracting was this one fly. The thought came into my head, “If this were truly God, He would never permit such disrespect.” It was a silly thought, but the Lord heard me. As soon as that thought came to my lips, I heard a rather loud pop, and one of the candles’ flames shot up, rapidly melting down the candle. I hurried to the altar, mumbling to myself, “It couldn’t be!” But there it was, the fly had been zapped by the flame and was now a burnt offering in the candle wax. I know it’s a little thing, but the timing was so perfect, it really helped my still immature faith.
Many young people must have similar thoughts from time to time: How could this wafer of bread be Almighty God? But once the belief is firmly there, they are truly Catholic, and their lives are changed.
Conversion of Elizabeth Ann Seton
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was converted in this way. She was a devout Protestant, and was astonished by what the Catholic Church claimed to possess: “How happy would we be, if we believed what these dear souls believe: that they possess God in the Sacrament, and that He remains in their churches and is carried to them when they are sick! Oh my! ...how happy would I be, even so far away from all so dear, if I could find You in the church as they do...how many things I would say to You of the sorrows of my heart and the sins of my life.”
As Elizabeth prayed for guidance, to know the Truth, she was drawn to the Real Presence, even while still attending her Episcopalian church: “I got in a side pew which turned my face towards the Catholic church in the next street, and found myself twenty times speaking to the Blessed Sacrament there, instead of looking at the naked altar where I was.”
Elizabeth was Catholic in her heart, and despite fierce opposition from family and friends, she joined the Catholic Church in New York City (the city of her birth) on March 14, 1805, at the age of 30. She would move to Emmitsburg, Maryland, and become the foundress of the Sisters of Charity in the United States. She was to become the first American-born saint, being beatified in 1963 and canonized in 1975.
Jesus Christ is truly on our altars. Protestants of good heart, like Mother Seton, recognize there’s a sacred presence in the Catholic churches. I had a Protestant lady tell me as much in the Society’s beautiful church in Dickinson, Texas. She was in awe, almost scared, as she stood before the Communion rail. “There’s something or Someone here,” she exclaimed, knowing nothing of the doctrine of the Real Presence.
Conversion of Hermann Cohen
The conversion of Hermann Cohen (1821-71) is even more amazing than Elizabeth Ann Seton, since he was not even Christian, but a German Jew. A world-class pianist, protégé of Franz Liszt, Hermann was something of a celebrity, traveled in elite circles, but nearly lost everything due to his gambling addiction. Asked to direct a choir during a church service in Paris, Hermann made his first visit inside a Catholic church. During Benediction he felt himself deeply stirred and touched by some unknown power. “My mind,” he wrote, “found itself perturbed, so to speak, and withdrawn from the agitation of the world, penetrated by something totally unknown to it previously. I was constrained to bow, against my will without a doubt. The following day, I had the same experience and, suddenly, the thought touched me to become a Catholic.” Baptized on August 28, 1847 (the feast of St. Augustine), Herman Cohen received his new Christian name, Augustin-Marie Henri, and he vowed then and there to live and die for the Truth. As one converted by the Blessed Sacrament, he spent hours in front of the tabernacle. One evening in November 1848, he was praying in a Carmelite chapel in Paris when he was asked to leave. Only women were allowed to pray and worship Our Lord at night. Undaunted, Hermann received permission to organize nocturnal adoration for men, which he would promote for the rest of his life. In order to pay off his debts, Hermann continued to give concerts. His last concert was in Paris, and it was a tremendous success. “Now I am done with the world forever,” he wrote. “What happiness I had when I bowed after the last note!” On July 16, 1849, he joined Carmel, receiving the name Augustin-Marie du Très Saint-Sacrament. Ordained priest on April 19, 1851, and, despite his limited training, he became known as a fiery preacher, promoting Eucharistic devotion in all his sermons. His life was like another St. Augustine, a complete about-face from his former ways. He had the joy of knowing that his old teacher Franz Liszt had also changed. Liszt became a Franciscan tertiary, and even received the four minor holy orders.
In 1867 Fr. Augustin-Marie or Fr. Hermann (as he came to be known) rejected surgery for his failing eyesight, instead putting his trust in Our Lady. Going to Lourdes, he bathed his eyes in the miraculous spring and was instantly cured! During the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 he became a chaplain for the French prisoners at the Spandau prison just outside Berlin, but contracted smallpox during his ministry there and died on January 19, 1871.
These converts put most of us to shame, so well did they perceive and understand the beauty of the Real Presence. Until we realize the same, we may easily be led astray. It is the firm faith in the Real Presence that will keep us Catholic. This is the reason we say Mysterium Fidei—“the Mystery of the Faith”—at the consecration. The belief in the Real Presence has always been the divider between real Faith and a weak, superficial faith. Our Savior had already shown this to us. In St. John’s Gospel, Chapter VI, He said, “I am the Living Bread that has come down from Heaven. If any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world.” When the Jews were shocked by this doctrine, Our Lord did not back down or try to explain it in another way, but insisted: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, you shall not have life in you. He that eats My flesh and drinks My blood, has everlasting life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is meat indeed, and My blood is drink indeed…” Christ Our Lord lost many followers at that time, because they could not accept the Real Presence of His flesh and blood in the Holy Eucharist. The same thing is still happening today. Many who claim to believe in Jesus are not true Christians, since they will not accept that He is really and truly present in the Blessed Sacrament.
Come to Him and Be Enlightened (Psalm 33:6)
Archbishop Fulton Sheen had a great faith in the Real Presence and had a theory that if he could just get souls before Him, Our Lord would increase their faith and devotion. Once when giving a retreat in a large monastery church, he genuflected before the altar, only to be told that the Blessed Sacrament was not present. Finding out that Our Lord was kept in a little room way down the corridor, Sheen refused to start the retreat until Our Lord was restored to His proper place. Sheen was rewarded for his faith, for he made a remarkable number of converts, restored the lost faith of many priests and had the grace to die on his knees in front of the Blessed Sacrament on December 9, 1979.
Like Bishop Sheen, we just have to come before the Holy Eucharist to be enlightened. I often think of Moses before the burning bush. God hid Himself there under the appearance of fire so that Moses could come before Him. After conversing with God, Moses’ face was so radiant with reflected glory that the children of Israel could not look upon him, and he had to cover his face. A similar thing happened in the lives of several saints. When in front of the Blessed Sacrament, St. Francis Caracciolo’s face usually emitted brilliant rays of light. He would die on the feast of Corpus Christi in 1608. St. Benedict Joseph Labre, the beggar saint, although pale from his constant fasting, would glow with a rosy hue while he remained before Our Savior. That external light on their faces was a miraculous external manifestation of the faith and devotion that burned within their souls reflecting the glory of the Real Presence.
As Isaias said, “Truly Thou art a hidden God!” (Is. 45:15). Our Lord Jesus Christ is hidden, but He is truly there, as real and present to us as He was to His Apostles. Go into His presence and be enlightened, and if your faith is still weak, pray for an increase of faith in the Real Presence: “I do believe Lord, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23).