Let there be nothing closer to your heart than Christ, Our Eucharistic Lord and Savior
But seriously, between now and the beginning of Advent on Dec. 2, the Church will lead us through an exciting season of faith that is meant to turn the “ordinary” of our life into the “extraordinary.”
It is worth examining all the solemnities and feast days that mark the Church’s calendar that are meant to excite and increase our faith and love. Any missal you find in a pew will provide this listing. One such solemnity that we will celebrate on June 10 that I particularly love is known to us as Corpus Christi—“The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ”—the source and summit of our faith.
I remember as a young boy attending grade school at Epiphany of Our Lord Church in South St. Louis how stories of the saints would spark our imaginations and inspire thoughts of wanting to be like them when we grew older.
But there was one particular saint I distinctly remember being taught about because he wasn’t much older than we were at the time he was martyred. He was St. Tarcisius—the “boy martyr of the Eucharist”—who suffered martyrdom in the third century while protecting the Eucharist from desecration. He was beaten and clubbed to death for not giving up the Eucharist that he was trying to bring to Christians in prison who were awaiting their martyrdom during the terrible time of Roman persecution.
As a seminarian, Cardinal John Carberry, archbishop emeritus of St. Louis, would present me a prayer card of St. Tarcisius when I became an acolyte. But St. Tarcisius would become so much more real to me because of two men I would meet as a priest, whose lives had become “extraordinary” because of their deep love of Christ in the Eucharist. They were Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan (d. 2002) of Vietnam and Cardinal Jan Pieter Schotte (d. 2005) of Belgium.
These two men were modern day defenders of the Eucharist, both born in April 1928, but in different parts of the world and drastically different circumstances. They would risk their lives for love of the Eucharist and become Eucharistic in turn in offering themselves as a sacrifice of love for others. Both would die in their old age, but like St. Tarcisius, with the Eucharist close to their hearts.
Cardinal Van Thuan was archbishop of Saigon when South Vietnam fell to the Communists in 1975 and was arrested shortly thereafter on trumped-up conspiracy charges. He would spend 13 years in prison, nine of them in solitary confinement. Incredibly, he was able to celebrate Mass frequently with crumbs of bread and small amounts of wine smuggled into the prison to him by people with the same courage of faith as St. Tarcisius. Cardinal Van Thuan would offer Mass without altar, paten or chalice, using only what he had in place of these sacred vessels—the palm of his hands.
By living in the present moment, never living as if waiting for a better day or his release from captivity, he instead sought only to consecrate each moment in thanksgiving and to be a Eucharistic offering himself. I would meet this most incredible man of faith in Rome years after his release from captivity. His cause for canonization officially began in 2010.
I also would have the honor of getting to know another hero of the Eucharist—Cardinal Schotte—who was a close friend of Cardinal Justin Rigali, who I worked for at the time when Cardinal F. Rigali was archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Cardinal Schotte would constantly remind people of the great importance of always keeping the Eucharist close to their hearts. These words came from an experience that would direct the rest of his life.
He shared with me one day that when he was a young boy in Nazi-occupied Belgium during World War II his town became of great strategic importance to advancing Allied troops. Given the flat countryside, the townspeople knew the bell tower of the town’s Catholic church would be used by the Nazis to observe and direct their fight against the Allied troops. Fearing the town would suffer destruction from the battle that would center around this key observation post, the townspeople made the excruciating last-minute decision to destroy the church to remove the town’s tactical importance to the opposing armies and hopefully save the town from destruction.
With time of the essence, explosives were quickly rigged in the church as the parish priest retrieved the Eucharist from the tabernacle. Fearing its desecration, but wanting to stay and minister to the needs of the townspeople, he chose “the fastest boy in the village” he knew—Cardinal Schotte, who was only 12 years old at the time. That was perhaps the same age as St. Tarcisius when he was martyred. Entrusting the Blessed Sacrament to him, the priest instructed the young boy to run as fast as he could to a nearby village and give the Eucharist to the priest there.
Because the Nazis at this moment of impending battle would suspect every man, young and old, of wanting to aid the Allied army, the danger was great.
Protectively holding the Eucharist close to his heart, Cardinal Schotte said he ran like he had never run before, pausing only to look when he heard the explosion that destroyed the church’s bell tower. The church that was so beautiful had been sacrificed to save the town, an image of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary to save us. But Christ didn’t leave us orphaned. He gave Himself to us in the Eucharist, reminding us, “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
So I close with the words that both Cardinal Schotte and Cardinal Van Thuan lived—keep the Eucharist close to your heart! n