By Father Francois-Marie Lethel, OCD
I am writing this text at Rome on March 27, 2020, after three weeks of confinement in our Community of Carmelites of the Teresianum. I share the life of our 25 young Brothers of the Saint John of the Cross International College, from different parts of the world. We are living a strong spiritual experience of cloister, as our Carmelite Sisters, in an intense and simple daily life of prayer, fraternity and study.
We cannot go out because of the contagion, respecting fully all the right and courageous decisions of the Italian Government, shared by the Bishops that have suspended all the celebration and mainly all the Sunday and feast day Masses with the people. However, the first decision to close all the churches of Rome, which was too painful for the people, was canceled by the Cardinal Vicar in agreement with Pope Francis and with his Almoner (Delegate for the poor), Cardinal Krajewski, who made the prophetic gesture of opening his church to the poor always respecting the security norms).
So the churches of Rome remain open and as they are many, the faithful have again the possibility to enter now and then into the closest to their home, when they leave their home for grocery shopping. They can pray before the Tabernacle and also, individually, ask the priests for Communion. Many priests accept <to do so>, always in full respect of the present requirements: only Communion in the hand, after the priest himself has disinfected his hands.
The greatest suffering of the laity is the privation of the Eucharist, especially for the most committed, who live the Mass and daily Communion as the heart of their life. Pope Francis sustains their faith, inviting them to follow the Mass on television, which he concelebrates every day at 7 o’clock in the morning in his Chapel at Saint Martha, with two or three priests that live with him and the few women religious that are at his service. He offers Jesus’ Holy Sacrifice for all, for the whole world, and he invites the faithful that follow the Mass and to make a Spiritual Communion.
Pope Francis himself has invited priests to be close to the faithful so tested and also to take Communion to the sick, something that is very difficult in the present conditions and almost impossible for the sick with Coronavirus. The most gravely ill are in intensive therapy services, intubated, totally isolated, served heroically by the doctors, the nurses and all the hospital personnel. Many of them were infected and are dead. Thousands of the sick already died in extreme conditions of suffering and solitude, without the presence of relatives, without the assistance of a priest and the gift of the Sacraments of Reconciliation, of Anointing of the Sick and of the Eucharist.
Instead, in our Community, we are six priests. Like the Pope, we concelebrate Mass every day behind closed doors, only with our young Brothers, always in respect of the norms (Distance, Communion in the hand after the disinfection of the hands of the <priest> that distributes Communion, Communion under the two species only by the priests and by intinction). We live the celebration and Communion not as a “spiritual luxury,” but as a strong commitment of solidarity and prayerful closeness with all the faithful that cannot live the Eucharist in this period.
Like our Sister Therese of Lisieux, Patroness of the Missions, we believe in the power of prayer for the whole of suffering humanity, for the sick, the dying and the deceased; for the doctors and the nurses, for all the families sorely tested by this confinement, and especially the rulers, the forces of order and all the people that have to work outside of their home and are more exposed to the danger. Like them, we must be the “little Moseses” who prayed on the mountain with his hands raised, while the army fought in the plain (Cf. Exodus 17:8-12). Because, as many have rightly said, we are in a time of war, a new world war, and this time one can speak of “a just war,” because we fight, not against human brothers, but against an invisible and inhuman enemy, this virus, which we must defeat with the arms of faith and of reason.
It is necessary to remember, more than ever, that faith never goes against reason, the reason that guides the rulers, the doctors, and the scientists to fight against the enemy and finally defeat it. It would be a grave sin not to respect these reasonable rules of confinement, putting in danger not only our own life but especially the life of others. We certainly must pray with trust, without doubting God’s Omnipotence, asking also for miracles of healing, and for this tragedy to end. As Therese of Lisieux and all the Saints, we must fix our gaze continually on Jesus, asking Mary to share her gaze of faith, hope and love when she saw Him suffer and die on the Cross, for the salvation of all men.
With Mary, we must contemplate the Risen Jesus, with the certainty that death doesn’t have the last word. And, with the Church, more than ever we must raise our eyes to Heaven, contemplating Mary in the Glory of Her Son, with all the known and unknown Saints, with full trust that the innocent suffering of the sick and the dying, united to the redemptive suffering of Jesus, opens to them the door of Heaven. As Therese of Lisieux, we pray every day for the eternal salvation of the souls of the deceased, that none be lost forever.
As other faithful, we try to use to the maximum the means of communication to reach our brothers: telephone, Skype, WhatsApp. With our young Carmelites, we have made a video already amply diffused on YouTube (video below).
Ee are in a time of war, and it is urgent to adapt even more the Eucharistic pastoral to this situation, seeking new and exceptional ways to bring the Eucharistic Jesus to the faithful, as the Military Chaplains did taking Communion to the soldiers, especially the wounded and the dying, often at the risk of their own life.
We have many examples of holy priests that gave their lives to be close to brothers in danger. Many have already died in Italy in these last days. In the past, we can recall the luminous figure of Saint John Eudes (candidate to be declared Doctor of the Church) in the 17th century in France. As a young priest, when the plague (even more lethal than the Coronavirus) broke out in Normandy, he obtained from his Superior, Father Pierre de Berulle, permission to go and live in the midst of the plague victims. Every day, with another holy priest of that region, he celebrated Mass and carrying consecrated hosts in a small iron box, which he wore on his neck to give communion to the sick and the dying. At the end of his long life, he kept this iron box as a precious relic!
More recently, we have the example of the Venerable Vietnamese Cardinal Francois-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, he remained 13 years in prison, at the time of the Communist persecution. He was able to celebrate the Eucharist every day in the most extreme conditions, with three drops of wine in the palm of his hand, a small host in the other, keeping continually a consecrated host in the pocket of his shirt. He made for another prisoner priest an iron ring that was a “mini Tabernacle,” with a fragment of consecrated host. To Catholic prisoners, he gave a reserve of consecrated hosts in cigarette packets, so that they could continue to live Adoration and Communion. During this period of persecution, the Vietnamese Bishops gave trustworthy laymen permission to keep the Eucharist and to take it into areas where priests couldn’t penetrate. In one of his prayers, written in prison, Monsignor Van Thuan said to the Eucharistic Jesus: “I carry You with me day and night.” This continuous closeness with Jesus helped him to forgive and love his enemies heroically to the point that his Communist jailers became his friends! He affirmed: “My sole strength is the Eucharist.” It was the same at the time of the French Revolution, when many courageous women, lay and religious, guarded the Eucharist.
The Eucharist was at the heart of the life and magisterium of the holy Pope Paul VI. In the great crisis after the Council (1968), he defended the truth of the Eucharistic faith (Sacrifice and Real Presence) trying to promote in the People of God love of Jesus-Eucharist in the liturgical celebration as well as in Eucharistic Adoration. He made an effort to make Jesus-Eucharist closer to the faithful when he permitted Communion in the hand and when he instituted the Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist, men, and women in charge of distributing Communion and taking it to the sick and the elderly. Paul VI truly put Jesus-Eucharist in the hands of the faithful, so that He would be closer to all, especially the suffering. In the same years, a humble Salesian co-operator, Vera Grita (now on the way to Beatification) experienced this wonderful closeness of Jesus –Eucharist who wishes to make of every faithful a true “Living Tabernacle.”
In the spirit of Pope Francis, who fights against every form of clericalism, it is more than ever necessary, in this dramatic situation, to remember that we, priests, are ministers, namely servants of the Eucharist for the People of God, and not owners and proprietors. In communion with the Bishops, we must invent new and exceptional ways to bring to the faithful the consolation of the presence of Jesus-Eucharist, by Communion and Adoration in the measure of the possible, respecting always all the security norms.
In regard to this painful privation of the Eucharist, it would be better not to speak of “Eucharistic fasting” (as is often done today), because this traditional expression means the contrary of depriving oneself of some food to receive the Eucharistic food. It’s better, therefore, to speak of the privation of the Eucharist, without imposing on all the People of God the idea of a “fast,” as if daily Communion were an exaggeration of food, a spiritual luxury, of which it would be better to abstain, This disputable idea has spread a lot in France and in Italy (I experienced this already 50 years ago). Instead, for more than a century, with the Decrees of Saint Pius X in favor of daily Communion (1905), all the recent Saints have been Saints of the daily Eucharist. Before him, Therese of Lisieux insisted, not so much on our desire to receive Jesus, but on His desire to give Himself to us, to live in us and with us and to unite us to Himself.
Translation by Virginia M. Forrester