(Bregenz, Martinskapelle (im Martinsturm in der Bregenzer Oberstadt) Gemälde Nikolaus von Tolentin, via Wikimedia Commons)
“The house of the priest is not the rectory. He is at home only where Christ is present.”
How is it possible that despite the Catholic Church always having taught that the Holy Eucharist is really, truly and substantially the Body and Blood of Christ, only 31% of U.S. Catholics believe it?
According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 69% of Catholics say that the Eucharist is just symbolic.
For wisdom and divine insights, I often call Msgr. John Esseff of Scranton, Pennsylvania. At 91 years old, the former spiritual director of Mother Teresa is one of the oldest exorcists in the country. “Why do you think people have lost faith in the Eucharist?” I asked him. As usual, he paused a moment and then spoke at length. He correlated the loss of faith in the Eucharist to the bishops and priests who lack fervor in their own faith.
“Jesus told us, ‘Everything I have comes from the Father.’ He pours all that love into Jesus; that’s always from all eternity. Now, the holy Eucharist is the food that keeps that love alive.
“I have noticed in my life as a priest, that if I am in love with Jesus, the people will be one degree less than me. If I’m on fire, they are warm. If I am warm, they’ll be moderate. If I’m just moderate and I do everything correctly, but I don’t have that fervor, our people are cold. And if I am cold—and this is where I think we are with so many priests and bishops—the people are fallen away. Lately, we have seen why so many have failed to respond.
“The small number of Catholics who believe in the Eucharist is because there is a small number of priests and bishops that believe in the way that Jesus taught it. If I really believe, when I say over the bread, “This is my Body,” then I believe that I am Christ; he is me and I am him. The priest does not say, ‘This is Jesus’ Body.’ He says, ‘This is my Body; this is my Blood.’ So that my willingness to die as he suffered and died and to give myself to my people to consume me and live off of me, is the degree of my faith.
“Our unwillingness to lay down our life for our people is where I see the failure of the leadership of our bishops and priests. You cannot any longer govern our people unless you lead them by being what you claim to be. And that is to be Christ for your people.
“I and the Eucharist are one. So when the priest and bishops say, ‘This is my Body, this is my Blood,’ he is saying, ‘I have given myself totally to him.’ The words we say over the Eucharist are very convicting. The conviction and the convincing come from how we celebrate the Eucharist.”
New Book Epitomizes Message
Just before the McCarrick scandal broke, I met Kevin Wells who had begun to write the book, The Priest We Need to Save the Church. “I think you need to meet Msgr. Esseff,” I told him. He needed no convincing as someone else had just told him the same thing. Kevin and his wife Krista traveled from Maryland to Pennsylvania and received more than a mere blessing on the project. Msgr. Esseff said a private Mass for them and gave Kevin a mandate: “You need to write this book.”
Kevin was already operating under that mandate from beyond the grave of his Uncle Tommy — Msgr. Thomas Wells — who was brutally murdered in 2001. Writing the book felt like a divine order. It was published this past August and quickly became an Amazon No. 1 bestseller. It is already in its second printing
The book tells the story of Msgr. Wells, who lived as Christ for his people. People were irresistibly drawn to him. The source of his power and influence was his awe of the Holy Eucharist and love of his flock without measure.
The explosively joyful manner of Tommy’s homilies moved thousands of hearts over the years, but the manner in which he reverenced the Eucharist transported souls. It wasn’t cheap opera; it was an organic sharing of his soul. This mystical unfolding at the moment of consecration, in fact, triggered the desire in a few awestruck young men to pull up stakes and leave steady girlfriends, budding careers, and relaxed lifestyles to turn over their lives to God in the priesthood. Tommy’s outward appearance at the consecration spoke of his inward soul, and it pulled the best out of these young men. They knew there was unrestrained romance coursing through Tommy’s seeming metamorphosis. Even today, if you care to watch these affected priests elevate the host, it seems as if Tommy has climbed into their bodies. At least one of these priests whispers thanksgiving to Tommy each time he holds the host aloft.
Quoting a priest who knew Msgr. Wells: “The Body and Blood of Christ was his entire priesthood,” remembers Fr. Greg Shaffer, a parish employee whom Tommy had led to the priesthood. “And because of that, he saw everything with a heavenly vision. If he trusted what happened with the Eucharist at the altar, then he was going to trust God with everything else.”
The book shares examples of other priests—some canonized and some still on this Earth—who set the world on fire by their witness to Christ. Always, there is an ardent devotion to the Eucharist.
Kevin appeals to priests but also acknowledges personal blame: “At the core of my failure is an awareness that I’ve not sacrificed enough for Christ’s Church, which is now mired in a sickness that’s eaten into her very bones… Catholic apologetics today calls each person to become a saint. That seems to be all that will work for now.”
Priests are encouraged to reclaim the mystical unfolding of the Holy Spirit on the remarkable day of their ordination when they “climbed into the skin of Christ’s identity.”
According to Kevin, a desire for the supernatural is hard-wired in us by God, so “when the laity recognize that supernatural dimension of mission, identity, inflamed love, and ardor for souls in their pastor, they’ll knock down cement-filled cinder block walls to grow in virtue.”
There is only one way to revival, Kevin contends. He summarized it a plea Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen’s made to priests at the end of his life: “Father, pledge yourself to the daily Holy Hour. The house of the priest is not the rectory. He is at home only where Christ is present. There alone he learns the secret of love.”
Msgr. Wells kept that pledge. And now, through his nephew, perhaps his message will reverberate through the Church. I hope and pray it does.