How the Holy Eucharist Shaped the Lives of 13 Saints
From the new book, ‘How the Eucharist Can Save Civilization’
What will the success of our Eucharistic revival look like? If Catholics are dismayed by the current crisis within the Church or in culture, then we need to look to models for how to live out our Eucharistic faith more robustly. The saints provide the best examples of sanctity, demonstrating how faith can take flesh in the world. In my new book, How the Eucharist Can Save Civilization, I profile Eucharistic saints. Here are some examples:
St. Ignatius of Antioch (died c. 108): The bishop of Antioch, he wrote a series of letters to churches on his journey to Rome to face martyrdom in the Coliseum. In these letters, he spoke of Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist and of his impending martyrdom in Eucharistic terms, detailing his longing to be ground like wheat in the mouth of the lions. Ignatius models commitment to the Eucharist in his willingness to offer his life, which we can imitate by carrying our cross daily as a member of Christ’s body.
St. Tarcisius (263–75): Pope Damasus had an inscription carved on his tomb in the catacombs relating that he had died protecting the Eucharist. Tradition says that he was a young acolyte carrying the Eucharist to Christians in prison and was attacked by a young mob of boys who wanted to see what he was carrying. Pope Benedict XVI describes how when Tarcisius’ body was recovered, “the consecrated Host which the little Martyr had defended with his life, had become flesh of his flesh thereby forming, together with his body, a single immaculate Host offered to God.” We should protect the integrity and dignity of the Eucharist with firmness and charity, especially in an age when attacks on the Holy Eucharist are becoming more frequent and intense.
St. Gregory the Great (540–604): Pope Gregory I, a former prefect of Rome and monk, likewise compiled and advanced liturgical traditions, bringing the Roman rite to a stable form and perfecting its musical tradition, giving his name to Gregorian chant. He also advocated celebrating Masses for the souls in purgatory. One of his Masses occasioned a Eucharistic miracle and the depiction of the Mass of St. Gregory, making the Pope a witness to Christ’s true presence. Through all of his efforts, he is rightly considered one of the fathers of Europe and a key creator of the culture of Christendom that grew up surrounding the Mass. He witnesses to the need for beauty in our celebration of the Mass.
St. Norbert of Xanten (1075–1134): After a lax priesthood, Norbert’s faith deepened after a close encounter with death. He embraced a life of penance and founded the Premonstratensian order of canons regular (known as the Norbertines). Through his preaching, he drew the entire town of Antwerp back to faith in the Eucharist after it had fallen into a heretical view of the sacrament. He would often celebrate Mass on the road as a traveling preacher, occasioning a number of miracles, including healing a blind woman by breathing on her after he received the Eucharist and remaining unharmed after consuming the Precious Blood when a poisonous spider had fallen into the chalice. St. Norbert calls us to a greater Eucharistic zeal by overcoming our laxity and trusting in the Eucharist’s power in our lives.
St. Francis (1181–1226) and St. Clare (1194–1253): Known for founding the Franciscan Friars and the Poor Clares, with a strong embrace of poverty, these two saints also fostered devotion to the Eucharist. St. Francis, before he died, pressed his friars to embrace greater devotion to the Eucharist, including more solemnity and reverence in the Mass. Francis said that, in contrast to the life of the friars, there should be no poverty in the celebration of the Eucharist. St. Clare showed great confidence in the Eucharist to protect her sisters when Saracens breached her convent walls in Assisi. Jesus spoke to her from the tabernacle, assuring his protection, and Clare was seen walking towards the enemy with a monstrance as the soldiers fled the other direction. These two saints made the Eucharist the center of their lives, beckoning us to imitate their example.
St. Hyacinth (1185–1257): Called the Apostle of the North, Hyacinth helped establish the Dominican Order in his native Poland. He rescued the Blessed Sacrament from Kiev during an invasion by the Mongol hordes. He stopped before the statue of Our Lady in church and apologized for not being able to lift it. According to legend, Our Lady replied, “If you had a little more faith and love for me, it would be easy for you to carry this burden.” With the Eucharist in one hand and the statue of Our Lady in the other, Hyacinth crossed the Dnieper River, escaping the notice of the enemy forces. And the Eucharist can also strengthen us to do great things for Jesus if we trust in him, for all things are possible with our Eucharistic Lord.
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–74): Aquinas is known for his unparalleled theology of the Eucharist, especially in his Summa Theologiae, as well as his Eucharistic hymns which the Church has adopted in the liturgy, written originally for the establishment of the Feast of Corpus Christi. These include the “Pange Lingua,” sung on Holy Thursday, “Panis Angelicus,” and the hymns used before and after Benediction. He would say Mass each morning and then attend another Mass in thanksgiving. He also composed prayers to be said before and after Mass. He provides a model of love and devotion for the Eucharist, guiding us in our prayer.
St. Imelda Lambertini (1322–33): Patroness of first communicants, she was the daughter of a noble family from Bologna and was sent to a Dominican convent at age nine. She had a strong devotion to Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist and requested to receive her first Communion, though she was denied because of her young age. At age 11, on the feast of the Ascension, a host appeared above her head, moving the priest to give her Communion. After receiving her first Holy Communion, which would also be her last, she died in ecstasy. She shows us that our desire for the Eucharist allows the sacrament to impact us more powerfully!
St. Catherine of Siena (1347–80): Catherine, a Third Order Dominican, experienced many mystical graces through her reception of the Eucharist and lived for seven years solely on the sacrament. Her spiritual director, Blessed Raymond of Capua, described how “her fasting did not affect her energy, however. She maintained a highly active life during those seven years. In fact, most of her great accomplishments occurred during that period. Not only did her fasting not cause her to lose energy, but became a source of extraordinary strength.” Through her prayer and devotion to the Eucharist, she received many mystical graces and sought to reform the Church, bringing the papacy out of its exile in Avignon. She manifests how the Eucharist provides the spiritual food most needed for our journey through life.
St. Anthony Mary Claret (1807–70): Claret was a Spanish missionary to the Canary Islands and Cuba who had an extremely strong and miraculous devotion to the Eucharist. He reported that “the faith I have when I am in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament is so strong that I find it impossible to express what I feel. ... When the time comes to leave, I must force myself to overcome the inclination to prolong my stay with Jesus.” Jesus honored his desire and physically kept his Eucharistic presence within him until his next reception of Communion. He models the reality that we all become living tabernacles of Jesus’ presence when we receive him in the sacrament.
St. Pius X (1835–1914): Pius sought to promote more active participation at Mass, including the revitalization of the Church’s tradition of Gregorian chant. He encouraged frequent reception of the Eucharist and lowered the age of first Communion for children to the age of reason. He understood the power of the Eucharist, especially for our children, provided we foster the right disposition of openness and preparedness to receive Jesus. He models zeal for drawing others to Mass and Communion to experience their great spiritual depths.
St. John Paul II (1920–2005): This great pope, with his strong devotion to quiet prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, sought to strengthen devotion to the Eucharist in the period of turmoil following the Second Vatican Council. He celebrated large Masses through the world, including some of the largest gatherings in human history at World Youth Day. He models how the Eucharist draws us together in unity and can change society, such as occurred during his Masses to Communist Poland. These Masses awakened the consciences of his fellow countrymen and show us that the Eucharist should be at the center of our work for justice and the renewal of civilization. Furthermore, he also loved to make visits to the Blessed Sacrament. No matter how busy he was, even during papal trips, he always found time to visit Christ.