The Eucharist, the greatest treasure of the Church, in time of tribulations
We are witnessing a unique situation: It is for the first time in the History of the Church that the public celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice has been prohibited almost on a worldwide scale. Under the pretext of the Covid-19 epidemic, the inalienable right of the Christians to the public celebration of the Holy Mass has been infringed, disproportionately and unjustifiably. In many countries, and especially in predominantly Catholic countries, this prohibition was enforced in such a systematic and brutal way, that it seemed as though the ruthless historical persecutions of the Church were brought back. There had been created the atmosphere of the catacombs. Priests were celebrating the Holy Mass in clandestinity with a group of faithful.
The unbelievable in midst of this worldwide ban of the public Holy Mass was the fact, that many bishops even before the governments banned public worship, issued decrees by which they not only forbade the public celebration of Holy Mass, but of any other sacrament as well. By such anti-pastoral measures those bishops deprived the sheep from the spiritual food and strength which only the sacraments can provide. Instead of good shepherds those bishops converted into rigid public officials. Those bishops revealed themselves to be imbued with a naturalistic view, to care only for the temporal and bodily life, forgetting their primary and irreplaceable task to care for the eternal and spiritual life. They forgot the warning of Our Lord: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Mt. 16:26). Bishops who not only did not care but directly prohibited their faithful the access to the sacraments, especially to the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist and the sacrament of Penance, behaved themselves as fake shepherds, who seek their own advantage.
For themselves those bishops, however, provided access to the sacraments, since their celebrated Holy Mass, they had their own confessor, they could receive the anointing of the sick. The following stirring words of God are doubtless applicable to those bishops who in this tribulation, caused by the sanitary dictatorship, denied their sheep the spiritual food of the sacraments, while feeding themselves with the food of the sacraments: “Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. … Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves.” (Ez. 34:2-10)
In the time of the plague, which had an incomparably higher mortality rate as the current epidemic of Covid-19, St. Charles Borromeo increased the number of the public celebrations of Holy Mass. Even though he closed for a while the churches, he at the same time ordered that there should be celebrated Masses in many public and open places, such as squares, crossroads, street corners. He obliged the priests to visit the sick and the dying to administer them the sacraments of Penance and of Extreme Unction. He ordered public processions to be held, whereas people walked in due distance, to make reparation for the sins and invoke Divine Mercy. St. Charles Borromeo did not forget the care for the body of the infected people, but at the same time his primarily concern was the spiritual help of the sacraments, with which the sick had to be strengthened. There are many moving heroic examples from History, where priests consciously accepted the mortal danger while administering the sacraments to people who were infected with lethal contagious deceases.
There is a moving witness from the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Church in the 19th century, about the value of the beauty of the liturgy and the zealous administration of the sacraments in the time of the dangerous and highly contagious cholera epidemic in England. “The ritual innovations of they were accused were entirely rooted in the desperate pastoral needs they encountered. Sisters of Mercy worked with the clergy of St Peter’s Plymouth in the cholera epidemics of the late 1840s, and petitioned the parish priest, Fr George Rundle Prynne, for a celebration of the Eucharist each morning to strengthen them for their work. So began the first daily mass in the Church of England since the Reformation. Similarly, the clergy of St Saviour’s, Leeds, laid what medicines they had on the altar at each morning’s communion, before carrying them out to the many dozens of their parishioners who would die of cholera that very day. These slum churches and their priests are far too many to mention, but their audacity and their piety are to be marveled at. The Church of England, at this time, looked upon ritual as a wicked aping of a Papist Church. Vestments were horrific to most, and yet in places such as the mission church of St George’s in the East, thuribles were swung, genuflecting was encouraged, the sign of the cross was made frequently, devotion to the blessed sacrament was taken for granted. Confessions were heard, holy anointing was practised. Beauty and holiness were to go into the midst of squalor and depression, as a witness to the Catholic faith in Jesus Christ, the incarnate God, present and active in his world. And, perhaps most significantly, the sick and dying were to receive this sacramental presence as far as was possible. Deathbed confessions, the oil of unction, even, occasionally, communion from the reserved sacrament became the priests’ weapons against, for example, the appalling East London cholera epidemic of 1866.” (www.puseyhouse.org.uk)
St. Damien de Veuster is a luminous example of a priest and a shepherd of souls who for the sake of providing the celebration of the Holy Mass and the other sacraments to the abandoned people who were suffering from leprosy at the Molokai island, accepted voluntarily to administer to them the sacraments, living amongst them and to expose thereby himself to the deadly decease. Visitors never forgot the sights and sounds of a Sunday Mass at St. Philomena’s Chapel. Fr. Damien stood at the altar. His lepers gathered around him on the altar. They constantly coughed and expectorated. The odor was overpowering. Yet Fr. Damien never once wavered or showed his disgust. His strength came from the Eucharist as he himself wrote: “It is at the foot of the altar that we find the strength we need in our isolation…” It is there that he found for himself and for those he served the support and encouragement, the consolation and the hope that made him “the happiest missionary in the world,” as he called himself. Mahatma Gandhi, for example, had said that the world has few heroes comparable to Father Damien of Molokai. Belgium, the native country of Saint Damien, has proclaimed it as the greatest man in its history.