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No Eucharistic Revival Without Contrition for 2020
Is our sacramental union with Christ worth dying for?
When I participated in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) program to become Catholic, one of the most memorable experiences was hearing the story of “Little Li,” a child martyr for Eucharistic devotion whose faithfulness was the inspiration for the famous preaching ministry of Ven. Fulton Sheen.
Li was a 10-year-old girl who had recently received her first holy communion when the anti-Christian Communist revolutionary forces came to her village in China in 1953. She and other Catholics were herded into their church, where they watched soldiers shoot their tabernacle with guns and dump the consecrated hosts onto the floor. They were then ordered to leave the church and make no attempt to return. The core practice of the Catholic faith — our sacramental union with Christ — was now forbidden.
Some parishioners had anticipated hostility and had earlier hidden their missionary priest in an area of the church where he couldn’t be seen, but he could see what had happened. If he revealed himself, not only would he be killed, but his people would suffer further for having concealed him. As he internally debated his next course of action, he saw the church door open, and in came little Li.
Li quietly approached the altar and spent an hour in prayer and adoration. Then she lowered herself on her hands and knees and with her tongue ate one consecrated host off the floor. After a few more moments in prayer, she quietly left.
To the priest’s amazement, Li returned the next day to receive another consecrated host in the same way. He knew there were 32 consecrated hosts in that church — was Li really going to risk her life for 32 days? He did not dare to call any attention to her and could only silently observe her fidelity.
Each day, Li returned to repeat this life-threatening devotion and to rescue another consecrated host from the floor. She had been taught to only receive communion once a day, to prepare herself with adoration beforehand, and to only receive the host on her tongue to minimize profanation. She might have been permitted to forgo these rules in such an extraordinary circumstance, but she did not know that. She knew that she was receiving Jesus and that Jesus is God, and she knew that Jesus died for love of us. She loved him enough to show him the maximum devotion that she possibly could — even to die for him in return.
On the 32nd day, Li returned for her holy communion, but her presence was discovered. A solider shot her, and she fell down. With her remaining energy, her tongue scooped the 32nd consecrated host off the floor. She died in sacramental union with the Lord.
The priest survived long enough to share Li’s story, which eventually found its way to Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who shared it with his audience in a TV interview and credited Li’s witness with inspiring his own resolution to spend an hour daily adoring the Blessed Sacrament.
When I heard it in 2019, I got the message: Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, and he’s worth dying for. I already was asking the martyrs I knew for their intercession, because I knew becoming Catholic would mean some relatively small but still-scary-and-not-insignificant losses for me. Hearing Li’s story was one more encouragement to keep going and look forward to my own first holy communion no matter what.
The message I heard from the Church only a year later was vastly different. In 2020, the prevailing thought around me seemed to be that Christ is not actually worth dying for, and that our physical safety was of first importance. I was utterly shocked and bamboozled by how unlike this response was to any sort of genuine Christianity I had known until then. Were we really going to repeat the desertion of Jesus’ followers in the garden of Gethsemane? After 2,000 years of divine revelation, thousands of martyrs’ witness, and our weekly confession of faith in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, were we really saying that Easter was a fiction with a dispensable celebration? Not even an attempt at outdoor Easter Masses with safety modifications, for those of us who wanted it?
I desired to become Catholic in large part because of the early martyrs. I loved the North African martyrs of Abitina, whose famous confession in 304 — “Without the Sunday Eucharist we cannot live” — led them to calmly prefer torture and death to giving up the source of their life. There was also St. Tarcisius (now the patron of altar boys), a 12-year-old acolyte of the third century who was beaten to death by peers for refusing to reveal the “holy mysteries” he was secretly carrying to Christians in prison.
I must mention my beloved St. Cecilia, who at her beheading in 230 asked the Lord to delay her death for three days so she could communicate to Pope Urban her desire for her home to be consecrated as a church so the battered Christian community in Rome would have a place to worship. Pope Urban arrived to complete the consecration Cecilia had already begun with her own blood on the floor of her home. It is still a church today. Please, Lord, may Cecilia’s church stand in Rome until you come again!
And, of course, we can add little Li, though she came much later in history. I had expected to see in my own time more of a family resemblance to these saints. Instead I felt forced to be complicit in what felt like a worldwide repudiation of what I thought we believed. A long process of healing for my crushed conscience included a heavy weight of contrition on behalf (if it were possible) of all those who felt none. I begged the Lord to forgive us and the martyrs to pray for us.
When I heard about the U.S. bishops’ National Eucharistic Revival initiative planned for 2022-2025, I wondered if it was a movement of the Holy Spirit to (among other things) remedy the damage done in 2020. When I look at the language of the campaign, I can see that idea suggested between the lines. If that is the case, I’m grateful for this answer to my prayers.
But it’s not enough. We can repeat “Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist” millions of times and hire professional content creators to make hundreds of videos, blog posts and social media graphics declaring it. So what? Seriously — so what? What difference does that make in our lives? Satan believes that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist. Satan believes everything in our creed and everything in our catechism. Satan is more orthodox than most of us. Satan is still going to hell.
Faith without works is dead, as St. James famously wrote in his New Testament epistle (James 2:14-26). You could, in theory, intellectually assent to every statement of Christian orthodoxy and still be spiritually dead.
The real Eucharistic Revival will only be when we collectively reclaim the consciousness that God is worth making sacrifices for — even dying for. For many of us, that may not look as dramatic as it did for Little Li — at least not right now. But we must retain a consciousness that we could be asked to make the ultimate sacrifice, and we must “rehearse” for that by being willing to make small-to-medium-sized sacrifices when asked.
This kind of rhetoric seems largely absent from the leadership of the Church in North America today. Archbishop Ramzi Garmou, who was at the time the Chaldean Archbishop of Tehran, Iran, said in an interview with Aid to the Church in Need: “A Church without martyrs would be like a tree without fruit.” That apparent fruitlessness was woefully on display in 2020.
I’m hopeful that the Eucharistic Revival will help to improve this, but real revival must be accompanied by real contrition.
First, our bishops should lead us all in a public, unified act of penance and reparation to God for communicating — whether intentionally or not — that the faithful’s assistance at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is “nonessential.”
We should repeat the rite of renewal of our baptism that is part of the Easter Vigil that was denied to us in 2020, to our detriment. We should also make an act of renewal of our love for the Lord and our resolve to love him more than we love our own lives.
After that, this readiness to sacrifice for Christ should permeate all faith formation. We must reclaim our understanding of the mystical reality that the Mass is the marriage of Christ and the Church. We should consider arranging our schedules, our clothing, and our internal preparation around this central reality. (What if we saw every Mass we attend as our own wedding with our heavenly Bridegroom?) We might reclaim Li’s practice of receiving communion directly on the tongue, while kneeling if at all possible. We might ask why so many martyrs’ liturgical memorials were made “optional” or removed from the calendar entirely. Could some of those be restored for our encouragement?
Cardinal Robert Sarah writes, “... [A]t the altar we are really at the foot of the Cross, in the presence of Christ, Who died and rose from the dead for us” (Catechism of the Spiritual Life, 2022, p. 75). The Mass is not only the greatest moment of receiving the Lord’s love, but of returning our love to him. Every Mass we attend should be a strengthening preparation for a possible future martyrdom — a gift of ourselves to the Lord in return for his gift of himself to us.
There will be another “2020” with its own revolutionary forces that want us separated from our sacramental union with our Lord and will pressure us to accept their twisted justification for it. At that time, when our bishops lead the way in choosing martyrdom and when our priests are mobilized to bring the Mass to us in our repurposed man caves, she-sheds, and minivans-turned-chapels, then we can consider the Eucharistic Revival a success. May God grant us such grace in that time.