There is much talk in the Church today about how to deal with the abysmal lack of belief in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. Many articles, documents, and opinions have been written. Meeting after meeting among leaders has sought to address the situation. The answer we are looking for can be found through the example of the saints who paved the way before us. It is the saints who understood to the very depths of their being the love of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus who waits for each one of us in the tabernacles of the world.
One of these saints is St. Manuel Gonzalez Garcia, whose feast day was on January 4th. He was born in Seville, Spain on February 25, 1877, into a devout and prayerful family. When he secretly applied and was accepted to the seminary in Seville at 12 years of age, his parents saw it as God’s will for their son. He was ordained a priest on September 21, 1901.
His first assignment as a priest would radically change the course of his life and his priestly ministry. He was sent to a church in the parish of Palomares del Rio. He discovered quickly that he had been sent to a region where most people had fallen away from the Faith, were bitterly divided along political lines, and the priest he was replacing had essentially abandoned the parish because the community was too difficult to lead.
When he arrived at his new parish, he found a church building in disrepair. It was dirty. There were cobwebs and dust everywhere. The altar linens had not been cared for and the tabernacle where Our Lord resided was abandoned. The task before him was much like St. John Vianney’s when he arrived in Ars.
He knelt down in prayer—after fighting every instinct in his body and mind to flee—and he fixed his gaze on Christ, who dwelt within the lonely tabernacle before him. St. Manuel wrote:
My faith was looking at Jesus through the door of that tabernacle, so silent, so patient, so good, gazing right back at me….His gaze was telling me much and asking for more. It was a gaze in which all the sadness of the Gospels was reflected; the sadness of “no room in the Inn”; the sadness of those words, “Do you also want to leave Me?”; the sadness of poor Lazarus begging for crumbs from the rich man’s table; the sadness of the betrayal of Judas, the denial of Peter, of the soldier’s slap, of the spittle in the Praetorium, and the abandonment of all. All of this sadness was there in that tabernacle, oppressing and crushing the sweet Heart of Jesus and drawing bitter tears from his eyes.Victoria Schneider, The Bishop of the Abandoned Tabernacle: St. Manuel Gonzalez Garcia, pp. 23-24.
In that moment, St. Manuel encountered the depths of Christ’s love and the deep agony of all He faced throughout His public ministry, all the way to the Cross, until now, where He is abandoned in tabernacles across the world. He saw how much we abandon, deny, reject, ignore, and despise Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. This is just as true today as it was on that afternoon for St. Manuel.
Nearly 70% of Catholics deny the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist. He waits for us in countless tabernacles throughout the world where he is abandoned. In the West, the churches and cathedrals are immaculately clean, but they are spiritually and physically empty, as we have come to view stopping by the Church to pray and Mass as an inconvenience in the face of more “important” matters.
What St. Manuel discovered that day is the secret to Eucharistic renewal in the Church and the conversion of souls. It is the same thing St. John Vianney discovered and countless other priest-saints down through the ages who found themselves confronted with a flock that had abandoned Christ. He knew that he had to give his entire being over to Christ’s Real Presence in love first before he could convert souls. He had to become a completely Eucharistic priest who cared for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.
On that afternoon, in that moment in which I was before the tabernacle, I saw that my priesthood would consist of a work of which I had never before dreamt. All my illusions about the kind of priest I would be vanished. I found myself to be a priest in a town that didn’t love Jesus, and I would have to love him in the name of everybody in that town. I would dedicate my priesthood to taking care of Jesus in the needs of his life in the tabernacle: to feed him with my love, to keep him warm with my presence, to entertain him with my conversations, to defend him against abandonment and ingratitude, to give relief to his Heart with my holy sacrifices, to serve him with my feet by taking him wherever he is desired, and with my hands by giving alms in his name, even to those who do not love him, and with my mouth by speaking of him and consoling others in his name, and by crying out to those who do not want to hear him, until finally they would listen and begin to follow him. This would be a beautiful priesthood!Ibid
St. Manuel had to love Christ for those who did not. He had to reverently and with loving devotion care for the Blessed Sacrament. It didn’t matter that he was alone. He understood what all the great priest-saints understood down through Church history, it had to start with him.
One of the most powerful forms of catechesis within the Church is how a priest celebrates the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and how often he offers Eucharistic Adoration in his parish. Does he truly love the Blessed Sacrament? Does he fully believe in the Real Presence of Jesus confected in his hands? The People of God can see how much a priest loves Our Lord through his care of the Blessed Sacrament. They can also see indifference, haste, and lack of belief in a priest.
The starting place for Eucharistic renewal is with the deep devotion and love priests show Our Lord in His Real Presence, which draws the People of God into a deeper belief in the Real Presence. It is powerful and awe-inspiring to see a priest inflamed with the love of Most Sacred Heart of Jesus as he elevates the consecrated body, blood, soul and divinity of Our truly and substantially present Savior in his hands. This moment has the power to convert souls if only we had the faith to see and believe.
St. Manuel taught that all of the answers we seek can be found in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. He is a saint for our time of unbelief in the Real Presence. He writes:
Very often I hear questions coming from wounded priestly and apostolic hearts. These questions are as follows: What can be done to turn those who are Christians merely in name into real Christians? How can we make them live their Christian faith and morals? What can be done to make them come back to a holy and fruitful Christian austerity? In a word, how can we convert this world which after twenty centuries of Christianity is obstinately going back to the most corrupt and degrading paganism? The answer to these heartfelt questions can be found in one word: Go to the tabernacle! Priests, go to the tabernacle! Let us draw power from the tabernacle! Nobody goes to the Father except through His Son, Jesus.Ibid pp. 112-113.
It is often the case in the life of the Church that we want to be doing something—anything—to fix the problems that abound. Our lack of faith and pride in thinking that we can solve the problems are getting in the way of true Eucharistic renewal. The answer is the same one it has been for 2000 years. We must return to Jesus. We must go to His Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament in prayer, adoration, silence, and a deep love for Him led by priests who have deeply Eucharistic hearts. Conversion and renewal will take place before the tabernacle where Our Lord waits for souls.
image: bust of St. Manuel González in Iglesia de San Bartolomé (Sevilla) by CarlosVdeHabsburgo, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons