Saint John Vianney, the patron of parish priests, whose feast we celebrated last week, would often tell the story of how he noticed an elderly man sitting at the back of his church every day. He didn’t seem to be doing anything, just sitting there in the same place every day at the same time. Eventually the priest asked him what he was doing. “I’m praying Father,” he answered. He pointed at the tabernacle and said: “I just look at him, and he looks at me.” Saint John realized that this was truly praying. This man was looking with love to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, for he knew that there in the tabernacle, hidden from our view, was the source of life and love.
The presence of the Blessed Sacrament in our churches and chapels is a reminder of how the Holy Eucharist is and always has been the centre of our life and worship as Catholics. This is because the Blessed Sacrament is a perpetual sign of Christ’s presence among us: “Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.”
Saint John Vianney’s story illustrates a truth that we don’t often consider. Like the Jews who were complaining to each other about Our Lord and questioning him about what he was saying, we are often puzzled and even disturbed as to how Our Lord is present in the Eucharist. We recognize it as a mystery of faith difficult to understand. And over two thousand years the Church’s best theologians and philosophers have attempted to reveal this great truth by means of human words. But, in the end, the most effective way of deepening our faith is simply by being with him where he is really present, right here in our churches, before the tabernacle.
Right from the very beginning of the Church Our Lord’s followers have tried to put into words what it is we believe about Our Lord’s presence in the Holy Eucharist. As part of this process, the phrase ‘Real Presence’ has become a sort of description of what we believe.
Now we don’t say ‘real’ presence as opposed to ‘false’ presence or ‘artificial’ presence. We say Real Presence to emphasize that we believe that the actual person of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the God made Man, is present on the altar under the forms of bread and wine.
Now we know, of course, that Our Lord is present to his people in other ways. He is present when we gather as a community for prayer, for he promised that when “two or three are gathered in my name I will be there in their midst.” Our Lord is also present to us when we hear him speak to us in the Scriptures; we stand to hear the Gospel because it is Christ himself who teaches us. Our Lord is also present in the person of the priest who takes the place of Christ at Mass.
But in the elements of the Eucharist Our Lord is present in a different way; in a more real way. It’s not just a spiritual presence, or a symbolic presence; it’s not just that the Eucharist reminds us of Our Lord and makes us think of him and all he does for us. The Eucharist is much more than this: Our Lord, in the Eucharist, is as present as one person to another in the same room. And even when we go away, and the church is empty and silent, he remains here and, for most of the time Our Lord remains here alone.
The bread, which has become his Body, really is his body for as long as that host exists. And so we use the phrase ‘Real Presence’ and – for those of us who can – we genuflect and we acknowledge his presence among us in the tabernacle.
When life gets too much for us, as it did for Elijah in the first reading, the bread of life is given us to strengthen us in our troubles. The soldiers of Queen Jezebel were hunting down the prophet with orders to kill him on sight. Elijah, exhausted, cries out to God: “I’ve had enough; take my life!” But God says: “Get up and eat.” The Eucharist is given for us to eat when we feel hunted or harried by the pressures of life.
And it’s not only at Mass on Sunday that we can take strength and encouragement from the presence and power of Christ. His continual presence in the Blessed Sacrament enables us to come to him at any time during the day and seek his help and to renew our communion with him.
It’s not always possible nowadays, for security reasons, to keep some churches open at all times. But there are still places, like this one, where people can call in and pay a visit to Our Lord present in the tabernacle.
Just consider that the average Catholic spends about an hour in the church each week, less if they come to Mass late or leave early as some do; and yet Our Lord is here all the time just waiting for his children to come and visit him. And I’m sure if God feels any sadness it is at the number of his sons and daughters who pass him by each day without so much as a thought. We live in an increasingly secular and materialistic world and yet it’s amazing to see people passing by Catholic churches – not so much around here but you see it in the north – people passing the church and making the sign of the cross, or elderly men taking off their caps as they pass the church in recognition of Our Lord within.
It’s great to see so many people coming into church early to visit with Our Lord before Mass begins. Unfortunately, in many of our parish churches this isn’t always possible as there is so much noise from people talking to one another and not to the Lord whom they ignore present in the tabernacle. The church building is, first and foremost, a house of prayer and every encouragement must be given to people who want to pray for a few minutes before and after Mass. Now, I’m not saying that we should ignore one another, but we can say our good mornings quietly and with a smile. We should all, no matter where we go to Mass, promote a spirit of prayer and reverence so that those who wish to pray may do so in peace. There is a constant cacophony of noise in our world and in our everyday life. May our churches be sanctuaries of peace and quiet so that when we enter we can leave the cares of the world outside for an hour and focus our attention on the worship of God. And let’s never forget whose presence we enter when we walk through those doors. To spend time, on our knees, if we can manage it, before the tabernacle, is good practice for an eternity of worshipping God in the glory of heaven.
When all is said and done it’s only by spending time with Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament that we will learn how to pray properly. And the purest form of prayer, what we call contemplative prayer, doesn’t even need words. You may notice how a husband and wife after many years of marriage can quite happily spend time together and not use many words, because they know each other so well. This is exactly the kind of relationship Our Lord wants with us. By spending time with Our Lord, peacefully and quietly, he himself will teach us how to pray, just as he taught the man sitting at the back of Saint John Vianney’s church.