The Gift of the Eucharist at the Center of the Christian Life

As Catholics, the Solemnity of the Precious Body and Blood of the Lord celebrates the immeasurable Gift that lies at the very center of our Christian life. It would be hard for any of us to put into words our heart-felt gratitude and appreciation for so great a Gift. I will therefore let the life of a saintly man express it for us. His name is Cardinal Van Thuan, who died in 2002.

Cardinal Van Thuan was born in Vietnam and served the Catholic Church there under the Communist Regime. In April of 1975 Pope Paul VI named him Archbishop of Saigon. Three months later, on August 15, on the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Communists arrested him. They held the Cardinal in prison for 13 years, and 9 of these were spent in solitary confinement. When he realized that this ordeal could last a long time he said to himself, “I will not spend my time waiting, looking forward to what may never happen. No, I will live in the present moment, filling each moment to the brim with love.”

When the Cardinal was released 13 years later, people naturally asked him how he survived and what sustained him all those years. “My only strength,” he said, “was the Eucharist.” The day he was arrested he was forced to leave quickly, with only the clothes on his back. The next day he was able to make a request in writing for necessities. Along with clothes and toothpaste, he asked the addressee for a bit of medicine for ‘a bad stomach.’ The faithful, of course, understood what he meant, and sent him a bottle of wine for Mass, which they labeled ‘stomach medicine,’ as well as some communion bread sealed in a flashlight to protect it from humidity. With these precious items he was able to celebrate Mass. During his years in solitary confinement he celebrated the Mass every day around 3 p.m., the hour of Jesus’ agony and death on the Cross. Outside of Mass he always carried a small particle of the Blessed Sacrament in his shirt pocket, carefully wrapped in cigarette paper. At 9 p.m. each night he would make an hour of adoration.

In the prison camps the prisoners were divided into groups of fifty. In the bunk houses where they slept, they each had a space only 20” wide. In the Cardinal’s bunk there were 5 Catholics, and so they always tried to sleep near each other. When the lights went out at 9:30 p.m., he would curl up on his bed, and with 3 drops of wine and a drop of water in the palm of his hand and small pieces of bread he would celebrate Mass, always from memory. He would distribute communion to the other prisoners by reaching under the mosquito netting that covered them. At night the prisoners took turns for adoration, passing to each other the Blessed Sacrament the Cardinal kept reserved in containers made of cigarette boxes. When there were breaks during the day they would pass the Blessed Sacrament to each other or to other prisoners from the other groups. “We all knew Jesus was with us,” said the Cardinal. “Jesus helped us in a tremendous way with his silent presence. Many Christians regained the fervor of their faith during those days, even Buddhists and other non-Christians converted. The strength of Jesus’ love is irresistible. The darkness of prison became light.”

Sharing his story years later after his release, he said, “Jesus began a revolution from the cross. (Our) revolution must begin from the Eucharistic table and has to be carried forward from there. In this way (we) will be able to renew humanity. Jesus is my first example of radical love for the Father and for souls. Jesus gave everything, he loved us to the end; up to the very moment when he said, ‘It is finished.’ I have resolved to become a silent offering. I shall serve as an instrument in the Father’s hands. I will offer my sacrifice, moment by moment, through my love for the Church.”

When Cardinal Van Thuan later committed his story to writing, he included this prayerful reflection which came to him one day in his prison cell: “Beloved Jesus, this evening, sitting toward the back of my cell, without light, without a window, in the stifling heat, I think with overwhelming nostalgia of my pastoral life. Once I used to celebrate the Eucharist with a golden-plated paten and chalice; now I hold your Precious Blood in the palm of my hand. Once I used to visit you in the tabernacle; now I carry you night and day in my shirt pocket. I used to celebrate Mass for thousands of faithful; now in the darkness of night, I give communion under a mosquito net. I am happy here in this cell, where white mushrooms are growing on my sleeping mat, because you are with me, because you want me to live here with you. I have spoken much in my lifetime; now I speak no more. It is your turn to speak to me, Jesus. So I sing of your mercy in the darkness, in my weakness, in my annihilation. I accept my cross and I plant it with my own two hands in my heart. If you were to permit me to choose, I would change nothing because you are with me! I am no longer afraid, I have understood. I am following you in your passion and in your resurrection.”

Isn’t that beautiful! Inspired by such a deep Eucharistic faith, may God deepen our own faith in the Lord’s humble, yet powerful presence in the Eucharist.

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