Father Michael Schmitz has one of the most effective campus ministries in the country at the University of Minnesota. He tells a story about back when he was in the seminary in the late 1970s. Though we wouldn’t do it today, back then his particular seminary used regular loaves of bread for Holy Communion. During the distribution of the Eucharist the priest would break off pieces and give them to the people when they came up to the altar. Though they tried their best, there were always crumbs that would fall to the floor. One of the seminarians would stay in the chapel after Mass every day and quietly and reverently kneel down and eat all the crumbs off of the floor. One day Schmitz asked him why he did that, and the answer was something that he would never forget.
The seminarian had spent a year in China as a missionary. He heard a true story about the days when the Communists first took over, and how they would go into churches and ransack everything. One day they attacked a Catholic Church. They took down all the statues and broke them to into pieces. They smashed out all of the stain glass windows, and toppled the altar. Then they took the tabernacle and through it out the back door. The priest watched in horror as it hit the ground and all of the consecrated hosts were scattered. There was nothing he could do. The soldiers had arrested him and locked him in a tool shed in back of the church. The priest was in there for days, as three young Chinese soldiers stood guard with rifles. He kept an eye out for the scattered hosts as he prayed, asking that God would somehow send deliverance.
That evening, once it was dark, he saw a little girl, about 10 years old, outside. She hid behind the trees and bushes so that the guards wouldn’t see her. Then she kneeled down and picked up one of the sacred hosts with her mouth. She slowly and reverently consumed the host and left. The children were taught that they could never touch the Blessed Sacrament, and they could only receive once a day. So she returned each evening. Darting in and out between the shadows. And each night she would kneel down and consume one of the hosts.
The priest knew how many hosts had been in the tabernacle. And he watch as the girl returned every night until there was only one host left. The priest kept an eye on that host from the window of the shed, and he also kept an eye on the guards. That night he saw the little girl again. She was quiet, fast and very careful not to be noticed by the soldiers. She knelt down and consumed the very last host, and as she got up, she tripped and fell. The guards heard her and rushed over. Then they beat the poor little girl to death with the butts of their rifles. With tears in his eyes, the seminarian said, “That’s why I do it. That’s why I eat the crumbs off the floor every day. I never forgot that story, and ever since then, there’s nothing more precious to me than the Blessed Sacrament.”
In the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, in what is known as the Bread of Life Discourse, are some of the most profound words in all of scripture. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Jesus told the Jews that he is the living bread that came down from heaven, and that whoever eats this bread will live forever. And the bread that He will give is his flesh for the life of the world.
The Jews understood this very literally, and that’s why most of them left and went back to their families and former ways of living. They said, “This is a hard saying, who can accept it?” Jesus didn’t try to explain that he was just speaking symbolically. No, he meant exactly what he said. The Church has understood from the beginning that the Bread of Life refers to the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The New Testament scriptures make this clear, and so does the history and testimony of the early church.
Saint Justin, around the year 145, explained what the Church believes about the Eucharist: “We call this food Eucharist, and no one is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration, and is hereby living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught by his apostles, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic Prayer set down by him, is both the flesh and blood of that incarnated Jesus.” The Eucharist is indeed the “Bread of Life,” and by it we are nourished for all eternity.
At Mass, the King of the universe comes down from heaven, onto the altar and into you and me. When we receive the Bread of Life with the proper disposition, we are changed forever. Disposition is an attitude of mind and heart. Let me share with you an example of someone who had the proper disposition. One Saturday morning, I was at Mass sitting in a pew beside a young boy in the second grade who was receiving his first Holy Communion that day. He had missed receiving his first Holy Communion with his class. His father was sitting on the other side of him……When the time came, the young boy went up to receive Communion. He bowed reverently, received in his hands and consumed the sacred host. When he returned to his pew, he knelt and prayed. I knelt down next to him. After several minutes his father turned to him and asked, “Son, do you feel any different now that you have received your first Holy Communion?” The boy turned and looked his father in the eye and said, “Yes, Dad, I do feel different. I feel very different. I feel God inside.”
That young man received Communion with the proper disposition, the attitude of mind and heart that leads to eternal life. Saint Cyril, in the 4th century, said that the Christian who consumes the Bread of Life becomes a “Christbearer,” one body and blood with him and the covenant is sealed. Then we are sent out of the church to be what we are called to be – a sacrament, a visible sign of God’s invisible grace for the whole world to see, and know and draw closer to him. This is the proper disposition. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” This is why we do it.
Deacon Greg Ollick is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Atlanta and teaches in the Catholic Catechesis Certificate Program for Saint Joseph’s College.