It was dangerous to be a Christian in the first century in Rome. Christianity was seen as an enemy of the Empire. Many Christians were put to death by horrible forms of torture like being beaten to death or thrown to the lions. To survive, Christians built the catacombs, underground corridors and rooms where they could meet and celebrate Mass and where they buried their dead. The story is told of a young boy called Tarcisius. He was an altar server in the catacombs. One day, a message came to a priest from Christian prisoners in a Roman jail. They asked for Holy Communion to be smuggled into the prison to help them face their sufferings with greater courage. The priest was reluctant to put anyone in danger but Tarcisius shouted out, “Send me.” At first, the priest said no, but eventually he realised that no one would suspect a little boy.
Tarcisius set out with the hosts in a little cloth. On his way, some of his friends saw him and needed him to make up the number for a game they were playing. Tarcisius said he couldn’t today, but they tried to force him to join them. When Tarcisius became insistent that he had to go, they became suspicious and saw him clasping his hand to his chest. They became more and more curious and realised he was hiding something. They knew he was a Christian and so guessed he was hiding some Christian secret. They started to hit him to force him to let go of his secret, but he would not let it go. An adult came by and asked what was going on. The boys said Tarcisius was a Christian and was hiding something, and the adult struck him with a very hard blow and knocked him over. The boys continued hitting him with stones until a Roman soldier came and stopped them. He chased the boys away and lifted Tarcisius up in his arms. Tarcisius recognised the soldier as a fellow Christian and said to him, “I am dying, but take the Holy Communion to the prison.” Shortly afterwards, Tarcisius died.
It was also dangerous to be a Christian at the beginning of the 20th century in China. At the time, Western imperialist powers controlled China, but in about 1900 there took place the Boxer Revolution, when nationalist forces sought to take control back. The Chinese forces were ordered to destroy Catholic churches across China. There was one church in the Chinese countryside that was destroyed, while a small girl hid in the back, unnoticed but observant. She watched as the priest was arrested, as the tabernacle was torn away, and as the Sacred Hosts, stored within a ciborium, were strewn across the floor. The girl noticed where the Hosts landed and noticed that the soldiers never bothered to pick them up.
She went back to her home that afternoon and told her parents what she had seen. And that night, slipping past guards and police officers, she snuck back into the Church, knelt before the discarded Hosts, and spent an hour in adoration. After she had spent time in prayer, she consumed one of the Hosts, and secretly made her way back home. Thirty-two hosts had been thrown across the church floor, and for 32 consecutive nights the young girl went back to the Church. Spending time in adoration, one by one, she consumed the Holy Eucharist.
On the last night, after the girl had received the Eucharist, she accidentally woke a sleeping guard, who chased her down and beat her to death. The parish priest, under house arrest but watching from his window, stood by helplessly as the girl became a martyr. The story of the girl’s martyrdom was passed from home to home, and from priest to priest, and eventually it was heard by the young Father Fulton Sheen, the man who would become an archbishop and one of the most effective evangelists in the history of the United States.
When Father Sheen heard the story of this young martyr, he resolved that he would spend an hour in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament every day for the rest of his life, and promote adoration of Christ in the Eucharist. He did so, with radio and television programs that reached millions of American homes.
There are thousands more stories of people who have died as martyrs for the Eucharist. But it all comes down to one thing: living faith in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ. These people died rather than see the Eucharist desecrated, trampled on or thrown to the ground. They would not have done this for a mere sign or symbol, which the Eucharist is not. It is a sacrament, indeed, it is the Sacrament of all sacraments, meaning that it is an external sign of an internal grace which is contained within it. When received in faith, it communicates Christ to the soul.
While we cannot all spend an hour a day in adoration of the Eucharist, and none of us is likely to face martyrdom, the witness of these two children should give us pause for thought, especially as Lent approaches, as does our parish’s turn to host the 40 hours’ adoration. The Church lives from the Eucharist, which means our individual life of faith lives from the Eucharist. Certainly, the top priority is to receive the Eucharist at Mass every Sunday and worthily. But reception of the Eucharist deep into the heart plants a seed. It is the seed of desire for Christ, a seed that should grow and hence a desire that should grow. The desire is to know him, to love him, to be known by him, to be loved by him. It is the seed which demands more and more from me that I seek to spend time with him, to understand his thinking, to feel his sentiments, to choose his priorities. It is the seed of adoration which will blossom ultimately in the vision of his glory in eternal life, but which is fed and nurtured by adoration of his sacramental glory in this life. And so, where do I stand on Eucharistic adoration?
For myself and for you, I offer an examination of conscience on the Eucharist.
Do I honestly believe in the Real Presence, as Christ and the Church teach it? If I do, do I prepare myself to receive Holy Communion worthily, free from mortal sin confessed to the priest and repentant of venial sin? If I don’t believe in the Real Presence, do I want to? And if I want to, do I ask Christ for that faith? And if I don’t want to believe it, what do I want?
Where do I stand on adoration of the Blessed Sacrament? Is my stance one of action? Is it one of desire but genuinely thwarted by the circumstances of life? Am I happy to have excuses to avoid adoration? Is my stance one of apathy or scepticism? Do I see it as a waste of time, and if so, how else do I waste my time? Can you really waste time with God? Is it that I don’t know how to adore, and if so, what am I doing to learn?
A little boy and a little girl gave their lives for the Eucharist. What am I prepared to sacrifice to receive the Eucharist worthily or to give even a little time to adore the Eucharist? Is whatever prevents me from receiving the Eucharist worthily or from finding even a little time for adoring the Eucharist truly worthy of me, never mind of Christ?
Is the Eucharist central to my personal life, my family life, my relationships? Are my relationships worthy of the Eucharist?
If I stand at the foot of the Cross and look upon the crucified Christ; if I stand by the empty tomb and look upon the Risen Christ; if I stand in this or any church before the Eucharistic Christ, let me ask myself honestly: what have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What will I do for Christ?