The Pope of the Eucharist
At the beginning of the nineteenth century the last remnants of Jansenism were still influencing Catholic teaching in many countries of Europe. This most insidious of heresies, preached by men of austere life, and veiled by the pretext of reverence for holy things, was a danger to the lax and to the scrupulous alike. It laid down as conditions for approaching the Sacraments dispositions of soul which for the greater part of mankind were wholly unattainable; it presented God as the Jehovah, of the Old Testament, terrible and awe-inspiring, rather than as the Christ of the New, tender and compassionate to sinners. "I tell you," said St. Vincent de Paul to one of his own Mission priests, "that this new error of Jansenism is one of the most dangerous that have ever troubled the Church."
Perhaps the most fatal effect of Jansenism teaching was that it drove the sinner from the sources of grace, and the weak from the sources of spiritual strength. Frequent Communion, which had been the custom in Apostolic times and which had been always upheld by the teaching of the Church, was to the Jansenism a tempting of Providence. In vain did Catholic teachers explain to the people that the Council of Trent "exhorts, asks, and beseeches the faithful to believe and venerate these sacred mysteries with such constancy and firmness of faith . . . that they may be able frequently to receive the supersubstantial bread." Nothing, they declared, had been laid down as to the necessary dispositions for receiving Communion; and how were they to know that they possessed them? Opinions of theologians were divided on the subject, some teaching that very perfect dispositions were required, whilst others maintained that a state of grace and a right intention were sufficient. Another controversy had arisen as to the meaning of the term "Frequent Communion," some holding that weekly Communion came under this heading, others that it did not. Appeals were made from time to time to Rome to decide the question, that the minds of the faithful might be at rest.
In the first Encyclical of Pius X. where he sets forth as the one purpose of his Pontificate the restoring of all things in Christ, the frequent use of the Sacraments is mentioned as one of the four great means to this end. We have already seen how, when visiting his diocese as Bishop and later as Patriarch, he bade the people make no preparations for his coming save attending Mass and receiving Holy Communion, declaring that this would be the best welcome they could give him. On the 20th of December, 1906, the Decree concerning Frequent and Daily Communion decided the question, thus putting an end to all further controversy.
"The primary purpose of the Holy Eucharist is not that the honour and reverence due to our Lord may be safeguarded," says the Decree, "not that the Sacrament may serve as a reward of virtue, but that the faithful, being united to God by Holy Communion, may thence derive strength to resist their sensual passions, to cleanse themselves from the stains of daily faults, and to avoid those sins to which human frailty is liable."
"Frequent and daily Communion, as a thing most earnestly desired by Christ our Lord and by the Catholic Church," runs the first clause of the Decree, "should be open to all the faithful of whatever rank and condition of life, so that no one who is in the state of grace, and who approaches the Holy Table with a right and devout intention, can lawfully be hindered therefrom."
Having defined a right intention as a purpose of pleasing God, of being more closely united with Him by charity, and of seeking this Divine remedy for the weaknesses and defects of human nature, the Decree goes on to affirm that, although freedom from venial sin is to be desired, it is sufficient that the communicant be free from mortal sin, provided he has a firm purpose of avoiding sin for the future. The preparation and thanksgiving are to be according to the strength, circumstances, and duties of the individual. The Decree applies to religious Orders and congregations, to seminaries and schools. All priests and confessors are to exhort the faithful frequently and zealously to "this devout and salutary practice."
There was no mistaking this. "The Divine Redeemer of mankind," wrote a priest of the London Oratory, "is to be just as accessible to the struggling beginner whose feet have been ensnared in the meshes of sin, and who is struggling bravely against temptation, as He is to the man or woman who has been purified by many years of painful effort, but who is ever liable to fall. He is needed by the austere 100) ?> religious living in solitude in her cell . . . He is needed by the poor dweller in the crowded slums who has so much to contend against—squalor, misery, drink, vice in various forms, and the depressing influences of grinding poverty. Children have need of Him that they may be formed to habits of virtue; youths have need of Him that they may obtain mastery over their passions; maidens have need of Him that they may preserve their innocence untarnished; grown up men and women have need of Him that they may advance in virtue and carry out faithfully the duties of their state of life; there are none who can afford to neglect the great source of spiritual strength, none who can do without Him."
Rome had spoken, but to many people the news seemed almost too good to be true. The old idea that frequent Communion was only for holy people was hard to eradicate. Jansenism bugbears as to the preparation required and the responsibility incurred frightened the timid. Much insistence on the words of the Decree was necessary before the objection "I am not good enough," was found to be worthless, but when it was finally done away with the fruits were at once apparent.
"What a wonderful metamorphosis there would be," Monsignor de Segur had written some forty years earlier, "if frequent Communion could be established in our colleges and schools! Experience shows the influence of Communion on a young man's daily life. There is no vice that the regular frequentation of the Sacraments will not extirpate, there is no moral resurrection beyond its power to effect."
The dream of the saintly French Prelate was now on its way to realization. "Confessions," said a Jesuit who was giving a retreat to the students of a large public school, "are child's play now to what they used to be. In the old days they took two or three days now nearly all the boys are daily communicants, and the result is that the confessions of the whole college take little more time than an hour."
"Yes," said a young working girl to a nun of the Sacred Heart, "I go every day. I cannot stay till the end of Mass, because I have to get to my work. But there are several of us who are all daily communicants, who take the same train to business, and we try to get into the same carriage, and make our thanksgiving on the way. And we love to think that in that train, full of people who seldom think of God, there is one carriage where He is being adored and worshipped. And we find it such a help in the day's work."
And not girls only, but men. The author will never forget a very early morning Mass in one of our big London churches. The church was full of working men in their working clothes. The procession to the altar seemed never ending; Holy Communion was still being given after the Mass was finished. They _ had come for help and comfort in their daily toil to One who on this earth had been a working man like themselves, One who is "rich unto all that call on Him," and they had learnt the strength of that union.
And after all, was it not the "man in the street "for whom our Savior came? Were not the crowds who followed Him mostly composed of "men in the street "? And did He not choose from their ranks the Apostles who were to carry His message through out the world?" In these days," says the Decree, "when religion and the Catholic faith are attacked on all sides, and the true love of God and genuine piety are lacking in so many quarters, it is doubly necessary that the faithful should be strengthened, and the love of God enkindled in their hearts by this salutary practice of daily Communion."
"Holy Communion is the shortest and surest way to Heaven," said Pius X. in an address to the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament. "There are others, innocence for instance, but that is for little children; penance, but we are afraid of it; generous endurance of the trials of life, but when they approach us we weep and pray to be delivered. Once for all, beloved children, the surest, easiest, shortest way is by the Holy Eucharist. It is so easy to approach the Holy Table, and there we taste the joys of Paradise."
"The many newspaper comments, and also the large number of letters sent to the Sacred Congregation by Bishops and superiors of religious Orders, runs another Decree on the same subject published in 1906, "go to show the joy and gratitude with which the declarations and arrangements of the Holy Father have been received by the whole world."
This second Decree was published in answer to questions which had arisen regarding the frequent Communion of children who had only recently made their first Communion, and that of the infirm who were suffering from some chronic illness. The decision given was that the practice of frequent or daily Communion was for young children as well as for their elders, since it was highly desirable that their innocence and piety should be shielded by so powerful a protection. As for the sick, every facility was to be granted them to receive Holy Communion as often as possible.
The decision as to the frequent Communion of children was followed four years later by a Decree which fixed the age of first Communion at about the seventh year, the time at which the child begins to use its reason. In some cases it might be earlier; in some it would have to be later; this would depend on the intelligence of the individual child.
The Decree went straight to the root of the matter.
"The pages of the Gospel witness to the extraordinary affection shown by Christ to little children when He was on earth," it begins. "It was His delight to be in their company; He was wont to lay His hands upon them, to embrace them, to bless them. And He was indignant at their being turned away by His disciples, whom He rebuked in these grave words: 'Suffer the little children to come unto Me and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven." After having pointed out that in the earliest days of the Church Holy Communion was given even to infants, and that if in later years for grave causes the age of reason or of discretion was fixed as the time for first Communion, this did not presuppose that a fuller knowledge was required for the reception of the Holy Eucharist than for the Sacrament of Penance. The Decree went on to deplore the postponement of first Communion until twelve, or thirteen, or even fourteen years of age, according to local customs. Even if this ensures a fuller understanding of the sacred mysteries, a careful sacramental confession and a longer and more diligent preparation," it continues, "the gain in nowise balances the loss. The innocence of childhood, deprived of this most powerful protection, is soon lost; evil habits have time to grow and become strong. Therefore, it is that the little ones, being in the most happy condition of their first candor and innocence, stand in the greatest need of that mystical food on account of the many snares and dangers of the present time." "As soon as children begin to have a certain use of reason so as to be able to conceive devotion to this Sacrament," says St. Thomas Aquinas, "then may this Sacrament be given to them."
In order that the above-mentioned abuses should be entirely removed and the "children from their very tenderest years should adhere to Jesus Christ, live His life, and find protection from the dangers of corruption," definite regulations concerning the first Communion of children were laid down and ordered to be observed in every part of the world.
The Decree caused a certain commotion in some Catholic countries. Once more the remnants of Jansenism teaching arose to frighten the faithful. Would a child of seven understand the reverence due to the Sacrament? was the question anxiously asked,—children of that age are so thoughtless.
The objection had already been answered by Monsignor de Segur, whose words had been quoted in the Decree of 1906:
"To communicate well, it suffices to receive the Savior with a good will. This is found just as much in children as in adults. The child loves Jesus Christ; it wishes to have Him; why, then, not give Him to the child? Thoughtlessness is no obstacle to Holy Communion, unless it is willful. Children are thoughtless—yes, but they are good and affectionate; and because of their need to love, we must give their love its true nourishment."
Another objection, and one that seemed more plausible, was that in certain cases a late first Communion tended to preserve children from much that was evil. First Communion, in France especially, is a great event in the family; and French parents, even if themselves indifferent, seldom remove a child from religious influences before the first Communion has been made. For this reason it was often delayed as long as possible; an apparent safeguard which the new Decree threatened to do away with altogether. Experience has long since proved that here again the good obtained far outbalances the evil.
As for the argument that such little children cannot understand what they are doing, those who have the happy task of preparing them for their first Communion have a different tale to tell. "I have found it much easier," writes one who has had much experience of such matters, "to prepare little children than those who are older the preparation is so much more objective than subjective. It is more a realization of how lovable, how desirable, how loving our Lord is, than a preoccupation of how they can make themselves worthy—or less unworthy to receive Him . . . The actual first Communion appears to the little ones as the very loving embrace of a much-loved Father; to the older ones it is more a welcome to a loved and honored guest, with if I may so put it the preoccupations of a hostess."
"Sometimes our Lord gives me such a lot of grace after Holy Communion," said a small mite of eight and a half, "that I feel I can't breathe." Another, aged nine, who had made her first Communion a year before, used this beautiful comparison: "Sometimes after Communion it is like when my father squeezes me in his arms, and I feel too happy even to talk to our Lord, but He knows how much I am loving Him."
The Pope delighted in the letters he received from many little first communicants thanking him for their joy at being admitted to the Holy Table; he loved children dearly and they returned his affection, crowding round him, speaking to him without the slightest fear or shyness, and giving him their confidence at once. He loved to give them Holy Communion with his own hands; there was a strange affinity between the white-souled Pontiff and the white-souled children who knelt at his feet the innocence that had fought and conquered and the innocence that was as yet untried. All the little first communicants of Rome, gentle or simple, were invited to come to the Vatican. He would give them a short instruction suited to their childish understanding, ending with the hope that their last Communion would be as fervent and loving as the first. Then he would talk to them, and they to him, simply and without any ceremony. Quite unconventional sometimes were the appellations by which they called him. "Yes, Pope," would be the answer to a question. But the very little ones, seeing the gracious white figure bending over them and looking up into the gentle holy face of him that spoke, would often answer softly, "Yes, Jesus."
An English lady, who had a private audience with the Pope, brought her little boy of four years old to receive his blessing. While she was talking with the Holy Father the child stood at a little distance looking on; but presently, when the low-toned conversation seemed at an end, he crept up to the Pope, put his hands on his knees and looked up trustfully into his face. "How old is he?" asked Pius X., stroking the little head.
"He is four," answered the mother, "and in two or three years I hope he will make his first Communion."
The Pope looked earnestly into the child's clear eyes. "Whom do you receive in Holy Communion?" he asked.
"Jesus Christ," was the prompt answer.
"And who is Jesus Christ?"
"Jesus Christ is God," replied the little boy, no less quickly.
"Bring him to me to-morrow," said the Pope, turning to the mother, "and I will give him Holy Communion myself."
He would have been no less delighted with a little boy of four who made his first Communion in a London church under extraordinary circumstances. The child's elder brother was being prepared for first Communion, and the little one was sent with him to the instruction classes to keep him out of mischief, for their mother was a working woman with little time to spare. In due time the elder brother made his first Communion, and shortly afterwards went again to the Holy Table taking the little one with him to Mass. Great was the horror of the mother when she noticed that the four-year-old had followed
his brother to the Communion rails and was kneeling there beside him. The priest had reached the children; there was no time to interfere; moreover, the child had received the Host and come down from the altar before the good woman had recovered from her stupor. As soon as Mass was over she took the little boy to the priest and explained to him what had happened. She was afraid, she said, that he did not understand in the least what he had been doing. The priest took the child on his knee and gently questioned him. "Why did you go up to the altar after your brother?" he asked.
"I went up," was the answer, "because he was going to receive Jesus, and I love Jesus, and wanted to receive Him too."
"It is all right," said the priest, "he knows quite enough, you need not be afraid."
Of sterner stuff was the priest who refused to admit a not particularly brilliant boy of seven who was rather hazy as to which Person of the Blessed Trinity Jesus Christ was. The nun who had prepared the children, passing by soon afterwards, found this particular little boy sobbing his heart out. "What is the matter?" she asked.
"Oh, I did so want Jesus Christ," was the answering wail.
The nun went straight to the priest. "I promise you, Father," she said, "that I will see to it that that boy knows which Person of the Blessed Trinity he is receiving, but you must let him make his first Communion." She kept her promise though it was hard work, and the boy was sound upon the subject of the three Divine Persons before the eventful day.
During a public audience at the Vatican a tiny girl ran up to the Pope and thanked him for letting her make her first Communion.
"Whom did you receive?" asked the Holy Father. "Our Lord Jesus Christ," was the answer.
"Was it our Lord in Heaven or our Lord on earth?" was the next question.
"Our Lord came down on the altar for me," said the little girl.
"Then there was a Jesus Christ on earth and a Jesus Christ in Heaven. Are there two Jesus Christs?" asked the Pope.
The child was silent for a moment. "No, Holy Father," she answered to the delight of Pius X., "there is only one Jesus Christ; our Lord in Heaven and our Lord in the Sacred Host are the same Jesus Christ."
At a children's audience the Pope was in his element—and they in theirs. It was on such an occasion that a little boy whose long hair floated on his shoulders attracted the Holy Father's attention.
"What is your name?" he asked, gently stroking the curls.
"Giulio," replied the little boy.
"Giulia," said the Pope, still playing with the curls—" a very pretty name."
''It is not Giulia," said the small boy indignantly, "but Giulio."
The Pope smiled, drawing the long curls through his fingers.
"Giulia ah, yes," he said, "a very pretty name." At this the little boy lost all patience.
"Not Giulia—Giulio, Holy Father," he cried; "can't you see I'm not a little girl?" and pulling up his tunic he exhibited an abbreviated pair of knickerbockers. "Don't you see I've got knickerbockers on?"
But the prettiest scene was when a pilgrimage of first communicants would come to visit the Holy Father, and he would talk to them, telling them in simple language how to be worthy of the grace they had received, and how to please our Lord in their daily lives. Obedience and unselfishness, diligence at their lessons and their prayers, zeal for God and His service, and above all the frequentation of the Sacraments and devotion to the Holy Eucharist—these were to be their apostleship amongst their young companions.
In the springtime of 1912, a pilgrimage of four hundred little first communicants from France arrived in Rome. Those who came of well-to-do families had made a collection for their poorer brothers and sisters, in order that the French children of every class might be represented. The album they presented to the Holy Father contained the names of 185,830 little boys and girls who had offered their Communion for the Pope's intentions on the feast day of his patron, St. Joseph.
"Emperors and Kings have come to Rome' to kneel at the feet of the successor of St. Peter," said the Father-General of the Augustinians in a little sermon preached after the solemn Mass at St. Peter's celebrated for the children on the morning after their arrival, at which they all received Holy Communion. "Knights and crusaders have come to ask his blessing on their arms, men of all nations and of all classes have paid homage to Christ's representative on earth. But never before has a crusade of first communicants come to thank the Vicar of Christ in his palace at Rome."
Two days later the young pilgrims were received by the Pope at a solemn audience in the Sistine Chapel. The representative of the little boys having made a speech to the Holy Father expressing the gratitude of all the children of France for the privilege of early Communion, and their devotion to the Church and her visible Head, a small maiden of five and a half expressed the sentiments of the little girls, ending by asking the Pope's blessing for those who could not come, as well as for those who were present. When the speeches were over, and each child had received from the Holy Father's own hand a silver medal, he spoke to them of the words of oil) Lord, "Suffer the little children to come unto Me," reminding them of how the Divine Savior had also set a little child in the midst of His disciples, telling them that "their angels see always the face of My Father." A simple instruction on Holy Communion followed, in which the highest and most sublime truths were placed within the grasp of the little creatures who listened so intently to every word that fell from the Pope's lips. A solemn blessing was then given to the entire pilgrimage, and the audience was at an end.
A French writer, M. Francois Laval, describes the impression made on the children by the Holy Father and his words. "As soon as they had returned from Rome," he says, "I went to see some little friends of mine to question them. There was no need, they talked without stopping of all they had seen. Everything had been wonderful, but most wonderful of all—wonderful enough almost to blot out the memory of everything else—had been the Pope. They had not been a bit shy with him, they explained it was impossible, he was so kind. 'The tears were in his eyes but lots of us were crying too,' nearly all who could get near enough to speak to him were begging him for graces. 'Cure my sister, Holy Father; convert my father; I want to be a priest and I a missionary!' It must have been rather like that when the people came to Jesus in Galilee."
"It seems to me," added the writer, "that in these days, when so many people are trying to enforce obedience, and failing signally in the attempt, that there is only one man in the world who is really master of the minds and hearts of others—an old man clothed in white garments . . ."