This reflection was originally published last year at the start of the quarantine.
This is the strangest Holy Thursday ever for so many of us.
We’re unable to attend the Mass of the Last Supper on this night of the Institution of the Eucharist.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton knows our pain. In 1807, she lamented “The first Sunday of exile from his Tabernacle” when she moved several miles away from her parish church. Not having the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament nearby was enough to distress her.
But she knew the pain of a much more significant “exile from the tabernacle” earlier in life, and hearing her story can help us during our isolation.
The story begins with Elizabeth discovering the Real Presence of the Eucharist overseas. She had traveled to Italy with her husband in hopes that a change in climate would cure his tuberculosis. It did not. But while in Italy, she witnessed the Eucharistic piety of the Catholics there.
Her husband William died in December of 1803 and by the summer of 1804, Elizabeth was already fascinated by the idea of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. She writes about one incident where she was attending Mass with a Protestant from England.
“At the very moment the priest was doing the most sacred action they call the elevation,” she said, “this wild young man said loud in my ear ‘this is what they call their real presence.’ My very heart trembled with shame and sorrow for his unfeeling interruption of their sacred adoration for all around was dead silence and many were prostrated.”
She said, “Involuntarily I bent from him to the pavement and thought secretly on the word of St. Paul with starting tears ‘they discern not the Lord’s body.’”
St. Elizabeth Ann found herself longing for faith in the Real Presence. In one letter she wrote, “My sister dear, how happy would we be if we believed what these dear souls believe, that they possess God in the Sacrament and that he remains in their churches and is carried to them when they are sick.”
She was tormented by the thought of how wonderful it would be if the Real Presence were true.
“When they carry the Blessed Sacrament under my window,” she wrote, “I feel the full loneliness and sadness of my case. I cannot stop the tears at the thought. My God, how happy would I be even so far away from all so dear, if I could find you in the church as they do.”
Elizabeth returned to New York and continued to attend Episcopalian services, but was turning toward the Catholic church — literally.
“I got in a side pew which turned my face towards the Catholic church in the next street, and found myself twenty times speaking to the Blessed Sacrament there instead of looking at the naked altar where I was or minding the routine of prayers,” she said.
Then, her separation from the Blessed Sacrament became almost too much to bear, like for so many of us today.
Elizabeth must have betrayed her feelings about the Blessed Sacrament because her Protestant friends started to challenge her. “How can you believe that there are as many gods as there are millions of altars and tens of millions of blessed hosts all over the world?” one asked.
Her answer shows that her longing had bloomed into faith:
“Again I can but smile at his earnest words, for the whole of my cogitations about it are reduced to one thought … it is God who does it, the same God who fed so many thousands with the little barley loaves and little fishes, multiplying them of course in the hands which distributed them…”
In fact, she said, “nothing is so very hard to believe in it, since it is he who does it. Years ago I read in some old book, when you say a thing is a miracle and you do not understand it, you say nothing against the mystery itself, but only acknowledge your limited knowledge and comprehension which does not understand a thousand things you must yet own to be true.”
She even said, startlingly, that God makes less sense if the Eucharist isn’t true:
“If the religion which gives to the world, (at least to so great a part of it) the heavenly consolations attached to the belief of the Presence of God in the blessed Sacrament … is the work and contrivance of men and priests as they say, then God seems not as earnest for our happiness as these contrivers.”
St. Elizabeth Ann compares the Catholic tabernacle to the Ark of the Covenant in the ancient Jewish Temple and laments, in the Protestant world, “our churches with nothing but naked walls and our altars unadorned.”
In her morning walks, she says, the beauty of nature is lost on her. “I see nothing but the little bright cross on St. Peter’s steeple,” marking where Christ in the Blessed Sacrament is.
When she is finally able to receive the Blessed Sacrament, Elizabeth’s delight is inspiring.
It is in Lent of 1805 when she finally gets her wish. The way Elizabeth anticipates the Eucharist is how we all should anticipate our return to the Sacrament when we are allowed back:
“At last Amabilia — at last. GOD IS MINE and I AM HIS,” she writes in one letter. “I HAVE RECEIVED HIM.”
St. Elizabeth Ann recounts how she counted the moments that brought her “nearer the moment he would enter the poor poor little dwelling so all his own. And when he did — the first thought, I remember, was ‘Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered!’ for it seemed to me my King had come to take his throne, and instead of the humble tender welcome I had expected to give him, it was but a triumph of joy and gladness that the deliverer was come.”
There is nothing so sad as knowing that God himself is nearby, waiting, but just out of reach.
The very first Holy Thursday was marked by the hushed awe the Apostles must have had at their first experience of Jesus Christ in the Sacrament.
While this Holy Thursday will be marked by quiet in empty churches worldwide, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton shows us just how great the shout of triumph will be when we can finally receive Him again.
TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.
Image: The Last Supper, Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574).