June 11, 2021

Reflection / Sean Gallagher

Let God open your heart to the reality of the great gift of the Eucharist

Sean Gallagher“Sometimes I think that those who have never been deprived of an opportunity to say or hear Mass do not really appreciate what a treasure the Mass is.”

These are the words of the Servant of God Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek. Born in Pennsylvania in 1904 to Polish immigrant parents, Father Ciszek as a Jesuit sought to become a missionary in the Soviet Union, and secretly entered the communist country in 1940 from eastern Poland where he had been ministering.

He was later arrested by Soviet authorities and endured tremendous psychological torture while kept in solitary confinement for five years in the notorious Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. Father Ciszek was condemned as a spy and spent years in Siberian work camps.

He was eventually returned to the U.S. in 1963 in a spy swap and died in 1984.

In the five years he spent in Lubyanka, Father Ciszek prayed the prayers of the Mass which he had memorized, but never had access to the bread and wine that would truly make the Eucharist possible. In some respects, praying the prayers of Mass without actually celebrating it made his deprivation all the more poignant.

So, his words above, taken from He Leadeth Me, his book of spiritual reflections on his experiences in the Soviet Union, come from his own deep experience of being deprived of the Mass.

We Catholics in central and southern Indiana were deprived of the Mass for about two months last year at the start of the coronavirus pandemic—not the five years of Father Ciszek’s experience (which were probably small by comparison with other Catholics in communist countries).

My purpose in bringing up the example of Father Ciszek is not to downplay the experience of archdiocesan Catholics during the pandemic or even less to stir feelings of guilt in people who still stay away from the Mass for various reasons.

It’s more to inspire Catholics in central and southern Indiana to allow God to open their hearts anew to the reality of the transcendent gift he’s given us in the Eucharist. I pray that this may be the case as the dispensation of the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation is lifted on June 11.

The stories of Father Ciszek and his fellow prisoners in Siberia whom he served are so dramatic and so imbued with devotion that they can help us examine our own consciences and inflame our hearts to embrace our own faith—and the Mass—with greater fervor and gratitude.

Although living conditions for Father Ciszek in Siberia were horrific, he was at last able to celebrate Mass daily—even though it had to be done with utmost secrecy.

“We said Mass in drafty storage shacks, or huddled in mud and slush in the corner of a building site. … The intensity of devotion of both priests and prisoners made up for everything; there were no altars, candles, bells, flowers, music, snow-white linens, stained glass, or the warmth that even the simplest parish church could offer.

“Yet in these primitive conditions, the Mass brought you closer to God than anyone could imagine. The realization of what was happening on that board, box or stone used in place of an altar penetrated deep into the soul. Distractions caused by the fear of discovery, which accompanied each saying of the Mass under such conditions, took nothing away from the effect that the tiny bit of bread and few drops of wine produced upon the soul.”

None of us, thanks be to God, live in physical conditions like those found in Siberian labor camps. But we do experience daily the temptation to trade our infinite birthright as Catholics in the Eucharist for the pottage of the small and passing pleasures of this world.

These temptations come from many directions and never seem to stop. They’re seen in the growing pervasiveness of technology in our lives, the ever-increasing options for entertainment and the related sense that we deserve to control time for our own amusement alone.

But the temptation to turn away from the Mass and our faith in general can also come from something as simple as wanting to get more sleep.

In all of these and so many more temptations, our culture is whispering continually in our ear that its pottage is far more important than the treasure we’re offered in the Mass.

And it’s not surprising that many people give in to this temptation. After all, what’s a little bit of bread and wine used in an old ritual compared to all the features on the latest smartphone?

That’s where faith comes in. With it, God opens our eyes to his infinite love for each one of us and all of us together to be seen and experienced in the Mass.

If you don’t have that faith, or if you’re struggling to hold on to it, ask God for help. Know from the experience of so many Catholics today and holy men and women throughout the centuries that his help will not be long in coming.

And go to Mass, trusting, even if just a little bit, that God is offering you in it a gift greater than anything you can imagine.

(Sean Gallagher is a reporter and columnist for The Criterion.)

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