Cardinal Nichols: Eucharistic Octave 2021

Given at the Pontifical Mass opening the Eucharistic Octave at Corpus Christi Shrine, Maiden Lane, on Saturday 11th September 2021

My brothers and sisters,

Today we take the first step in our celebration of the Eucharist in union with the International Eucharistic Congress taking place in Budapest. I thank Fr Alan Robinson here at our beautiful shrine, and all others involved the ceremonies and processions of the coming days.

The Congress in Budapest is being spoken of as a moment of great prayer in the heart of Europe. Let our Eucharistic Octave be a time of great prayer in the heart of London! How much we need this prayer, in Europe, in London, across the whole world, even as we remember the terrible events of 20 years ago today, an act of outrageous terrorism that has bred so much devastating conflict in its wake. Today we have a prayer in our hearts for all the victims of that violence, especially those whose lives were given in pursuit of stability and peace.

At the heart of our prayer is the wondrous presence of our Blessed Lord in the Eucharist. Love of the Eucharist lies at the heart of our faith, of our devotion, of our prayer. Today we seek to express that love again, to deepen it and to receive the comfort and joy that flows from being in the abiding presence of the Lord in this most Blessed Sacrament.

Here I would like to tell you of my favourite saint and my favourite hymn.

My favourite saint: St Clare of Assisi. If you look on the internet for images of St Clare, many of them depict her holding the Blessed Sacrament enshrined in a monstrance. This image points to two miracles which occurred in her lifetime, both the fruit of her devotion to Jesus present in this Sacrament and both given in the context of violence and conflict.

In 1240, the city of Assisi was being attacked by the troops of Emperor Frederick II, who had been excommunicated from the Church. The troops, including Saracens, had already entered the monastery’s cloister. Clare gathered the sisters together, carrying the Blessed Sacrament, and there threw herself down in prayer in face of the troops. They were dumbfounded and simply withdrew. The threat was over. The strength of this faith and the depth of this prayer saved not only the community of sisters but the entire city.

The same happened a year later, even though this time Assisi was under siege, surrounded, with the hostile intention of forcing the city into total surrender. Again, the prayers of Clare and the presence of the Blessed Sacrament saved the city. Not surprisingly she was quickly declared to be the patron saint and protector of Assisi.

Here we learn so much: that our life of faith is best centred on the Eucharist; that in the Eucharist there is a defence again evil; that our prayer is never principally for our own good, but for the wider good, of our city, of our society. May these thoughts characterise this Eucharistic Octave for our world too is in great need.

One other point about St Clare. At the end of the twelfth century, the mother of St Clare, Ortolana, had travelled on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to be in the places of Christ’s earthly life. Yet, by these early years of the thirteenth century, there emerged a growing emphasis on the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, a true alternative to pilgrimage, a truly Holy Land, a holy place. Devotion slowly shifted from reverence for the place where the body of the Saviour had been laid to reverence for the Eucharist. It is not by chance that the obligation to receive the Eucharist at least once a year was established in 1215, at the Fourth Lateran Council.

In this Sacrament we are fed, just as the crowds in Galilee; here we receive the Word, as they did in the Sermon on the Mount; here we can gaze on Jesus who is before us, in this Sacrament, in the very act of his self-gift in suffering and death. Here we stand on Calvary, at the foot of the cross. This Sacrament cries out the truth of Jesus: ‘Here I am for you. Come to me!’ May St Clare lead us in this daily pilgrimage to his Eucharistic presence.

Now, my favourite hymn. What else could it be, here in this Church of Corpus Christi, other than ‘Sweet Sacrament Divine’, written here by a former parish priest, Fr Francis Stanfield. I hope it is often sung in this Shrine for it contains such powerful encouragement for our devotion. 

Think of its key invitations: we come to this Sacrament with hearts full of supplication, confident that we will be heard. Coming into his Presence we know we are coming home, and receive such restoration of our spirit. Here too, like St Clare, we find a shelter blest, safety for our storm-ridden hearts and world. And here, in the far depths of this Sacrament, we perceive, with joy, the very mystery of God who wants to be present in this permanent gift of his Son, our Way, and Truth and Life.

The key theme of the Budapest International Eucharistic Congress is taken from the last line from Psalm 87. We are familiar with it as ‘All find their home in you’. But a more accurate translation, being used for the Congress, is ‘All my springs are in you.’ (Psalm 87.7, English Standard Version: Catholic Edition)

I like that. The image of the ‘spring’ points to our Blessed Lord as the source of our vitality, our constant renewal in weariness and our refreshment when dry and hungry. And this is so, for every celebration of the Eucharist, every time of prayer before this Sacrament, sends us out with a renewed desire to let all that we have found in him shape the way we live, the choice of words we make, the compassion we offer, the forgiveness we extend, the joy we want to share. The Eucharist is the spring of our mission, giving that mission the freshness and love which alone are its convincing characteristics.

The fuller quotation from Psalm 87 is this: ‘As singers and dancers say: “All my springs are in you”.’ So let us be the singers and dancers of the Gospel, despite all our anxieties, for here all can find their home.

The final word to St Clare. She encouraged her sisters, in their earthly pilgrimage, to walk, or dance, ‘with swift pace, light step, unswerving feet so that even your steps stir up no dust, going forward securely, joyfully, swiftly on the path of prudent happiness… in pursuit of that perfection to which the Spirit of the Lord has called you.’

Thus may we proceed in this Eucharistic Octave, in our prayer and in our celebration of this most Holy Mass. Amen.

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