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Eucharistic Spirituality

Pope John Paul II Showed How Sacrifice and Thanksgiving Can Transform Us

My heart was pounding with excitement and exhaustion. A group of us priests had traveled to Rome with other pilgrims from all over the world to be with the pope. We had little sleep in the 95-degree heat. I stayed the night on a hard cement floor with no pillow or blankets in the dorm where we lodged. The only consolation was that it was cooler than the bed. But none of that mattered now! I was moments away from seeing Pope John Paul II and celebrating the Eucharist with him. I was standing inside St. Peter’s Basilica with thousands of other people and a few hundred priests who had been given special tickets to be there. It was an incredible moment. Thousands of beautiful red roses surrounded the altar that was prepared for the Mass celebrating the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.

And then the procession began: servers, readers, bishops, and finally Pope John Paul II.

I was overwhelmed – not by the beauty of the basilica, or the procession of so many bishops, or the singing – all of which was stupendous – but by the pope. He could barely walk. He was thin and walked as though the weight of the world were on his back. Yet he walked without assistance, save for his pastoral staff with a crucifix attached to it. He made slow progress to the altar, blessing people all the way. He then bent a little bit more and kissed the altar as though it were Christ. As Mass began, his voice was strong and his words deliberate. We experienced a living witness to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. As the pope prayed the words Jesus used at the Last Supper, he was one with the Lord’s sacrifice. It was evident that he loved the Lord and was at the altar with him. He was dying with Jesus. His progressive Parkinson’s disease was slowly taking away his motor abilities. It was taking away his physique, his ability to speak clearly, his ability to walk. In 1981, he had survived a near-fatal assassination attempt. His first words as the pope had been, “Be not afraid.”  He did not let that assassination attempt stop him from traveling the world and shepherding his huge flock, nor was he letting his illness stop him.

What wonder!  As George Weigel put it in his papal biography, “The sheer drama of Karol Wojtyla’s life would defy the imagination of the most fanciful screenwriter.”

For our spiritual fitness this month, we focus on sacrifice and the Eucharist. The two concepts are truly married in the Mass. I could think of no better example of eucharistic spirituality than what the world has seen in Pope John Paul II.

Eucharistic spirituality centers on Jesus and his self-oblation to God his Father. This is what we celebrate at every Mass with thankful hearts. The word “Eucharist” means “to give thanks!” When we look at the life of John Paul II, we see how a life of sacrifice and thanksgiving unfolded. All of our lives are filled with opportunities for union with Jesus.

For John Paul II, sacrifice was first seen in his parents’ lives. His mother died before he turned 10. His loving and religious father wanted to give him the best. Young Karol was very bright – also an athlete and actor. He attended university to pursue a possible theatrical career.  But everything changed with the beginning of World War II.

Acting was put on hold. During Germany’s occupation of Poland, Karol  served as a quarryman, blaster and manual laborer. Suffering and sacrifice were all around him. He joined an underground cultural resistance movement and helped create a covert theater. One day, he was struck by a German military car and left for dead. He knew God had protected him. At this point, and after the local parish priests had been shipped off to Dachau, he grew in prayer, and in love of the church and Mass.  He saw the sacrificial love of Christ in the lives around him. He began to imitate more and more of what he saw and experienced. God was tugging at his heart. Would he give his life as a priest? Would he join Jesus to feed his flock and tend his lambs? When his father died, Karol’s vocational struggle intensified.

“He eventually enrolled in the clandestine seminary run by the heroic archbishop of Krakow – as a seminarian, he lived from day to day in a world where yesterday’s classmate ... becomes tomorrow’s martyr ...” (From Witness to Hope by George Weigel)

Karol Wojytla did not let fear or threat stop him. He listened to St. Paul’s exhortation to the Romans to “... offer your bodies as a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, so that you may judge what is God’s will; what is good, pleasing and perfect.” (cf.Rom 12:1)

Karol Wojtyla eventually became a priest, university faculty member, bishop, archbishop of Krakow and cardinal. On Oct. 16, 1978, at the age of 58, he was elected the first non-Italian pope in 455 years and the first Slavic pope ever. His motto was totus tuus – totally yours. That says it all.

He lived that motto from day one. It is hard to imagine all that he did as pope – the travel, the general audiences and televsion appearances are truly amazing. How did he do it? With Jesus! Jesus gives himself to us fully, truly, and substantially in holy Communion, and he empowers us to do the same. When we receive Jesus in the form of bread and wine, we become united to his very being. His body is a visible symbol of merciful sacrifice. His blood is a visible symbol of love. “No greater love is there than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The gift of Christ in the Eucharist transforms us into “living bread.” We become Christ’s body and blood. We become what we eat. This is eucharistic spirituality.

Spiritual exercise – eucharistic spirituality

This is the Year of the Eucharist. For this month, our spiritual exercises will focus on sacrifice and the Eucharist.

Sacrifice time to spend first with God, then with family, and with those who may be lonely. Here are some ways to do that:

• Spend an hour with Jesus in any church. Some churches have hours of special adoration.

• Spend time each day, and especially on Sundays, with your family.

• Visit a local nursing home or homeless shelter. See how you can give of yourself to charitable outreach.

• How has God called you to sacrifice by doing your daily duty? Thank God for each way you can offer sacrifice. We become “living sacrifices of praise!” Reflect on how your sacrifice feeds and gives life to others.

• Prayerfully read Exod. 12; Exod. 24; John 1:29; John 19; Matt. 26:26-30.

• Pray the Litany of the Eucharist (if possible, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament).