The life and activity of Saint Peter Julian Eymard was entirely centered on the mystery of the Eucharist. Initially, he approached it with the theology of his time, stressing particularly the “real presence.” Nevertheless, he was able to gradually free himself from the devotional and “reparatory” aspect with which the eucharistic piety of his age was almost exclusively concerned and he arrived at the point of declaring the Eucharist to be the center of the life of the church and society: “No other center than Jesus eucharistic.”
His Vision of the Eucharist
“The Blessed Sacrament has always been supreme,” he wrote in his last personal retreat, thus characterizing in an incisive way the form of Christian life he proposed. At the center stands the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Faithful to the post-Tridentine theology, Eymard strongly emphasized the fact of this presence and its unique character: the Eucharist is the person of the Lord. This gave rise to the concise affirmations with which he expressed his faith: “The Holy Eucharist is Jesus past, present, and future. . . . It is Jesus sacramentalized. . . . Blessed is the soul that knows how to find Jesus in the divine Eucharist, and in Jesus Hostia everything else.”
However, while emphasizing this “personalist” aspect, Father Eymard understood that this presence is the source of a dynamism, that it is related to a mission: “The grace of the apostolate: faith in Jesus. Jesus is there, therefore to him, through him, in him.” This faith in the Eucharist is nourished by meditation on the word of God. Adoration, which he proposed as the particular type of prayer for his religious and, in a general way, for the faithful, is a means for allowing ourselves to become penetrated by the love of Christ.
This prayer takes its inspiration from the Mass. For this reason, he proposed to his religious that they pray according to the method of the “four ends of the eucharistic sacrifice” with the purpose of “actualizing, as it were, all the mysteries of our Lord Jesus Christ in the most eminent worship of the Holy Eucharist,” in attentiveness and docility to the Holy Spirit, in order to “advance in recollection and in the virtue of holy love at the feet of the Lord” (cf. Constitutions, 16-17). Therefore, far from being sufficient by itself, adoration tends towards sacramental Communion.
The Nourishment of Daily Life
Eymard was a tireless promoter of Holy Communion. In a beautiful text of 1863, he expresses the central role of the Eucharist: “Convinced that the sacrifice of the Holy Mass and Communion in the body of the Lord are the living source and the aim of holy religion, each one has the duty to direct his piety, his virtue, his love, so that these may become means that will allow him to reach this goal: the worthy celebration and the faithful reception of these divine mysteries.”
The saint broke with the practice of his time in which, under the pretext of respect for the sacrament, many pastors prevented the faithful from approaching the eucharistic table. This is how he expressed himself in one of his letters: “Whoever wants to persevere, let him receive our Lord. He is the bread that will nourish your failing strength. The church wants it this way. She encourages daily Communion: as a witness to this, we have the Council of Trent. Someone will say that we need to be very prudent. . . . But our reply to that would be: this nourishment, if taken at very long intervals, would have to be considered as an extraordinary food. Therefore, where is the ordinary nourishment that is meant to sustain me each and every day?”
Communion ought to become the pivot of the Christian life: “Holy Communion should be, above all, the aim of Christian life. . . . Every pious exercise that does not have some relationship with Holy Communion is not directed towards its main goal. To receive the Eucharist in Communion fruitfully is an action that changes one’s life. “Our Lord comes into us sacramentally in order to live there spiritually.” That is what he wrote in notes during the Great Retreat of Rome (1865). And, a few months before his death, he wrote: “He who does not receive Holy Communion has only a speculative knowledge. He knows only the terms, the words, the theories; he is ignorant of what they signify. But he who receives Holy Communion, while previously he had just an idea of God, now sees him, recognizes him at Holy Mass.”
The Source of a New World
“A life that is purely contemplative cannot be fully eucharistic: the fireplace has a flame.” Thus wrote Eymard in 1861. An adorer, he was an impassioned apostle of the Eucharist, and he traced out ways of glorifying this mystery. The basic lines of his activity and teaching can be synthesized in the following way: “. . . a renewal of Christian life. It is not just a question of combating ignorance or indifference, but rather, and above all, of regenerating the Christian life which becomes lost in the middle of a thousand practices and devotions that forgets the essentials.”
In the preliminary draft of the Directory for the lay Fraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, he lays down this principle: “Man is love like his divine prototype. Just as he is love, so he is life.” And he explains that “every love has a beginning, a center, a goal.” From this principle, Eymard derives a whole pedagogy for the spiritual life: “In order that the devout soul become stronger and grow in the life of Jesus Christ, it is necessary first of all to nourish it with his divine truth and the goodness of his love, so that it may proceed from light to love, and from love to virtue.”
The religious institutes founded by him are called to live that spirit of love of which the Eucharist is the sacrament: “This eucharistic love of Jesus should, therefore, be for all our religious the supreme law of their virtue, the object of their zeal, and the distinctive mark of their holiness,” he wrote in the Constitutions. In a word, a community shaped by love.
In the same way, he conceived the fraternity as a group of lay people who unite adoration and apostolic commitment. For this reason, he created centers not only close to his religious communities but also in numerous parishes. At times, he seems to have had thoughts of some members who, for the purpose of leading a more eucharistic life, would form a family community in the world like a small religious cenacle.
The ideal that he confided to his spiritual children was “to set the four corners of the world on fire with eucharistic love.” And he exhorted his religious, in the Constitutions, “that our Lord Jesus Christ be always adored in the Blessed Sacrament and glorified socially throughout the world.” This is the meaning of the expression “the reign of the Eucharist” which appears frequently in the writings of Eymard. Thus, in an article entitled “The Century of the Eucharist,” written in 1864 for the review Le Très Saint Sacrement which he had founded, Peter Julian noted: “The great evil of our time is that people do not go to our Lord Jesus Christ as to their very Savior and God. They abandon the only foundation, the only law, the only grace of salvation. . . . What is to be done then? We must return to the fountain of life, and not just to the historical Jesus nor to Jesus glorified in heaven, but rather to Jesus in the Eucharist. It is necessary to bring him out from the shadows so that he can once again take his place at the head of Christian society. . . . May the reign of the Eucharist increase. . . . Adveniat regnum tuum.”
In concluding, here is a text from Saint Peter Julian Eymard that the Liturgy of the Hours, the office of Readings (Matins), offers us: “The Eucharist is the life of the people. The Eucharist gives them a center of life. All can come together without the barriers of race or language in order to celebrate the feast days of the church. It gives them a law of life, that of charity, of which it is the source; thus it forges between them a common bond, a Christian kinship. All eat the same bread, all are table companions of Jesus Christ, who supernaturally creates among them a feeling of togetherness. Read the Acts of the Apostles. It states that the whole community of the first Christians―converted Jews and baptized pagans―belonging to different regions, ‘had but one heart and one soul’ (Acts 4:32). Why? Because they were attentive to the teaching of the apostles and faithful in sharing in the breaking of the bread (Acts 2:42).
“Yes, the Eucharist is the life of souls and of societies, just as the sun is the life of the body and of the earth. Without the sun, the earth would be sterile; it is the sun which makes it fertile, renders it beautiful and rich; it is the sun which provides agility, strength, and beauty to the body. In the face of these amazing effects, it is not astonishing that the pagans should have adored it as the god of the world. In actual fact, the sun obeys a supreme Sun, the divine Word, Jesus Christ, who illumines everyone coming into this world and who, through the Eucharist, sacrament of life, acts in person in the very depths of souls in order to form Christian families and peoples. Oh how happy, a thousand times happy, is the faithful soul who has found this treasure, who goes to drink at this fountain of living water, who eats often this bread of eternal life!
“Christian society is also a family. The link between its members is Jesus Christ. He is the head of the household who has prepared the family table. He is the head, Jesus Christ, who celebrated Christian togetherness at the supper; he called his apostles filioli, my little children, and he commanded them to love one another as he had loved them.
“At the holy table, we are all children who receive the same nourishment, and Saint Paul draws out the consequence of this, that is, that we form but one family, one same body, because we all share in the same bread, which is Jesus Christ (1 Cor 10:16-17). Lastly, the Eucharist gives Christian society the strength to observe the law of honor, and to practice charity towards one’s neighbor. Jesus Christ wants everyone to honor and love his brothers and sisters. For this reason, he identifies himself with them: ‘What you do to the least of mine, you do to me’ (Mt 25:40), and he gives himself to each one of them in Communion.”
The above is excerpted from an article which originally appeared in L’Osservatore Romano on October 9, 1996, and was reprinted in the July/August 1997 issue of Emmanuel.