By ARCHBISHOP GREGORY J. HARTMAYER, OFM Conv. | Published June 10, 2021 | En Español
Over the past few weeks, I have had many opportunities to visit the many parishes, missions, schools and other institutions of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Together, we have celebrated many different occasions including confirmations, ordinations, graduations and blessings. It has been spiritually uplifting for me to pray with you.
You will recall that the COVID-19 pandemic coincided with my installation as Archbishop of Atlanta. Because of the restrictions in place, the rites of installation were very simple but beautiful. Most of my communication with you has been through social communications and social media. Thank God, we are seeing light at the end of this tunnel.
Our churches are once again open and life is returning to “normal” albeit different from before. I am looking forward to continuing my visits throughout the archdiocese and to meet and greet more of you, my beloved children in the Lord.
At the Easter Vigil, we listen to the story of the Exodus and how God led the chosen people into the Promised Land. In the desert, he sustained them with “manna”–bread from heaven. This experience foreshadowed the blessed Eucharist as God continues to care for his people.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have received many letters and emails from all over the archdiocese. One of the common themes that ran through this correspondence was a deep sense of longing to receive holy Communion.
We had the ability to participate in livestream Masses, not only throughout the archdiocese, but also across the nation and the world. How often we prayed the Act of Spiritual Communion with longing for the day when we could receive in person the Body and the Blood, soul and divinity of Jesus in the blessed Eucharist. As beautiful and vibrant these livestream liturgies were, they were no substitute for the Real Presence.
Throughout this time of pandemic, in my own prayer and study, I have reflected much on the blessed Eucharist in the life of the church from the very beginning. We read in the Gospels about the institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood at the Last Supper and the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Throughout the season of Easter, we journeyed through the Acts of the Apostles, which tells the story of the life of the early church and the centrality of the holy Mass. The church suffered persecution in the early days.
In the course of the history of the Catholic Church, some of the most fascinating stories recounted in the annals are of those involving the celebration of the Mass and veneration of the blessed Eucharist in times of persecution. From gulags in Russia to concentration camps in Poland, from rocks in the middle of open fields in Ireland to catacombs beneath crowded cities like Rome, devotion to the Blessed Sacrament has been a constant feature in the life of the church. These stories speak of courage in the midst of adversity, sacrifice in the face of persecution and love in spite of the prevalence of evil.
A cardinal’s testimony
One of my favorite stories has always been that of the late Cardinal Francis Van Thuan, who after being named Archbishop of Saigon, was arrested and imprisoned in re-education camps. He spent nine years alone in solitary confinement. He suffered greatly at the hands of a brutal Communist regime, deprived not only of his liberty, but also of the necessities of life. In time, he was able to touch the hearts of some of the guards assigned to him. Wine was smuggled into his cell, as “medicine for stomachaches.”
In his book, “Testimony to Hope,” he spoke of how he would hide some bread from his meager rations. And then, when the wine was finally allowed through, he celebrated Mass in his prison cell, completely from memory, using one hand as his chalice and the other as paten.
In his words, “these were the most beautiful Masses of my life.” His cell was his cathedral and his hand the chalice that contained the Blood of Christ. Cardinal Van Thuan’s story resonates with me, now more than ever, as we reflect on this past year.
Our faith is centered on the blessed Eucharist. Without the Eucharist, there is no church!
When COVID-19 struck last year, we were preparing as an Archdiocese to celebrate the 25th Eucharistic Congress. The annual Congress, instituted by Archbishop John Francis Donoghue and continued by now-Cardinal Wilton Gregory, has been a highlight in the life of this local church. With an array of international speakers, Catholics from every parish, mission and school in the archdiocese and beyond, have come to celebrate the real presence of Christ, to be instructed in teaching, enlightened in preaching, fortified in adoration and strengthened by holy Communion. Unfortunately, the Eucharistic Congress had to be canceled two years in a row.
We are told in the Book of Hebrews (13:8): “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” He is Emmanuel–God is with us!
While many people have been returning to church, we know it will take time to reach pre-pandemic numbers. While the overall numbers viewing livestream Masses and other liturgies are dropping, we know that many people are afraid to return and are vulnerable at this time. Once again, I encourage everyone to use prudence in their own personal situations.
Jesus invites each one of us to encounter him every day. His invitation is simple and enduring: “Come to me all you labor and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Jesus is always the ultimate answer to the questions and the challenges we face.
As we reemerge from the difficult days of the pandemic, beginning on the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, I have launched a “Year of Eucharistic Renewal” in the archdiocese. This is a time to thank God for the gift of the Eucharist, to examine the teachings of our faith in the Real Presence and to deepen our love and devotion for the blessed Eucharist. This renewal is a response to the deepest yearning in our hearts to draw ever closer to the Lord Jesus in the sacrament of the Eucharist.
In the words of Cardinal Van Thuan, the Eucharist is our “Testimony to Hope.” Let us join our prayers as one, that this time of renewal will bear fruit for the Gospel.