Today, Aug. 2, the Church celebrates the feast of St. Peter Julian Eymard (1811-1868), whom later generations have rightly come to call the “Apostle of the Eucharist.” As the Church in the United States enters more deeply into its three-year Eucharistic Revival, we have much to learn from what God inspired him to do in post-Revolutionary France.
Eymard’s Eucharistic love began very young in a practicing Catholic home in the French Alps. One day when he was 5, his parents couldn’t find him and sent out his older sister Marianne to look for him. She found him in the church, where he had used a stool to climb up on the mensa of the high altar and was leaning his head upon the tabernacle door. When Marianne, astonished, asked what he was doing, with childlike simplicity he replied, “I am near Jesus and I am listening to him!”
Before he was able to receive his first Holy Communion, he used to do something similar with his sister. He would sit next to her at Mass and, after she had returned from the Communion rail, he would put his head on her breast and say with sincere, joyful fervor, “I can feel his presence!”
It’s unsurprising that a boy who had received such graces of confidence in the real presence of Jesus would hunger to be a priest. When at long last he made his first Communion at the age of 12, he embraced Jesus within and told him, “I shall be a priest, I promise you!”
After his mother’s death, and over the opposition of his father, he sought to become an Oblate of Mary Immaculate, but five months after entering, he was so sick with asthma and fierce migraines that the Oblates sent him home “to die.” Though he struggled with his weak lungs and a throbbing head most of his life, he did not die, but was providentially present for the death of his father, which happened soon afterward. He applied to become a seminarian for the Diocese of Grenoble, and thanks to the recommendation of the former Oblate superior, the future St. Eugène de Mazenod, he was accepted. Three years later, at age 23, he was ordained.
He was an energetic young priest who worked zealously and fruitfully in two parish assignments. He preached often about Jesus in the Eucharist as well as how the Blessed Virgin Mary teaches us how to love him. Such loves dilated his priestly heart beyond the confines of his parish and he began to sense a calling to join a religious order. When he approached his bishop to ask for permission, the bishop, testing his vocation, told him he would not consider it until he had brought back to the sacraments all of the 450 parishioners in the village of Monteynard. Two years later, he had succeeded in bringing every lost sheep back to the Eucharistic Good Shepherd, and he returned to the bishop asking permission to join the newly-founded Society of Mary. When the bishop expressed a hope to keep him in the diocese’s service longer, he replied, “God calls me today. Tomorrow will be too late.” The bishop gave permission, confident that the Lord, through blessing Eymard’s apostolic fruits, was giving a clear sign of his will.
Father Eymard entered the Marist novitiate, and three years later professed vows. He became a seminary spiritual director, popular mission preacher and, precociously, provincial superior at 33. As he traveled, he encountered various new movements of Eucharistic reparation and nocturnal adoration arising in parishes. After a powerful moment carrying Jesus in a Corpus Christi procession, he was fired with a desire to “preach nothing but Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ Eucharistic” and, since there was no religious institute dedicated entirely to glorifying the mystery of Christ’s Eucharistic love, he decided to establish one, initially thinking it would be possible to do within the Marist charism.
His superiors ultimately discerned otherwise and so he resolved to leave his beloved Marists to found a community of priests, consecrated to the Blessed Sacrament, who would help people who had given up the practice of the faith — especially poor, uncatechized adults, not to mention children from non-practicing families — to be prepared to receive Jesus well.
He approached Archbishop Marie Dominique Sibour of Paris to ask for the canonical erection of a house of religious studies, which was given only 12 days later on May 13, 1856 — a sign of how important the archbishop deemed the work of the Blessed Sacrament Fathers to promote perpetual adoration and carry out Eucharistic catechesis.
Two years later, with Marguerite Guillot, he also founded the Servants of the Blessed Sacrament, religious women dedicated to adoring the Lord, and then the Priests Eucharistic League and the Archconfraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, so that priests and laypeople, respectively, would be able to aggregate themselves to the work of Eucharistic adoration and promotion.
While other Eucharistic movements were focused on reparation for sacrileges against the Blessed Sacrament, St. Peter Julian emphasized the mind-blowing love of the Lord in giving himself to us. He prayed that, like the transubstantiation of bread and wine into Jesus’ body and blood, he might have his life changed “into the spirit and life of Jesus.” He urged people to recognize Jesus in the Eucharist, to come to receive him with love, to spend time in prayer before him, and to spread love of him.
“What a joy that you can receive Holy Communion often,” he taught. “It’s our life and support in this life. Receive Communion often, and Jesus will change you into himself.” He promoted daily Mass, which he promised would “prosper the whole day,” help us better to do our work and strengthen us to bear our daily crosses.
He urged us to draw close to the Eucharist in prayer like he used to pray as a child. “Go to the good Lord very simply, with the surrender of a small child. Tell the good Lord what you are thinking, what you want, what is upsetting you. O how happy we become when we discover this interior conversation with our Lord! We carry our treasure everywhere. He becomes the center of our heart and life.” He hoped our “whole life ought to be drawn to [the Eucharist] like a magnet.”
He urged us not to keep the gift to ourselves but rather to “be the apostle of the divine Eucharist (and) proclaim him to those who don’t know him,” communicating that the Eucharist “is the divine oasis of the desert, the heavenly manna of the traveler, the Holy Ark, the life and Paradise of love on earth,” as well as “the sacrifice par excellence, the sacrament of love, the fountainhead of holiness, the goal of Christian perfection, the nutriment of piety, and the means as well as the model of religious life.” In short, he said, “The Blessed Sacrament is everything!”
During the last years of his life, Eymard suffered from rheumatic gout and insomnia, but united those sufferings to Jesus in the Eucharist. Very soon after his death in 1868, many miracles took place at his tomb. He was beatified during the Jubilee Year of 1925 and was canonized at the end of the first session of the Second Vatican Council, a sign that St. John XXIII saw him as a model and missionary of making Jesus in the Eucharist “the source and summit” of the Christian life.
In New York City, at the extraordinarily beautiful Church of St. Jean-Baptiste run by his spiritual sons and suffused with Eucharistic images, there is a stunning altar dedicated to him in which he holds a monstrance presenting Christ in the Eucharist to the world. Underneath the statue is his intact right humerus, by which he used to lift such monstrances for Christ to bless the world.
As we celebrate St. Peter Julian’s feast at the beginning of the Eucharistic Revival, we ask the Lord he adored to bless priests with a similar Eucharistic faith, amazement, love, life and zeal so that the 21st-century Church in the United States may be renewed like, through him, God renewed 19th-century France.
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