May 26, 2019

The Bread of Angels

In 1856 a boy named Matt was born to a poor family in Ireland, the second of 12 children. His father was a laborer with a fierce temper and a fondness for alcohol; his mother was a hardworking, saintly woman who tried to ensure her children grew up to become good Catholics. Matt never had much of an education; at the age of 12 he got his first job—working in a wine bottling store. Soon afterwards he came home drunk for the first time; the beating administered by his father had little effect, for Matt kept on coming home intoxicated every day. Before long he was a hardened alcoholic, but he was always kind and helpful toward his family and friends, and, in spite of his drinking, was capable of working hard. Matt held a series of jobs and was well-liked by everyone; he spent most of his paycheck buying drinks for himself and his buddies. He attended Mass each Sunday but didn’t receive Holy Communion or otherwise practice his faith. Through it all, his mother continued praying for his conversion.

One night, after being unable to get a drink because he was broke, and not finding anyone willing to buy a drink for him, Matt wandered the streets of Dublin, deciding it was time to give up alcohol. He was tormented by thirst and the agony of alcohol withdrawal; he went to a church, hoping to receive Communion, but the church was still locked. Matt collapsed, and as he lay there, he begged God for the grace to overcome his addiction. As worshippers arrived for the early Mass, they were disgusted to see a drunk lying on the doorstep of the church—but, unseen by them, a miracle of grace was taking place. God heard Matt’s prayer; at the age of 28, he was given the strength to turn away from alcohol for the rest of his life. Matt went home and told his mother he was going to take the pledge; she was happy but told him not to do so unless he really meant it. Matt did mean it, and he pledged to give up drinking for three months; those were the hardest twelve weeks of his life, but he persevered. After this success, he took the pledge for a full year, and when the year passed without him having a drop of alcohol, he took the pledge for the rest of his life—and he lived up to that promise.

For the rest of his life, Matt was a quiet, humble, friendly, hard-working Catholic, quick to share a smile, a laugh, and a helping hand. He not only swore off drinking, but also cursing and foul language; he became known for speaking his mind in a respectful way, for acts of charity, and for a quiet but profound commitment to his Catholic faith. The prayers of his mother helped him convert, but it was the Eucharist which made it possible for him to persevere in his new way of life. Each morning he attended 5am Mass before starting work at 6am; during his lunch hour he would visit a nearby church, and after work he frequently made a Holy Hour or went on short pilgrimages to nearby parishes. Because of his genuine conversion and his heroic virtues, the Church has given him the title Venerable Matt Talbot, and Ireland awaits and prays for his eventual beatification and canonization as a saint (Tonne, Vol. 10, #99; Ball, Modern Saints, II, p. 361). It was the Eucharist that helped Matt Talbot leave behind the way of death and instead travel the path of eternal life—and Jesus wants us to travel this path, too.

Every one of us has to choose between the values of this world, and those of the Kingdom of Heaven. We know the right choice—but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for us to follow through on it. In the Letter to the Ephesians (5:15-20), St. Paul had to warn his converts to watch carefully how they lived, to avoid religious ignorance, and not to get drunk on wine, but to be filled with the Holy Spirit. That seems like very basic, obvious advice—but even Christians can be tempted and led far astray from the truth. In the Book of Proverbs (9:1-6), we’re advised to “forsake foolishness [and] advance in the way of understanding,” but we’ll never be able to do this on our own; we need Christ’s help. That’s part of what Jesus meant (Jn 6:51-58) when He proclaimed that those who feed on Him have true life. Certainly, He was referring to eternal life in Heaven, but He also meant being spiritually alive while here on earth. Only if we allow Jesus to live within us here and now can we hope to live with Him eternally—and it’s the Eucharist that most fully allows this to happen.

A Protestant minister named Keith, and his wife Renee, started attending Catholic Mass when they were away from home for a few months, though, of course, they couldn’t come forward for Holy Communion. Keith later wrote, “One Sunday during the Liturgy of the Eucharist while Communion was being distributed, I started to cry. I couldn’t explain it. At this time, I did not understand the teaching on the Real Presence [of Jesus], but my soul did. My soul was starving for the Bread of Angels” (W. Keith Moore, “Keeping Jesus at the Center,” Coming Home Network Newsletter, August 2009). Happily, Keith and Renee went on to become Catholic—a trend that’s become far more common than most people realize—and so their deepest spiritual hunger was satisfied.

Sometimes it takes an outsider like Keith to remind us as Catholics how privileged we truly are: we have the opportunity to receive the actual Body of Christ every time we attend Mass while in a state of grace, thereby being filled with the life, and the saving and transforming power, of Jesus Himself. When our time comes to be judged by God, and we’re reviewing each moment of our lives with Him, we will regret the times we missed Mass, the times we were distracted while receiving Holy Communion, and the times we failed to give sufficient thanks for this great gift; we will also rejoice over the times we received this Sacrament worthily, the times we truly opened our hearts to the Eucharistic Lord, and the times we allowed His presence to strengthen, nourish, and enrich us.

The Eucharist is more than we can comprehend, more than we can understand, and certainly much more than we can ever deserve—but Jesus yearns to give Himself to us in this manner, and nothing pleases Him more than having us come forward for Communion with genuine gratitude and love. Whether we’re a great sinner needing to be turned into a great saint, like Venerable Matt Talbot, or an average Catholic simply trying to make it through another week, each one of us needs the spiritual life Jesus offers in this Sacrament. He promises that if we eat His Body and drink His Blood, we will remain in Him and He in us—and His promise deserves all our faith, all our gratitude, and all our trust.

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Written by
Fr Joseph Esper

REVEREND JOSEPH M. ESPER is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit and pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Anchorville, Michigan. He received his Master of Divinity degree from St. John's Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan. Through the years, Father Joe has lectured at Marian conferences, appeared on EWTN, spoken on Catholic radio, and written more than a dozen articles for This Rock, The Priest, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and other publications. He is also the author of numerous books, including Saintly Solutions, More Saintly Solutions, After the Darkness, Lessons from the Lives of the Saints, and Why Is God Punishing Me? In addition to Amazon, many of his most recent books are available through Queenship Publishing.

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Written by Fr Joseph Esper