Father Eymard, whose spirituality has undergirded Emmanuel Magazine from
its inception, has been placed in the calendar of the universal church. What
has this saint to teach the church today?
ONE HUNDRED FIFTY YEARS AGO, St. Peter Julian Eymard founded the Congregation
of the Blessed Sacrament. Shortly thereafter he also founded a woman’s
branch. Both congregations are totally devoted to the sublime mystery of
the Eucharist. This anniversary might seem to have significance only for
the congregations concerned. However, the saint’s canonization by Pope
John XXIII at the end of the first session of Vatican Council II, and his
having been declared “Apostle of the Eucharist” by Pope John
Paul II and inserted by him into the general calendar of the church for August
2 suggests that he has something to offer to the entire church at this time.
This short article will suggest ten various points for prayerful reflection
on the meaning of his life for each of us.
1. Peter Julian Eymard’s search for God was conditioned by the familial,
social, and religious context of his day—he was a man of the 19th century
French church—as well as the graces he received from God. His religious
consciousness was molded at an early age. The first perceptible indications
of the seriousness of his religious sensitivities are recognized in
his tenacious desire to follow Jesus Christ and to serve God as a priest.
This he pursued despite the opposition of his father, and his being the only
son to carry on the family name and business. He studied Latin privately
in order to prepare himself for the seminary. When he finally did enter the
novitiate of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, his efforts were cut short because
of his poor health. His pursuit of the priesthood would have to wait.
2. Obviously no one is meant to imitate this saint in his particular
journey, since his awakening to grace and to God’s bounteous invitation
can only remain singular and personal. Nevertheless, Peter Julian’s
life shines as a kind of beacon in our own search for God and in our
personal progress towards becoming ever more authentic witnesses of God’s
love in the Eucharist. He believed in the reality of God’s love for
him, and the Eucharist concretized for him the extent of Jesus’ gift
of self to the Father as well as to the human race. His desire to respond
to that love with a similar commitment on his part is something we can all
3. Peter Julian eventually became a priest of the diocese of Grenoble.
However, he never lost his desire to join the religious life. He felt
a need to live in community. This decision also cost him dearly. He
was well-loved in his parish as a diocesan priest. He managed to convince
himself that if all his parishioners made their Easter duty that year
it would be a sign that God was telling him that he had fulfilled
his mission there, and that he was called to live his priesthood in the religious
life. They all did so, and he left—without even letting his own sisters
know of his plans—much
to the consternation of his parishioners. He chose a newly-founded
religious congregation: the Marists.
Although he left the diocesan clergy and parish apostolate, he never
abandoned his ministry to God’s people. He poured himself wholeheartedly
into whatever ministry was his. And, though strict with himself, he always
seemed to radiate kindness and gentleness with the people he served—a
rather striking contrast to the Jansenistic spirit that tended to run through
the church in France at that time. Some people—in a play on his name—called
Aimable” [Fr. Lovable]. One striking example of his zeal was his steadfast
dedication to the Third Order of Mary, which he greatly expanded and set on
a firm foundation. He also had an extensive ministry of preaching missions
and retreat, and, as a Blessed Sacrament religious, he exhibited a resolute
apostolic commitment to the rag-pickers in the slums of Paris.
4. His desire to found a eucharistic congregation also had deep apostolic
roots. His growing attraction to the Eucharist seems to have begun to crystallize
in 1851, while he was praying at the shrine of Our Lady of Fourvière,
in Lyons. He subsequently referred to this “grace of vocation” in
pastoral terms. He tells us that he had been preoccupied for some time with
the following thoughts: 1) the lack of spiritual assistance for diocesan priests;
2) the lack of spiritual direction for lay people; 3) a general lack of devotion
to the Blessed Sacrament; and 4) the frequent offenses committed against this
sacrament. Saint Peter Julian read the signs of his time with a keen pastoral
sense, and fashioned a response to what he discerned to be God’s will
In this he models what should be the spiritual journey of every Christian.
Prayer and meditation should enable us to recognize a religious moment where
a similar attraction to follow God’s will will make itself felt in our
lives. Our baptism, ordination, or marriage are vocational sacraments, made
in response to God’s call. For those of us in church service in particular,
in many mysterious ways the Eucharist was at the heart of this invitation,
as it was for Peter Julian. The Eucharist was there at the beginning, throughout
our journey, and still now has that power to capture our religious imaginations
and to prod us to rekindle some of that initial zeal with which we generously
abandoned ourselves to Christ and to his church.
5. Saint Peter Julian’s eucharistic vocation did not spring full grown
from some mystical experience; it grew and matured progressively. The Eucharist,
God’s manifest gift of love, was the focus of all of the energies of
his life. In time, he learned to subordinate everything to this love of his
life. His heart, soul, and mind were shaped little by little by the Eucharist.
That should be the beginning of every eucharistic spirituality. From this reality
Eymard discerned a call to share in the life and mission of the Lord. The same
can be true of all who take the Eucharist seriously, and try to make it the
center of their lives.
6. As the Eucharist became the dominant force of Fr. Eymard’s existence,
the religious life itself took second place to the great love of his life:
Christ in the Eucharist. Religious life became only a means to better incorporate
the riches of the Eucharist, and to help shape the mission of his followers.
He would say “Religious life is not the end . . . religious life is only
a means.” Or again,”. . . Religious life is for the road which
leads to a eucharistic life.” To further distill this significant insight
of Saint Eymard’s, we can say that the living out of one’s vocation
is part of and subordinate to our mission, because it helps to shape our witness.
However, it is perhaps even more accurate to declare with St. Eymard that the
religious and priestly life, and any vocational state in the church is at the
service of mission. The church exists for mission. The Eucharist gives meaning
and focus to our religious living and consequently it is the Eucharist which
should shape our styles of living.
7. Saint Peter Julian always maintained a strong devotion to the church.
He was particularly attentive to her eucharistic sensibilities, and was
strict in following the liturgical regulations in regard to the Eucharist.
Since Vatican II, the entire church is called to renew the way it understands
and lives the Eucharist. To be wedded to older forms, or to only one aspect
of the eucharistic mystery is to neglect “to consider the eucharistic mystery in its totality,” as
Pope John Paul II cautioned the SSS in their 31st General Chapter. The celebration
of the Lord’s memorial itself is the center of the life of the church.
It is the basis for understanding our Christian lives and our vocations, and
it is the inspiration of our prayer and ministry.
8. Fr. Eymard was widely regarded as a saint in his own lifetime. His
dedication, zeal, and pastoral charity were evident to all. It is true
that the most powerful message anyone can proclaim is the witness of one’s life. This implies
that we cannot be satisfied simply with doing all the right things. We cannot
ignore the evangelizing impact—or lack of it—of how we celebrate
our Eucharists, of the liturgical conditions surrounding our prayer before
the exposed sacrament, of the accessibility of our lives to the neighbor and
to the stranger, of a spirituality that springs from a profound conviction
of the power of the Eucharist for the renewal of the church and society, of
our insatiable zeal to proclaim how our human experiences can be understood
in light of the Paschal Mystery, source, nourishment, and summit of the life
of the church.
9. The keystone of Fr. Eymard’s spirituality was what he called “the
gift of self.” Just as God gave us everything in giving us his Son, and
Jesus gave himself completely on the cross and in the Eucharist, so should
our Christian lives be a total gift of self to Christ. Fr. Eymard teaches us
that we are first of all disciples of Jesus Christ. Priests and religious are
not to behave like the elite in the church. All are called to serve. Our parishes
should be gatherings of disciples, of disciples afire with the same Spirit
which led Christ to give his life for the world, of disciples who are being
transformed day by day having the seeds of resurrection sown by the Lord in
our mortal flesh.
10. Fr. Eymard’s entire life was a faith journey. He courageously moved
from one state of life to another, often at anguished personal cost but always
in search of the discernable will of God. Even the poorest of health rarely
kept him from lighting the fires of eucharistic devotion throughout the churches
of France and Belgium. For Peter Julian, the cost of discipleship was high
indeed; in fact, it cost him his life. His death occurred before he had completed
his task as founder. He had launched his divine project yet it was left to
others to complete it. His imminent death seemed less important than his fidelity
to his mission: to proclaim the riches of the Paschal Mystery for the life
of the world.
Just as his was a life modeled and motivated by a deep sense of the
transforming power of the Paschal Mystery, so should our earthly
journey be stamped by the Eucharist, “source and summit of the life
of the church.” May Saint
Peter Julian inspire us to deepen our appreciation of the eucharistic mystery,
and obtain for us the grace of fidelity to our mission in the church and society.
Fr. Pelletier is former superior general of the Congregation of the
Blessed Sacrament. He is presently Provincial Superior of the American