What Jesus taught us is so vast that we cannot comprehend it all at one and the same time. Knowing our weakness of mind, He has often sent us messengers to help us concentrate on certain truths through certain devotions. Thus he asked Bl. Mary of Oignies to spread devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.
Of course, the Holy Eucharist as spiritual food has been with us since the Last Supper. It was only in the 13th century, however, when Catholics were becoming slack about receiving Communion, that God saw fit to remind us that Christ is truly present not only during Mass but in the tabernacle between Masses.
Devotion to the Holy Eucharist reserved in the tabernacle (originally for emergency communion to the sick) sprang up particularly in the Netherlands (now Belgium and Holland). The first time the great eucharistic feast of Corpus Christi (Body and Blood of Christ) was celebrated was at Liege, Belgium, in 1247. A Belgian Saint, Juliana of Mount Cornillon, had been inspired by God to urge Church authorities to establish this liturgical feast. Meanwhile, another group of devout Netherlands women, the Beguines, were also popularizing devotion to the Eucharist outside of Mass. (The Beguines were not nuns, but pious ladies who, although they took no religious vows, lived together, engaging in prayer and works of charity.)
But the chief leader of this Eucharistic movement was Mary of Oignies. Mary was born to wealthy parents at Nivelles, Belgium. Although she aspired to become a nun, her parents obliged her to marry. Nevertheless, she succeeded in persuading her husband to live with her as brother with sister. Then the couple opened up their home as a hospital for lepers, nursing the patients with their own hands.
Mary was meanwhile developing her prayer life, and practicing austerities that her own biographer would say were “better admired than copied.” When she had reached a state of mystical union with God, her husband permitted her to leave home and become a hermitess associated with the Augustinian Monastery of Oignies. There, she died at 38 in 1213, widely revered as a saint.
Blessed Mary anticipated the particular devotion to the passion of Christ that the friars of St. Francis of Assisi were to spread a generation later. Among her mystical gifts was the “gift of tears”. The mere mention of Jesus’ passion was enough to make her weep. Part of her devotion to the Passion was her intense love of the Holy Eucharist as the sacramental renewal of Christ’s death. Of her hunger for Holy Communion, Jacques de Vitry, her scholarly biographer, wrote: “This is the only comfort she could not endure being without. To receive Christ’s body was the same with her as to live.”
Even apart from Communion time, she made visits to the Blessed Sacrament in Church and urged others to do so, especially when troubled. She became like a sanctuary lamp, burning in His presence. That she should have to urge Communion and Eucharistic visits may seem surprising to us. Today, going to Communion at Mass is the normal thing, and up to recently, visits to the Real Presence have been a customary devotion.
But Blessed Mary’s example is still relevant today, for many who receive Communion now approach the altar without reflection and, indeed, sometimes in sin; and not only have visits to the Blessed Sacrament fallen off, but so has veneration of the presence of Christ in the Church, which often gives way to loud talk, unseemly dress, and thoughtless behavior before the very altar.
Blessed Mary of Oignies, please remind us that in the Holy Eucharist Jesus is truly with us “all days”, to be received as our daily bread, and to be fervently venerated as our Eucharistic King.
–Father Robert F. McNamara