“I was born poor, I lived poor, I will die poor” are the words of a humble man. And yet, Pope St. Pius X is venerated not only for his piety, but also for the many accomplishments of his papacy. During his 1903-1914 pontificate, Pius X wrote an incredible defense of the Church from modern era heresies like relativism and religious indifferentism; he eliminated foreign vetoes from papal elections; he created the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (i.e., the group that organizes “Sunday school,” or CCD classes, for the entire Church); he established the production of the 1917 Code of Canon Law; he developed a popular and simple catechism for the laity; he provided permission and financial support to establish the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.; and, perhaps most notably, he lowered the age of First Holy Communion from 12 to 7 years of age, citing the sacrament as “the shortest and surest way to Heaven.”
By lowering the reception age of the sacrament, Pope Pius X hoped to instill in the minds of the young communicants a deeper appreciation for the sacred intimacy of Holy Communion. In his 1994 “Letter to Children,” Pope Saint John Paul II built upon this theme, stating that frequent reception of communion is necessary “in order to remain in close friendship with Jesus.” One of the best benefits of Pius X’s invitation to the young is that it renewed a general liturgical emphasis on the Eucharist and encouraged more frequent reception of Christ’s Body and Blood among the faithful of all ages. With people receiving the Eucharist more frequently, there was also a surge of dependence on the Sacrament of Penance so as to receive worthily. Thus, the faithful of all ages were brought more frequently to the Sacraments thanks to Pius X’s pastoral insight.
For me, the spiritual preparation I received for my first Eucharist was unlike any other instruction I was taught in school. Up until the day of my First Holy Communion, my participation at Mass was seemingly limited during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. I had questions about everything: Jesus had already died for me, my second-grade self would wonder, so what more is He offering? The answer, I would soon learn, could be summarized in the words of Bishop Barron, “The Cross has saved us, but our participation in that salvation can waver. So, what does the Lord give us? Bread for the journey.” Thinking about the Eucharist as spiritual food was very helpful and comforting, though I would continue to wrestle with the deception of my senses as described by St. Thomas Aquinas (who incidentally was a favorite of Pope St. Pius X) in his Eucharistic hymn, Adore te Devote:
O Godhead hid, devoutly I adore Thee,
Who truly art within the forms before me;
To Thee my heart I bow with bended knee,
As failing quite in contemplating Thee.
Sight, touch, and taste in Thee are each deceived;
The ear alone most safely is believed:
I believe all the Son of God has spoken,
Than Truth’s own word there is no truer token.
The occasion of one’s First Holy Communion is indeed a cause for celebration and thanks to the “Pope of the Eucharist” children are invited to share in the Mystery of the Real Presence. But beyond the photos and party and presents received, the true gift is partaking completely in the sacrifice of the Mass as offered by the priest and then striving to remain worthy to do so again and again at and in between each subsequent Mass. May we – throughout our whole lives - call to mind the significance of this invitation and, in the spirit of St. Pius X’s awe-struck humility, continuously seek to deepen our relationship with the Lord whose Body whose Body we dare to consume. And, as we are strengthened by this awesome spiritual food, let us do what we can to bring others to it. Whether we serve as Eucharistic ministers to the homebound, or volunteer with a First Communion CCD class, or even invite our friends whom we know haven’t been to mass in a while to receive the sacraments with us, let us use Christ’s body in the Eucharist to fuel our spirits as we daily serve as missionary disciples.
What is the best method of evangelization? In an era when 35% of young adults (ages 18-29) identify as having no religion at all, we as Christians ought to consider whether our approach to evangelization is working. Too often we think that if those outside the fold just heard the right arguments, if they just read--really read--the right things, they would see the capital “T” Truth. We press onto our non-religious friends blogs and books, podcasts and pamphlets, all with answers to the usual questions skeptics raise (What about evolution? What about violent extremism? Etc.) and we assume that they’ll suddenly just see the light and believe.
It should be apparent by now that this approach doesn’t work.
Imagine doing this in any other context. Paraphrasing an analogy from Bishop Robert Barron, let’s imagine that you are taking a group of seven-year-old boys out onto a baseball field for the first time. You say as the coach, “Now boys, today I’m going to teach you about the incredible game of baseball. It’s a game that you’ll love your whole life. It’s a beautiful game of strategy and strength, precision and unpredictability. Ready to get started? Good. For your first lesson in this game, I’m going to teach you the infield pop-fly rule. Now, yes, it’s a ticky-tacky rule, but it’s actually crucial and can make the difference in a big play. Now let’s go sit on that bench in the dugout and take a look at this little diagram I have here about what to do when you encounter this tricky little hit.”
What seven-year-old walks away from that with a love for baseball?
Rather, says Bishop Barron, you ought to introduce the little guy to the beauty of the game. Take him to the stadium and let him see the best of the best playing. Let him watch as the batter slams one to left field only to have the ball caught in a running dive by the outfielder—his whole body outstretched from head to toe, muscles straining in his neck, eyes up, glove out, lunging across the green as he just barely catches the ball with an audible thunk!
Let the boy see the magic of the game unfold before him.
When we allow a beautiful thing to be beautiful, it speaks for itself. There’s no need to come armed with arguments. The beautiful thing itself lays hold of our soul and draws us in. For the seven-year-old baseball player, he sees the beauty of the game, he desires to participate, and then once he himself is playing, he starts to learn the nuances of the rules and how the rules themselves are part of what makes the game beautiful. In time, the boy is so in love with the game and its rules that he is moved to share that love with others, to get them to see what he sees. Citing the 20th century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theology of aesthetics, Barron says that beauty claims the viewer, changes him, and then sends him on mission.
Theologically, beauty is one aspect of the three properties of being called the Transcendentals – the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, all of which together lead us to God, who is Being itself. The trick, of course, is determining the order of our approach. When we start our mission of evangelization with truth we too often shut down dialogue with non-believers, who often find themselves enmeshed in a culture of moral relativism and self-made meaning – who are you to tell me what’s true?
I agree, with Balthasar, Bishop Barron, and others, that we ought to flip the order around. Let the beauty of our Christian faith–whether it is displayed through our liturgy, our sacred art and music, our actions toward one another, or the radiant light of Christ shining through us–draw people in. Let them experience the beauty of the Faith so that they desire to participate in it, in however small a way at first. Consider this hypothetical scenario: A non-believer friend sees you act charitably toward someone who has made you suffer. He sees you forgive and put the wrong behind you. He is taken aback by your generosity. He thinks that he would like to be like that too. In time, he finds himself emulating you. In time, he begins to see that Christians as a people are not all hypocritical. In time, he begins to think that Church teaching might actually engender goodness in human beings in general, not just you. In time, he finds himself agreeing with the basic moral vision of Christianity, even if he rejects the faith itself. In time, he happens to hear Christ’s Sermon on the Mount and begins to wonder what it all means. In time, your beautiful action leads him home.
As Christians, our love for Christ and our love for the Church sometimes make us blind to the sincerity of many skeptics. We dismiss their often earnest desire to do and be good merely because we’ve determined that they can’t do it without God. We feel like it’s our duty as Christians to steer them straight, bring them to the fold. Yet, the next time we consider jumping into the Facebook fray of endless arguments about religion and morals, let us instead refresh our screens, share something beautiful, and move on. Let us allow beauty to soften our hearts of stone and turn them to the sacred heart of Jesus.
Question for reflection: Which of your interests and passions in life started with an experience of beauty? Who among us seems to need an experience of the beautiful and how can you be the one to give it to them?