The oldest prison camp in Nazi Germany was Dachau. Over the course of World War II, 2,579 priests and seminarians were imprisoned there in starvation conditions and exposed to infectious diseases. The priests managed with the help of the Vatican to pressure the guards into allowing them a chapel to celebrate Mass, but the guards weren’t happy about it. They would come in during Mass and yell at everyone to line up, eat the bread, and get out already. They would target the priests for special torture and persecution. The camps were monitored by the SS but they actually put certain prisoners in charge. These men, called kapos, were all criminals and they would steal food from the priests and abuse them. Out of all the prisoners, though, it was the priests who never fought back, never cheated or took advantage of other prisoners, and always kept their dignity. Why? Because they had the Eucharist.
Two fellow prisoners describe the experience of going to Mass in Dachau.
Joseph Rovan says, “No longer could I recall the world of the concentration camp. Each one, for a precious moment, was restored to his original, fragile, and indestructible dignity…”
Marcel Dejean says, “We went to meet [Our Lord]…who held our lives in his hands; we rediscovered the idea of Love in the midst of suffering, hunger, egoism, hatred or indifference, and also a palpable sense of calm…the SS were no longer anything but a sad nothingness beside the splendid, immortal reality of Christ.”
Many of those men never saw the outside world again. They died in horrible conditions behind barbed wire fences while the war raged on. Their circumstances were desperate, but they had hope and they had joy.
What is it about the Eucharist that would make such a huge difference? Here is what we sometimes forget, or that us priests forget to remind you about – the Eucharist is a true sacrifice. There’s a Benedictine monk who wrote a series of reflections in front of the blessed sacrament and those reflections are gathered up into a book called In Sinu Jesu. He records Jesus telling him, “I want you to speak to the faithful of the Holy Mass as a true sacrifice…no one thinks any more to tell them that the action of the Eucharist renews My sacrifice upon the Cross, and that I am present upon the altar as upon the Cross, as both Priest and Victim. It is the whole of My sacrifice of love that unfolds before their eyes. You must tell them this.”
The Eucharist is a true sacrifice. This means that those men at Dachau who were in the midst of the greatest and final sacrifice of their lives knew that they were not alone. The Cross loomed before their eyes and was etched into the fabric of their being.
In my life as a priest, I encounter many people who are in the midst of sacrifice. Those who are in hospice feeling the end of life fast approaching, those who are in marriage difficulty and cannot figure out how to follow church teaching anymore, parents and single parents who feel the weight of responsibility, money issues, betrayal, doubts. At night, I walk and say my evening prayers inside the Church, trying to focus on praying for the people who sit in these pews, and I cannot get out of the way of my own thoughts. The Cross looms before our eyes.
We must turn to the Eucharist, and finding Jesus here, to truly understand what is happening on our altar. It is the death of God. It is the resurrection of God. Both of these realities are folded into one and are re-presented before our very eyes. It is not a symbol. It is not a reference to a previous event. It is the event.
The is the foundational event of the universe, and written into creation is the principle that suffering and redemption are flip sides of the same coin. When we are in the grip of one, we are also in the grip of the other.
Everything starts from the heart of Christ, who as Pope Benedict XVI points out, praises God in the midst of his own suffering, and through that action he changes the world. Every time you receive Christ in the Eucharist, you receive his Cross and his Resurrection, suffering and redemption, and you cannot emerge from the experience unchanged. The priests at Dachau were different than those who did not receive the Eucharist. They suffered with joyful dignity. Our Lord did not die as people expected him to, and at the moment he gave up the ghost he was glorified beyond compare.
On the feast of Corpus Christi, we recognize this true sacrifice. Today, give to God whatever it is that is in your heart and meet him in the Eucharist. He will transform you from within. This is the logic of Christianity, that we will be renewed from within and, having been changed ourselves, will become agents of change in the world. It is the logic of a grain of wheat that must be broken in order to grow. It isn’t the easiest way, but it is the way that accords with our human dignity and joins us to the splendid, immortal reality of Christ.