I made a day trip into New York City today. Thanks to Deacon Richard Russo, Father Jacob Restrick, O.P. and I were able to visit the magnificent Church of Saint Jean–Baptiste on Lexington Avenue at 76th Street. The Church, completed in 1913, is served by the Blessed Sacrament Fathers, sons of Saint Peter Julian Eymard.
I have long nourished a special devotion to Saint Peter Julian Eymard, an impassioned lover of the Most Holy Eucharist. Today’s visit to Saint Jean–Baptiste Church was, in some way, a pilgrimage to Saint Peter Julian.
“Have a great love for Jesus in his divine Sacrament of Love; that is the divine oasis of the desert. It is the heavenly manna of the traveller. It is the Holy Ark. It is the life and Paradise of love on earth.” (Saint Peter Julian Eymard to the Children of Mary, November 21, 1851)
The principal splendour of the church is a three–storey altar crowned by an immense golden monstrance for exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. Curiously, although the monstrance is the architectural focus of the whole church, it is empty. The Blessed Sacrament is exposed in a modest, much smaller monstrance set directly on the altar where Mass is now celebrated versus populum.
In entering the church the eye is drawn immediately to the empty monstrance enthroned above the high altar; only after a few moments of careful observation does one notice the discrete monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament on the versus populum altar. The current arrangement attests to the all too familiar hermeneutic of discontinuity — or even, of rupture — that, for the past forty years, has so marked the renovation of churches.
There were three adorers present in the church when we visited. Everything in me wanted to linger in adoration. How extraordinary to find oneself, all of a sudden, before the Eucharistic Face of Christ shining with redeeming love through the veil of the sacred species, before the immolated and glorious Lamb in whose presence one wants only to be silent and adore!
To the left of the sanctuary is a spectacular preaching pulpit adorned with gilt symbols of the Holy Eucharist. Every detail in this church proclaims and celebrates the Blessed Sacrament. We stopped for a moment of prayer at the altar of Saint Peter Julian Eymard. Beneath an exquisite marble statue of the saint holding a monstrance there is a reliquary containing a bone of his. The veneration of holy relics is very much a part of my piety. Caro cardo salutis. The grace of the saving Flesh of Christ suffuses the bodily remains of His saints with a mysterious attraction that compels one to pray. I have experienced this more than once.
The Lady Altar of the church is dedicated to Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament. She is depicted holding the Christ Child in her arms; He, in turn, holds the Sacred Host, radiating light. The whole effect is one of — what shall I call it? — supernatural enchantment!
“Be the apostle of the divine Eucharist, like a flame which enlightens and warms, like the Angel of his heart who will go to proclaim him to those who don’t know him and will encourage those who love him and are suffering.” (Saint Peter Julian Eymard to Mme Antoinette de Grandville, July 4, 1859)
I consider today’s “pilgrimage” an Advent grace. The mystery of Christ’s Eucharistic advent, coming between His first advent in the flesh and His final advent in glory, forms one single coherent adorable mystery. One cannot be drawn to one of these without, at the same time, confessing the others.
Hail to Thee! true Body sprung
From the Virgin Mary’s womb!
The same that on the cross was hung
And bore for man the bitter doom.
Thou Whose side was pierced and flowed
Both with water and with blood;
Suffer us to taste of Thee
In our life’s last agony.
O sweet Jesu!
O loving Jesu!
O Jesu, Son of Mary!