As priests, we are impelled to reflect often and deeply on the Eucharist. I have often been drawn to two titles of this great mystery of Christ’s Presence: Sacrament of Charity and Sacrament of Unity. Yet, what one can understand with the mind must be deepened by a certain knowledge of the heart. I gained that very heart knowledge when I had the blessing of serving alongside the Missionaries of Charity in Ethiopia for a month at an orphanage they run for disabled children and children born with HIV. After “preparations” totaling about 7 minutes of phone communication with the sisters, I set out not knowing what I was getting into, but simply trusting that God was sending me for his good purpose.
One of my duties was to preside over the evening Holy Hour (Eucharistic adoration). One of the customs of the sisters is to remove their footwear before entering the chapel—“holy ground”—and so the children do the same. At times it would be just the seven sisters and me in adoration, and other times I would leave the chapel and have to dig my shoes out of a large pile of children’s sandals outside the door.
“Never have I begged God more to make me worthy of the title, ‘Father’.”
One challenge I immediately encountered was that the children and I did not share a common language. This was not new to them as they have seen many foreign volunteers come and go throughout their lives. For me, it was a source of frustration and made me wonder what I was doing there and how my presence could be of any help. One word I did learn quickly was the title for a priest in Amharic: “Abba”. Yes, the same word Jesus used to address his Heavenly Father. Never have I begged God more to make me worthy of the title, “Father”. My experience of spiritual fatherhood during that month found its high point in these Eucharistic Holy Hours.
Kneeling or sitting on the floor a few feet from the monstrance on the altar (the sisters do not use furniture in their chapels), I could hear the door open and close as children came and went. After a few days, some of the younger children would come and sit next to me. At times, eyes closed with my face to the ground in an act of adoration, I would sense that someone was sitting close to me. Stealing a glance, I noticed a child was praying in the same posture I was. I could not teach them with words about Jesus or his presence in the Holy Eucharist, but I could teach them by the way I was present in prayer—my presence before the Divine Presence. So I exercised my fatherhood, not with my face towards these children, but with my face towards Jesus in the monstrance on the altar.
When it came time for Benediction, the children would race to see who would get to put the humeral veil on me, a clear sign of the eagerness to serve Jesus. At Benediction, the sisters pray the Divine Praises, with one added exclamation (with permission of the Holy See). After “Blessed be Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar,” they acclaim “Blessed be Jesus in the poorest of the poor!”
There on the altar was Jesus silently looking down on these little souls with compassion and boundless love. There on the ground were these barefoot orphaned children, alive with the presence of Jesus, staring back at him silently.
I wanted to give these children the best. I wanted to give them everything they have been deprived of in this world, including earthly fatherhood. Yet I had nothing “useful” to give them in a worldly sense, nor could I communicate any wisdom to them in words. But what better could I give them than a love for Jesus, truly present in the Eucharist?
“Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.’ ” (Jn 6:35)
With the love that I experienced during these Holy Hours, I learned in my heart what it means to speak of the Eucharist as Sacramentum Caritatis (the Sacrament of Charity) and Sacramentum Unitatis (the Sacrament of Unity). Jesus bound me to these children in love. Alone at adoration even now I bow down in worship and, from time to time, sense a presence at my side as I adore His Presence on the altar.