Nestled in the medieval Italian hill town of Siena lies the towering Basilica di San Francesco. Though it lacks the ornate black and white marble that decorates the Sienese cathedral, or the impressive and ancient frescoes that grace the neighborhood parishes, San Francesco does boast an extraordinary article of devotion – a Eucharistic miracle.
The story of the miracle begins on August 14, 1730, when a ciborium full of consecrated hosts was stolen from the church’s tabernacle. Happily, three days later, they were found stashed in the offering box, as the thief merely desired the costly golden ciborium.
The hosts were carefully cleaned of the dust and debris from the offering box. But the priests who found them, instead of consuming the hosts as practice dictates, placed them back into the tabernacle. This deviation from practice set the stage for the miracle: The faithful noticed that the hosts failed to deteriorate. For 300 years, the preservation has continued, with scientific tests showing that they are still as fresh as if they had been consecrated during today’s Mass.
What is most curious, however, is not the nature of the miraculous preservation of the hosts, but rather the lack of widespread devotion to this supernatural event. During the summer months of 2016, among various daily and Sunday Masses which I attended at San Francesco, the central nave of the basilica was never used; rather, each Mass was said in a small, corner chapel, before the congregation of eight or nine people venerated the miraculous hosts.
In the face of such a lack of response to a supernatural proof of the Most Blessed Sacrament, one may ask: “If the faithful don’t respond to this display of God’s power, how are we to instill in the world a belief in the Eucharist?”
The answer arrives through the Eucharistic miracle that was World Youth Day in Krakow. On Wednesday, July 27, 2016, more than 18,000 people fell on their knees before the Eucharist. This crowd numbered only those who were able to enter the packed Tauron Arena; there was an additional crowd, which sources estimate numbered between two and five thousand, who had to be turned away at the door. This display of devotion, however, was merely a foretaste of the true miracle which was to come three days later, when nearly 2 million pilgrims from 187 nations joined Pope Francis in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
World Youth Day was miraculous because these two million young people are often written off as overly secular or unfaithful. Yet, that night there was no change in the appearance of the host; in truth, relatively few people could even see the host they were adoring. There was no thunder or lightning, no voice from the heavens reminding us “This is my Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” There wasn’t even the exhilarating praise music of Matt Maher and Audrey Assad, which had accompanied Christ in the Tauron Arena. There was only the appearance of bread … and great faith.
The miracle is more momentous if we think of the history that brought those 2 million young people to Poland to demonstrate their faith in Jesus Christ hidden in bread. Pope Francis had to invite them to pray that night; an adult facilitator had to invite them to Krakow to be present for the pope’s invitation; Pope Saint John Paul II had to establish World Youth Day; Jan Tyranoski had to invite young Karol Wojtyla to be a parish youth leader where the seed of the idea of WYD was planted. The timeline can be followed further and further, through interaction and invitation, back to the encounter of Christ asking Simon and Andrew to follow Him and become fishers of men.
For those who witnessed it, the miracle of July 30, 2016, cannot and will not be forgotten, for no man or woman can forget the sheer insanity of 2 million people bowing before what eyes perceive as bread, at the request of an elderly man lovingly called “Holy.”
Thus the question “How are we to instill in the world a faith in the Most Holy Sacrament?” is answered: encounter people; invite them, encourage them, challenge them, bring them to prayer. It will create in the world a new heart, for the light of encounter necessarily illuminates a display of faith to the world, whereas a light of supernatural intervention can be hidden under the basket of a small, unvisited chapel in a large, unused church.
More to read: Bishop Robert Barron shares his feelings about this event in Krakow