Risk Danger to Receive Christ, Says Archbishop

It’s hard to be a bishop during a crisis. Just ask Bishop John Fisher in the 16th century — or Archbishop Joseph Naumann today.

Along with celebrating St. Thomas More, June 22 is the feast of St. John Fisher, an English bishop beheaded for opposing King Henry VIII. It is also the beginning of the U.S. bishops’ Religious Freedom Week.

Archbishop Naumann has a long history of standing up to civil authorities when needed, from Gov. Kathleen Sebelius in 2008 to a state senator earlier this year.

In a June 19 column, Kansas City, Kansas, Archbishop Naumann forthrightly faced the criticism and concerns of parishioners he has heard over lockdowns of the Mass.

Those who criticized him, he said, “express a great love for the Eucharist, as well as passion for the importance of the constitutional right for the free expression of religion.”

He has heard criticisms from both sides, he said.

“Some have questioned the depth of my faith because of my decision to suspend for a couple of months the public celebration of Masses,” he said. “Others have been critical that public celebrations of Mass resumed too soon.”

“I can almost guess the news sources upon which the letter writers rely,” he added.

To show the importance of receiving the Eucharist despite danger, he cited the book He Leadeth Me by Father Walter Ciszek, an American priest who spent 23 years in Siberian gulags accused of being a “Vatican spy.”

Priests and prisoners made inspiring sacrifices to receive the Eucharist, which at that time required fasting from the midnight before. He quoted Father Ciszek:

“I have seen … prisoners deprive their bodies of needed sleep in order to get up before the rising bell for a secret Mass. … We would be severely punished if we were discovered saying Mass, and there were always informers.”

Father Ciszek consecrated extra hosts for those unable to attend. The next day prisoners “would actually fast all day long and do exhausting physical labor without a bite to eat since dinner the evening before, just to be able to receive the Holy Eucharist. That was how much the sacrament meant to them.”

Archbishop Naumann also mentioned the case of the 16th century English men who studied in Europe for the priesthood and then were snuck back into England to be priests in hiding until they were discovered, imprisoned, tortured and executed.

“These heroic priests knew that they would probably only survive a couple of years at most. When discovered, public execution awaited them for the crimes of being a Catholic priest and celebrating Mass,” Archbishop Naumann wrote. “Nevertheless, they were willing to risk nearly certain martyrdom so Catholics in England would have the opportunity to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist.”

Archbishop Naumann has also often mentioned religious freedom concerns with regard to the pandemic.

“I am grateful that Governor Kelly’s executive order acknowledged the constitutional right to perform or attend religious or faith-based services or activities,” he wrote in an April 3 column. “Some of the orders issued by counties and local municipalities had prohibited religious activities, in some cases even specifying the prohibition of funerals and marriages.”

“These were clearly unconstitutional,” he said. “Government cannot permit liquor stores, pet stores and dry cleaners to continue to operate and not allow religious activities.”

His June 19 column ended with a hope that longing for the Eucharist would grow in the pandemic. St. John Paul II taught that we need to develop an “amazement” at the Eucharist in the Church today, said Archbishop Naumann.

“It is my earnest prayer that Catholics will emerge from this pandemic with a deeper love for Our Lord in the Eucharist,” he said. “May this time when we were deprived of the opportunity to receive the Blessed Sacrament — the antidote to death and the medicine for immortality — serve to have deepened our Eucharistic amazement.”

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.