May 8, 2020
In the last reflection I wrote about a very contemporary young man on the path to sainthood. Now I want to share one of the most unusual saint stories that I have ever heard. I first learned of this Holy One on retreat this past January with the bishops of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The experience of this saint has a particular relevance in our present situation where almost all Catholics are prevented from receiving the Eucharist and limited to making a Spiritual Communion.
The life of Mark Ji Tianxian takes us back to 19th century China. Mark was born in 1834 to a Catholic family. He became a physician who regularly treated the poor at no charge. In his mid-30’s he developed a severe stomach ailment and, according to the medical standards of the time, he began to self-prescribe opium to deal with his chronic pain. In short order he became an opium addict. Time and time again he confessed his use of opium, begging God to deliver him from his addiction. Sadly, he was hooked on smoking opium for the entire second half of his life. He was also deprived of receiving Holy Communion for those three decades. His confessor interpreted Mark’s inability to shake his addiction as lacking a firm purpose of amendment and so he withheld sacramental absolution. For 30 years Mark faithfully attended Mass but he could not receive Holy Communion. He would make a Spiritual Communion as his family went forward to receive the Body of Christ.
In 1899 an anti-imperialist, anti-Christian uprising, called the Boxer Rebellion, broke out in China. There was a fierce persecution of Christians, since it was not native to China. In 1900 Mark was among the many who were arrested, along with his son, two daughters-in-law and six grandchildren. At trial Mark was given an opportunity to apostatize. He and his family refused. His only request was that he be beheaded last so that none of his family would die alone. As he watched the execution of his family members and awaited his own, he sang the Litany of the Blessed Mother. Pope Pius XII beatified Mark in 1946. Pope John Paul II canonized St. Mark Ji Tianxian on October 1, 2000, setting his feast day on July 7. He is the patron saint of all who struggle with addictions.
What an extraordinary life story! What perseverance, courage and humble obedience he showed. But the fact of his being deprived Holy Communion for 30 years has a particular relevance to our COVID-19 situation. While acts of Spiritual Communion are not the same as receiving the gift of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, they can be a source of great graces when Spiritual Communion is the only way possible to unite oneself to the Lord in the Eucharist. While we pray earnestly for our return to Mass and the reception of Holy Communion, let us also not underestimate the grace and strength our Lord offers us in an act of Spiritual Communion.
Most Reverend Ronald W. Gainer