Acclaimed poet priest knew the importance of the Eucharist

Father John A. Kiley

My appreciation of poetry inclines more toward Emily Dickinson or perhaps even Mother Goose rather than toward the 19th century English Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins.

A recent biography of Hopkins reveals that there is a lot more to admire about this convert from Anglicanism than his innovative poetry. Hopkins was diminutive of stature and delicate by nature. He always sensed a certain irony in his middle name. Embracing Roman Catholicism toward the end of the celebrated Oxford Movement, he risked and received the consternation of his family. To add insult to their injury, he joined the Jesuits rather than the diocesan clergy or Father Newman’s Oratory. Again, oddly, although a talented student, he missed out on a final theological examination and never attained high status within the Society of Jesus.

Although Father Hopkins is now remembered for his groundbreaking and even earth shattering poetry, his poetical fame is entirely posthumous. For most of his priestly life, he was a very hard working parish priest and college professor. In fact, when he decided on the priesthood, he ripped up all his previous poetry since he wanted nothing to distract him from the ministry. After seven years of priesthood, his superior encouraged him to write a poem about the tragic shipwreck of a German vessel in which five religious sisters on their way to America perished off the coast of England. “The Wreck of the Deutschland” is one of the English language’s greatest works.

The Catholic parishes to which Father Hopkins ministered were largely urban congregations of Irish immigrants. His lofty sermons were not always appreciated by his working class worshipers, even, on occasion, provoking laughter from his flock. At other times, he was enlisted to teach at lesser academies within the Jesuit system, never quite making it to the highest rank of academia because of that early undistinguished test grade. Although this priest spent much of his ministry in teeming cities like Liverpool and Manchester, he had a personal affinity for the countryside, walking miles and miles on a Sunday afternoon to visit friends or investigate monuments. Father Hopkins died at the age of 44 from an infection spread by fleas from the poor drainage in his Jesuit institution. It was almost half a century before his works were published and his legacy recognized.

Although there were no doubt many issues that led to Father Hopkins’ conversion from the Church of England to the Church of Rome, his youthful meditations on the Blessed Sacrament were the decisive factor. Young Father Hopkins thought to himself that the Eucharist was either a symbol or a sacrament, a mere remembrance or a present reality. The Real Presence drew the future Jesuit to the Catholic Church and it was the priestly ministry in the service of that presence that insured his finding a home there.

The table of remembrance favored by Protestant churches has contrasted these four centuries with the altar of sacrifice that is central to the Catholic Church both architecturally and theologically. Certainly the Mass is indeed a memorial meal. The Mass recalls the Last Supper of Jesus with his chosen Twelve and it certainly recalls his saving death on Calvary. But Catholics believe that the Mass is not only a devout recollection, it is a genuine renewal of the meal in the Upper Room and the death endured on the lonely hill. “This is my body,” and “This is the cup of my blood. …,” are not mere reminiscences of the past; they are actualizations in the present.

The body, blood, soul and divinity present at the table on Holy Thursday and present on the cross on Good Friday are now present once again in their fullness every time Mass is celebrated and every moment the reserved sacrament is at hand in the tabernacle.

The Eucharist is a logical outcome of the Incarnation. Just as the second person of the Blessed Trinity took on a human nature and became the man Jesus Christ, so the Son of God continues to come to his spiritual brothers and sisters in a clear and vivid earthly guise – appearing as bread which is the body given and as wine which is the blood poured out. Father Gerard Manley Hopkins knew that these sacred items are no more make-believe than Jesus was.