The striking words of Jesus on the cross “I thirst” have long been understood in our Catholic faith as Jesus’ thirst for all of humanity to receive God’s love. Consider these words written by St. Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa) to the sisters in her community explaining the meaning of Jesus’ “thirst”: “Not only [that] He loves you, even more—He longs for you. He misses you when you don’t come close. He thirsts for you. He loves you always, even when you don’t feel worthy. Even if you are not accepted by others, even by yourself sometimes—He is the one who always accepts you.”
As a kid I just figured Jesus was thirsty for some water to drink, but as I am learning more and more to receive the love of God, I find Jesus’ “thirst” through me as your shepherd. In other words, the more I receive God’s love, the more I desire to love God and all of you. Jesus’ “thirst” through me has grown throughout my priesthood and has intensified since God called me to be your bishop.
One example of an out-of-the-ballpark “thirst” experience was the profound longing my dad had to have Mass throughout his life, including his final stages of terminal cancer when he could no longer get to Sunday Mass. My mom shared that he would regularly share about mid-week of the last six weeks of his earthly life, “Is Father Don coming home for Mass this Sunday?” I was so very blessed to be in an assignment where I could get home each Sunday afternoon to celebrate Mass with my mom and dad at our home.
One Sunday as he was clearly becoming more weak, I was home to celebrate Mass with them and some dear friends of theirs. Going back to St. Paul where I was assigned, I then received a frantic call from my brother saying, “Get home as quick as you can because hospice does not think he will live much longer; he has gone mostly unconscious.”
This triggered a deep “I thirst” longing to give my dad viaticum (spiritual food, i.e. Jesus body and blood) for his journey from earthly life to eternal life in heaven. Man, did I speed home, rushing to see if by chance he might become conscious for just one more last Mass together to fill his and my “thirst” of God’s love. My desire was to be the instrument of God’s love as priest and his was to receive God’s love in Jesus’ real presence in His body and blood.
Unresponsive when I started Mass, he seemed to be slightly saying the words of the Our Father. Oh how I longed even more for him to receive viaticum. Then the moment of profound grace, when my mom and one of my four brothers propped him up in the hospice bed because he was too weak to receive Jesus’ body. I held the back of his neck and head in my right hand and the precious blood of Jesus in my left and said, “Dad, the Blood of Christ.”
To our astonishment he momentarily became alert and strongly sipped the precious blood. Jesus’ “thirst” was fulfilled in my dad and me, and I suspect many in my family who were gathered for his last “I thirst” on earth. What a privilege and gift that forever changed my heart to long ever more to fill the “thirst of Jesus” for everyone to receive God’s love.
As your spiritual shepherd, it is my hope and prayer that the “I thirst” of Jesus’ love, as exemplified in my dad and my own heart, helps fill the desire of our loving God for all to receive the gift of faith in the real presence of Jesus’ body and blood as Jesus tells us in John’s Gospel, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:53-54).
As bishop of our wonderful diocese, the haunting statistics from the Pew Research Center that only one-third (31%) of Catholics believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist troubles me greatly. And yet, I can assure you the “thirst” of Jesus is deep and strong. It is my hope and prayer that many will ask for the gift of faith, intentionally seek it out by attending weekly Mass if healthy enough to participate, and prayerfully ponder Jesus’ words, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” and “I thirst.”
Know of my deep desire to share the gift of the Holy Eucharist with all of you on earth and the gift of the eternal banquet in heaven with you, my dad, and all those of faith who have gone before us, with us now, and those to come in the years ahead.