Birnbaum, K., 2021. ‘Our food and our fuel is in the Eucharist'. Northwest Catholic Online. Original article available here!
A year ago, when Archbishop Paul D. Etienne suspended public Masses in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Aleah and Aires Patulot had very different responses.
Aleah thought of the remote Catholic communities in the Amazon that regularly go months or even years without celebrating the Eucharist. This was “a very small taste of what they might experience,” she realized.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this is a wonderful opportunity for our church here in Western Washington. … I’m going to enter into this prayerfully and in solidarity.’”
Meanwhile, her husband was having a somewhat less edifying reaction.
“I was angry,” Aires said.
It wasn’t that he disagreed with the measures the archbishop had taken — he thought they were “really smart and caring for the common good.”
And as a former missionary in the West African nation of Ghana, Aires had spent time in a community where Mass was offered maybe once a year by a priest serving 30 far-flung mission churches.
But it was “heartbreaking” that the shutdown canceled his grandfather’s funeral Mass, and when Aires tried to watch livestreamed Masses, he found himself resenting the select few who could receive Communion.
Being separated from the Eucharist “was such a loss,” he said. And it has continued to be a challenge. Even after public Masses resumed last June, the Patulots have only been able to attend one Sunday a month at their parish, St. Vincent de Paul in Federal Way.
Jesus in the Eucharist has always been the source of their strength.
“Our food and our fuel is in the Eucharist,” Aleah said. It powers their marriage, their family life with their four sons, and their years of ministry.
And through this COVID year, they’ve continued to draw sustenance from the Eucharist, even when they’ve had to be physically distant.
A relationship built on the Eucharist
The Eucharist has been at the center of Aires and Aleah’s relationship from the beginning — they met at Mass at the University of Washington Newman Center.
It was the fall of 2001, Aleah’s freshman year. Faith had always been a big part of her life, but as she started college she was struggling with how — or whether — to live her adult life as a Catholic.
“On the weekends, I would be like, ‘Do I need to go to Mass?’” she said. “But I randomly went on a Wednesday night and I met Aires and I met friends who were very faithful, and that inspired and drew me more deeply into my own Catholic faith in a very, very personal way.”
She started going to daily Mass at the Newman Center. “I never thought I would be that daily Massgoing person,” she said. But the practice grounded her and helped her be open to “what God was calling me to do.”
“I think that because the Eucharist is a place where we receive Jesus, and we receive his body and it’s broken for us, I really took that to heart and I began to be open to being broken for others through pursuing a career in social work.”
As she pursued her bachelor’s and Master of Social Work at UW, Aleah’s friendship with Aires deepened.
Aires came from a Filipino family where faith and culture were tightly interwoven. “We’d go to a party and there would be food and music and karaoke and the rosary,” he said.
But he didn’t grow up with particular reverence for the Eucharist, even though they were regular Massgoers … technically.
He remembers his dad getting the family to Mass just in time to go through the Communion line, then leaving early to beat the traffic.
“I thought it was great. I was like, ‘Man, church is so short, and we get to eat Chinese food afterwards!’ But that experience didn’t teach me anything about the Eucharist.”
As a senior in high school, Aires started going to Mass on his own and attended a retreat where he met friends who helped him grow in his faith.
“So by the time I got to college, I wanted to dive more and more into my faith,” he said. “I began to realize, wow, the power of the Eucharist is just so central, and just the sacramental nature of the church, that God’s presence is expressed through the physical world, that God comes to us in our physicality, and we can know it with certainty when we receive the Eucharist: ‘There’s God — body, blood, soul and divinity — right here!’ And that became central to how I began to experience the world.”
After graduating from Seattle University in 2001 with a degree in theology, Aires spent three years as a missionary in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. Despite his doubts, he and Aleah made their long-distance relationship work.
In the dark basilica, where the Blessed Sacrament has been adored uninterrupted since 1885, Aires asked Aleah to join him in a prayer.
“So he led a prayer saying he was grateful for our trip and for our relationship,” Aleah said, “and just to ask God to bless us and bless me. And then after that prayer, he turned to me and got down on his knee, and I said, ‘Oh my God!’ in the quiet church. And he asked if I would marry him. And I said, ‘Let’s do this!’”
“I’m so glad that Aires chose that moment,” she said, “because it just really invited God to be permanently and forever in our marriage and in our lives, and it was such a beautiful experience.”
Aleah and Aires were married the next summer at the Newman Center where they met.
‘Coming face-to-face with God’
The Eucharist is also essential to the ministries to which the Patulots have devoted themselves. Aires is a theology teacher and campus minister at Kennedy Catholic High School in Burien, as well as a speaker, writer and music minister; Aleah is the Western Washington director of Prepares, an initiative of the state’s bishops that supports families with young children.
“When I think of Prepares’ ministry, I think of Mary being pregnant,” Aleah said. “We minister to folks that are very similar to the Holy Family, people who find themselves in sometimes a very dire situation — moms who are homeless and living in a hotel room, seven months pregnant with no support.”
The ministry requires an “openheartedness that the Eucharist creates in us to be food for others, to break ourselves open,” she said.
“Meeting Jesus in the Eucharist and meeting that mom in need are very similarly sacred experiences to me.”
Aleah has also seen the power of the Eucharist in her role as the local coordinator of Project Rachel, the church’s healing ministry to those who have been involved in abortions.
Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is part of Project Rachel’s healing retreats, she explained. “And for many women and men … that time of our retreat is so profound because it is an outpouring, it’s a time when we’re invited to come and kneel down before God and individually express and ask God for what we need.”
Aires has seen something similar during eucharistic adoration on the retreats he facilitates for his high school students — “young people coming face-to-face with God, for what seems like the first time, and just pouring their hearts out in a face-to-face encounter,” he said. “That’s life-changing.”
‘A deeper appreciation and connection’
These days, the primary “mission field” is their family, Aires said. “We want to instill that love of the Eucharist in our children. And we want to do that by example, by our own love and devotion to the Eucharist.”
“I have really loved helping to prepare our kids for first Communion,” Aleah said. Their third son, Leo, is preparing this year. “We’ve been able to create a hype around it, so he’s really excited to be the next one to receive his first Communion, and we’re so excited that they desire also to have Jesus in the Eucharist.”
When the pandemic disrupted their ability to go to Mass, Aires and Aleah doubled down on helping their kids grow in faith and worship God at home.
They created a home altar, “a place where we can see visibly that our faith is central to who we are,” Aires said.
Each night at dinner, they started trying to read a different reading from the upcoming Sunday Mass, asking their kids, “Hey, what’d you hear? Or what word stuck out to you? Or what’s happening? Can someone summarize it for me?”
“Now, does that happen every day? No,” Aires admitted. “We might do one piece of that a week.”
Still, he said, “There’s nothing cuter than my 7-year-old reading the psalms.”
The pandemic has “definitely helped remind me how precious it is to receive Jesus in the Eucharist,” Aleah said. “I remember the first time we were able to go back to Mass after the shutdown, and when it was time to go and receive Jesus, I teared up and I was reminded how powerful his presence and receiving him in the Eucharist is.”
Aires was sure he would cry too, but he didn’t. “It was more like, ‘Oh yeah, this is what home feels like.’”
The difficulties of this past year have given the Patulots “a deeper appreciation and connection to the Eucharist,” Aleah said.
With young boys, it’s often hard for the parents to absorb what’s happening at Mass — it feels like “we’re just shushing the kids the whole time,” Aleah said — and they can end up just going through the motions.
“After this, there’s no going through the motions for me,” she said.
Even while watching a livestreamed Mass, with the kids talking loudly or climbing the couches or kicking a soccer ball.
“I feel such strength praying the spiritual communion prayer,” she said. “I feel so tuned in to what is happening and recognizing Jesus is there, and he’s in here as well.”
Northwest Catholic – March 2021
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