SIENA, Italy, MAY 21, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Since 1997, Franciscan Father Paolo Spring has had a mission fully related to his vocation: to look after the Eucharistic miracle that is in the Basilica of St. Francis in the city of Siena.
Every week he receives dozens of pilgrim groups, from children preparing for their first Communion, to foreigners who take advantage of their trip to this city full of art, history and spirituality, to see one of the most impressive Eucharistic miracles: that of 223 hosts consecrated 280 years ago, still intact in one of the basilica's side chapels.
On receiving the faithful, the priest recounts the story of the miracle in English or Italian and, on recounting it, marvels at the fact, as if it were the first time he heard the story.
"They come from all over the world where there are Catholics. They come to see the miracle. When they arrive, they sing, are moved and weep with joy," said the priest in conversation with ZENIT.
A joy that is infectious and renews the priest himself, despite the fact he has known the story for a long time. He still remembers the first time he saw these hosts: "At the end of the 70s on a pilgrimage when I came here I learned about the miracle in depth and I thought: It must be well looked after, it must be made known, we must work so that, whoever comes will understand it and will leave with this miracle in his heart."
The miracle occurred Aug. 14, 1730, eve of the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. That day in all the churches of Siena the priests consecrated additional hosts for those who might wish to receive the Body of Christ the following day.
That night all the priests of Siena met in the main cathedral of the city for a vigil, leaving their respective churches alone. Some thieves took advantage and entered the Basilica of St. Francis to steal the gold chalice with the consecrated hosts.
The next morning it was discovered that the hosts were not there and a group of faithful found the upper part of the chalice in the middle of the street. Thus it was verified that the Body of Christ had been stolen. The inhabitants of Siena began to pray so that the hosts would be recovered.
Three days later, while a man was praying in the Church of St. Mary of Provenzano, very near the Basilica of St. Francis, he noticed that there was something white inside a box for donations to the poor. Upon investigation, the box was found to contain 351 hosts -- the same number of hosts that had been stolen.
"Those three days were like the days between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection," reflected Father Spring.
The hosts were full of dust and cobwebs. The priests cleaned them with great care. Then there was a day of adoration and reparation. Thousands of faithful arrived in the basilica in thanksgiving for the finding of the hosts. They were not distributed, it seems, because the Franciscans wanted the pilgrims to adore them until the moment they deteriorated (because on being deteriorated, the real presence of Christ would disappear).
But the hosts remained intact. The people began to consider them miraculous and increasingly pilgrims went to pray before them. A few were distributed on special occasions.
Today, 280 years later, 223 hosts remain, in the same state they were in the day they were consecrated.
"At different stages they have been examined and they physically retain all the characteristics of a newly made host," explained Father Spring.
In 1914 the most rigorous examination of this miracle was carried out by order of Pope St. Pius X.
"The Sacred Particles turned out to be in perfect state of consistency, lucid, white, perfumed and intact," Father Spring said.
The examination also concluded that the stolen hosts were prepared without special precautions and kept under ordinary conditions that, in normal circumstances should have caused deterioration.
On Sept. 14, 1980, Pope John Paul II traveled to Siena to celebrate the 250th anniversary of this Eucharistic miracle. On going there, he said, "It is the Presence." Personalities such as St. John Bosco and Blessed Pope John XXIII have also prayed before these holy hosts.
For Father Spring, the Eucharistic miracle of Siena "represents a proof of the love of God for us and the presence to sustain us against doubts, difficulties -- the miracle with which God the Father is helping the Church not to be afraid, to live the presence of her founder sent by the Father to do his will."
"Here two miraculous things happen," explained Father Spring pointing to the hosts consecrated almost three centuries ago. "Time does not exist, it has stopped"; and "composite bodies and organic substances are subject to withering. For these hosts, neither fungus nor elements that break them down subsist. It is a living, continuous miracle. We do not know until when the Lord will permit it."