In the two most recent Sundays, I responded to the recent Pew Research survey that indicated that the majority of American Catholics do not believe that the Eucharist contains within it the True Presence of Jesus Christ, and that among Catholics 40 years and younger, that percentage drops to 20%. I also spoke about an apparent correlation, as revealed by the Pew Research survey: revealing that the majority of those who think the Eucharist is just a symbol, claimed they had no understanding of the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist: that the bread and wine are transformed through the power of the Holy Spirit to become the Body, Blood, soul and divinity of Jesus.
The Eucharist is so central to who we are as Catholics, not merely as an source of identity, but instead as our source of spiritual sustenance. And so, this lack of understanding that leads to a lack of belief is a serious problem that we must correct. Last weekend, in considering the causes, I spoke to our failure as a Church, parishes—and by extension, as families—to teach others, especially our children—that bad catechesis or no catechesis is a major cause. I remind you that my homilies are online, in case you wish to reference anything I’ve said thus far.
In this weekend’s homily, the third part, I’ll identify and speak to another cause within the Catholic church and her parishes: it’s the loss of mystery and reverence. Some of you recall when the experience of Mass and what took place inside the parish church was very different than our current experience.
For all the good things that came with the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, it also led to some misunderstandings of what the reforms intended. Among the good things that came from it is that we came to better understand the dignity of all the faithful by virtue of their baptism. It therefore called for the faithful to assist in the offering and prayer that is the Sacrifice of the Mass. Instead of being removed from the liturgical activity, all people must be present in the entire liturgy—full, active and conscious participation.
But the unintended consequence is that the Mass came to be a rather common experience and rather casual. With it, the interior of the church buildings became stripped of art and architectural elements as not to distract us from focusing on ourselves. The music came to be more and more about us, and less about God: We Are Many Parts; We Are the Body of Christ; Gather Us In; God Has Chosen Me; As We Gather at Your Table; All Are Welcome. With the intended purpose of acknowledging our inherent dignity as sons and daughters—that God is near us and within us—it came to be disproportionately about us, and ultimately, making God and the experience in our image.
As Catholics, we recognize that part of what feeds our intellectual understanding and even belief, is our senses, our imaginations, and human experience. The beauty and power of art and architecture inform us in ways that words and doctrine cannot. The sensory experience of music, the smoke from incense and its smell, the resting in extended silence, all feed into our imagination and by extension, our consciousness and even our belief.
And of course, our body postures help with this too: We genuflect when we pass the Tabernacle, we bow when we pass the altar, we sign ourselves when we enter the church, and all of it, the muscle memory, praying with our bodies, informing our consciousness that we are experiencing something beyond ourselves.
One more thing: While I think fellowship and enjoying each other’s company is important and absolutely necessary for a Christian community, and we must have places in the parish where we gather and can visit, maybe it’s fair to say that the idle conversation and activity that goes on inside here before and after Mass, undermines, in our subconscious, the sacredness of this space and what takes place within it. I know for sure, that there are people who want to pray before or after Mass and find it difficult when idle chatter is going on.
In all this, I’m not suggesting that we need to go back to the experience of the 1950s or that we should not feel at ease here. But too often, what got sacrificed and was lost over time was the sense of mystery, transcendence and reverence. We domesticated the Eucharist and in our consciousness, rendered it ordinary bread. We’ve needed to recover some of what was lost.
Believe it or not—the elements that engage our imagination, our senses, our experience—in our liturgy, but also in the space itself—it all feeds into our regard for and understanding of the Eucharist, because the Eucharist is mystery and this is the one place where we come to encounter it and receive it. While rejoicing in our inherent dignity, let us temper it with humility, recognizing that we are in God’s house and in the presence of something beautiful, powerful, something beyond us and worthy of our adoration, and yet given freely to us.