The Pew Research study revealing the rather drastic absence of belief in the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist has garnered significant commentary. In general, the commentary has rightly alluded to the undermining of a robust Eucharistic theology in the post-conciliar church in the West. And while these insights have been instructive with respect to the content of theology, I would contend that more nuance is helpful, even necessary.
If we could echo an idea from Marshall McLuhan, contexts are those frameworks that form and shape the content within them. In other words, theological content is received in and through a context, and the particular context which needs to be more fully considered here is that of the sacred liturgy.
In his book Of Water and Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism (1974), Alexander Schmemann alludes to one of the great, yet often neglected, perils of our present liturgical context. For Schmemann, a great wound has been inflicted upon the Church, where a deadly separation has occurred between liturgy, theology, and piety. Schmemann astutely describes the nature of such an effect:
It deprived liturgy of its proper understanding by the people, who began to see in it beautiful and mysterious ceremonies in which, while attending them, they take no real part. It deprived theology of its living source and made it into an intellectual exercise for intellectuals. It deprived piety of its living content and term of reference. … To understand liturgy from inside, to discover and experience that “epiphany” of God, world and life which the liturgy contains and communicates, to relate this vision and this power to our own existence, to all our problems: such is the purpose of liturgical theology.
To say this does not simply mean that liturgy is not in any way distinct from theology. Rather, according to Schmemann, to say that the liturgy is the locus of theology means that our theology is first formed in and through our embeddedness in the Church’s liturgical activity and belief.
Much of our worldview is intimately and subconsciously developed through our regular participation in the liturgy. If we believe that the liturgy is an opportunity to have certain feelings or emotions, then this can develop certain habits and attitudes with respect to what we want the liturgy to be. If we conceive of the liturgy as the locus where Heaven and earth come together, where silence is pervasive and tangible, and a profound sense of the Holy is truly experienced, a different type of internal dispositions comes to the fore.
Remember, however, that none of this is explicitly taught. This liturgical vision naturally develops through our frequenting the sacred liturgy. As mentioned above, we could rightly say that the sacred liturgy is a practice. As such, this practice forms and shapes a theological, moral, and spiritual vision.
We should ask ourselves: what is the purpose of the liturgy? It is the glorification of God, in the most beautiful manner possible. Along with this, we should ponder whether our worship, expressed in the highest prayer that is the sacred liturgy, is in accord with what the Church is calling us to. This is not an attempt to make liturgy appealing to groups of people. Nor is this an opportunity to create a liturgy that is more traditional or contemporary. These categories of thought tend to miss what is at stake with respect to seeing liturgy as the lived expression of the Church’s totality of faith.
We certainly do not want to attribute an absence of belief in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist to the fallacy of a singular cause. Coupled with this, at the same time, is that much of the liturgical context in the Western church has opened a kind of worldview that has aided in undermining the liturgy itself. In this respect, we would do well to end with the following wisdom articulated by Cardinal Robert Sarah:
The liturgy is not about you and I; it is not where we celebrate our own identity or achievements or exalt or promote our own culture and local religious customs. The liturgy is first and foremost about God and what He has done for us. In His Divine Providence Almighty God founded the Church and instituted the Sacred Liturgy by means of which we are able to offer Him true worship in accordance with the New Covenant established by Christ. In doing this, in entering the demands of the sacred rites developed in the tradition of the Church, we are given our true identity and meaning as sons and daughters of the Father.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!