From “Eucharistic irreverence” to “Eucharistic amazement”

What the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches about the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist and what developments in Catholic spirituality and praxis have diminished that doctrine.

A priest raises the Eucharist in an empty Church of the Most Precious Blood in London Nov. 16, 2020. (CNS photo/Marcin Mazur, courtesy Conference of Catholic Bishops of England & Wales)

Editor’s note: The following lecture was delivered on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi (June 6, 2021) at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross to launch the Year of the Eucharist for the Archdiocese of Boston.

Introductory remarks

In the aftermath of the liturgical changes of the post-Vatican II era (many of which were never called for or even envisioned by the Council Fathers), I observed a slow but sure slide into what might be called “Eucharistic irreverence,” instead of the “Eucharistic amazement” which St. John Paul II urged upon us – and this suggests a lack of a proper understanding of the Holy Eucharist. And so, in 1992, I enlisted the services of George Gallup to conduct a national poll to ask Catholics: “Which of the following statements about Holy Communion do you think best reflects your belief?”

Only 30% of the respondents chose the first option: “When receiving Holy Communion, you are really receiving the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ, under the appearance of bread and wine.” Twenty-nine percent indicated “you are receiving bread and wine, which symbolize the spirit and teachings of Jesus and in so doing are expressing your attachment to His person and words.” Twenty-four percent believed that “you are receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, which has become that because of your personal belief.” Ten percent said, “You are receiving bread and wine, in which Jesus is really and truly present.” Finally, 8% said, “None of the above”; “Don’t know”; or they refused to answer.

In 1994, the New York Times ran a similar survey. In 2020, the Pew Research Center revisited the issue. All came out with exactly the same results. In other words, over a 28-year period, we have less than one-third of Catholics who attend Holy Mass on a regular basis who believe the full truth regarding the Holy Eucharist. The Pew study set off alarm bells all over the Church.

So concerned was your own Archbishop to confront this issue of unbelief that he proclaimed a “Year of the Eucharist” for the Archdiocese of Boston. Further, as rector of the mother church of the Archdiocese, Monsignor O’Leary wanted to lead the way toward a renewal of Eucharistic faith by offering a series of events to promote a current understanding of the Eucharist and thus a healthy Eucharistic piety.

Eucharistic doctrine

That brings us to our gathering this afternoon, during which I want to highlight what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches about the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist and what developments in Catholic spirituality and praxis have diminished that doctrine.

In incredibly complete fashion, the Catechism treats of the Eucharist, “source and summit of the Church’s life” in twenty pages! The various names are given for this “sacrament of sacraments” (Eucharist, Lord’s Supper, Breaking of the Bread, Eucharistic Assembly, Holy and Divine Liturgy, Communion, Holy Mass), along with the significance of each as each fills out some element of the total mystery, which would be difficult if not impossible to capture with only one title [1328-1332].

A thorough presentation is made on the signs of bread and wine, including their place in worship throughout salvation history — in both covenants. It is noted that “the first announcement of the Eucharist divided the disciples, just as the announcement of the passion scandalized them” [1335]; this point is made because the text then goes on to provide a profound analysis of Catholic Eucharistic doctrine, which cannot but be a source of division where faith and grace are not present.

In speaking of Our Blessed Lord’s institution of the Eucharist in the context of the Jewish Passover, it is said that “Jesus gave His definitive meaning” to this feast; lest Jews see this as but another example of Christian “replacement” or “fulfillment” theology, it should not be missed that even the Eucharist is not presented as final. In reality, although the Eucharist “fulfills the Jewish Passover,” it “anticipates the final Passover of the Church in the glory of the Kingdom” [1340]; in other words, all ritual actions have a dimension to them which is but temporary, destined to be subsumed into the Eternal, in a time and place where signs and symbols will not be needed.

Perhaps responding to implicit attacks on legitimate liturgical reform, the following section is entitled, “The Mass of All the Ages,” which outlines the basic structure of the Sacred Liturgy in every age: The Liturgy of the Word composed of “the writings of the prophets” and “the memories of the apostles” [1349] and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, forming together “a single and same act of worship” (1346], just as the Risen Christ envisioned and accomplished it in His Emmaus journey with the disciples [1347], which will be our point of departure for our homily at this evening’s service.

In analyzing the various liturgical roles, the text stresses the active participation of all the faithful, but stresses the fact that Christ Himself is “the principal actor of the Eucharist” [1348] and that presidency of His can be represented “only (by) priests validly ordained” for only they can “consecrate the bread and wine so that they become the Body and Blood of the Lord” [1411]. The constituent parts of the Liturgy of the Eucharist are explained in summary but complete manner. As if to answer in a definitive manner some liturgists who argue for various “moments” when the transformation of elements occurs, the Catechism teaches unequivocally: “The eucharistic presence of Christ begins at the moment of the consecration” (emphasis added); anticipating another disputed point of recent years, it goes on to say that this presence “continues as long as the eucharistic species remain” [1377].

The fifth major division of this treatise is concerned with “the sacramental sacrifice,” reflected upon as thanksgiving, memorial, presence. The Eucharist is, first and foremost, the Church’s sacrifice of praise offered to the Father “in the name of all creation. . . by Christ, and with Him. . . and in Him” [1361], which is why it is the most perfect form of worship possible. In considering the Eucharist as a memorial sacrifice, the Catechism stresses that “this is not only the remembrance of past events”; on the contrary, those events “become in a certain manner present and actual.” The explanation continues: “It is thus that Israel understands her liberation from Egypt: Each time that Passover is celebrated, the events of the Exodus are rendered present to the memory of believers, so that they might conform their life to those events.” Similarly, as Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen, teaches, “every time that the Sacrifice of the Cross by which Christ our Passover was sacrificed is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is accomplished” [1364]. Hence, it is precisely because the Eucharist “is the memorial of the Passover of Christ, (that it) is also a sacrifice” [1366]. In the entire discussion on the Eucharist as sacrifice, the Catechism relies heavily on the Council of Trent (at least five citations in two pages), implicitly and clearly asserting the on-going validity of the Tridentine doctrine of the Mass.

In addition to being the sacrifice of Christ, the Mass is also the sacrifice of the Church, “which is the Body of Christ. . . . The sacrifice of Christ present on the altar gives to all generations of Christians the possibility of being united to His offering” [1368]. Beyond that, “the whole Church is united to the offering and to the intercession of Christ,” thus presenting the rationale for intercessory prayer within the Eucharistic Prayer itself [1369]. Offering the Eucharist in union with the whole Christ (which is the whole Church) also demands turning attention to the saints, who participate now in the Liturgy of Heaven. In a lovely line, we are reminded that “in the Eucharist, the Church — with Mary — is as if at the foot of the Cross, united to the offering and intercession of Christ” [1370]. We shall return to that theme shortly.

Turning to the matter of presence, the Catechism takes account of the various modes of Christ’s presence in the world and in the Church but goes on to make its own the line from Sacrosanctum Concilium which teaches: “But to the highest degree, He is present under the eucharistic species.” In case the teaching is missed, it is repeated that this presence “is unique.” Once more, the text repeats a teaching of Trent to explain the rationale for the uniqueness of the Eucharistic mystery, for in it “are contained truly, really and substantially the Body and Blood, together with the soul and divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and, consequently, the whole Christ” [1373-4]. This marvelous presence comes about “by the conversion of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ” as a result of the “efficacy of the Word of Christ and of the action of the Holy Spirit to effect this change” [1375]. How is this phenomenon to be understood and explained? Falling back on Trent again, the text reads: “By the consecration of the bread and wine is effected the change of the whole substance of the bread into the Body of Christ Our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into His Blood; this change, the Catholic Church has rightly and exactly called transubstantiation” [1376]. As the several surveys consistently tell us over a thirty-year period that 70% of every-Sunday-communicants are confused about or reject the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist, how necessary is this re-statement. If this is truly the Body of Christ, then follow the necessity of worship and the external signs of reverence; particular mention is made of genuflection for the Western Church and the profound bow for the East, as well as other signs of devotion and adoration [1378]. Quoting Pope Paul VI’s Mysterium Fidei, the text singles out one devotion for special notice: “The visit to the Blessed Sacrament is a proof of gratitude, a sign of love and a duty of adoration toward Christ our Lord” [1418].

As we are led to reflect on the Eucharist as the Paschal Banquet, it is recalled for us that the altar is a kind of dual symbol: “the altar of sacrifice and the table of the Lord,” in both instances representing Christ Himself who is “at one and the same time present as the Victim offered for our reconciliation and the heavenly food which is given to us” [1382]. Because of the greatness of this mystery, proper preparation is required, including the eucharistic fast [1387], and especially freedom from serious sin: “Whoever wishes to receive Christ in eucharistic communion must be in the state of grace. If someone is conscious of having sinned mortally, he must not approach the Eucharist without having first received absolution in the Sacrament of Penance” emphasis added, 1415]. The Catechism, of course, underscores the importance of frequent and even daily Communion for those who are properly disposed [1389]. While acknowledging the divergence of liturgical traditions between East and West on the question of both species, the Catechism nevertheless stresses that reception under one species still enables one “to receive the whole fruit of grace of the Eucharist” [1390], obviously dealing with some recent assertions that this is not the case.

And what are the fruits of a worthy reception of this most august Sacrament? “The principal fruit (is) intimate union with Christ Jesus,” which union “preserves, increases and renews the life of grace received in Baptism” [1391-2]. Eucharistic communion also deepens one’s life of charity, removes venial sins, and “preserves us from future mortal sins” [1393-5]. Turning our gaze from Heaven (always the first priority) to earth (which naturally and necessarily follows), the Catechism then considers some horizontal results of Holy Communion: strengthening of ecclesial bonds, action on behalf of the poor, movement toward unity among separated Christians [1396-8]. On this last matter, however, the Catechism repeats the important cautions on eucharistic sharing developed at Vatican II and in subsequent legislation, lest a unity which does not truly exist be precipitously presumed, to the detriment of real union in God’s own time-frame.

Finally, we are told that the Eucharist should provide us with a perspective and focus which makes us long for Heaven and ultimately leads us there. And so, we make our own the prayer of the ancient Didache: “May your grace come and this world pass” [1403]. In and through the Eucharist does the grace of Christ come in the most significant way, preparing us for the day when this world does pass away and we are taken up into the glory of the heavenly Banquet, which knows no end.

Lex orandi, lex credendi

If the Church’s teaching on the Holy Eucharist can be traced in a consistent line from Sacrosanctum Concilium of Vatican II, to Pope Paul VI’s Mysterium Fidei, to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), and the entire magisterium of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI – and it can – then how can we explain the almost-total loss or even rejection of the traditional Catholic Eucharistic doctrine over the past half-century? I would suggest that it is not enough to teach the truths of the Faith; they must be reinforced by the signs and symbols of the Sacred Liturgy. That is particularly true for a religion like Catholicism which is, to the highest degree, an incarnational religion, that is, a community that takes signs and symbols seriously. Back in the Silly Sixties, a commonplace rejoinder to someone’s complaint about a liturgical change was, “But it’s only a symbol,” which brought a perennial riposte from the priest-sociologist, Andrew Greeley, “When you’re talking about a religious symbol, you can never modify ‘symbol’ by the adverb ‘just.’ Nothing is ever ‘just’ a symbol.”

As I indicated in my homily this morning, many – if not most – of the liturgical changes of the post-Vatican II era were not only never mandated by the Council Fathers but never even envisioned by them. Thus, I maintain that by an-almost inexorable series of changes, the consciousness of the lay faithful was slowly but surely deformed in regard to the real meaning of the Holy Eucharist. The operative words are “slowly but surely.” Any of you who ever wanted to have a tasty lobster dinner know that throwing the lobster into a pot of boiling water is counter-productive – your future dinner will just jump out. No, the procedure must be to place the creature into a pot of lukewarm water and, little by little, to raise the temperature; in relatively short order, you will have the basic ingredient for lobster thermidor. I submit that that is exactly what happened to us liturgically. For a few minutes, I want to list a baker’s dozen of changes foisted on us – some by legitimate authority but many completely unauthorized – that had the effect of diminishing and even eliminating an orthodox understanding of the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.

1. Pope St. Pius X, endeavoring to balance out the Jansenist heresy, discouraging the reception of Holy Communion because of one’s manifest unworthiness to approach the Holy Sacrament, encouraged more frequent reception. Of course, this was a great good. The problem was that, with the passage of time, it became unthinkable for a Catholic to go to Mass and not receive Holy Communion. The pendulum had swung in the opposite direction. Some years ago, I attended Solemn Vespers on a Sunday in St. Peter’s Basilica. At the end of the service, a man sitting in front of me said to his wife, “A rather strange Mass. No Communion!” That equation would cause Cardinal Ratzinger to urge the faithful to abstain from Communion from time to time, in order to experience a genuine longing for the Eucharist. Perhaps that might be one of the positive effects of the rather involuntary loss of Communion due to the Corona virus. The critical point, however, is to realize that familiarity can indeed breed contempt.

2. The near-total eclipse of Latin has had a most deleterious effect on our worship life. Contrary to popular suppositions, Vatican II not only did not call for the elimination of Latin but actually called for its maintenance in the unchanging parts of the Mass. The use of a sacral language is a common phenomenon in the history of world religions. Why? Because the words with which we pray create an atmosphere set apart from our day-to-day existence. To this day, even the most liberal branch of Judaism – the Reform movement – has regular recourse to Hebrew in their liturgy. Similarly, Islam insists that the only real and valid text of the Koran is in Arabic. Many years ago, I asked a man involved in the Catholic charismatic movement what the significance of “speaking in tongues” was. He replied, “Father, it is important for me to speak to God in a language in which I have never cursed another man.” A very profound insight. A language set apart helps us focus on the uniqueness of our worship.

3. Prior to Pope Pius XII, the Communion fast began at midnight, which fast included even water. In 1957, Pope Pius modified that fast, which was rather onerous and made reception of Holy Communion extremely rare; his modification reduced the fast to three hours from solid food and one hour from liquids, with water and medicine not included. Seven years later, Pope Paul VI mitigated Pius’ regulations to one hour for solid food or liquids. How many of you have seen people chomping on chips or gum up to the very moment of Holy Communion? The underlying purpose of the Communion fast is that one’s abstinence from normal food would make us yearn more ardently for the supernatural Food of the Eucharist. More to the point, the accepted definition of fasting is abstinence from food, so as to experience hunger; truth be told, if anyone is hungry after one hour, that person probably has some sort of eating disorder.

4. For centuries, Catholics of the Latin Rite knelt to receive Holy Communion. In the late 60s, liturgists pushed for reception of the Sacrament while standing, which almost became a necessity with the removal of altar rails. The image of communicants lining up as in supermarket does not convey the sacrality of the ritual; on the contrary, it bespeaks something that is very pedestrian.

5. At roughly the same time, there was a move afoot to have the priest face the people at Mass. This change was motivated by a misguided notion that “the people” had to “see” everything that was occurring on the altar; it failed to appreciate that for nearly the entire history of the Church, the Eucharistic Sacrifice was celebrated behind a curtain or screen, following the tradition of the Jerusalem Temple with its Holy of Holies. A popular aphorism tells us that “seeing is believing,” however, it can also be true that seeing can actually lead to less believing or not believing at all. Liturgical celebrations facing the congregation have had, perhaps inadvertently, the effect of making the sacred action revolve around the priest. Not infrequently, priests have become little more than ring-masters, conducting some version of “Entertainment Tonight.” It should be noted that every edition of the Roman Missal after Vatican II presumes that the priest, in fact, is not facing the people. All this helps explain why Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship in Rome, in 2016 encouraged priests to return to what is technically known as the ad Orientem mode of celebration, that is, facing liturgical East – priest and people facing the crucifix and tabernacle together.

6. Very soon after the Council, in places like Holland, Belgium and Germany, priests began to distribute Holy Communion directly into the hands of recipients – in total disregard for liturgical law. This violation of Catholic Tradition caused Pope Paul VI to survey the bishops of the world regarding their attitude toward this practice. The response of the worldwide episcopate was almost uniformly negative. The Pope, trying to avoid a schism – unwisely in my judgment and in that of many other observers – in 1969 had issued Memoriale Domini, allowing the disobedient countries to continue their practice, all the while forbidding its introduction elsewhere. That did not stop other countries from embarking on the innovation. After numerous attempts to gain the approval of the bishops of the United States to introduce Communion-in-the-hand, would-be reformers finally prevailed, so that the practice was approved by the American hierarchy in 1977. To understand the implications of this, we should know a little history. When Thomas Cranmer was ravaging the liturgy of the Church in England at the time of the Reformation, he consulted Reformers on the Continent about his program. Regarding distribution of Holy Communion, Cranmer sought the counsel of the radical Protestant, Martin Bucer in Switzerland, with a two-fold query: Shall we allow people to continue kneeling for Communion? Shall we insist that they receive Communion on the hand? Bucer replied that Cranmer shouldn’t be too concerned about permitting kneeling but that, at all costs, he must insist on their reception on the hand. Why? Because, he said, within one generation no one will believe in transubstantiation.

7. Following swiftly on the heels of Communion-in-the-hand came distribution of Holy Communion by the non-ordained, with Immensae Caritatis. The document is very clear that recourse to non-ordained ministers of Holy Communion was to be truly exceptional, hence, their being called “extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion.” Due to a flagrant disregard for the law, nearly every parish in our country utilizes these ministers – although hardly one of them fulfills the requirements set forth in the original document, in the Code of Canon Law, in “On Certain Questions regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of the Priest” (1997), and in Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004), St. Thomas Aquinas puts the issue rather bluntly in another of the hymns he composed for this feast, Sacris Solemniis: “. .. . Cuius officium committi voluit, Solis presbyteris, quibus sic congruis, Ut sumant, et dent ceteris” ([The duty of offering the sacrifice], He willed to be committed only to priests, for whom it is fitting that as only they consecrate, only they distribute to others).

8. Very insidious has been the use of inexact and even heretical language used to describe the Eucharist and the objects associated with it. How many have heard the lay distributors of Communion referred as “bread ministers”? The chalice and paten dubbed “the cup and plate” and the altar “the table”? And what about supposed Communion hymns that encourage the faithful to “take this bread”? The problem was finally acknowledged in a 2020 document of the USCCB, “Catholic Hymnody at the Service of the Church: An Aid for Evaluating Hymn Lyrics.” What will be done about the problem remains to be seen.

9. It was commonplace before the Council to find long lines of penitents on Saturday afternoon and evening to receive the Sacrament of Penance, so as to ensure a worthy reception of Communion on Sunday. Today, the Communion lines are very long, while the confession lines are very short. The pendulum shift has not redounded to the spiritual welfare of any of us,

Indeed, the problem is so pervasive that the bishops of the United States are embarking upon a pastoral letter to address the issue of what is being called “Eucharistic coherence,” that is, the suitability of Catholics to approach the Eucharistic Mystery in an unsullied manner, taking account of St. Paul’s admonition in his First Epistle to Corinthians: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (11:27-29). This egregious abuse is only exacerbated by the fact that the two most prominent would-be Catholic politicians, the President of the United States and the Speaker of the House, both flaunt Catholic teaching on the sacredness of human life in the womb, the God-established nature of marriage, and the natural meaning of human sexuality – and yet presume to present themselves for Holy Communion, eating and drinking unto their own condemnation and leading others into sin.

While still Archbishop of Buenos Aires, the present Pope presided over the famous 2007 Aparecida conference of Latin American bishops. In their final document, those bishops declared:

We hope that legislators, heads of government, and health professionals, conscious of the dignity of human life and of the rootedness of the family in our peoples, will defend and protect it from the abominable crimes of abortion and euthanasia; that is their responsibility. Hence, in response to government laws and provisions that are unjust in the light of faith and reason, conscientious objection should be encouraged. We must adhere to ‘eucharistic coherence,’ that is, be conscious that they cannot receive holy communion and at the same time act with deeds or words against the commandments, particularly when abortion, euthanasia, and other grave crimes against life and family are encouraged. This responsibility weighs particularly over legislators, heads of governments, and health professionals.

Let us pray that the bishops of our nation will have the courage to echo that clear statement of “Eucharistic coherence,” leading all Catholics to examine themselves carefully before approaching the altar.

10. And what are we to say about the endless rounds of applause that can take longer than the Eucharistic Prayer? Clapping at Mass suggests that we are involved in entertainment, not worship. Acknowledgment of the musicians, the readers, the servers, even of ourselves just for being there. Does such an action accord with the Mass as the renewal of the unbloody Sacrifice of Calvary? One bishop recently asked if Our Lady and St. John asked for a round of applause for the centurion who had just pierced the side of the dead Christ. Pope Pius X observed: “It is not fitting that the servant should be applauded in his Master’s house.” Pope John XXIII gently corrected a congregation that greeted him with applause: “I am very glad to have come here. But if I must express a wish, it is that in church you not shout out, that you not clap your hands, and that you not greet even the Pope, 

11. Along with applause all too often comes the de rigueur joking around. If we believed ourselves to be at the sacramental re-presentation of Calvary, would we think it appropriate to joke? No archeologist has been able to find the joke book supposedly read to Our Lady by St. John at the foot of the cross. Of course, only the most perverse person would joke while watching a man die.

12. The sign of peace – at least the way it has been done in this country – is yet another source of disruption and secularization. Just when our attention should be most focused on the approaching reception of our Eucharistic Lord, the congregation erupts in “high-fives” and meaningless banter. What should be a God-centered liturgy thus devolves into a man-centered one.

13. Last but by no means least is the placement of the tabernacle. From its place of prominence on the high altar, dead center, it first moved to a side altar and then to undisclosed locations, sometimes to a room no larger than a closet, prompting not a few disconsolate parishioners to echo the Magdalen on Easter morning, “They have taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they have put Him!” As the adage teaches us, “Out of sight, out of mind.”

That’s my “baker’s dozen” list of “externals” that have had such an impact on our interiority.

I must advise you that not one of those items was even mentioned at Vatican II, let alone being mandated by the Council. Most of them arose out of a defiant and rebellious spirit; some of them – imprudently, in my judgment – were introduced by legitimate ecclesiastical authority. Regardless of their origin, one cannot gainsay the influence they have had on the spiritual life of the average Catholic.

Some concluding thoughts

As we wind up this perhaps overly long reflection, I would like to propose this scenario for your consideration: If a Catholic fell into a coma in 1965 and came out of it in 2021, what would be his reaction to the Sacred Liturgy as he would witness it in the average American parish? I submit that his “Rip Van Winkle” experience would convince him he had landed in a foreign religion – and that is the most telling aspect of it all. If he read the Catechism of the Catholic Church (that had been promulgated during his long sleep) on the Mass and Holy Communion, he would surely recognize everything he had ever learned growing up, but the liturgical “disconnect” would be shocking and disorienting.

What have I been getting at? Let me bring to my side none other than the great English convert of the nineteenth century, St. John Henry Cardinal Newman. As an Anglican clergyman, in 1836, he reproached his congregation at Oxford:

To believe and not to revere, to worship familiarly and at one’s ease, is an anomaly and a prodigy unknown even to false religions, to say nothing of the true one. . . . . Worship, forms of worship — such as bowing the knee, taking off the shoes, keeping silence, a prescribed dress and the like — are considered as necessary for a due approach to God.

He then castigated his contemporaries who have “in this respect fallen into greater than pagan error,” for “they have considered awe to be superstition, and reverence to be slavery.” He grounds his position in an interesting way, holding up as an example for humans the worship of the angels:

I mean when a man acts in all respects as if he was at home, and not in God’s House,—all I can say is, that he ventures to do in God’s presence what neither Cherubim nor Seraphim venture to do, for they veil their faces, and, as if not daring to address God, praise Him to each other, in few words, and those continually repeated, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth.1

I am sure that some of you must be saying to yourselves, “You can’t turn back the clock!” Let me proffer this scenario. You go to your primary physician for your annual check-up. He tells you that you need to lose at least fifty pounds, lest you fall victim to diabetes or cardiac difficulties. If you want to survive, you have to “go back” to the weight you carried twenty years ago.

In 1985, Pope John Paul convened an extraordinary synod of bishops in commemoration of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council to take stock of the “lights and shadows” that characterized the two intervening decades. Now fifty-six years on, we are in an even better position to assess our situation, looking at the overall picture but also – in fact, especially – at ourselves. An honest judgment would have to conclude that there has been a massive loss of the sense of the sacred. The “mystery” has been drained out of our rites, and rites without mystery fall apart, as any sociologist or philosopher of religion would say. Pick up a copy of Mircea Eliade’s 1959 ground-breaking work on this topic, The Sacred and the Profane.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI consistently called for a “reform of the reform,” which would correct course where we had gone off-course. The recently-retired prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, Cardinal Robert Sarah, advanced that noble cause. You have probably noticed that many young priests are taking up this important challenge, particularly noticeable in their more reverent and classical ars celebrandi. I hope you appreciate their efforts.

As the Archdiocese of Boston celebrates this Year of the Eucharist, I trust that much self-examination will occur at the personal, parochial and diocesan levels. If you can take away but one point from my presentation today, make it this: Clear, unambiguous, orthodox teaching on the Holy Eucharist must be bolstered by unequivocal signs and symbols in the Sacred Liturgy: lex orandi, lex credendi. That means massive doses of the sense of the sacred, the sense of mystery, the sense of awe in God’s presence are needed. I want to leave you with the texts of two hymns that encapsulate what I have been trying to say in halting fashion, but which they do through poetry.

The first is “O Lord with Wondrous Mystery”:

O Lord with wondrous mystery
You take our bread and wine
And make of these two humble things
Thyself, Our Lord Divine.

Our wheat and drink become our light
Our altar bears thy awful might
O Lord, we thank thee for the gift
That lies before our sight.

Thou art the same our Christ and Lord
Who blessed the supper room
Thou art the God who died
And rose triumphant from the tomb

This host bears thy divinity
This cup contains infinity
The myst’ry fill our souls with love,
O Holy Majesty.

The second comes from the ancient Liturgy of St. James and is known in English as “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly-minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the Body and the Blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heav’nly food.

Rank on rank the hosts of Heaven
Spread their vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the pow’rs of Hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six-winged seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
“Alleluia, Alleluia,
Alleluia, Lord Most High!”

An Evangelical minister once remarked, “If I believed about the Eucharist what you Catholics claim to believe, I would have to crawl up the center aisle on my belly to receive!” Are we willing to take up that gauntlet?

Endnote:

1Parochial and Plain Sermons, VIII, 1, “Reverence in Worship” (30 October 1836).


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 219 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

16 Comments

  1. A wonderful article. Two things not mentioned have also, I believe, greatly contributed to a loss of belief among Catholics in the fullness of the Eucharistic Mystery: the sense of the Chancel as a sacred space, reserved only for those who are authorized to enter it; and the loss of the (essential) distinction of the priest (a sacerdote) from the laity.When these realities are lost or blurred it is difficult–even perhaps impossible– to preeserve a proper under uderstanding of the Eucharist..

  2. I’ve a question that I hope someone can answer.

    It’s my understanding that the Trenton Catechism states that transubstantiation involves the substance of bread which is removed and then replaced by the substance of Christ. The accidents of bread remain.

    However, I’ve always thought of transubstantiation as not a removal/replacement but as Christ becoming inextricably one with the bread. This would be much like what happens when a person dies and his immaterial spirit leaves the body. In this latter example, there is a substance change since the human corpse is nothing more than a dead animal. A man, of course, is a human animal that is inextricably inhabited by an immaterial human spirit – a different substance.

    Could someone either confirm or deny the truthfulness of my understanding as opposed to the Trenten understanding?

    • Steve transubstantiation isn’t Christ being one with another substance, bread, “as one with the bread”. We have to go, sometimes repeatedly to better understand when considering what actually occurs at the consecration – to the original words of Christ. This is my Body. That can only be understood as the bread transformed substantially as Christ, one unique being distinct from all else. Accidents are not essential to a self subsistent being as God. Thus the appearance of bread remains Christ hidden as it were by the accidents.

  3. ‘taking account of St. Paul’s admonition in his First Epistle to Corinthians: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (11:27-29).’

    On days when St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians chapter 11 are the readings (like Holy Thursday, and on Corpus Christi but only every 3 years), they stop dead at 11:26 and don’t include 27-29. Why did whoever chose the readings water them down? And why, given the ignorance of so many people, do those verses not get put back?

  4. Fr. Morello,
    Thank you for the reply. What you said makes sense. Nevertheless, I’ll have to philosophically mull this over a bit.

    • Steve, also if Christ were one with the bread he would say, This bread is my body. Rather than identify with the substance of bread he says, This is my body. His presence is transformative and entirely unique.

    • What you describe, above, is the theory of “impanation,” namely that the elements of Christ are mingled with the element of bread. A sort of layer cake. This is the teaching of Luther.

      So, to “philosophically mull this over [Transubstantiation],” possibly consider the meaning of unity:

      …That the mystery of God is a Triune Oneness, with each Person distinct and yet fully contained within (not mingled with) each of the Others (theologically termed “circumincession”). That the included and eternal Second Person freely became the Incarnation in history, the singular unity both totally human in time and totally divine from all eternity (a unity, not a mingled/ schizophrenic hybrid only half human and half divine—what St. Augustine rejected as a “quaternary,” as opposed to the ever-intact Trinity).

      …That because of the indivisible unity of the Person of Christ, ALL of Christ is fully in the Eucharist: “body and blood [and] soul and divinity” (CCC 1374, not only his divinity), and that the bread (therefore) is Transubstantiated into (not impervious and resisting) Christ as the fully present Divinity in Person (“this IS my Body”).

      …And, that each of us too, as created “in His image” and therefore as a “person” and gifted unity of body and soul (not a mingled layer-cake), is revealed to be destined to resurrection in full (not only the soul), and even “divinized” (!), to be personally “face to face” with the Divine nature, but by “participation,” and not anything more anonymous or pantheistic as by a confused dilution (mere mingling) of our created human nature with the divine nature—-uncreated Love.

      Sound a little bit like the Creed? … Pope St. John Paul II often quoted from the Second Vatican Council: “The truth is that only in the MYSTERY of the incarnate Word [!] does the mystery of man take on light…Christ the Lord…by the REVELATION of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to himself [!] and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes, Joy and Hope, n. 22, CAPS added).

      I am not a theologian, but propose that philosophy alone cannot grasp the theological Mystery, which is why we finally distinguish Faith in the infinite and self-disclosing Person of Christ from our finite Reason.

      • Peter,
        You and Fr. Morello have mentioned quite a bit to ponder. I, of course, am not knowingly a heretic, so I appreciate the time that you took to respond.

        In short, it sounds like you’re saying that transubstantiation involves the removal of the substance of bread rather than the bread being changed into something else that involves bread.

        • Correct Steve. Saint Aquinas and the Church desire to ensure the faithful that it is Christ himself who is really present sans any admixture. He comes to us to be consumed and adored as the living Christ, attentive and intent in transforming us spiritually into his likeness.

  5. Attending the Latin Mass as a child, I believed that of course I couldn’t understand what was being said because it was the language of God. Thank you for this beautiful and insightful message.

  6. Thank you for the fascinating article. Some of the most off-putting liturgical abuses weren’t mentioned, however: irritating pop music and huge TV screens. These things are favored in Big Box Evangelical churches, but make it impossible to pray the Mass. To help people worship the most important first step is to introduce both Gregorian chant in Latin and contemporary chant in the vernacular. We need the choir to sing the Propers and the congregation to sing the Ordinary. The priest also needs to show leadership by singing his part. When we sing the Mass everyone helps everyone else to become a better Catholic.

  7. One thing that I wonder about is the similarity of Christ’s radical self identification with His Church as stated in His exchange with Saul on the road to Damascus, and His equally radical self identification with the Eucharist as the Living Bread come down from heaven. He says that His Body is true food and His Blood is true drink. Transubstantiation renders the incarnational reality of Christ in the appearance of bread and wine. That in transformation into Christ through transubstantiation that the bread and wine become the heavenly food of Christ’s Body and Blood. That the telos of the bread and wine as food and drink is able to function through Christ in a supernatural way that it could never do so in its natural state before transubstantiation. Hasn’t the telos of the bread and wine been brought to perfection and full realization in Christ through transubstantiation? Does any of this violate Church teachings about transubstantiation?
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    To me the accidents of bread and wine means that the Eucharist is the hidden Christ, the wholly interior Christ Who can only be seen with the eyes of faith. A faith that encourages an interior spiritual life in the believer. In the Eucharist Christ the Bridegroom and His Bride the Church share an intimate union. Open communion is tantamount to an open marriage. People have completely forgotten the meaning and purpose of covenant. Some people appear to be into spiritual bed hopping.

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