By now most of us are aware of a very disturbing Pew Research study into Catholics’ belief in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist.
This has to be a wake-up call for all of us. The Second Vatican Council clearly taught that the Holy Eucharist is “the source and summit of the whole Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, 11). Pope St. John Paul II’s last encyclical letter was on the Eucharist, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, in which he reminded us that the Church draws her life from the Eucharist. To put it simply, if we do not get the Holy Eucharist right, nothing else will be right in the Church and in the living out of our Christian lives.
So what are we to do in the face of such alarming evidence? In order to restore a truly Catholic belief in the Holy Eucharist, we need to be clear about the causes of such a decline in faith in the Real Presence. I posit two primary causes: a failure in catechesis and an impoverished liturgical practice.
We are reaping the fruit of decades of inadequate and failed catechesis in our Catholic schools and in our parish religious-education programs. Alarmed by what he saw as a serious decline in Eucharistic faith and practice immediately after Vatican II, Pope St. Paul VI issued an encyclical letter in 1965, Mysterium Fidei, calling us all back to a strong Eucharistic faith and devotion. It seems we did not heed his cry of pastoral concern and anxiety.
We have to be honest and clear in stating that we have done a poor job with our young people and even adults in proclaiming and teaching our authentic Catholic faith in the Holy Eucharist. We must be bold and clear in re-presenting to the faithful, young and old, an authentic faith in the Holy Eucharist. This is a call to action that must be taken up, especially by us who exercise the office of bishop and the priests who are our principal collaborators.
I consider myself part of that first generation after Vatican II that was poorly catechized in many areas of Catholic belief, but especially with regard to the authentic meaning of the sacraments. I went to Catholic grade school and high school, but it was during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. Now my generation has raised another generation of equally inadequately catechized Catholics. Many of my generation are now grandparents.
We have to break this cycle of ignorance of our Catholic faith.
I must state that I had a strong belief in Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist even as a young child. But I cannot credit my catechetical experience for that. I believed because I was an altar boy during the first years of the liturgical reform of Vatican II.
We still had strong liturgical practice that emphasized reverence for Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist. We still received Holy Communion kneeling and on the tongue. It was emphasized to us altar boys that no one but the priest, with his consecrated hands, could touch the Holy Eucharist, should it fall onto the Communion paten, which was still placed under the chin of the communicant.
My faith came from this powerful liturgical experience.
That brings me to the second cause, I believe, of this decline in Eucharistic faith, namely our liturgical practices in the post-conciliar period.
We have slowly drifted away from a liturgical experience that emphasizes Christ’s true presence in the Holy Eucharist. This includes our often casual reception of Holy Communion, our vague acknowledgement and reverence for Christ’s presence in the tabernacle, and the lack of proper reverence in the church and during the sacred liturgy.
As an ordinary minister of Holy Communion, it is my experience, and that of many priests, that far too many of us do not receive the Holy Eucharist in a manner that clearly demonstrates our deep faith in the profound mystery of Christ’s true presence. I won’t go into all the examples of how this is demonstrated, but it is a general lack of care and reverence for our Blessed Lord, truly present.
I respectfully call for an honest, open and humble examination of our common conscience in this regard. Perhaps some of the practices we have discarded in recent decades need to be re-examined and reintroduced.
How many of us remember to genuflect when coming before the tabernacle where Christ is present and reserved in the Holy Eucharist? Is the tabernacle itself in a place of honor and visibility in our churches? Do we conduct ourselves in silence and prayer when we come to Mass, where Our Lord is already present in the tabernacle, or are we chatting and visiting, virtually ignoring his presence?
I have issued an “Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook” and a pastoral letter on sacred music, hoping to restore some degree of reverence, prayerfulness, beauty and a proper decorum during the celebration of Holy Mass, according to the mind and heart of the Church.
I have been criticized for this to some degree. When we see the Pew Research results, perhaps more will understand my concern and desire.
The soon-to-be beatified Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen once said, “If you don’t behave as you believe, you will end by believing as you behave.”
Archbishop Alexander Sample is the shepherd of the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon.