Many years ago, as a young seminarian studying in Rome, I traveled to southern Italy to attend a relative’s wedding. Neither side of the family seemed particularly devout. Like typical cultural Catholics of that era, they didn’t necessarily regularly attend Mass much, but they knew when they got married, they went to the church.

Having dinner at the bride’s family home, I could tell the daughter, attentive to the details of hospitality, didn’t quite know how to relate to me.

The television was on, featuring an old movie in which a young lady goes to Mass, receives Communion, then returns to her place in the pew and removes the Host from her mouth and places it in her purse. At that moment, the immediate, instinctive reaction of the supposedly secular daughter was to gasp in horror.

This small story reflects something important: the very deep intuitive sense of sacred reverence toward the Blessed Sacrament that was common in the Catholic world up until recently, but is now rapidly vanishing. A recent Pew Research poll revealed that only one-third of self-identifying Catholics believe that the Holy Eucharist is the actual Body and Blood of Christ, and even only 63% of regular Massgoers accept this core Catholic belief. Many devout Catholics are reacting with shock and angst.

It should, however, come as no surprise. Surveys have revealed similar statistics for many years now. A 2010 Pew poll found that 45% of Catholics didn’t even know the Church’s teaching on the Real Presence. And as far back as 1992, a Gallup Poll showed that less than one-third of Catholics believed that the bread and wine at Mass become the Body and Blood of Christ.

The collapse of Catholics’ belief and practice regarding the Real Presence, whether through ignorance or denial, has been known for a long time now.

We should be sad, but not surprised, if we recall the wisdom of the well-known maxim that the way people worship will determine what they believe (lex orandi, lex credendi). With the reforms of the Mass enacted half a century ago, many centuries-old practices meant to safeguard and reinforce belief in the Real Presence were suppressed, such as the Eucharistic fast from midnight and receiving Holy Communion kneeling, on the tongue, and only from the consecrated hands of a priest.

Certainly, such a change in practice would have required a more robust catechesis in order to prevent a deterioration of faith; regrettably, instead, catechesis itself deteriorated right at this same time, and with similar rapidity.

While, thankfully, many new excellent catechetical resources are now available, the Church still suffers from the effects of three generations of substandard teaching.

Spiritual nature, just as physical nature, abhors a vacuum. Look at how many Catholics, even some priests, approach and handle the Most Blessed Sacrament. Does it demonstrate the conviction that this is the Body and Blood of their Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ?

Stories abound of Hosts found under the pews of the church Monday morning or tucked between the pages of a missalette, and even worse. And this is not to mention the sometimes unintended profanation of the Blessed Sacrament when brought to the sick, due to the lack of proper preparation of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion for this most sublime duty.

This loss of the sense of the sacred manifests itself in myriad other ways: talking in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament (especially before and after Mass) and other behavior not in keeping with the character of a sacred assembly.

Lex orandi, lex credendi. Teaching does not happen only with words; we learn through symbols — above all, the Church’s liturgy. In reality, far too often the experience of liturgy in the pews does not correspond to the doctrine written on paper. Such a situation cannot continue indefinitely; sooner or later, one of them has to change.

The doctrine that lives in the minds of many Catholics has already changed. Should we be surprised, then, that we now hear calls for changing the doctrine that is written down on paper?

The corrective action now becomes obvious: more beautiful and reverent liturgies that instill a deep, instinctive sense of the sacred. This requires much hard and persistent work: frequent preaching on how to receive Communion worthily; robust formation of lectors, altar servers and lay ministers of Holy Communion; promoting the sacrament of penance; reminding parishioners of the obligation of the Eucharistic fast and encouraging, when possible, keeping the fast far beyond the minimal one hour; frequent preaching and teaching on proper church etiquette, including holy silence and proper dress; and, above all, music that is truly holy, beautiful and ennobling.

This is one of the reasons I have launched a new Truth, Beauty and Goodness Project through the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship. While excellent catechetical resources are now available (truth), and the Catholic Church is still the largest provider of social services in the world (goodness), the Church has recently retreated from her historical role as the champion of beauty.

We need to restore the Church to her rightful place at the center of the creation of beauty, most of all in Sunday liturgies in ordinary parishes. The faith and genius that inspired countless artists for centuries to lift souls to God even in the midst of strife and scandal still exist today.

These suggestions for reform are not based on idle speculation. Parishes that have done these things have experienced a renaissance, with increased participation and stewardship of parishioners. We see other signs of revival as well, such as the growth of Eucharistic adoration.

The beauty of the Church’s liturgical patrimony is timeless; drawing the best from it will form our people in the truth and transform their lives for the good. They will then be capable of knowing, loving and serving their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in this life and so be happy with him, who is Truth, Beauty and Goodness itself, now and forever in heaven.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone is the
shepherd of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.