What Should We Do About the Loss of Belief in the Real Presence?

Bishops should encourage priests to foster reverence with traditions like ad orientem worship, kneeling for Holy Communion and the wider use of Latin.

Luca Giordano (1634-1705), “The Communion of the Apostles”
Luca Giordano (1634-1705), “The Communion of the Apostles” (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

Most of you have probably heard about the recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, which found that only 26% of Catholics under age 40 believe in the real presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist.

There have been two different interpretations of these results. The first is that the numbers show a failure of teaching; poor catechesis is the fundamental cause. The second is that they show a failure in liturgical practice; a desacralized, demystified, less-reverent liturgy is the underlying problem.

There is truth in both interpretations, but to my mind, the second view is superior, in that it contains the first view but recognizes that faith is more than intellectual formation. Faith is more than what we say; it is also what we do. Too often, things we do and things we fail to do in the Mass are countersigns of the Real Presence and undermine, rather that support, what we say we believe.

The current poll doesn’t really reveal anything new. Back in 1994 Kenneth C. Jones compiled a book containing various statistics about Catholics and Catholicism called Index of Leading Catholic Indicators. In it, he cited a 1994 New York Times/CBS News poll that found that only 30% of Catholics under age 45 believed in the Real Presence. This number shocked many Catholics at that time. To our credit, the Church responded by revamping many of our religious-education texts and other catechetical materials. The publication of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church occurred around that same time, and many of us younger clergy and a growing wave of younger catechists coming from places like Franciscan University of Steubenville and Christendom College set about teaching more clearly on the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Yes, he is really, truly and substantially present: Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. Perpetual adoration of the Eucharist became a key element in this revived emphasis on the Real Presence.

Yet, these laudable efforts at education and the reintroduction of Eucharistic adoration seem to have come up short — the number of Catholics correctly understanding and believing in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist has fallen even further.

I would argue that the poor results are mostly due to the fact that the Mass, as it has been celebrated since the early 1970s, has remained largely and stubbornly resistant to changes aimed at restoring reverence. It has been a combination of the force of many bad habits and an entrenched liturgical establishment that has resisted anything that seemed to be a “step backward” (e.g., kneeling to receive Holy Communion), even as an option. Stories such as this one, “Priest Removed From Parish for Traditional Style of Worship,” still occur too frequently; they show that even modest proposals for reintroducing tradition are often greeted with overly vehement resistance by some of the very people who claim to celebrate “diversity.”

It seems clear to me that real liturgical reform designed to teach and to inculcate a reverent devotion to and understanding of the Real Presence is needed.

Here are some of the obstacles I believe we will face in doing this:

1. The current culture in the modern West does not value reverence. Even before we examine the Church, we cannot fail to note that we live in a culture in which reverence is nearly entirely absent. Almost nothing is sacred — just about everything today is casual, to a fault. We seldom dress up. Even secular events that were once formal and reverent (e.g., graduation ceremonies) have become raucous and bawdy. Everyone is laid-back, and anyone who objects is called stuffy and rigid. Resisting the culture has always been a difficult thing to do. In her stronger moments, the Church influences the culture, but in her weaker moments (now comes to mind) she is influenced by the culture — even bullied and held hostage to it. Reverence as traditionally conceived is considered snobbery and judgmentalism in a fallen culture like ours.

2. The bishops, at least collectively, do not seem to be overly concerned by the rampant unbelief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has obviously been somewhat preoccupied recently with the sexual-abuse scandal, but even before that, they seemed more focused on social-justice issues such as immigration, human trafficking and health care. None of these are unimportant, but far less attention is paid to the declining numbers in the pews, open dissent from Church teaching, and confusion about even the most fundamental truths of the faith.

3. The bishops themselves are deeply divided. While some individual bishops have been outspoken in liturgical matters, the USCCB as a whole has not even been able to achieve the consensus necessary to teach clearly on the need to receive Holy Communion worthily (e.g., those in grave sin and those who openly persist in public dissent from Church teaching should not approach to receive Holy Communion prior to a valid confession). Given that, it seems unlikely that the USCCB could reach consensus on a strong pastoral plan to better reflect the Real Presence in the Mass. To think that they would agree as a group to restore the practice of receiving Holy Communion on the tongue while kneeling, or even to encourage it, seems overly optimistic.

4. There are divisions among the laity and among the parish clergy. Many believe that we have lost reverence in the liturgy, but they do not agree on how and to what extent we should restore it. What makes the liturgy reverent? For many traditional Catholics, it means kneeling, veiling, long stretches of silence, Communion received on the tongue, and the precise following of rubrical traditions such as canonical fingers, chin patens, specific forms of vestments and silent canons. For other Catholics, reverence is shown through joyful exuberance and an active, engaged participation that honors God by singing and making enthusiastic responses; this is more the case in Hispanic, Caribbean and African American congregations.

5. On a personal and spiritual level, people differ in temperament and that affects the parameters of reverence. Some revere God more as transcendent and awesome. Others revere him as immanent and tender. Even within traditional circles, some like the silent reverence of low Masses, while others prefer the majestic reverence of solemn high Masses. We are in an age of factions, idiosyncrasies and the hardening of views, and so I wonder if we have the patience to make a little room for one another in the Church. Can Catholics of a more charismatic bent accept that the quiet, less demonstrable reverence of traditional Catholics is not a stuffiness or arrogance? Can traditional Catholics see that the exuberant forms of liturgy are a form of reverence for those of a more charismatic spirituality, who honor God by joyful praise? I have my doubts that mutual understanding is on fruitful display today.

6. Factions within the Church remain isolated. With the laudable, wider reintroduction of the extraordinary form after Summorum Pontificum, traditional Catholics and the reverential traditions associated with that form have been largely siloed in an often-self-segregated part of the Church. Many traditional Catholics want nothing to do with the ordinary form of the Mass and have become increasingly insular. The once-hoped-for “reform of the reform,” wherein the ordinary form could retain advantageous aspects, such as the new lectionary and a wider use of the vernacular while benefiting from the reintroduction of a more reverent ars celebrandi, a healthy dose of Latin, wider use of kneeling for the reception of Holy Communion, and the ad orientem stance for the Eucharistic prayer, seems to have stalled. Both sides have retreated into their strongholds and the desired mutual respect and influence now seems far less likely to occur. Traditional Catholics have largely despaired of anything of value in the ordinary form of the Mass, while many Catholics unfamiliar with the older forms too easily dismiss them as stuffy, distant and “weird.” Traditional Catholics were horribly treated by the Church after 1965; this has also contributed to the often-cynical divisions in the Church over liturgy and has sabotaged to some degree a mutually beneficial influence.

Yes, we are sadly divided. We can continue the debate about where to place the blame for this, but this merely deepens the divide. It’s going to be difficult to solve a national problem without a national solution, but since we lack the unity necessary, a national pastoral plan seems unlikely. What to do?


A Modest Proposal

A few bishops in our country have adopted a stance that I think can help. It involves teaching the faithful and encouraging — but not requiring — priests to adopt certain practices designed to foster greater reverence, more solemn demeanor and increased focus.

For example, a few bishops have informed their priests that they may gradually reintroduce the ad orientem stance for the Eucharistic Prayer. They do not require the change but rather signal an openness to allowing their priests to use their own judgment in the matter. For their part, priests are called to teach carefully on it and most often to reintroduce the practice on a limited basis: Perhaps one Mass could be set aside for this option or a season like Advent could be devoted to exploring the practice. Not all parishes are the same, and even within parishes there are often different sensibilities among the faithful. It is usually unwise for a priest to make significant liturgical changes by imposing them on the faithful all at once. Rather, opening a door to ad orientem can allow the practice to be experienced. In this way the practice can stand on its own and the pastor and bishop can monitor the fruitfulness. If it is of God, it will grow, and the faithful will respond.

The same can be said for the gentle reintroduction of other pious traditions, such as kneeling for Holy Communion and receiving on the tongue, restoring altar rails, the wider use of Latin, and more silence.

I think it is important for bishops to inform their clergy of the option to try some of these practices, pastorally and carefully. The current atmosphere in many dioceses is such that priests presume they will draw the ire of diocesan officials and the bishop himself if they attempt such things. Priests reasonably seek to avoid direct conflicts with their bishop and bishops have been understandably hesitant to allow too many options, lest overall unity be damaged. But given the decline in belief in the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, it may be time to permit the gradual reintroduction of certain practices, the loss of which was concomitant with the decrease. Bishops can encourage their priests to provide options or can at least inform them that they are free to introduce them if they wish. Bishops can set certain guidelines (e.g., that priests ought to at first limit major changes to certain Masses or occasions and ought to lead the people gently, providing them with options), but beyond that they should then trust the pastoral judgment of their priests.

In my own parish, not every Mass is the same: One Mass has no music at all, two have a cantor and an organist, and one Mass has a full gospel choir and features jubilant praise. We also have Latin Masses on occasion, in both the ordinary and extraordinary forms. Most parishes have Masses with differences. Reintroducing certain practices tied to traditional reverence at some of the Masses is not really that radical a concept.

It’s going to be a long journey. I realize that some who read this will say, “Why don’t we just admit that the Mass of 1970 was a failure and put everything back the way it was — now!” But that just isn’t realistic. The ordinary form is here to stay; more than 90% of Catholics attend Mass in the ordinary form. Parishes are diverse, and people have differing sensibilities. Within this complex reality, it is prudent to reintroduce things gradually and by way of offering more options. It is an important step toward loosening the grip of the liturgical police and permitting greater freedom to pastors and parishes under the guidance of their bishops who, I pray, will see wisdom in this gentle way forward.