At this Catholic parish in the heart of the Bible Belt, Eucharistic adoration is growing, parish fellowship is strengthening, and Catholics who may have felt like an island in a sea of Protestantism are now going forth with confidence to carry out the Gospel.
The parish’s ongoing transformation comes at a time when the Catholic Church in the U.S. is faced squarely with the problem that most Catholics do not believe in what the Church means by the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
According to a Pew survey published July 23, seven out of 10 Catholics believe the Eucharist is a symbol of Jesus, but they do not believe what the Church actually teaches and has taught since its inception: that the bread and wine “actually becomes” Jesus Christ — Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.
At the same time, however, Pew’s survey revealed a problem that could not be addressed simply by Sunday catechesis on the Eucharist. Most Catholics (63%) who went to Church weekly actually believed in the Church’s teaching — but the vast majority of Catholics do not go to church regularly. Among these, upward of 75% did not believe Jesus is really present in the Eucharist.
Yet there are parishes in the U.S., such as St. John’s, reinvigorating faith in, and love for, Jesus in the Eucharist with a renewal of authentic Catholic discipleship and parish fellowship.
Parishioner Ann Cook told the Register the discipleship process at St. John’s — a lay-led initiative in response to Archbishop Paul Coakley’s 2013 pastoral letter “Go Make Disciples” — aimed to slowly and deliberately go about “building disciples who are equipped to build disciples” over the course of a year. At the end of each process, the discipleship group leaders identify among the formed disciples other potential leaders to form new groups that will train more disciples.
Cook said the parish church and school are now seeing the fruit of this fifth generation of “spiritual multiplication.” Eucharistic adoration has gone from one evening per month to adoration every Friday from 9am-9pm, as well as on Wednesday evenings. More people also are going to confession.
The impact is seen now at Mass, Cook explained.
“I hear a lot more from new parishioners, or people who are visiting, or even people who have been coming for a while, but haven't necessarily felt connected, now saying, ‘Your parish is so hospitable: When we walk in, we were welcomed,’” she said. “That’s not something that would have been going on [before the discipleship process]: looking for the outsider.”
Father Rex Arnold, St. John’s pastor, told the Register that, at first, he hoped to see an “explosion of missionary outreach activity,” but now he sees the growth is actually built to last.
Parishioners are suggesting new outreach efforts to people with mental illness and addictions, particularly pornography, and are actively discerning where Christ is calling them to live their baptism.
And the priest said the discipleship process channels the genius of the early Church: “It’s small faith groups coming together, learning what the Church teaches, and having a personal relationship with the Lord.”
Worship and Fellowship
According to Stephen Bullivant, the director of the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society at St. Mary’s University in London and author of Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America Since Vatican II, one of the overlooked causes for the collapse of Catholic faith, such as Mass attendance and belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, is the loss of a “social architecture” in which the faith is lived and passed on.
“We need to work out what we can do to solve that transmission problem,” sociologist professor Bullivant told the Register.
Bullivant said that in the early 20th century, Catholics in the U.S. and the United Kingdom had “a social architecture in which transmitting the faith, and being strong in it, is easy and natural.” The Catholic parish, he said, was not simply a center of religious activity, but often “your whole social life,” from Rosary sodalities to drama club to sports teams.
These Catholic communities started to break down with greater mobility (and greater prosperity) encouraged by the GI Bill, suburbanization and automobile ownership. Bullivant said no one should romanticize these bygone communities, which could be mired in poverty and insulated along ethnic lines, but they do provide insights into key elements missing from Catholic life today.
“Catholic parishes have been becoming less and less genuine communities,” he said.
“People don’t necessarily know the other people at Mass,” he said. “And even if you do know them at Mass, you don’t also know them outside of that context.”
Bullivant said “genuine communities were crumbling” at a time when Catholic leaders were de-emphasizing Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, insisting that he was just as present in the community as he was in the tabernacle. At the same time, he said, many of these same leaders in the 1960s insisted on getting rid of “all these sorts of little ways in which the faith was weaved into the day,” such as Friday fasts and traditional communal devotions, on the basis that they detracted from the Mass.
“That’s just not bad sacramental theology; it’s also a bad kind of social psychology,” he said.
Bullivant said “niche parishes” such as Latin Mass communities, Vietnamese parishes or Syro-Malabar (Eastern Catholic) parishes, have developed genuine forms of Catholic community because they bring people together with a common identity among those who are invested in it. Bullivant said there is also a movement among orthodox Catholics to create intentional “Benedict option” parish communities where the bonds among Catholics intentionally extend outside of worship.
“There’s a sort of particular reason that people make the effort to be involved, and that is a genuine community,” he said, “where people have very serious and meaningful friendship.”
Kevin Tierney, a traditionalist Catholic in the metro Detroit area, told the Register that the St. Joseph Oratory in Detroit, staffed by the Canons of the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest (IKCSP), is one traditional Latin Mass community that has a social life that is rooted in the liturgical calendar.
“The parish life is very liturgical,” Tierney said, explaining that the activities are built around the liturgical calendar. The parish exclusively celebrates both a low Mass and high Mass in Latin (extraordinary form) on Sundays in the morning, the priests give spiritual talks, and vespers with Benediction is held on Sunday evening.
The parish provides faith-formation activities, Friday Eucharistic devotions and educational opportunities for groups like the St. Philip Neri home-school group. St. Joseph’s also has major celebrations, such as Oktoberfest (which originated in the predominantly Catholic state of Bavaria in 1810) and St. Joseph’s Day.
But Tierney added that the Detroit traditionalist scene is “very decentralized” and much broader than what takes place in the parishes. He said the old neighborhood parish model is becoming “obsolete” among millennials and the upcoming generation, and so the model “has to be rethought going forward.”
“What the Detroit trad scene has going for it is it’s heavily lay-involved and lay-run,” he said. People come together for socials and dinners outside the parish schedule. Tierney said the laity in traditionalist communities had to make this common life work for a long time without a regular priest on hand — such as those provided regularly now to traditionalist parishes by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, or the ICKSP. Because there was such a dearth of traditionalist priests in the past, these faithful took the initiative to forge a community that was not strictly neighborhood-based but usually spanned a larger geographical area, and their gatherings “really focused on the liturgical life and fellowship.”
A Eucharistic Theology of Fellowship
The contemporary Catholic experience of people rushing to the parking lot to escape barely an hour of worship on Sunday does not truly manifest a Catholic understanding of the Eucharist, but “the appropriation of a more Protestant ‘me and my Jesus thing,’” explained Bishop Steven Lopes of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, a Catholic diocese with Anglican traditions for North America established by Benedict XVI.
Bishop Lopes, an authority in Eucharistic theology and former official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, told the Register in an interview that the Catholic understanding puts “equal accents on the seriousness of worship and the seriousness of fellowship.”
This parish fellowship “flows from” the Eucharist, he explained, and is necessary for Catholics’ intentional discipleship of Jesus Christ, but it also “leads [them] back to” the Eucharist.
“Because once you’re interacting with your brothers and sisters in Christ, you’re going to be more aware of their needs, more aware of the human brokenness and relationships and whatnot,” he said. “And then out of love for them, of course, when you go back to Mass, you’re bringing their prayers, their intentions and your concern for them.”
The bishop said parish communities in the ordinariate are deliberately smaller in size than most diocesan Catholic parishes and have “a real emphasis on spending time together, not just getting to Mass and then going home.”
Bishop Lopes said the worship-fellowship dynamic of the Mass always goes “hand in hand.”
The Holy Spirit, he said, is transforming the bread and wine into Jesus Christ’s Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity at the consecration of the Mass. But also the outpouring of the Holy Spirit transforms in a way the assembly into the Body of Christ, “where we start to recognize each other, not as strangers, not as individuals who have nothing to do with my life, but as members of the same body.”
“This is what happens at Mass,” he said. “And so to celebrate Mass means, of course, to reverently receive the Eucharist, but also reverently to receive your neighbor as members of the same body of the Church.”
Bishop Lopes said Catholics who “leave the Church” are often not really making an active decision so much as dropping out.
“The biggest driver of that is the feeling of anonymity, the feeling of ‘that if it doesn’t matter if I’m there, then it doesn’t matter if I’m not there,’” he said.
Catholic parishes, particularly large parishes, Bishop Lopes said, have to be “more creative on how they form that sense of intentional community and intentional discipleship around the Mass.”
“And parishes who have taken on that challenge directly through prayer groups, through social groups, through various initiatives of the parish,” he said, “have reaped the benefits of it.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.