The Eucharistic Revival Starts Today. What’s It All About?
Tim O’Malley, a Notre Dame sacramental theologian helping to organize the three-year effort, talks about why it’s needed and what he hopes it will accomplish.
Today, on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, the Catholic Church in the United States begins a three-year Eucharistic Revival. The Revival will culminate with a National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis in July 2024, but so much of it will take place in the years before, in dioceses and parishes across the country.
The Revival comes at a time of particular fragmentation in the life of the Church and when multiple indicators suggest that Eucharistic belief and practice have been greatly diminished. Despite these factors, the Eucharistic Revival has been met with skepticism from some corners of the Church, with some expressing concern about the associated cost, while others question whether renewal around Eucharistic belief and practice is even needed.
Tim O’Malley is a sacramental theologian and the director of education at Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life. O’Malley, the author of Real Presence: What Does It Mean and Why Does It Matter and Becoming a Eucharistic People, serves on the Eucharistic Revival’s executive team. He spoke to the Register about why the Revival matters and what he hopes it can accomplish.
You were involved in the very early stages of envisioning the Eucharistic Revival. What were some key principles that shaped its development?
Our initial sense was, if you’re going to do something that’s renewing faith in the Eucharist, you don’t just want it to just be an online course in the “Doctrine of the Real Presence.” You need something more intense than that, and you really need something closely linked to a reclamation of the Church’s identity primarily as Eucharistic rather than bureaucratic, which, I think, is the great American heresy and temptation relative to the Church.
If the Revival is to be effective, it won’t just be like a program that the USCCB sends out for local units to use or develop. It has to be received at a local level. So, for instance, our Institute [for Church Life] has focused on how to form what we’re calling a “Eucharistic culture” in the parish, which isn’t simply reducible to teaching the doctrine of the Real Presence, even if it involves that.
There’s a conception out there that the Eucharistic Revival is in some way a response to political dynamics, namely a pro-abortion Catholic president being elected in November 2019, and that it’s politically motivated. When did the process actually begin?
The discussions started with Bishop Robert Barron, then the head of the USCCB’s committee for evangelization, and his own concern over how an August 2019 Pew report indicated that only 30% of U.S. Catholics believe in the Real Presence. That was the impetus toward revival. And then when Bishop Andrew Cozzens succeeded him as the committee head, he inherited and carried forward the project. So I must say, in my own conversations leading up to it, I don’t think we talked about politics, or at least politicians, even once. There’s no sense that that’s the origin of it.
You brought up the Pew study. Some have criticized its language as imprecise, and therefore what it says about Eucharistic belief among U.S. Catholics as not accurate. I know the Church Life Institute is working with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate to conduct a more in-depth and accurate survey on Americans' Eucharistic beliefs and practices, and we’re looking forward to the results of that. But polls aside, in your work as a theologian, very much focused on the life and practice of the Church in America, does the reality on the ground support the need for a Eucharistic Revival?
I have no doubt that a renewal of the Church is needed. Whether the Pew report is accurate or not? I think that’s more of an intellectual question than a pastoral question. And bishops know that a renewal of the Church to Eucharistic devotion and worship is needed.
This is especially the case after COVID, where we have had a massive drop in attendance at the Eucharist. There’s a lot of people who left. There’s the weirdness of the online Mass that continues. So, yes, there’s a sense that we don’t really know what we’re doing at Mass.
I think the Church is in a sort of Eucharistic crisis. There is a fundamental fragmentation of communion in the Church. We see it among the bishops. We see it in how dioceses and parishes are responding to questions linked to the Latin Mass; or in responses to COVID, where people stood, and the kind of “fights” that happened. There’s a lot of fragmentation in the Church. There’s a lot of suspicion within the Church. There are problems, and we’re looking for people to scapegoat.
And all we have are “pastoral strategies,” which tend to be reduced to strategic planning and business plans. And I’m not against any of those things, but it easily reduces the Church to a bureaucracy. What’s lost in all of this is the Church as communion — a communion that the Church doesn’t assemble according to herself. She didn’t make it. It comes as a gift from the side of Christ. And remembering the reason for the Church, this sort of Eucharistic mystery, the self-giving love of Christ poured out on the cross, the Blood of the Lamb, is probably not a bad thing right now, at a moment when we need healing. And so this is a moment for a missionary Eucharistic renewal of the Church.
You’re speaking of the Eucharist as something far more fundamental to the identity and reality of the Church than, say, a devotion to the Blessed Sacrament in the adoration chapel.
By describing the Eucharist as the “source and summit of our faith,” the Second Vatican Council was really reclaiming the Eucharist as the enactment of the deepest identity of the Church. And “People of God” isn’t some democratic credo, it’s a Eucharistic image. It’s the people convoked in the desert and fed with manna from above. They’ve become a people not through their own ingenuity, but through the sacrificial love of God poured out.
And, of course, when the Church is called the new People of God, this is what it means. It’s the convoking of all members of the world, not around an ideology or not around even a strategic plan, but around the Eucharistic love of Christ.
The Eucharist is not just an isolated doctrine. It’s a doctrine really connected to the very existence of what the Church is in the first place.
Relatedly, some have seen the Eucharistic Revival as disconnected from our duty to address injustices in our society. Along the lines of what you were just talking about, how do you see being a Eucharistic people as actually connected to those kinds of social concerns?
Benedict XVI’s Sacrament of Charity was very clear that the Eucharist is not just an event where the pious faithful gathered together to prove themselves as pious and then depart and leave. He is so clear throughout his magisterium that the Eucharist transforms the concrete mode of human life so that it becomes an offering to the neighbor. Or, as he said in, God Is Love: a Eucharist that does not result in the concrete practice of charity is intrinsically fragmented.
Justice is linked much more closely to solidarity and the common good, but where do we, as Christians, learn solidarity? What does Jesus reveal about it? Well, it’s communion. God’s total communion with men and women is the first act of solidarity. This is celebrated in the Eucharistic mystery of the Church.
And so the virtue we need to learn most of all is solidarity, as John Paul II noted, which isn’t like a big “I feel you, bro,” but a profound commitment to the flourishing of the neighbor out of the common good. And the Eucharist, of course, is the heart. We learn this profound act of solidarity in the Church through this Eucharistic rite, where we learn that our neighbor is, in fact, as St. Thomas notes, a member of this body of believers, this mixed bag in which we are united to one another. And your good is my good, and my good is your good. This is the foretaste of the Eucharistic life, and that’s the Eucharistic theology of the Church. That’s the res tantum or “final reality” that Eucharistic reality points towards.
And so the Church has to live out this mystery concretely in the parish. For example, if a parish says, we love adoration, but we don’t care about racism, then you’ve already misunderstood the Eucharistic mystery.
So in that kind of case, we might be objectively receiving the Eucharist, but it’s not fully received.
It’s not received fruitfully, so it doesn’t bear fruit. So I think a Eucharistic Revival isn’t going to lead to a bunch of people just going to their parish and adoring Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and ending it there. The retreat the “Eucharistic Preachers” already had in urban Chicago, that’s a great example of being in communion with others. That’s my hope for the Revival.
In your book Becoming a Eucharistic People, you talk about four facets of Eucharistic parish culture: celebrating the liturgy with joyful reverence; formation that engages the mind, will and imagination; a rich life of popular piety and the vibrancy of the domestic Church; and the commitment to solidarity with our neighbor. How do you see the Eucharistic Revival as contributing to building up those different dimensions?
First of all, the Eucharistic Revival has to begin with the celebration of the liturgy itself. If people have a lack of Eucharistic faith, one of the reasons is because it’s not very clear that the Eucharist is very important to what we’re doing in the parish. It’s done poorly; it’s not well prayed. The music isn’t always very good; the architecture is kind of junky. Silence has been removed. There’s just not the sort of sense that this is real.
So part of the Revival’s focus is on the ars celebrandi, or the art of celebration. How does the priest actually experience renewal so that he can pray the Eucharistic Prayer well? It’s not just a question of having the right postures or gestures, but, actually, how do you have a spiritual disposition where you’re praying these words instead of announcing them like you’re at a baseball game? You have to have a profoundly deep life of prayer.
For integral Eucharistic formation, our catechesis can’t just be giving information about the doctrine of Real Presence and what that means. It has to involve your memory and imagination. So what images are we initiating people into from Scripture? From the Tradition of the Church? Eucharistic catechesis has to involve a deeper understanding. People have to ask really big questions out of this mystery, and it has to change the way they live.
The Revival is creating resources to aid in this kind of deeper, imaginative formation, not just imparting a bunch of information. Our institute is developing a resource to help people do the same kind of spiritual reflection they’re doing with the Bible, but to do it with the Eucharistic Prayer. We’re setting it up so it engages as often as possible with imagery from Scripture, along with images of beautiful, famous altar pieces and Eucharistic sacred music. This forms the imagination and gives us new images by which to approach the Eucharistic mystery.
We also need to develop a popular Eucharistic Catholicism, so that the Mass isn’t the only Eucharistic experience we have. This is especially important in America, where it’s very easy to privatize our faith. Once Sunday is over, what do I do the rest of the week?
So, for example, we’re thinking a lot through processions. What does it mean to do a Eucharistic procession in a rural community around harvest time? What does it mean to do a Eucharistic procession through Santa Monica in Los Angeles? Or through parishes in St. Louis that have been fractured by racism? The procession has always been a way to sort of extend the Eucharistic mystery out into the rest of life.
We also want to help families to not just celebrate the Mass, but to celebrate the entire liturgical year as a family. Linked to that is work. How do you think about your work in light of a vocation to sanctify the world? One of the early 20th-century liturgical reformers, Josef Jungmann, emphasized the way that the liturgy was supposed to transform the life of the worker and the worker movements, because you come to recognize the link between what you’re doing at Mass and the work you’re doing as a carpenter or laborer; between the Church and the entire social order. This is something Virgil Michel, the founder of liturgical renewal in the U.S., realized when he visited Europe, and he began to communicate with people like Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton about how liturgical life was needed to renew the social order.
I think we severed this link. It seems like, after the Second Vatican Council, we’ve been so focused on “What direction is the priest facing?” that we’ve forgotten this other part. If we can reunite them, it creates spaces of evangelization and renewal outside of just Sunday Mass at the parish. For example, the Catholic Worker community in Portland, Oregon, is thinking about the relationship between liturgy and communion. And they’re working with Notre Dame Federal Credit Union to develop ways of doing sustainable banking and business practices that arise from this commitment to Catholic life. We’re offering a course on it called “Economy and Communion.”
Again, it seems like the Eucharistic practice and belief that you and the Revival are trying to promote has a kind of depth and breadth to it that goes beyond what we normally think about when we think about the Eucharist.
There’s a lot more to draw out here that has to be drawn out so that we don’t think of the liturgy as just something to excite people so they go out on mission, but that it’s actually our regular attendance at the Eucharist that inspires our economic practices and our social practices — and that a liturgy that is very reverent, what we might call “smells and bells,” is very closely linked to this social renewal.
You’ve already mentioned this, but religious practice in the U.S. tends to be very individualistic and privatized, and this can even affect how we relate to Christ in the Eucharist. How do you help people get to this kind of communal perspective you’re talking about?
One of the problems after the Second Vatican Council is that devotions, which are very personal and even emotive, got collapsed into the liturgy, which is supposed to be more sober and available for everyone to participate in. So we just add and add to the liturgy, because we lost a meaningful place in our lives for devotions.
Eucharistic adoration was revived after the Council, but the task is to integrate the two, Eucharistic liturgy and devotion, which still has not been done in a variety of contexts. The sacrifice of the Mass is the Church’s offering. Christ becomes present at the Mass not as an object, but as a Person who comes to offer that sacrifice and enable us to receive him, and thus offer the sacrifice of our lives in common. And Eucharistic adoration is an extension of the original gift, and it’s needed to extend that gift in all sorts of ways, but we still don’t know how to deal with the relationship between devotion and the formal liturgy of the Church.
What are you most looking forward to about the Revival?
It’s an interesting moment to think about charism in the Church. Rather than a top-down approach, where the bishops are saying, “This is the Eucharistic Revival; this has to be exactly like this,” if the Church is smart, it’s going to say, “This is the Eucharistic Revival: Go.” I think we could see a lot of new creative charism that could pop up out of this nationally.
People talk similarly about John Paul II’s visit to Denver for World Youth Day in 1993, that it was an event that generated a lot of new life in the Church.
I think the Revival can do that as long as we don’t think about the National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis alone as the event. Events are different today because of things like YouTube and how they can close that distance. Instead, I think of the Revival as a process of helping people reclaim charism through the Eucharist: Are you participating in the consecration of the world back to the Father, and what are your particular ways of doing it?
Because I’m one of the only academics working on the Revival at the national level, I’ve been encouraging universities to think about what they’re going to do intellectually around the Eucharist. For instance, Benedictine College’s 2023 “Symposium on Transforming Culture” will focus on the Eucharist.
What’s your message to Catholics who aren’t onboard with the Eucharistic Revival or don’t know why they should participate in it?
I can understand why there are those who would be suspicious. If you spend enough time in the Church, then you know that these regular sort of “years of renewal” seem to pop up every year, and you’re looking at the price tag and you’re like, “Could we not be spending our money on something better than this?” I’m open to suspicion, and we have to be careful that when people are suspicious, we don’t just shut them down right away. So I would say, ask questions, to your bishop, to your pastor: “What is this? Why are we doing it? What’s happening?”
But in the long run, I think this is essential because we are still in this moment of receiving the Second Vatican Council. And the key to that reception is whether or not we understand the Eucharistic identity and mission of the Church. If the Church is going to be more than a bureaucracy or a cultural institution that once upon a time was important but is now losing its vigor, it’s going to be through the Eucharist. It’s not going to be through a six-day strategic planning retreat. It’s going to be through this. And so that’s why I’m excited about the Eucharistic Revival.