In the September issue of Commonweal magazine Peter Steinfels had a marvelous essay entitled “Separate Challenges,” dealing with the meaning of the Eucharist and what the American bishops should do to meet the crisis — and indeed it is a crisis — about the large number of Catholics who do not believe in the Real Presence of the Risen Christ in the Eucharist and about the large number of Catholics who regularly miss the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist.
I have saved the essay because I think it is such an important commentary on serious problems related to the Church’s teaching about the Eucharist. In the November issue of Commonweal Fr. Robert Imbelli, a priest in the New York Archdiocese, comments on Steinfels’ essay and tries to develop some of Steinfels’ insights and suggestions for the future.
I plan to save Imbelli’s essay and try to incorporate both Steinfels’ and Imbelli’s insights into my life and into my teaching, preaching, and writing. I especially want to incorporate their insights into my own life as a Catholic priest, someone who celebrates the Eucharist regularly. The crisis is serious and I think the essays by Steinfels and Imbelli are special. The best minds in the Catholic Church should try to figure out what has happened to large numbers of Catholics in relation to the Eucharist and then to figure out what should be done to improve the situation. The essays by Steinfels and Imbelli are steps in the right direction.
Imbelli states that the goal of a Catholic should become a “Eucharistic self”, a term indicating that a person should embody a Eucharistic consciousness and practice. I think that one of the most important observations that Imbelli makes is that to become disaffiliated from the Eucharist means defection from Christ. Without judging anyone’s relationship with God, we should never lose a sense of what it means to neglect the Eucharist. Imbelli reminds us of T.S. Eliot’s statement about what it costs to follow Christ: “the cost is not less than everything”. Imbelli writes the following:
“Eliot is only recapitulating centuries of spiritual classics from Augustine through John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila to Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein). And they, in turn, are rooted in Paul’s inspired recognition of the radical consequences of transformation in Christ. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you which you have from God? You are not your own, you were bought with a great price. So glorify God in your body” (! Corinthians 6: 19-20). Note that ’your’ in both cases is plural, indicating the corporate nature of the new reality Paul is describing.” (p. 11)
So the goal is not just for individuals to become “Eucharistic selves” but for the Church to become a Eucharistic Body. Stressing that the Real Presence enables an encounter with the Risen Christ, Imbelli claims, as I have mentioned, that disaffiliation from the Eucharistic liturgy means “defection from Jesus Christ himself.”
Though the statement might seem obvious why have I not thought of it previously and why does it initially seem to me like an excessively strong statement? Though I have long thought that the neglect of the Eucharist is a serious problem, why should Imbelli’s comment stop me in my tracks? Is it that I have to some extent lost my sense of awe and wonder about the meaning of the Eucharist? Is it in trying to avoid judging anyone I have trivialized what the consequences of neglecting the Eucharist are? I know that I am going to discuss this with other Catholics, both priests and others.
Recently a priest friend told me that he thought teenagers and perhaps Catholics in their twenties have no sense of transcendence, no sense of a world beyond this one. If his judgment is correct that certainly would not foster a regular celebration of the Eucharist among that group.
In talks that I have given about what it means to be a Catholic, I often have mentioned that when I was a young priest about a third of the Catholics in the parish did not attend Sunday Mass regularly. The number may be larger today. I frequently described them as Catholics who were not practicing their faith. Today I would not describe them that way because the Eucharist is so central to what it means to be a Catholic that I find it difficult to describe someone who never celebrates the Eucharist as a Catholic. I have come to believe that the meaning of the Catholic faith has as part of its essence the Eucharist and neglect of the Eucharist is neglecting one of the activities that makes a person a Catholic.
I am not discouraged by it, I am disturbed and I hope I stay disturbed until I notice a Eucharistic revival.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.