My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
Recently, a letter was sent to all pastors regarding the current Mass schedules that are maintained in our parishes. The shortage of clergy necessitates that we must look at the current Mass schedules to see if we can sustain each long term. We are particularly sensitive to the need for language Masses in our diocese in Brooklyn and Queens which may not have the attendance of other Masses.
In general, we see that in 1995, basically a generation ago, our Mass attendance was 286,000 people per weekend. Now, Mass attendance has been reduced to 220,000, representing a nearly 23 percent decrease. This decline in Mass attendance means that in some parishes we have large capacity churches and significantly reduced Mass attendance. We are asking that parishes look at this issue to see if the number of Masses can be reduced and attendance condensed.
The problem is a deeper one, however. Although there have been demographic changes in our diocese, there is also a problem with the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. Recently, on the Feast of Corpus Christi, I gave a homily concerning belief in the Eucharist today, which many people asked me to publish because it hit home.
We look to our world today and recognize that not everyone believes the same about the Eucharist. In recent surveys, it would seem that 50 to 75 percent of Catholics do believe that the bread and wine actually do become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. There are others, at least another 25 to 50 percent, who doubt or are unaware of what this truly means. There are others, however, who believe that bread and wine are only symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. These people are unaware of what the Church believes and they lack the knowledge that this belief is really the core central teaching of our Catholic faith. Truthfully, these statistics change regarding individuals and their outlook on life. It is safe to say, however, that not everyone today really understands the Eucharist and the true meaning of the Mass.
I have a personal story regarding the difference between our belief and that of other Christian groups. When I was a young priest, as the ecumenical movement had just begun after the Second Vatican Council, I visited different churches for different occasions and ecumenical celebrations. There is one time that sticks out in my mind in preparation for an ecumenical Thanksgiving service at a Reformed Church, just a block from the Catholic Church where I was stationed. As I entered the church where I went to speak with the minister about the service, I saw a wooden table on the side of the sanctuary with these words carved into it, “Do this in memory of me.” I asked the minister if they celebrated the Eucharist. He replied, “Yes, once a month we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.”
Not seeing a Tabernacle in the church, I asked him what he did with the leftover elements. The minister told me, “I open the window and throw the left over bread to the birds, so that it can return to nature from which it comes.”
That lesson for me was worth more than all of the theology that I studied in the seminary about the Eucharist. I understood then and there that I had a much different belief about what happens at the celebration of the Eucharist than he. Yes, we truly believe that the elements become, not just symbolically, but truly, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. And so we have great devotion to these elements.
Unfortunately, today our Catholic people have lost the sense of the true meaning of the Eucharist, although they might still believe deep down in their hearts that there is a miraculous change. The people seem to not fully understand what is available to them each time they receive the Eucharist, especially on Sunday.
As we look to our world today, the New Evangelization means that we must recapture an understanding of our faith that is real and contemporary. What we cannot do, however, is marginalize our attendance at weekly Mass as something that is really optional and not central to our belief as Catholic Christians.
Also, as we enter these summer months, we can see that attendance at Mass seems to dwindle. Yes, people are on vacation, however, it is hoped that they will attend Mass wherever they are vacationing. We do find that people take a vacation also from their religious responsibilities.
The mystery of the Eucharist is certainly a step into the deep waters of mystery. We cannot fully understand the great gift which Jesus has given to us. We do know from what He told us, however, that we do this in memory of Him. And we remember Him not in a passive way, but rather we actively participate in the saving action of Christ. When we join in the celebration of the Eucharist, His Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension are mystically present to us. Pray with me that we can recapture our understanding of the centrality of the Eucharist and the real mystery of the
presence of Jesus that it is.