First in a series
WHEN I WAS A young parish priest many years ago, about one quarter of the Catholics who lived in the parish did not attend the Sunday Eucharist with any regularity. My guess is that at this time that percentage has increased. Though I do not have any statistics, I think we have a very serious problem in the contemporary Church concerning the Sunday Eucharist.
Probably many readers of this column can remember when every Sunday their parish church was almost completely filled with parishioners. Now in many parishes the church is not filled even on the most important holy days. I am not starting this series of columns because I have some solution to the problem. Rather, I am starting this series hoping that through prayer, reflection and reading, I will discover some solutions. One of my guides as I begin this series is Ronald Rolheiser’s book, “Our One Great Act of Fidelity: Waiting for Christ in the Eucharist” (New York: Doubleday, 2011, $18, pp. 139). Rolheiser, author of the exceptionally good book, “The Holy Longing,” is one of my favorite authors.
About 20 years ago, a friend who is a devout Catholic told me that though she went to Catholic high school, she was never taught about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I presumed that her memory was failing her concerning what she did or did not learn in high school religion classes.
I mentioned her comment to another friend who taught several years in a Catholic high school. He immediately said something like the following: “Oh, sure. For long periods of time, in the ’60s and into the ’70s, we did not teach Catholic dogma. Each year we changed the religion curriculum, one year centering on films, another on the songs of the Beatles, another on current events. Catholic dogma was neglected.” I realize that this is only anecdotal evidence, but it is not encouraging.
In his first chapter, titled “The Incarnation and the Body of Christ,” Rolheiser repeats the oft-told story about a child who is frightened in the dark of her bedroom. Her mother comes into the bedroom to comfort the child and assures her that she is not alone: God is with her. The child responds that she knows God is with her, but that she needs someone with skin!
Rolheiser uses the story to lead into consideration of the Real Presence, stressing that the Eucharist reveals that God has taken on skin. He writes the following on the Eucharist as the Body of Christ:
“In the Christian scriptures, the term the body of Christ is used to refer equally to three things: the historical body of Jesus, the body of believers, and the Eucharist. Each of these is referred to as the body of Christ. Each is the body of Christ. For instance, when St. Paul refers to either the community of believers or the Eucharist, he never intimates that they are like Jesus. Each is equally called the body of Christ, each is that place in our world where God takes on concrete flesh. God still has skin in this world, in the Eucharist and in the community of believers. The incarnation is still going on. The word is still becoming flesh and living among us.” (p.17)
I have no doubt that one of the reasons church attendance is down is due to ignorance. Many Catholics just don’t have an appreciation of what the Eucharist means. Little in contemporary society encourages attendance at Mass. Of course, the more I appreciate the meaning of the Eucharist, the more I realize how important my role as presider is. My homilies should be well prepared and they should express my own faith. Everyone else involved with a special role has something to contribute to the beauty of a Eucharist. Everyone from the ushers to the servers, the choir members to the lectors should be aware of the importance of their role. A Eucharist is a community celebration. How the community prays can make a significant difference in whether a Eucharist is a powerful sign of the Body of Christ praying. I think I should remind members of the congregation that the way they pray can influence how I pray.
I hope that reflecting on the meaning of a Eucharist and writing this series of columns will deepen my own appreciation of the Eucharist, and help me to share my appreciation with others.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).