A Crisis of Faith Cannot Be Met by Liturgical Protocols

The unprecedented message of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI regarding the crisis of the clergy contained a surprising illumination that is so incisive it will probably be ignored for years: All problems connected to Holy Orders are related in some way to the Eucharist. Benedict wrote:

Our handling of the Eucharist can only arouse concern… What predominates is not a new reverence for the presence of Christ’s death and resurrection, but a way of dealing with Him that destroys the greatness of the Mystery. The declining participation in the Sunday Eucharistic celebration shows how little we Christians today still know about appreciating the greatness of the gift that consists in His Real Presence.

The pontiff sees a relationship between the lack of spiritual discipline among the clergy and a lack of respect for the Sacrament. The former professor thinks that a lack of clarity regarding sacramentality has repercussions in the holiness and morality of those called to officiate the sacraments. Understanding worship in terms of merely human dynamics removes the sense of awe that protects a sacramental encounter with Christ from being “a purely ceremonial gesture.” There is a danger that priests can become “masters of faith,” meaning that they work with faith as “experts” and only intellectually or in terms of human dynamics instead of being “mastered by the Faith.”

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What is true of the clergy is true of the whole Church. The weakening of a faith in the sacraments results in a religion that is individualistic or merely social and emotional. The discounting of sacramental realism makes our worship more centered on relationships with other people instead of touching the Holy and Divine. The lack of a sense of transcendence can lead to a flattening of the sacraments into human signs. This has a bad effect on the priest who may think that his actions are more crucial than Christ’s. It also explains why some Catholics lose respect for the sacraments due to a lack of sympathy for the officiant. They shop around for a priest whose style is more moving or simpatico, as if the Real Presence were not enough. Protestant churches with no sacramental theology tend to prefer preachers who bring with them special effects, music and light shows, or have a theatrical style.

A weakness in sacramental theology debilitates faith. Polls tell us that some Catholics do not know how to talk about the truths of the faith. The word transubstantiation apparently stumps them. One study concluded that about two thirds of Catholics had an idea of the Real Presence; some of them were “knowing believers” who could explain the doctrine and some were “unknowing believers” who could not articulate the truth about the Sacrament but believed in it. The study concluded that the “crisis” regarding the Real Presence among Catholics in America was a question of religious education and not of belief because only one third of the people polled seemed to deny the doctrine!

But what have the bishops done about this problem of religious education today? “Liturgical” education, especially regarding the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and the use of the new official translation of the Mass, deals with externals, not with doctrinal issues. There is a substantial number of Catholics who seem to doubt a crucial belief in sacramentality and yet all they hear from the pulpit and in workshops are protocols for posture and proper responses. Sacramental theology has been lost in a multitude of externals.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, who left the ministry of his Unitarian Church because of his refusal to celebrate the Eucharist, said that “in the history of the Church no subject has been more fruitful of controversy than the Lord’s Supper.” He called “the posture in which men should partake of it” a “frivolous” question and concentrated on his doubts about the Real Presence and the utility of considering a “perpetual ordinance” what was a vestige of the Jewish religious tradition. He also said St. Paul’s insistence on the Eucharist was connected with the apostle’s incorrect idea of the proximate character of the Parousia. Emerson saw no more need to celebrate regular Eucharists than to have ritual foot washings.

What Emerson called a frivolous question has somehow taken center stage in some places. In my own diocese, there has been much attention to issues of posture and protocols of purification and presentation. At one point some years ago, I said that more attention was given to posture than to receiving sacraments worthily and with preparation. Recently, the Liturgy Office has been involved in a Lenten Blitzkrieg of statements and bulletin announcements regarding the necessity of remaining standing until the last person has received Communion. This is a rubrical extremism that goes beyond the toleration expressed by the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

There has been some reaction to the full court press of the Liturgy Office of the Diocese, but to no avail. The question of standing and watching while everyone receives in the Communion Rite has alienated some Catholics who are worried about respect both for the sacrament and the individual spiritual moment of the communicant. They do not feel that standing and staring is a reverent response to communicating. A man in my parish said he would stop coming to church if I made him stand after receiving Communion instead of kneeling immediately as he has all his life. I told him that I was not a “liturgical martinet” who would enforce postures at such a juncture.

One priest told me he disliked the new efforts at enforcement of the rubric because it seemed to emphasize a “horizontal” approach to Communion as opposed to a “vertical” one. In other words, we were to be attentive to who has received so as to be in some kind of fellowship (of the standing posture) with others at Mass. (And what about those who don’t receive?) Thus, our personal encounter with the Real Presence we had just received was somehow conditioned—or wasn’t complete—on our communion with others.

This reminded me of a conversation I had some years ago with a priest slightly older than I am who said, “We were told that the Real Presence was in the community; I don’t get all this attention to tabernacles.” Of course, fellowship with others is a very important thing. But does that mean we discount the Real Presence in the tabernacle or in our own bodies as we say, “I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof”?  There is an old prayer in the Raccolta that reads, “Lord, I adore you within me.”

The flurry of activity about forbidding kneeling or sitting immediately after receiving the Eucharist in favor of waiting until everybody sits or kneels seem to be a misplaced emphasis. However, another priest said that since one rubric had caused so much agitation, he was waiting for the other shoe to drop. “The bishop will have to get after the parishes without kneelers, because the rubrics say we should kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer, and the churches with hidden tabernacles will have to obey Canon Law and make them visible to the entire congregation.”

From his lips to God’s ears! Given the catechetical crisis implied by Catholics who either don’t believe in the Real Presence or cannot articulate what the Church teaches, I would think it would be a priority to emphasize a proper reverence for the Sacrament by kneeling at least during the Consecration. The absence of the tabernacle in the main body of the church does not fulfill what is required by law and does not teach the proper respect for the Body of Christ and what Pope Benedict calls, “the greatness of the gift that consists in His Real Presence.” Genuflection in the direction of the tabernacle is an act of worship that would be a remote preparation for personal sacramental communion. In some churches the ambry where the Holy Oils are displayed is more prominent than the tabernacle.

Pope Benedict’s words are a tremendous prophecy for us: “Our handling of the Eucharist can only arouse concern.” He is right when he says that there has not been a development of more reverence but rather a decline of appreciation. Are we then surprised that some Catholics feel they don’t need Sunday worship or don’t hold the Eucharist in esteem, sometimes saying that they don’t care if their children go to other kinds of congregations because prayer is all the same? If the sacrament is about the congregation at worship and one’s feelings of connection with others and not about what it is in itself, why wouldn’t you worship in any other denomination? The greatest tragedy of a Catholic who leaves for other denominations is his loss of the Eucharist. But what if he doesn’t know what’s being lost? And who didn’t make that clear to parishioners?

(Photo credit: Shutterstock)


  • Msgr. Richard C. Antall

    Monsignor Antall is pastor of Holy Name Parish in the Diocese of Cleveland. He is the author of The X-Mass Files (Atmosphere Press, 2021), and The Wedding (Lambing Press, 2019).

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