In his most recent and superb book Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith (NY: Image Books, 2011) Chicago theologian Father Robert Barron tells of a dinner at which a young Flannery O’Connor, who would become one of the major 20th century Catholic writers, was an invited guest. Also present were other sophisticated New York intellectuals, including non-practicing Catholic novelist Mary McCarthy. McCarthy, at one point, made a few “nice” comments about the Eucharist, adding that it was a very powerful symbol. “Flannery looked up,” writes Barron, “and in a shaky voice said, ‘Well, if it’s only a symbol, I say to hell with it.’ I can’t imagine a better summary of the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence.”
The introduction of the New Roman Missal on the First Sunday of Advent this year presents every English-speaking Catholic, ordained as well as lay, with the challenge of unlearning some very familiar liturgical language, and of learning the new language of the revised Missal. There will be a learning curve for all of us. When the priest celebrant or deacon greets the assembly with the words “The Lord be with you,” the Pavlovian-like response will be at first automatic. We will want to say “and also with you.” The new response, of course, is “and with your spirit.” There are other examples of language changes and we will all need to be alert to them and patient with them – and with one another. Time will take care of it.
But the introduction of the new Missal presents us with another challenge, better, an opportunity – a graced opportunity: to reflect anew on the meaning and centrality of the Eucharist in our Catholic lives, to cherish more deeply the overwhelming divine love manifest in Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross for our salvation and the wondrous gift of his real presence in the Eucharist – a presence, declared the Council of Trent, that is true, real, and substantial – the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Mary. As Blessed John Paul II exclaimed, radical amazement is the only proper response.
Catholics have believed for 2000 years that Jesus meant what He said when He blessed and broke bread and gave it to the apostles, saying, “Take this, all of you, and eat of it: for this is my Body which will be given up for you.” And when He took a cup of wine, blessed it, gave it to them and said, “Take this, all of you, and drink from it: for this is the chalice of my Blood, the Blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me.”
While the Reformation altered and even abandoned the Church’s ancient faith in the Real Presence, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Churches have continued to trust the Lord’s intention and His very words at the Last Supper, including, importantly, the words, “Do this in memory of me.”
Recently, the fundamental Catholic belief in the Real Presence has begun to erode. A number of surveys of U.S. Catholics suggest that a significant percentage of Catholics do not understand or believe it’s Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist, For them, it is a mere symbol, nothing more (remember Flannery’s reaction to that!). Inadequate catechesis for several decades bears much of the blame for this deterioration of Eucharistic faith.
The Church has given us another chance with the revised Missal. I call upon my brother priests and deacons, our women and men in consecrated life, our lay ecclesial ministers, especially parish catechists and teachers in our Catholic schools, to heed the old adage, “carpe diem” – seize the opportunity. Now is the time to renew our Eucharistic faith and strengthen our life of worship.
The Eucharist, declared Vatican II, is the source and summit of the Christian life.
Is it that for you? For your life?
The time has come to cherish anew this gift of God’s overwhelming love.
Most Rev. Richard J. Malone
11th Bishop of Portland