Finding Real Presence

A social media friend posted a link to Peter Steinfels’ Commonweal essay. My friend, who stands with one foot in liturgy and the other in catechesis suggests that more of the latter is needed to address the seemingly soft spot on belief in Real Presence.

More surprising, to me at least, was the rush of liberal Catholic commentators to pooh-pooh the findings.

Some of the rush would be due to the awkward form of the questions. If Pew used the exact words of the catechism, would it have shown different numbers. Mr Steinfels does concede that we don’t really know if the numbers suggesting a dropoff in belief are a decrease, increase, or no change from the 20th century. The assumption is that pre-Vatican II Catholics were nearly 100% on board with Thomas Aquinas, Trent, and numerous Eucharistic saints. I’m not so sure that is a safe assumption.

By its very nature, the believer’s encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist is subjective, personal, and likely dependent on any number of human variations and distractions. My progressive friends like to say that the Communion Procession is a communal experience. And on the surface, it is. But such sacramental moments are multivalent. They operate on many levels at the same time.

A good metaphor for this is vocal harmony–polyphony if you will. Isolate any single voice and it sings a melodic phrase to a text. In the context of the whole work, it produces harmony or occasional dissonance with other voices, moving in and out of these. It usually offers the text at a different rate or pace than other voices. Sometimes it works in parallel with another voice, but could switch to contrary movement.

I think the same thing happens at Mass. There is a communal work in the engagement of the body of believers with receiving the Eucharist. But some present are at rest. Some have beliefs, thoughts, and intercessions in parallel with others, and some do not. Does it work? Who knows? It operates in God’s grace. And that is good enough for me.

As a liturgist, and admitted progressive, I’m more concerned with what might be under my control. I’ve seen behaviors and events that detract from belief that Jesus is really present:

  • Clergy who behave badly. Yes, I know: the validity of the sacraments is not affected by the state of grace (or lack thereof) by the ministers. But that is not the problem for people who have been mistreated by ministers at Mass, ordained or otherwise. The priest who gave a bad homily, the deacon who misspoke in a pastoral situation, the lay minister who holds a grudge (or against whom we hold that grudge) is a distraction. Some believers are able to get beyond that. And some can’t or won’t.
  • Church politics, local or universal. The same here: various issues can remain a stumbling block for a person who might be so fed up they exclaim, “I can’t believe God would allow (this bad thing) to happen or persist! Jesus can’t be here!”

In these situations, the obstacle is in the perception of the believer. But that doesn’t mean their problem does not have real roots in the misbehavior, or even the sin of a church leader.

Some system flaws, which can be repaired, but only with real commitment:

  • Poor preaching. Does the homilist tell the people what to believe, as many conservatives seem to think they must? Does the homilist show people the presence of Christ in the course of his (or her) post-Gospel talk? Remember the encounter on the road to Emmaus: Jesus went whole hog with the two disciples. When the bread was broken, they recognized their experience. If the preaching is mere sermonizing, Bible study, or humorous chit-chat, then why would be expect to find Jesus later at the Mass?
  • I’d say music and hospitality are also to blame, in part, when they are weak. When all the elements of the Mass are well-prepared, coordinated, and done with skill and attention (and surprisingly, not to perfection) then  it is less likely people will find obstacles. Like Jesus in Luke 24:13-35, the ministers will have “set the table,” so to speak.

Some individual flaws I’ve seen over the years, more or less easier things to fix:

  • Clergy and ministers hastening through the Communion rite, not taking time with things as simple and important as distributing the Body and Blood of Christ.
  • People being instructed to bow when the person in front of them is receiving Communion instead of when it is their “turn.”
  • When consuming the Blood after the pews are resettled, doing so while walking or talking with one another. (Once or twice as a Communion minister, I’ve been faced with the cup and the “functional” invitation, “Can you finish this?”)
  • Communion from the tabernacle, from the very beginning of the Procession.
  • Little or no silence after the reception of Communion. And if the music ministry is in the habit of singing or playing music at this time, two things … they don’t have to sing or play at every Mass, every week; and the clergy can still offer silence when they are done.
  • Little attention in sending ministers to the sick to homes and facilities at the end of Mass.
  • Too much focus on Mass and/or Adoration/Benediction. There is value praying in church when “nothing” is going on.

Obviously, some positive steps would mostly include working with the so-called pros:

  • Parish retreat days for all ministers of the Eucharist: clergy, at Mass, and to the sick.
  • Eucharistic ministers making a personal commitment to pray in church and out of it.
  • Churches open for prayer outside of Mass, adoration, or group devotions–just quiet time–lights on, door unlocked, candles burning.
  • Ample silence and reflection time at Mass.

There are likely dozens more good suggestions that would help even before quoting the Catechism. Any thoughts?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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