On the Friday of the 33rd week of Ordinary Time, my wife and I attended Mass at Sts. Peter and Paul here in Huntington, Indiana, because our second grader was doing the first reading. Father Tony Steinacker suspended his normal homily to talk to the Huntington Catholic primary school students about the Real Presence, and along the way he returned to a point he has frequently emphasized: If we truly believe that Christ has come to us under the forms of bread and wine, our actions will reflect it. We’ll spend the minutes before Mass in silent prayer to Our Lord truly present in the tabernacle; and when the time comes for Communion, we’ll keep our eyes and our thoughts fixed on the Lord whose body and blood we are about to receive. The Communion line isn’t a social event; it’s a solemn opportunity to unite ourselves with Christ.
Thirty-three hours later, on the eve of the solemnity of Christ the King, our family attended a Saturday vigil Mass in a different state, in a diocese that still suffers from the effects of a systematic liturgical and theological revolution (I don’t use that phrase lightly) wrought by a previous bishop, dead now some 15 years. The pews in the front half of the church had been replaced with chairs; the kneelers had been removed from the ones that remain.
As the ushers released each row to receive Communion, they shook the hands of every adult, and many of the children, as they stepped into line. And as the lines from each side of the aisle processed toward Christ, people turned to one another, shook hands, and exchanged greetings.
I found myself distracted, thinking about what I was seeing rather than preparing myself to receive Christ. On one level, this ritual seemed an impressive show of community, a continuation of the sign of peace and of the entire congregation holding hands during the Our Father. Perhaps Father Tony was wrong, after all.
But then I thought back to the minutes before Mass, when the church was abuzz with sound at the level of a high-school basketball game, though there was an impressive tabernacle that no one could miss at the far end of the sanctuary. Everything we had experienced from the moment we entered the church seemed to be of a piece: the missing kneelers; the lack of silence; the focus of the congregation on one another on their way up to Communion rather than on Christ the King, with whom they were about to unite themselves in the greatest of all mysteries.
Let me make one thing very clear: I truly believe that the congregation gathered for that Mass are good and earnest people. Most are cradle Catholics, overwhelmingly Polish, and as a cradle Catholic whose Catholicism comes to him from his Polish mother’s side, I know from my own experience how much their religion means to them. The vast majority undoubtedly attend Mass at least once a week.
But, as the Pew Research Center found back in August, 37% of all Catholics in the United States who attend Mass at least once a week do not believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I suspect that the percentage at this particular parish is at least that high, if not higher.
In the wake of the Pew study, most proposals to address this problem have focused on education. But Father Tony is right: The problem is more than an intellectual one. At the root, it’s about experience. We can drill the Church’s teaching on transubstantiation and the Real Presence into children studying for their first Communion and confirmation, and priests can (and should) use every opportunity throughout the liturgical year to remind those of us in the pews that Christ is truly present under the forms of bread and wine.
But if we say those words and then act as if that reality means nothing, why are we surprised when that teaching becomes an abstraction and then gets tossed aside?
Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.