A few months back I attended a Confirmation ceremony at a local parish. Of course, we were all very proud of the confirmandi, especially as they proceeded into the church in their Confirmation attire, and as the priest laid hands upon them conferring the seal of the Holy Spirit. But as the ceremony ended, it struck me at how chaotic and noisy it became in the church. After the priest and altar boys processed back to the sacristy, and even after there was an announcement that there was a reception next door in the school gymnasium, the volume became incredibly loud. Sure, there were non-Catholic relatives visiting, but I noticed that even those I knew were Catholic were also loud and not one person genuflected to the tabernacle as they tottered around the church. Jesus was obviously present in the tabernacle. I was stunned by what I was witnessing. The noise must have alarmed the priest too, because I saw him poke his head out of the sacristy, still dressed in the chasuble, but went back in without saying anything. I had witnessed this behavior before at other local churches, particularly after Mass, but it still stunned me how irreverent even professed and practicing Catholics were toward Our Lord in the Eucharist.
Certainly the mayhem after the Confirmation ceremony can partially be dismissed as a situation of non-Catholic visitors acting from ignorance. However, the lack of reverence from the Catholics at that event, and witnessed time and time again before and after Mass, seems to be an outward symptom of what recent statistics have told us. The numbers tell us that up to 60% of practicing Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. And not only are people of such disbelief that they don’t genuflect and act like they’re in the local pool hall, but up to 75% of Catholics don’t even come to Mass any more.
They All Believed
Let’s start by asking if Jesus were corporeally present in the room, as he was at the Last Supper and in the Upper Room after the Resurrection, what would you do? Would you come into the room, keep your eyes down, and read the parish bulletin? Would you check your phone for sports scores? Would you saunter across the room right in front of him and not greet or acknowledge him? Of course not. You’d probably fall on your face on the ground like Mary did at the tomb or St. John did during his vision in the Book of Revelation. Certainly, the early Christians believed and acted with this kind of reverence because they believed Jesus to be truly present in the consecrated bread and wine.
This food we call the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake except one who believes that the things we teach are true, and has received the washing for forgiveness of sins and for rebirth, and who lives as Christ handed down to us. For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Savior being incarnate by God’s Word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the Word of prayer which comes from him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus. (St. Justin Marytr, “First Apology,” Ch. 66, ca. A.D. 148-155)
Many Protestant apologists will try to tell you that the Church didn’t adopt this belief until the Council of Trent after the Reformation. They mistake the doctrine of Transubstantiation as the introduction of a belief in the Real Presence. This is false. Transubstantiation is a philosophical and metaphysical explanation of how Jesus is present when our eyes tell us that only bread and wine are present. St. Thomas Aquinas defines that the reality, or substance, of the bread and wine change into the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord, while the outward appearance, or accidents, remains as mere bread and wine. Prior to that time, all Christians believed in the Real Presence, without the benefit of this philosophical explanation.
No, really, they all did believe it! With the exception of a couple of notable heretical exceptions, for more than fifteen hundred years, right up to the dawn of the Reformation, this is what the entirety of Christianity believed. One of the first Christians to seriously challenge the Real Presence was Berengarius of Tours around the year 1050, who later retracted his views. Then again in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, our old friends the Albigensians (Cathari) denied the Real Presence. It was this heretical belief that John Wycliff (1330-1384) resurrected and presented as his own to later influence baptized Catholics Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin to participate in the Reformation.
Then the question remains: why are we so irreverent at times before Jesus in the Eucharist? Do we not believe He’s really there? When all is said and done, actions speak louder than words. I don’t exclude myself from this criticism at all. We all need to be aware of the Real Presence of Jesus and in front of His tabernacle behave with appropriate reverence. The good news, I suppose, is that we are not alone in this plight, which is simply that our faith is a work in progress. As the man said to Jesus in Mark 9, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Or in Matthew 28, when Jesus was resting with the disciples, “And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted.” So, what can we do to help our unbelief?
Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi
Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi – this is a Latin phrase which roughly translated means the way we pray influences what we believe. This idea is why many people, including myself, make a big deal about reverent liturgies which follow the Roman Missal and the rubrics, with no innovations and distractions. This is why Cardinal Sarah recently called for priests around the world to once again employ the use of the ad orientem posture during the Liturgy of the Eucharist in Mass. Of course, this simply means to turn towards God (along with the people) as the Eucharistic prayer is offered. This is one of the hallmarks of the Extraordinary Form (Tridentine liturgy) which was the only form of Mass (in the Roman Rite) before Vatican II. It is one of the valid options allowed to priests in the new liturgy. Cardinal Sarah’s idea is that we can help address the crisis we see in lack of belief and irreverence by employing this older posture, which reverences God and minimizes attention to the priest and the people by together liturgically facing east, from where Jesus will return. Pope Benedict agrees with this approach:
The turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is locked into itself. The common turning toward the East was not a “celebration toward the wall”; it did not mean that the priest “had his back to the people”: the priest himself was not regarded as so important. For just as the congregation in the synagogue looked together toward Jerusalem, so in the Christian Liturgy the congregation looked together “toward the Lord.” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Spirit of Liturgy, Chapter 3)
What Can I Do?
While we as individuals don’t have much influence over the options our priests use at Mass (other than appropriately insisting he follow what’s allowed in the Missal and the GIRM), we can employ some personal devotions to deepen our own faith in the Real Presence. The first thing we can do is to minimize distraction. Leave your phone in the car, or at least turn it off. Pick up the bulletin at the end of Mass. Consciously be aware of the Tabernacle when you enter the Church. As you kneel down, greet the Lord, tell Him that you love Him. Ask Him to help your unbelief. All of these things will help you to build that relationship with Jesus that so many talk about, so that your Eucharist will be more meaningful, and your belief in the Real Presence will be stronger. Regularly confess your sins in confession before the Eucharist; this is another way to “open up” the doors of a deeper, even mystical, experience of the Eucharist.
In the past, many used hand missals or devotional prayer books like “Key of Heaven” during Mass. These books contain many excellent prayers to help you to participate more fully in the Mass, especially prayers after the Eucharist. I have reproduced a couple excellent examples of these prayers below:
“Dominus meus et Deus meus. (My Lord and my God.)” (Instituted by Pope St. Pius X, to be prayed silently during the Elevation.)
“King of kings, Lord of lords whom the heavens and the earth cannot contain, how great is Thy goodness, thus to become our sacrifice and our food! Thou art the food of life, O good Jesus; and it is by Thy power and grace my soul must live to Thee. Communicate, then, to me, at present, Thy divine blessing, and let my weak and hungry soul be no comforted and strengthened by this heavenly food; that it may be an effectual remedy of all my weakness; and make me faithful in Thy service forever. Grant, O Merciful Jesus, that, whenever I shall receive this precious body and blood, they may forever abide in me, and become a heavenly nourishment to my soul. Amen.” (Key of Heaven, 1947 Edition)
“I praise You and I bless You, dearest holy Body [Blood] Who for our salvation died on the cross and gloriously resurrected. O sweet Jesus, O gracious Jesus, O merciful Jesus, I bless You from the bottom of my soul; I love You with all my heart, I live for You, I die for You, I am Yours In my life as well as in my death. Amen.” (Prayer Offered in Hungarian at the Elevation of the Host and Chalice at St. Mary of Victories Church in St. Louis, MO)
“My God, I believe, I adore, I hope and I love Thee! I ask pardon for those who do not believe, do not adore, do not hope and do not love Thee.” (A Prayer given to the Children by Mary at Fatima)
It is important also to remember that in several apparitions, especially to St. Faustina, Jesus said that he is appalled by our lack of gratitude and how we treat him like a “dead object” in the Eucharist. Always, be sure to communicate with Him in the Eucharist as if you were present at the Resurrection or in the Upper Room. And say, “Thank you, Lord” for his great sacrifice and gift to us!
My assertion, and personal experience, is that through these means and many others, one can gain a more full appreciation and belief in the Real Presence of Jesus – body, blood, soul and divinity – in the Blessed Sacrament. Insist upon reverent and holy liturgies through licit communication with your priests. Teach your children to be reverent, and be a good example to others. Perhaps each of us by doing our little part can help to once again capture the sense of reverence that Our Lord deserves in his Temple.