Eucharistic Faith and Reverence for the Renewal of the Church

Some rather profound commentaries in French have passed through my Twitter feed in the past few days, and there is an awful lot that I would like to say and share, even as I lack the time to do so. We’ll see what’s possible.

First, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI published a response to the abuse crisis roughly a month ago that made great waves in the news. The waves came mostly from superficial types who rejected what he had to say out-of-hand and with facile arguments. I maintain that those with eyes to see and ears to hear can understand that the Pope Emeritus knows well of what he speaks and that he has written very profoundly about it, even if perhaps without the full elaboration that he might have given in a longer discourse. His essay had, to my mind, a sense of haste and brevity, a sort of summary quality, that perhaps reflects his present state of life, primarily devoted to prayer and study – no longer to writing.

That essay/response of Benedict XVI may be read HERE.

I was delighted to find a feature-length elucidation on Benedict XVI’s essay/response yesterday — from Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. He delivered his paper in French at the St. Louis Center in Rome sometime in the last week. For those who read French, you may be interested in reading the entire thing HERE. Presumably someone will translate the whole thing into English soon and post it online.

What I would like to share today is a few of his final paragraphs, where he draws out his take-aways from all that Pope Emeritus Benedict said. Here are those paragraphs in my translation, followed by my further commentary:

What, therefore, is the way forward that Benedict XVI proposes to us? It is simple. If the cause of the crisis is the forgetting of God, then let us put God back in the center! Let us put back at the center of the Church and our liturgies the primacy of God, the presence of God, his objective and real presence. I was particularly touched, as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, by one of Benedict XVI’s remarks. He affirms that “ever since his conversations with victims of pedophilia, he has been led to a have a sharper awareness of the need for a renewal of faith in the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament” and of a Eucharistic celebration renewed by greater reverence. (III, 2.)

Ladies and Gentlemen, I wish to underline that this is not a question of the conclusion reached by an expert in theology, but of a wise word from a pastor who has allowed himself to be touched profoundly by the testimonies of the victims of pedophilia. Benedict XVI has understood with great sensitivity that respect for the Eucharistic body of the Lord conditions respect for the pure and innocent bodies of children.

“The Eucharist has been devalued”, he stated. There has arisen a manner of treating the Blessed Sacrament that “destroys the grandeur of the mystery”. With the Pope Emeritus, I am profoundly persuaded that if we do not adore the Eucharistic body of our God, if we do not treat it with a fear that is both joyous and full of reverence, then among us will emerge the temptation to profane the bodies of infants.

I highlight Benedict XVI’s conclusion: “when we consider the action that before all others will be necessary, it becomes evident that we do not need a new Church of our own fabrication. On the contrary, what is needed first and foremost is the renewal of faith in the presence of Jesus Christ, who is given to us in the Blessed Sacrament” (III, 2).

Well then, Ladies and Gentlemen, to conclude I say to you again with Pope Benedict: yes, the Church is full of sinners. But she is not in crisis, we are the ones in crisis. The devil wants to make us doubt. He wants to make us believe that God has abandoned his Church. No, she is always “the field of God. There is not only the chaff but also the rich harvest of God. To proclaim these two aspects with insistence is not to put forward a false apologetic: it is a necessary service to the truth”, says Benedict XVI. He proves it; his praying and teaching presence among us – in the heart of the Church, in Rome – confirms it for us. Yes, among us there are very rich divine harvests.

Thank you, dear Pope Benedict: according to your episcopal motto, a co-worker of the truth, a servant of the truth. Your words comfort and reassure us. You are a witness, a “martyr” of the truth. Thank you all.

Some — perhaps many — will dismiss out-of-hand not only what Benedict XVI said but also this further paean of Cardinal Sarah, because they will read it only in a shallow manner. “How can the liturgy have anything to do with the abuse crisis?”, they ask rhetorically, implying that it has nothing at all to do with it.

But let’s look a little deeper. Over the past century or so, not only has there been a great decline in belief in the Real Presence (one SOURCE, PDF download), but also a decline in the use of the Sacrament of Confession. Yet it has been observed that few people who attend Mass abstain from receiving Holy Communion. Yes, I am mixing data with anecdotes here, but I don’t have time to find the more conclusive survey analyses that make all the connections (these do exist). It’s there for all to see: just open your eyes. In many parishes everyone goes up to receive; in many parishes there is only 45 minutes for confession scheduled each week and then it is lightly attended. And belief in the Real Presence, as of 2008, was only at 57%. That is pathetic and profoundly tragic.

Does the Church not teach the Real Presence as a dogma? And only 57% believe it? Yikes!

But what about priests? Pope Benedict has spoken of the abuse crisis as a loss of faith, a forgetting of God. How could this not be the case? How many of the priests who abused children and other vulnerable people continued in ministry, sometimes for decades, continually celebrating the Mass and other sacraments? How can a priest who really believes, who has faith, do such things? It is utterly sickening. Many of them didn’t abuse just once, either — for some, it was a serial thing, even as they continued to function as priests. “Function” is about the best verb that can be used here, because it’s impossible to imagine that they really believed what they were doing anymore.

Only the most extreme levels of compartmentalization could make faith (and the holy fear that comes with it) in the sacraments coexist with ongoing grave violations of chastity and celibacy, with grave abuse (spiritual, emotional, and physical) of children, seminarians, and other adults. It’s almost impossible to imagine. I am convinced — and I think Pope Benedict, Cardinal Sarah, and others who have had far more experience dealing with these matters than I have — that for many priests who were/are guilty of such heinous crimes, there was a loss of faith and a forgetfulness of God.

This loss of faith cannot fully be hidden. See the experimentation and abuses that arose with the sacred liturgy — things like “clown Masses”, making the Mass a show, the priest highlighting his own personality, changing the words, the horrible music that was in no way connected to our great tradition, handling the Eucharist in an irreverent way (the stories I could tell from things I’ve seen with my own eyes)… loss of faith. The loss of faith of priests certainly had/has an effect on the people in the pews.

But there is another consideration. A priest who himself is in a state of grace and celebrates the liturgy well carries out his ministry in a more efficacious way. Maybe some of them hid their double-life completely: but if they were not in the state of grace their ministry was simply not as efficacious. It doesn’t matter how many brilliant homilies they gave — those homilies and their celebration of the sacraments would not have had the same effect. That is to say, they would not necessarily have contributed to a deepening of faith on the part of those to whom such priests ministered.

Then there are the further abuses that have to do directly with the Eucharist. Communion in the hand was introduced in disobedience to universal norms. It was simply not an option and many bishops and priests “made it one” — then effectively put the pope in a position where he felt like he had to allow it officially (if I had time I would highlight how Pope Paul VI was so conflicted over this). But correlative with that was the way that in many places this practice was also forced on people: receiving on the tongue was no longer an option. Kneeling was no longer an option. Yes, some priests forced these issues. No magisterial document ever called for the removal of communion rails, yet they were almost universally taken away. How can all of this not affect belief?

There is much more that I could say and I do realize that I am ranting a bit here. But I have been convinced for some time and remain convinced — am even more convinced now — that Cardinal Sarah/Pope Benedict’s conclusion, that our faith and reverence for the Eucharist must grow, is a major component for the renewal of the Church.

Fortunately, there are many places where this renewal is happening. But there is a very long way to go in some areas still. Even recently, there was video of a bishop in Chile refusing communion to people who knelt (and this right — to kneel — is upheld in Church law!).

[Connected with these considerations is the failure to treat the faith and the Eucharist/liturgy as legal goods that are to be defended and protected. I hope to write more on this — it is part of both Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah’s recent discourses also.]

Because of the foregoing, ever since the abuse crisis bubbled to the surface last summer, I have been repeatedly emphasizing to all who will listen that the solution lies in great part within us. If we do not become saints, we will not have contributed to the Church’s true reform. The solution is always with the saints. There have been terrible and egregious crises in the history of the Church, and history shows that it was always the saints who brought the Church through those moments.

We can seek all manner of legal and technical solutions. But if we do not reform ourselves, it will take even longer for this all to work itself out. A major part of that reform is to put God back at the center of our existence, at the center of our worship. Our worship immediately gives evidence (or not!) to any outsider who comes to see it, “They are worshipping God — this is not about them”. Or does it? Does it show that we really believe that Christ himself is present in his full reality on the altar, in the Holy Eucharist? Or is it casual, familiar, shabby even?

Another thing that came across my feed in French was this comment from Dom Dysmas de Lassus, Prior of the Grande Chartreuse, the famous Carthusian monastery in France, who was responding to a local controversy that touched also upon the problems afflicting the Church (SOURCE — my translation follows):

It does not fall to us to know what must be done to repair the Church; others have received that mission. Our mission is to reform ourselves so that the Body of the Church may benefit, according to the old adage that every soul that raises itself, raises the world; moreover, our mission is to pray for those tasked with decision-making, that they have the light and the courage to do it.

We are all called to be saints. A good starting point for any priest who loves the Church and wants to help is to ask himself, in a profound examination of conscience: Does the way I celebrate the sacraments and worship the Eucharist convey faith, deep belief, awe, and holy fear? And for any lay person, a good question to consider is: How deep is my own faith? Lord, increase my faith and show me how I can be more reverent! Help me to lead others to this same faith! What more can I do, Lord? Make me a saint!

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