After the COVID lockdown, with the turn to streamed masses online, Bishops worried that an already lagging mass attendance would get worse. And it did. People could get as much out of the Heart of the Nation mass as they could from their own parish liturgy.
For years we have read surveys of people’s church-going habits and pondered why so many cradle Catholics have fallen away from the Church. A Pew Research study in April of 2019 showed that just one-third of U.S. Catholics believe in transubstantiation. This has been bad news for our Church, showing that people are, first of all, losing their faith, and subsequently finding the Eucharist uncompelling. Or maybe it goes in the opposite order, since, if you stay away from the source and summit of our lives as Catholics, you are bound to grow lax in your faith.
This would tell us that it is of the utmost importance to get Catholics back to mass. The U.S. Bishops have settled on the lack of belief in transubstantiation as a primary cause for people’s laxity, assuming if people truly believed that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, they would flock back to mass. It worked for me when I was in 6th Grade and rode my bike over a mile to church for daily mass.
But here’s the weakness in this approach: you can’t control people’s thoughts and beliefs.
Here’s how I learned this:
I was Director of Religious Education at my parish, mother hen for my catechists and our kiddoes. Then a respected catechetical office strongly suggested that we find out how deeply our catechists held their faith. I grasped on to this idea as a chance to know my catechists better and possibly help them grow in their faith. Then I interviewed the 6th Grade teacher, and she threatened to quit over this invasion of her privacy. I’m not sure how many people you know who are willing to form 6th Graders in their faith, but she was the only one I had; and she was dutifully following the textbook approved by the U.S. Bishops.
Is it realistic to make a belief in transubstantiation the cornerstone of our Eucharistic devotion?
Jesus recognized the inadequacy of words to fully convey the message of the Kingdom of God, and fell back on parables.
One of those parables, which we will hear proclaimed on the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time from Matthew, tells the story of a king who gave a wedding banquet. While the story aptly focuses on invited guests who disregard the great honor they’ve been offered, it is important to see here the image Jesus uses: a banquet.
For the Jews, such banquets were sacred, and even times of covenant, often associated with sacrifice. Jesus spoke out of the reality his listeners would identify with. They knew Jesus was using a banquet to talk about their relationship with God.
So, let’s just look at the Mass as a sacred sacrificial banquet, a meeting with God that we can experience through our senses. But a banquet.
Would we come to a banquet thrown by a king—well, God—and focus our interest mainly on the food? Do we enter the house and go straight for the kitchen, or even the table, without first listening to the host’s stories and engaging in conversation? Is our main interest the recipe for the rolls?
This is a poor analogy, but the point I am making is, are we missing out on the entirety of the Eucharistic Celebration when we over-focus on transubstantiation? And, will this one theological truth bring people back to their faith?
People know they can find God in prayer. They can read their Bible, if they so choose. Those who have left the Catholic faith have embraced semi-religious practices like Yoga and meditation, where they experience peace and the presence of God. Others have gone to other Christian faiths that may offer more social programs, more effective evangelization, support for families. All of this can be experienced in the process of growing in faith.
I’ve met families who enroll their children in a sacramental program while attending the local mega-church. Why? I asked them. The answer: the children’s program. My own son-in-law is being pressured by his daughter to go back to church. Which one? “They’ll have to have a children’s program,” was his reply.
Yet we have a treasure: the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb. It’s an undiscovered treasure, even for many who go to mass regularly. Do people know that Jesus is present, speaking to us in his Word? Do they understand that in the Eucharist we are outside of time and space, directly united with Jesus at the Last Supper and on the Cross? Do they know that our prayer together in this assembly has the power of Jesus’ promise: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” And of course, there is the miracle of bread and wine becoming Christ’s body and blood.
All I’m saying is: are we selling this effectively?
As I said, you can’t control people’s thoughts and beliefs. Those come from conversion, intellectual or spiritual. In 6th Grade the catechism lesson on the Eucharist, memorized every year for 5 years previous to that, came alive for me. I remember the moment when I said, “What? If this is true, then I should be at mass!” I had been at Sunday mass weekly since infancy, of course, but now it was my own faith that took over.
Yes, I had had that truth drilled into me year after year. But the thing is, how will people today learn about the treasure of the Eucharist unless they hear about it, and how will they hear unless they are at mass? And will they come to mass unless we make it attractive, unless we make it an authentic image of what we say it is?
At that banquet we were invited to, given by the king, we would not, obviously, check out the kitchen first thing; we would not focus all of our attention on the food. We would listen to the host and show our enthusiastic interest in what he or she has to say. But would we ignore the other guests? This is a banquet, not a sandwich alone at your desk.
One of the most convincing proofs of God’s presence in an assembly is love shown to all who come. It is the pastor who greets people after mass; it is the people who greet others at the door; it is ushers who help people find a place to sit.
Love cultivates the ground for faith.
My 6th Grade faith found nourishment in loving parents—my dad even took me to 6:30 Mass (A.M.) that Lent. It can be no accident that Sr. Margaret Mary was an outstandingly loving teacher as well. But God did the work.
Transubstantiation is an important intellectual concept. It is also difficult and needs cultivating. I suggest that we have not done all we can to nurture faith in the Eucharistic Mystery—a faith that will fearlessly draw others back to mass.
Copyright 2023 by Frances Rossi