When I was a very young priest, I served as administrator of a high school quite lacking in the most important elements of a Catholic school; it was my task to address those deficiencies, among which was that the school had never offered any retreats or days of recollection in its entire history! Within a month of the opening of school, I scheduled an afternoon and evening of recollection for the freshman class, ending with a Holy Hour. During Benediction, I thought I heard the two servers holding back some tears. In the sacristy, I asked the fellows what brought on that reaction. At first, in very “macho” fashion, they denied that they were on the verge of tears but eventually one of them said, “Father, I have never felt so close to Jesus in my life.” He and – as I discovered – most of his classmates had never experienced Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
Permit me to highlight some points for ongoing reflection.
We have had a serious problem in the Church over the past several decades, a problem I have dubbed a Eucharistic “meltdown.” In the aftermath of the liturgical changes of the post-Vatican II era (many of which were never called for or even envisioned by the Council Fathers), I observed a slow but sure slide into what might be called “Eucharistic irreverence,” instead of the “Eucharistic amazement” which St. John Paul II urged upon us – and this suggests the lack of a proper understanding of the Holy Eucharist.
And so, in 1992, I enlisted the services of George Gallup to conduct a national poll to ask Catholics: “Which of the following statements about Holy Communion do you think best reflects your belief?” Only 30% of the respondents chose the first option: “When receiving Holy Communion, you are really receiving the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ, under the appearance of bread and wine.” Twenty-nine percent indicated “you are receiving bread and wine, which symbolize the spirit and teachings of Jesus and in so doing are expressing your attachment to His person and words.” Twenty-four percent believed that “you are receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, which has become that because of your personal belief.” Ten percent said, “You are receiving bread and wine, in which Jesus is really and truly present.” Finally, 8% said, “None of the above”; “Don’t know”; or they refused to answer.
In 1994, the New York Times ran a similar survey. In 2020, the Pew Research Center revisited the issue. Both came out with exactly the same results. In other words, over a 28-year period, we have less than one-third of Catholics who attend Holy Mass on a regular basis who believe the full truth regarding the Holy Eucharist. The Pew study set off alarm bells all over the Church. Last year, the bishops of our country produced a pastoral letter on the Blessed Sacrament and called for a “Eucharistic revival.”
What have I been getting at? Let me bring to my side none other than the great English convert of the nineteenth century, St. John Henry Cardinal Newman. As an Anglican clergyman, in 1836, he reproached his congregation at Oxford in these words:
“To believe and not to revere, to worship familiarly and at one’s ease, is an anomaly and a prodigy unknown even to false religions, to say nothing of the true one. . . . . Worship, forms of worship — such as bowing the knee, taking off the shoes, keeping silence, a prescribed dress and the like — are considered as necessary for a due approach to God.”
Cardinal Newman was calling for a spirt of reverence in the presence of “the holy.”
The famous American convert to the Catholic Faith, Thomas Merton, at once an accomplished author and Trappist monk, describes in his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, his First Holy Communion, interestingly enough, at Corpus Christi Church but a few blocks from Columbia University. As I share his reflections, think back on your own first encounter with the Jesus who deigns and desires to come to us under the forms of bread and wine. Merton puts it thus:
“I saw the raised Host – the silence and simplicity with which Christ once again triumphed, raised up, drawing all things to Himself – drawing me to Himself. . . . I was the only one at the altar rail. Heaven was entirely mine – that Heaven in which sharing makes no division or diminution. But this solitariness was a kind of reminder of the singleness with which this Christ, hidden in the small Host, was giving Himself for me, and to me, and, with Himself, the entire Godhead and Trinity – a great new increase of the power and grasp of their indwelling that had begun [in me] only a few minutes before at the [baptismal] font . . . . In the Temple of God that I had just become, the One Eternal and Pure Sacrifice was offered up to the God dwelling in me: The sacrifice of God to God, and me sacrificed together with God, incorporated in His incarnation. Christ born in me, a new Bethlehem, and sacrificed in me, His new Calvary, and risen in me: Offering me to the Father, in Himself, asking the Father, my Father and His, to receive me into His infinite and special love. . . .”
The entire story by Fr. Peter Stravinskas at Catholic World Report.
Thomas Merton’s autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” is really excellent. Very tragic, his strange, premature death in 1968. Here is what I think, regarding the USCCB’s “Eucharistic Revival.”
If the Catholic Church would dump a lot of the current Modernism, and humanism ideology, and return to a Mass that is reverent, holy, quiet, prayerful, solemn, and beautiful, ad orientem, facing God, focusing properly on God– with kneeling at the altar rail to receive Holy Communion– that would help a “Eucharistic Revival” a great deal, I think, along with good catechesis. You have to be quiet and prayerful, to come close to God! The catechesis also should emphasize that you must be properly prepared to receive Holy Communion, and you must never receive it at all, if you are not properly prepared. Also, I would schedule more times for Confession, and invite parishioners to go at least once a month. And I would increase the Eucharistic Fast to three hours, not one. The form of Mass does not matter, but the old Latin Mass had a very strong, holy, spiritual emphasis on God, in Eternity, Heaven– with the theology of Aquinas also correctly pervading it. Even non-Catholics often felt a strong sense of awe and reverence, at the Divine Presence of God, when attending the old Latin Mass, years ago.
Of course– I do not expect anyone of today’s Church to agree with me on my thoughts. And the USCCB and current Vatican, of today’s era, would not have the same thoughts as me, either. Nevertheless– we are all entitled to freely express our own ideas and thoughts. No matter what, regardless of your favorite form of the Mass– there is one thing I do know– to get close to God is not easy. A bunch of noise, distractions, socializing, and silliness– does not help. You have to leave behind the secular world and all its “noise,” and be very quiet, prayerful, humble, patient, open, and receptive– to hope to even get a tiny bit close to God. God is Divine, silent, holy, and Transcendent, and He dwells in Eternity, Heaven, in a pure Paradise of the purest Divine Light and Divine Love (not earthly “human” love!), far, far beyond the human realms of this earth– far, far beyond anything we can possibly imagine! A beautiful, holy, reverent Mass is very helpful, and helps prepare you for reception of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. The Holy Eucharist is not of this world. It is of Heaven. The whole purpose of our Faith– is to prepare our souls for Eternal Life in Heaven, a sublimely beautiful, pure and holy Paradise– with God. As the beautiful Advent hymn tells us, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.”
Your “thoughts” are excellent. I am curious, however, what in your beautiful notes the person who down-voted you could possibly have objected to.
“You have to leave behind the secular world and all its ‘noise,’ and be very quiet, prayerful, humble, patient, open, and receptive– to hope to even get a tiny bit close to God.” If you are called to that type of silence, you enter a monastery, or a convent, or be a hermit. Otherwise, your admonition (“You must leave behind…”) is impractical to many people who have to raise a family or who are called to be in the secular world. There are ways of being a contemplative in the midst of the secular world.
He’s talking about inside a church — leaving the secular world behind when you enter a church, not life 24 hours a day all year long.
Why do you always seek to find fault?
Thank you for these great suggestions!
Gotta agree. I also pray that more people embrace the prayers and liturgies available to them, such as the Liturgy of the Hours, Lectio Divina, or simple adoration. If more parishes made this available, then we could see even more reverence to God. Especially if we involve the laity more in these types of prayers… if the current papacy wants more lay participation, this is the way to do it.
Perhaps PF doesn’t want more participation from the laity. Cancelling the TLM from “churches” and those that draw many young people and families does not appear to be in favor of reverence.
For all of us who remember the TLM from before 1970, it was not that different, unless you went to High Mass.
This is a very good article. Be sure to click the link and read it all. Then visit this page.
I remember reading years ago a book by one of Thomas Merton’s closest friends who said that Merton’s spiritual journey was leading him away from Gethsemani Abbey and more toward Eastern mysticism at the time of his death. I am in no position to know if this judgement is correct, however much this friend thought it so. I have often thought our Lord took Merton home before he could make such a move, that is, of leaving the Trappists. This would mean his death was in fact very timely, and a great grace. I recall reading Seven Story Mountain before trying my vocation with the Trappists and especially recall the effect the TLM had on him. Sure makes one think…
I have read the same, Dan, but I have not heard what the effect of the TLM was on Merton. Could you please explain that further, Dan, if you have the time. I have the Seven Story Mountain, but it has been a long time since I have read it. I do know that some had problems with the centering prayer of some of the Trappists, but even the more advanced Jesus Prayer can be dangerous if one is not properly taught. I keep to just using the prayer rope at times, a simple way of keeping oneself centered on Jesus and not misusing the Holy Name. An excellent penance for that too.
“I have read the same, Dan, but I have not heard what the effect of the TLM was on Merton. Could you please explain that further, Dan, if you have the time.” Anne, I have time, but not the memory (I am 72) to recall everything in Seven Story Mountain, which I read in the 70s before trying my vocation as a Trappist. The excerpt quoted above in the article I believe sums up the attraction of the TLM for Merton — the contemplative aspect which would figure largely in his desire to enter Gethsemani Abbey. I no longer have my copy of the book so suffice it to say the quiet prayer of those attending the TLM made a very big impression on Merton. It is inconceivable to me that he would have been drawn to the Trappist through the influence of the Novus Ordo, especially as it is celebrated in most parishes today.
Thomas Merton fornicated with a young woman half his age for six months. On the grounds of the monastery.
Nobody seriously interested in spirituality reads Merton. Merton is cocktail party spirituality for shallow people who want to appear to be deep, not the real spiritual deal.
I’ve always avoided Merton without knowing exactly why. People at Church thought he became a Buddhist, I think.
Interesting article for someone who does not know anything about him:
“Nobody seriously interested in spirituality reads Merton.” I think you are looking at the Merton toward the end of his life (the affair was 2 years before he died) and using that failure to dismiss him in toto. I would not be ready to disqualify him as a spiritual guide or fail to see value in his writings at an earlier time in his life. He is a man of contradictions, to be sure; I think he was a contradiction to his friends and even to himself. That’s why opinions on him vary so wildly. I suggest giving him a break. After all, King David’s dalliance with Bathsheba was not the end of his story.
The people I’ve known in Catholic circles who held heretical beliefs such as women’s ordination and gay marriage were all big enthusiasts of Merton. Red flag. Like if someone is an enthusiast for Fr. James Martin.
He wrote over sixty other books and hundreds of poems and articles on topics ranging from monastic spirituality to civil rights, nonviolence, and the nuclear arms race.
Warning to some: There is a page with art that has nudes.