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.