Questioning the Eucharistic Revival

The impending Eucharistic Revival in the U. S. Catholic Church promises to be a very ambitious undertaking indeed, purporting to accomplish nothing less than the revitalization of the entire U. S. Church. As described by Bishop Andrew Cozzens at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) General Assembly in June 2020, the goal is :

“To renew the Church by enkindling a living relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist” [1]

The catalysts for the Revival include the impact on church attendance of the Covid-19 pandemic and the disconcerting survey from a couple of years ago, indicating only a minority of Catholics believe in a fundamental article of the faith, the Real Presence of Jesus Christ’s Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Holy Eucharist. [2, 3] Apparently, therefore, it has been decided that if we can just manage to explain the reality of the Eucharist to Catholics, and somehow bring them to an encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist, then the ills of the Church will be overcome. Accordingly, the USCCB 2021 -2024 Strategic Plan includes a plan for a National Eucharistic Congress:

“The Committee for Evangelization and Catechesis is coordinating the effort to explore, plan and execute a National Eucharistic Congress. Declining Mass attendance, the lack of understanding of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and increasing religious disaffiliation are major challenges facing the Church today. The committee has recognized that the return to the Eucharist as the “source and summit” of who we are and what we do as Catholics is key to revitalization.” [4]

But I have some concerns. What evidence is there supporting the effectiveness of this approach for renewing the faith? The brief references to the disorders in the Church in the Strategic Plan don’t accurately characterize the gravity of the situation. The Church in the U. S. has been deteriorating for decades. Average weekly Mass attendance declined from 75% in 1955 to less than 24% in 2015. [5, 6] In 2019, average weekly Mass attendance had declined even further to about 20%, except for Christmas and Easter and some of the Holy Days of Obligation. [7] In 2008, only 12% of Catholics went to Confession once a year, and 45% had never been to confession. [8] Surveys by Pew Research from 2018 – 2020 report a majority of Catholics support contraception, legal abortion, homosexuality, “gay marriage,” and reception of the Eucharist by the divorced and remarried. [9, 10, 11]

Viewed in the context of the perspective provided by these surveys, it is clear the loss of faith in the Real Presence has been accompanied by severe damage to the whole of the Catholic faith. The Pew surveys reflect a rejection of Christian morality by a majority of Catholics. This is a problem which cannot be solved by a concerted effort at education about the Real Presence or creating encounters with the Blessed Sacrament.

It seems obvious then that Revival actions should be guided by a clear understanding as to what has caused the loss of faith. Such an understanding would then ensure the Revival addresses the heart of the matter, instead of simply promoting transitory experiences which may feel good but do not bring about the desired conversion. At the June 2020 USCCB meeting Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha broached the idea of conducting research to identify the most effective means of reaching Catholics for the Revival. [12] I submit we know neither the causes of nor effective means to address the loss of faith: the problem should be studied in detail.

Here is a hypothesis: the Catholic loss of faith is the natural consequence of Catholics embracing the immorality of the society in which they live. It is simply not possible for Catholics who have already rejected Jesus with their thought and behavior to simultaneously accept Him in the sacraments. Of all the things which make us distinctively Catholic, the sacramental life wherein Jesus enters directly into our lives in substantial ways from birth to death is paramount in the authentic practice of Catholicism. And this sacramental life has been decisively spurned by those who enjoy the prestige but not the practice of Catholicism.

The Psalms are often remarkable for how precisely they apply to current conditions, despite their antiquity. These verses from Psalm 105 provide a disquietingly apt description of the majority of today’s U. S. Catholics:

“And they were mingled among the heathens, and learned their works: and served their idols, and it became a stumbling block to them.”

Psalms 105:35-36 Douay-Rheims Version

The problem faced by the Church is not catechesis: rather, it is evangelization of Catholics themselves.

If Catholics are to be evangelized, then it is nothing more than simple common sense to begin the process of rebuilding their faith with examination of conscience and rejection of sin. Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski put it quite clearly when commenting on the Revival presentation:

“There will be no Eucharistic Revival unless we have a revival in the Sacrament of Penance.” [13]

There is a fundamental dynamic happening in the Church which does not appear to be accounted for in the Revival planning: when we are massively immersed in sin, we are blind to the truth – even truth as glorious as the reality of the Real Presence. Therefore, repentance – the rejection of sin and the subsequent removal of the blinders – should be among the first of the subjects on which this Revival is focused. We cannot be amazed by the Eucharist when we are still enamored of sin.

This lack of attention to the pervasive reality of sin among Catholics is a real weakness, an imbalance, in the Eucharistic Revival planning described to date. In the Catholic Church today, we seem to have an aversion to the confrontation of sin. It is as if the hard questions are being deliberately avoided – no one wants to bring up the problem of sin for fear of offending modern Catholics. And that is a grievous error: how can we expect Catholics to engage in repentance if their pastors are not even strong enough to call them to repentance? I realize the goals of the Revival were not developed in a vacuum – in fact, it seems the Revival strategy and approach reflect the thought of a broad spectrum of Catholic leadership in America. But then the problem becomes even more daunting – it is not just the bishops who are unable to face the need for the Sacrament of Penance – it is also the best and brightest among Catholic laity.

Pope Benedict touched on the importance of penance relative to the Eucharist in the Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis of 2007:

“ . . . an authentic catechesis on the meaning of the Eucharist must include the call to pursue the path of penance (cf. 1 Cor 11:27-29). We know that the faithful are surrounded by a culture that tends to eliminate the sense of sin and to promote a superficial approach that overlooks the need to be in a state of grace in order to approach sacramental communion worthily. The loss of a consciousness of sin always entails a certain superficiality in the understanding of God’s love. Bringing out the elements within the rite of Mass that express consciousness of personal sin and, at the same time, of God’s mercy, can prove most helpful to the faithful.”[14]

In our present Catholic circumstances, the “consciousness of personal sin” is not only “most helpful” but also essential. The situation is dire. The abandonment of Christian morality and the associated sacrilegious reception of the Eucharist endanger the souls of countless Catholics. Father Hardon eloquently and concisely characterized the worldly affliction with which we Catholics have aligned ourselves:

“There must be a massive blindness of mind in the consciences of whole nations about God’s authority in the moral order.” [15]

It is not merciful to ignore this situation. This should be considered an emergency of the first order, yet there is not any sense of urgency with regard to repentance in the current Revival planning.

Another worrisome aspect of the Revival has to do with uncertainty as to the content, the details of the message, of this Revival. What exactly will be taught? In the available information about the Revival, we hear a lot about broad objectives and process, but not much specific information about content. Here are the five “strategic pillars” of the Revival:

“1. Foster encounters with Jesus through kerygmatic proclamation and experiences of Eucharistic devotion.

2. Contemplate and proclaim the doctrine of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist through the truth of our teaching, Beauty of our worship, and Goodness of a life of service.

3. Empower grassroots creativity by partnering with movements, apostolates, educational institutions, and parishes.

4. Reach the smallest unit: parish small groups and families.

5. Embrace and learn from the various rich intercultural Eucharistic traditions.” [16]

These pillars tell us little about the message which will actually be delivered via the Revival. And some of these pillars invite a certain amount of anxiety: what do “grassroots creativity” and “diverse Eucharistic traditions” have to do with setting Catholics straight in their understanding of both the reality of and the requirements for reception of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist? Are we going to see new and different versions of the Pachamama experience tumbling out of these diverse traditions? This is not an unreasonable question to ask given the confusing and conflicting messages cascading out of Rome these days.

Similar concerns arise from some of the processes to be employed at the diocesan and parish levels. [17] Small group discussions and a national corps of hastily formed “Eucharistic preachers” do not lend themselves to the preservation of orthodoxy. And why does the first year of the Revival include the formation of priests? Do the leaders of the Revival think the years of seminary formation were insufficient when it comes to priestly understanding of the Eucharist? That is quite an interesting commentary in itself. Or perhaps “formation” is necessary to ensure priests speak only the approved message of the revival – whatever it might be. And then, even after they have received formation, our priests must accommodate the influx into their parishes of Eucharistic “missionaries” of questionable pedigree. It is almost as though some sort of parallel catechetical structure is being developed to replace parish-based religious education and priestly homilies.

There is one other aspect of the Revival planning which is surprisingly absent. Since the Mass is the central act of Catholic worship, then it would be reasonable to assess whether the Eucharist is receiving the proper, best, right reverence within the Mass. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, referring to the weakness of the Sunday celebration of the Liturgy in the U. S., said the Revival must emphasize superb, fitting celebration of the Liturgy, including the Liturgy of the Word. [18]

Taylor Marshall recently offered an insightful comment regarding the role of the Mass relative to the Eucharist. [19] He likened the Eucharist to a precious gem, a diamond, whose true value can be best recognized and fully appreciated when placed in a setting which brings out its full beauty. Does the Novus Ordo Mass, as it is experienced by Catholics today, fully express the reverence and solemnity due to the profound reality of Jesus’ sacrifice at the Consecration? Peter Kwasniewski thinks not:

“The classical Roman rite as it developed over so many centuries acquired numerous and very expressive gestures of adoration and care toward the Holy Sacrament, precisely because it is not a mere “thing,” but under the signs of bread and wine a divine Person is really present. How we treat Him is how we show our faith in Him and our love for Him. The liturgical reform cruelly diminished these gestures and introduced other practices, now habitual to the point of being immovable, that suggest we are dealing with common food and drink that, in the context of Mass, are given a new symbolic meaning (the technical term for this heresy is “transsignification”). The reformed rite is redolent of a Lutheran or Calvinist conception of the Eucharist. That is the “faith,” if one can call it that, of the vast majority of Catholics in the Western world.” [20]

The Revival should include a careful examination of our treatment of the Eucharist at Holy Mass. There is no point in teaching about adoration of the Eucharist outside of Mass if our worship of the Eucharist within the the Mass is deficient.

Perhaps these issues will be satisfactorily answered in due time as we learn more about the Revival and its teaching materials, and the USCCB teaching document on the Eucharist is published. [21] I remain wary of a program, a very large program, which will take a lot of time, cost a lot of money, lack direction and focus, make a lot of people tired, and will do nothing to correct the true causes for the loss of faith we now see in the Church. In its methods and processes, and in its focus on symptoms rather than causes, it bears a striking resemblance to the progressive programs we currently see from the U. S. government. And that is not a good thing.

References.

  1. Cozzens, Andrew. “My Flesh For The Life Of The World.” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, General Assembly, Virtual Plenary Session Day 3. June 18, 2021. 00:09:30. https://youtu.be/3AOgMTxoeV8?t=578
  1. Cozzens, Andrew. “My Flesh For The Life Of The World.” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, General Assembly, Virtual Plenary Session Day 3. June 18, 2021. 00:10:18.
    https://youtu.be/3AOgMTxoeV8?t=618
  1. Smith, Gregory. “One-third of U.S. Catholics believe in transubstantiation.” Pew Research Center. August 5, 2019.
    https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/08/05/transubstantiation-eucharist-u-s-catholics/
  1. “Thematic Framework of the 2021-2024 USCCB Strategic Plan.” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Page 7.
    https://www.usccb.org/resources/2021-24%20Strategic%20Plan%20Thematic%20Framework%20(004).pdf
  1. Saad, Lydia. “Catholics’ Church Attendance Resumes Downward Slide.” Gallup. April 9, 2018.
    https://news.gallup.com/poll/232226/church-attendance-among-catholics-resumes-downward-slide.aspx
  1. “Frequently Requested Church Statistics.” Center for Applied Research In The Apostolate. Accessed October 8, 2021.
    https://cara.georgetown.edu/frequently-requested-church-statistics/
  2. Gray, Mark. “The End of 2020.” Nineteen Sixty-four. December 30, 2020. https://nineteensixty-four.blogspot.com/2020/12/the-end-of-2020.html
  1. Gray, Mark and Perl, Paul. “Sacraments Today: Belief and Practice among U. S. Catholics.” Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. p. 57. April 2008.
    https://cara.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/sacraments/sacramentsreport.pdf
  1. Masci, David and Smith, Gregory A. “7 Facts About American Catholics.” Pew Research Center. October 10, 2018.
    https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/10/10/7-facts-about-american-catholics/
  1. Fahmy, Dalia. “8 Key Findings about Catholics and Abortion.” Pew Research Center. October 20, 2020.
    https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/10/20/8-key-findings-about-catholics-and-abortion/
  2. Diamant, Jeff. “How Catholics around the world see same-sex marriage, homosexuality.” Pew Research Center. November 2, 2020. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/11/02/how-catholics-around-the-world-see-same-sex-marriage-homosexuality/
  1. Cozzens, Andrew. “My Flesh For The Life Of The World.” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, General Assembly, Virtual Plenary Session Day 3. June 18, 2021. 00:29:05.
    https://youtu.be/3AOgMTxoeV8?t=1744
  1. Cozzens, Andrew. “My Flesh For The Life Of The World.” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, General Assembly, Virtual Plenary Session Day 3. June 18, 2021. 00:48:05.
    https://youtu.be/3AOgMTxoeV8?t=2885
  2. “Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis Of the Holy Father Benedict XVI to the Bishops, Clergy, Consecrated Persons and the Lay Faithful, On the Eucharist As the Source and Summit of the Church’s Life and Mission.” The Holy See. No. 20, page 15. February 22, 2007.
    https://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_ben-xvi_exh_20070222_sacramentum-caritatis.html
  1. Hardon, John. “Understand your Catholic Faith or Lose It.” Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association: Archives. Accessed October 11, 2021.
    http://www.therealpresence.org/archives/Faith/Faith_015.htm
  2. Cozzens, Andrew. “My Flesh For The Life Of The World.” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, General Assembly, Virtual Plenary Session Day 3. June 18, 2021. 00:12:18. https://youtu.be/3AOgMTxoeV8?t=738
  1. Cozzens, Andrew. “My Flesh For The Life Of The World.” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, General Assembly, Virtual Plenary Session Day 3. June 18, 2021. 00:16:26.
    https://youtu.be/3AOgMTxoeV8?t=986
  1. Cozzens, Andrew. “My Flesh For The Life Of The World.” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, General Assembly, Virtual Plenary Session Day 3. June 18, 2021. 00:37:22.
    https://youtu.be/3AOgMTxoeV8?t=2242
  1. “Mass of the Ages.” Directed by Cameron O’Hearn. 00:34:35
    https://theliturgy.org/watch
  1. Kwasniewski, Peter. “Liturgy expert: Worldwide spread of Novus Ordo has diminished belief in Real Presence.” Lifesite News. October 20, 2020.
    https://www.lifesitenews.com/blogs/liturgy-expert-worldwide-spread-of-novus-ordo-has-diminished-belief-in-real-presence/
  1. “USCCB President: Eucharistic Document Seeks to Deepen ‘Awareness,’ ‘Amazement.’” Catholic News Agency. June 21, 2021.
    https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/248085/usccb-president-eucharistic-document-seeks-to-deepen-awareness-amazement