Joseph Shaw

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How priests can help Catholics believe in Real Presence once again

September 5, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — Recently, it was reported that more than half of self-described Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence at all. As I have written before, this represents an emergency, a pastoral crisis, which has received a somewhat lethargic response. Not long before the survey about beliefs came out, Stephen Bullivant’s survey on lapsation recorded lapsed Catholics complaining that their parish catechists didn’t believe the Faith and were not passing it on. It seems that some of our lapsed brothers and sisters would like to insist on higher standards of orthodoxy than some of our priests and bishops.

Apart from catechesis and preaching, one traditional response to error about one doctrine or another is to emphasize the correct teaching liturgically. Bowing or kneeling at references to the Incarnation (in the Creed, when we say “and was made man”), for example, helps to hammer home the truth about that. I am a strong believer in the power of the liturgy to reinforce the Faith: for one thing, it is impossible to get adult Catholics to go to catechism classes, but if they come to church at all, they will experience the liturgy. Can Eucharistic Adoration help, then, in restoring the sense among Catholics that Christ is truly present in the Host?

It might, but we should beware of problems with this idea. One problem is that, by their nature, Benediction and Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament expose the Sacrament to disrespect and even abuse. The Blessed Sacrament is normally kept locked in an immovable box on the altar. We know He is there, and we can pray before Him, and it is a pity if people chatter or conduct profane business in front of the tabernacle. It is far worse, however, if they do those things before the Blessed Sacrament exposed. If it were not, then exposing Him would not mean anything.

Now, many people do respond to the heightened sense of the sacred created by Benediction and Exposition, and these practices increase their devotion. But it does so on the basis of an existing formation in those individuals. Those nominal Catholics who do not believe in the Real Presence and pay no attention to the tabernacle will have little reason to take Exposition more seriously. They think it is just a symbol, however it is presented.

Another way of expressing the problem is this. One thing that can effectively communicate the meaning of something is to see how other people behave around it. If a non-Catholic witnesses Mass and sees people kneeling at certain points, for example, this signals quite powerfully the importance of those points in the liturgy. Suppose a non-Catholic, or a nominal Catholic who does not believe in the Real Presence, wanders into a chapel where Exposition is going on, what is there to see? Too often, what he will see is neglect: a chapel that is almost or even completely empty of worshipers. The Blessed Sacrament exposed, they could conclude, is of a similar level of importance to the statue of a saint.

This is not the way to revalue the Blessed Sacrament in the eyes of those who do not understand. It would be better, actually, to show respect to Our Lord in the Eucharist by locking Him securely in a veiled ciborium inside a veiled tabernacle. That shows that we are taking the whole thing seriously.

I am not suggesting that Benediction and Exposition should be stopped, or that people are wrong to promote them. My point, rather, is about what exactly we think these things are going to achieve, and how. The point of them is to give Catholics who believe deeply in the Real Presence an opportunity to honor Christ in the Blessed Sacrament with ceremonies, incense, sacred music, and prayer. This devotion will bring blessings on those who take part, and on the parish. It does not function, on its own, as an effective liturgical catechesis about the Real Presence, and in this regard, it can even backfire.

For that purpose, I would suggest that priests and others involved in the liturgy consider a quite different approach. Those who do not understand about the Real Presence will learn from how others, those more closely engaged in the ceremonies, behave toward Our Lord. How does the priest handle the consecrated host? Casually, or with respect? Are the sacred vessels that hold Him worthy of doing so — are they the best the parish can afford, or are they deliberately made of non-precious materials? Who handles them, and how? Who distributes Holy Communion, and how? Is anyone concerned about spillages of the Precious Blood, or fragments of the Host?

It may not be a simple matter to get members of the congregation to behave differently, but they will be influenced, without even thinking about it consciously, by what is going on in the sanctuary. There, during Mass, and especially during Communion, is the place to start showing what we really believe.

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Joseph Shaw

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Dr Joseph Shaw has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University, where he also gained a first degree in Politics and Philosophy and a graduate Diploma in Theology. He has published on Ethics and Philosophy of Religion and has edited a forthcoming book on the liturgy: The Case for Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Position Papers on the Extraordinary Form (Angelico Press). He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and Secretary of Una Voce International. He teaches Philosophy in Oxford University and lives nearby with his wife and eight children.