During a recent Sunday Mass, I witnessed an incident that I hope I never see again. A child whom I know is still receiving catechism classes in preparation for First Communion received the Holy Eucharist with the family. Since the child is older than the other children in the class, the priest didn’t realize anything was amiss. I teach the class and I know that the child does not have a clear understanding of what and Who the Holy Eucharist is.
After Mass, I asked the adult family members why they allowed the child to receive Communion. “The Protestants all do it,” they reasoned.
“We’re not Protestant,” I replied. “We’re Catholic.”
The Catholic Mass is not the same as a Protestant service and no practicing Catholic should ever think the way that family does. We know, or we should know, that the focus of Holy Mass is the Eucharistic Sacrifice that takes place at the altar and only Catholics who understand this truth and who are in a state of grace are able to receive Communion.
Sadly, the family I confronted reflects some troubling statistics. A 2005 Gallup Poll of 875 American Catholics showed that while all respondents identified as Catholic, only 76% felt that the Sacraments, including reception of the Holy Eucharist, were important. A mere 41% of respondents agreed that the teachings of the Catholic Church were important. Just 30% of respondents believed that in Holy Communion, they were actually receiving the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus under the appearance of bread and wine. Statistics in the United States and Canada show that 39% of Americans attend Sunday Mass on a regular basis while in Canada, regular Sunday Mass attendance is around 30%. While some of the reasons for these sad statistics are societal, we can’t rule out factors in the Liturgy as well.
Central to the Catholic Faith is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. But these days, the reasons why we go to church—both to commemorate Christ’s Sacrifice and to participate in it—have been overshadowed by modern elements. Music that takes away from the sacredness of the Liturgy instead of complementing it, more importance placed on Father’s homily than on his role in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, tabernacles that are hidden from sight, taking away the crucifix and kneelers, and an emphasis on the community “meal” have all clouded the true beauty and purpose of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
What if we brought back all that is beautiful, reverent, and sacred in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? What if our priests celebrated Mass ad orientem to direct and lead us to what should be the focus: the altar where the Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world? What if we received much needed catechesis from our priests? And what if we all acknowledged our unworthiness to touch our Lord and therefore received Him only on the tongue while kneeling down at the communion rail? Then there would be no mistaking the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for anything other than what it is.
A friend who is a priest explains the Eucharistic sacrifice this way: “It is on the altar that the sacrifice of Jesus becomes present. When Jesus Christ becomes present on the altar—when the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus—we are then truly united to heaven. What happens on the altar is an awesome mystery. Both the altar and the tabernacle are central. On the altar, the Lamb of God—the infinite sacrifice—is truly present. In the tabernacle, the Lamb of God—the Eucharistic sacrifice—is truly present. When we lose our focus on the altar, the priest starts to become the focus, the community, the music—all of these take over and the altar becomes ignored.”
Why is it important to unite ourselves with Jesus in the Eucharistic sacrifice that occurs at the altar? Another friend who is a priest adds: “The proclamation of Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, that we make each and every day at the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass actively engages us in the work of salvation. Like Him we endeavour to alleviate the burden of sin that weighs heavily on humanity. This has always been the work of Catholics who rightly understand that human nature can be restored and healed and sanctified by grace.”
When the focus of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is brought back to the altar and the Eucharistic sacrifice that happens there, we can’t help but respond with reverence and in faith. When we truly believe what Jesus meant when He said “this is my Body” and “this is my Blood” we will, as my friend said, understand that it is Jesus who “we endeavour to hear and to see, to love and to serve. And from here, we will engage the world to participate more fully in the work of our redemption and the salvation of the world.”
Photo: Pope Francis celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass ad orientum. Source: the Facebook page of Monsignor Guido Marini.