There have been countless reforms proposed for the Catholic Church. There seems to be a disenchantment with God, Church, and worship that can only be described as an attack on the divine. Those inside and outside the Church attempt to expound on the elephant in the room or the enemy that is tearing her apart.
For those in the Church, there could be a number of factors causing rifts: clerical sex abuse scandals, the bankruptcy of dioceses, diocesan school closures, fiscally struggling and communally dead parishes, and now the possibility of low return to Sunday Mass during this initial period of post-pandemic restrictions. We must remember, however, that behind, below, and at the foundation of all enemies of God and humanity is evil itself. The small showing at Sunday worship is his latest victory, but he is using old tricks.
At the end of April, the Pew Research Center found that 27 percent of Catholics claimed their faith grew stronger because of the novel coronavirus. Their place of worship was not open at this time, but they firmly believed that their faith was enriched, in some way, because of the devastation that surrounded them. Separation from worship enhanced the strength of their faith.
This study also noted that “Christians are more likely than other religious groups in this analysis to say their faith has grown stronger as a result of the pandemic.” Undoubtedly, this is caused by the very fabric that is woven directly into the Christian faith—the reality of suffering and the inability for God to be defeated by hatred, destruction, illness, or any evil for that matter. However, if there was this increase in faith, where are all the Sunday worshipers? Gallup reports that overall Catholic Church membership has dropped by 20 percent over the span of the previous twenty years or so and their next polling (along with Pew Research and others) is estimated to drop even more dramatically due to recent factors.
There seems to be an old issue lurking under the surface. A major cause for several of the aforementioned issues in the Church is found in the clerical sex abuse scandals. Only a year ago, the Pew Research Center recounted their findings on the effects of sexual abuse: “Roughly one-in-four Catholics (27 percent) say they have gone to Mass less often in response to the reports, and a similar share (26 percent) say they have reduced the amount of money they donate to their parish or diocese… About one-in-five (18 percent) say they have expressed support or encouragement to the priests at their parish.”
Whether we are speaking about the negative impact of clerical abuse or the heavy weight placed on parishes’ capacity to capture the attention of the faithful during their live-streamed Masses, the issue is the same. Many Catholics rate the Mass on the personality and homily of the priest rather than the living presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Mass attendance and financial support of parishes across the country are bearing the weight of these findings. Another study found this daunting statistic: “Nearly seven-in-ten Catholics (69 percent) say they personally believe that during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine used in Communion ‘are symbols’ of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”
The Catholic Church has proclaimed the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist since it was spoken of by Christ himself. He taught the crowds, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day” (John 6:54). At the Last Supper, Jesus said, “This is my body… this is my blood” (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:17-19; 1 Corinthians 11:24). Notice, He did not say this is a symbol or a mere reference to His presence, but that it actually is Him.
Those inside and outside the Church draw up solutions and programs that sound great but will never truly fix the issue, which is the lack of understanding that Christ is the one in our tabernacles and the one who acts in the sacraments, period. The holiness, or lack thereof, of the clergy cannot decrease the substance of what is offered to us at the Sacrifice of the Mass and in the sacraments. When we replace looking to God with looking to men, and those men fail us, it ends up dismantling our faith.
As Covid-19 restrictions are eased on our places of worship, the impact on church attendance has been evident. Mass times are infrequent and our churches often fail to meet even the limited capacity imposed by ordinaries. While the fear of the pandemic may be a large contributor to this reality, it may simply be a conclusion to an old issue: many Catholics simply do not believe what Jesus and the Church teach concerning what happens at Mass.
Whether we understand it fully, or not, Jesus clearly taught that the reason for us to be at Mass is Him—not the priest, not the homily and not even the commandment to keep holy the sabbath. The reason to go to church is His real presence, and the fact that human beings were created for divinely-unifying worship.
Therefore, go to church, because despite imperfect leaders and these challenging times, we can decide to take Him at His word, that the bread and wine are more than a symbol, and that they actually become His Body and Blood.
Be there to encounter God, and let’s unify the Church through an intense reverence for Holy Communion. Let us return to Mass.
Image: The Catholic Mass by Fyodor Bronnikov