Today our Church celebrates the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, Corpus Christi, for those who prefer the Latin! It’s a day to remember our Catholic teaching that Jesus appears to us in the species of bread and wine, actually giving the world his own body and blood as real food for our spiritual journey. This core teaching sets us apart from many other Christian denominations who teach that the elements merely “represent” or “symbolize” Jesus but are not actually his own body and blood.
In 1965, the Second Vatican Council taught that:
“The Most Blessed Eucharist contains the entire spiritual boon of the Church, that is, Christ himself, our Pasch and Living Bread, by the action of the Holy Spirit through his very flesh vital and vitalizing, giving life to men (and women) who are thus invited and encouraged to offer themselves, their labors and all created things, together with him.”
Because the Eucharist shows itself as the source and summit of the whole work of preaching the Gospel, means that we cannot believe anything else more central than that. Belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is essential for all Catholics, despite perhaps not fully understanding or being able to adequately explain the mystery.
As we continue in our series on how we revitalize and re-open our parish, this week we find ourselves at discussion point #2: Identifying the Essentials.
I’m guessing that a bit of context and some recent history may help. For many of our parishioners who participated in the life of the parish in 1962-1965, the years of Vatican II, you will remember this parish (as most parishes) engaged only with a few things: sacred ministers, sacraments, schools and some service. Priests, religious brothers, and religious sisters directed and organized the model - and surely not all as equal partners.
The role and responsibility of the parishioner was often referred to simply (and unfortunately) as pray, pay and obey! A certain English Monsignor of the 19th century quipped with regard to the laity, “to hunt, to short, to entertain - these matters they understand, but to meddle with ecclesiastical matters they have no right at all?” Time has shown how wrong he was!
Looking deeper, before the Council laity were passive spectators in the liturgy, often praying devotional prayers while they were “hearing” Mass since the readings were in Latin. Of course, lay ushers collected and counted the money, and often the choir and its director were lay. As for the apostolic life of the church, laity were involved in charitable works of mercy through such groups as the Knights of Columbus and the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. However, teaching of the faith was predominantly the role of the priests and the sisters.
Then along came the Vatican Council when Saint, then Pope John XXIII “opened wide the windows of the Church” ushering in a more expansive vision and a more inclusionary model - one where leadership and direction was opened to and encouraged of lay people too! Over a three-years period more than 2,000 bishops from all over the world, assisted by thousands of advisors, issued 16 landmark documents. While no new dogma as issued, the council transformed the church from an exclusive to an inclusive institution.
We live now as Catholics in 2020, days that have been marked for human history as challenged by the world-wide scourge of COVID-19 and more recently by protests and movements against racism. Additionally, we continue to suffer from a serious decline in Church attendance. One study shows that from 2014 to 2017, an average of 39% of Catholics reported attending church in the past seven days. This is down from an average of 45% from 2005 to 2008 and represents a steep decline from 75% in 1955. (Https://news.gallup.com/poll/232226/church-attendance-among-catholics-resumes-downward-slide.aspx)
In this context we need to ask some important questions:
How do we identify the essentials?
How do we see and respond to the signs of the times?
How do we work together, each with our unique gifts, to make disciples of Jesus?
While my thoughts are still forming, and I welcome your thoughts, I would submit the following are essentials for us:
Proper celebration of the sacraments - with the Eucharist being pre-eminent.
Generous service - especially to benefit the poor and most vulnerable.
Re-igniting growth in understanding and teaching our Catholic Faith.
Celebrating the dignity and worth of all human life.
Authors, including James Mallon, have written that we are at the end of Christendom suggesting that what we have no longer reflects the reality around us. What we have is designed to reach a world that no longer exists. To be successful, and quite frankly to survive, we will need to move our parish model from maintenance to mission, focusing better and more generously on what we can do for all people, especially those people who are on the fringe, who have walked, or run away from our Church.
Success will not be achievable by circling the wagons, getting defensive, or bemoaning our new reality. These times give us new opportunities to embrace our mission with a new vitality. As mission will drive our structure, we will have to take a hard look at all our resources and how we use them. Our current reality will force us to make difficult decisions.
With your help, I know that we can bold do what needs to be done. With your support, I know that we can re-open and re-invigorate our parish not just from the closure caused by the pandemic, but to advance our vision, to make disciples of Jesus. The pruning may hurt, but new life is not possible without it.
I hope you will join us on this exciting journey - re-committing to being engaged members who are enthusiastic and excited about being a part of the mission of Jesus. Future generations are counting on you! I’m counting on you - but more importantly, so is the Lord!