Listen to the show:
Today’s host(s): Scot Landry and Fr. Chris O’Connor
Today’s guest(s): Joshua Phelps, Associate Director of the Office of Pastoral Planning for the Archdiocese of Boston
Today’s topics: Cardinal Seán on “The Eucharist: The Center of Catholic Life”
Summary of today’s show: In a speech that goes from Papua New Guinea to Flannery O’Connor, Cardinal Seán O’Malley says we have a crisis of absenteeism from Sunday Mass and calls for a renewed vigor from disciples to invite Catholics to return to the Eucharist. Scot Landry, Fr. Chris O’Connor, and Joshua Phelps consider the Cardinal’s recent speech at Boston College and unpack its implications for the Church today as we face this crisis.
1st segment: Scot welcomed Fr. Chris back to the show. He also welcomed Joshua Phelps back to the show. Two weeks ago, Cardinal Seán gave an address called “The Eucharist: The Center of Catholic Life” to members of the Boston College community as part of their Church in the 21st Century program. The Cardinal begins by telling a story, which he often does in talks and homilies.
When I was in the seminary, our Provincial, Fr. Victor, wrote a letter to Rome in which he said that our mission in Puerto Rico was flourishing and that our Province was prepared to take on a second mission. He said that he wanted the most difficult mission in the world. The response was lightening quick saying that we should open a mission in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. The guardian, Fr. Fermin Schmidt, from the Capuchin College in Washington was named the first Bishop and friars were sent. Three of my classmates went. It was reported back to us that when the friars landed in a field, the natives who had never seen Europeans or an airplane were quite curious. They asked if the plane was a male or a female. They said if it was a female they wanted an egg.
Many years later a young friar I ordained who was working in Papua New Guinea came to see me on his home visit. He had glorious pictures of smiling natives, with bones in their noses, feathers in their hair and little else in the way of clothing. He announced proudly, “This is my parish council.” I was particularly intrigued because one of my own pastors had just told me that his parishioners were not ready for a parish council.
In the same vein, at World Youth Day in Cologne, Pope Benedict addressed the Bishops of Germany at the seminary. He referred to his native country, Germany “as a mission land.” This is true for so many places in the Western World including our own beloved country, where secularism and de-Christianization are gaining ground. The Holy Father said, “So many people do not know God. They do know Christ. There is a new form of paganism, and it is not enough for us to strive to preserve the existing flock.”
We need to find new ways of bringing the Gospel to the contemporary world, of proclaiming Christ anew and of implanting the faith. As Pope Benedict said, we are not here just for “the existing flock.” We must be a missionary Church.
Fr. Chris said it’s a reminder to everyone that every single member of the church is called to be a missionary by virtue of their baptism. The cardinal sets up a contrast between Papua New Guinea and the United States. It’s a reminder to us that there needs to be a missionary spirit in all of us and a return to radically proclaiming the Gospel. The fact that Pope Benedict this past year opened a new Holy See office for the New Evangelization, which means not simply evangelization to far-reaching missionary lands, but to Europe and the United States where Christianity is almost taken for granted. Scot said it’s to re-evangelize those who have been baptized Catholics.
Scot said you don’t think of Boston as a place where a new form of paganism is gaining ground. Most people would think of Boston as very Catholic. Josh said Boston is very culturally Catholic. He said people often think of the new evangelization as new methods, it’s really about a new target of evangelization. While people may have heard the name of Jesus, they may not have heard the message of Christ in a while.
Scot said the when the Holy Father talks about the New Evangelization, he says the content of our effort is not a bunch of information about theChurch, it’s the person of Christ. If you’re not receiving Christ in the Eucharist every Sunday, you’re not in deep relationship with him. Fr. Chris said the Cardinal will mention being part of the family, part of the vine. He said Pope Benedict uses the image of stained glass windows: from the outside you can’t experience their beauty. You must come into the Church to see the beauty. Similarly, in order to know and love Christ, you have to be part of his body, which is the Church.
Josh said the image of the Papua New Guinea parish council, it is a picture of zeal for building up the kingdom of God in our communities. It’s no surprise that people who get Jesus, get the Church.
Our task is to turn consumers into disciples and disciple-makers. We need to prepare men and women who witness to the faith and to not send people into the witness protection program. As the U.S. Bishops wrote in Go and Make Disciples: “Every Catholic can be a minister of welcome, reconciliation, and understanding to those who have stopped practicing the faith.
In the new millennium, business as usual is not enough. We must be a team of missionaries, moving from a maintenance mode to a missionary one.
Scot said we talk a lot in the Church about moving from maintenance to mission. Fr. Chris said we can get comfortable with the status quo, forgetting that our churches should be overflowing with people. During Mass, when he sees out the open doors of the church and sees car driving past, he often wonders if they know what is happening in the church. He prays for greater recognition of the importance of the Eucharist to the world. The cardinal often tells priests and seminarians that they are called to be fishers of men, not keepers of the aquarium, seeking out disciples.
Josh said the new paganism is shorthand for many of the things people are placing as foremost in their lives, including consumerism and materialism. We see how popular holidays become for the trappings, not for the meaning they have. The Church is not offering entertainment, but an encounter with the divine.
Scot said he thinks the consumers as “what do I get?” where the disciple asks “How do I give? How do I respond to what I have received?” True disciples seek to give away what they have received.
We must ask ourselves, what does it mean to live in a culture of unbelief – a culture which does not even know it does not believe because it still lives on the residue of Christian civilization? As Hauerwas has expressed it so well: “the church exists today as resident aliens, an adventurous colony in a society of unbelief. As a society of unbelief, Western culture is devoid of the sense of journey, of adventure, because it lacks belief in much more than the cultivation of an ever shrinking horizon of self-preservation and self expression.”
Scot said the message is that the Church used to be the primary culture in which Massachusetts once operated, where most people were Catholic and if not Catholic, at least faithful religious believers. Now we are aliens in this culture. Fr. Chris said the Christian is the salmon swimming upstream against the currents of secularism. He’s reminded how some people recently tried to organize a public rosary on public property in Upton, the town’s initial response was to deny that right. As Catholics we can’t be abrasive about our faith, but we need a confidence about our faith, that what we believe is true.
Scot quoted Archbishop Timothy Dolan that Catholic belief is proposed, not imposed. Too often militant secularists take the solitary example of the angry or extreme Catholic and say that’s how all Catholics are. The way we present our faith as an invitation than if it’s imposed.
Josh said there’s a reason why the Church talks about the family as the domestic church. It’s virtually impossible to be a parent without being generous. you see how much you receive in being generous to your children. How said it is to think that there is a Western society that loses sight of life as a journey. The Eucharist is where you get the food for that journey.
Scot said there is a growing hedonism in society, which seeks pleasure as the greatest good and pain as the greatest evil. Raising kids isn’t easy and difficult, even though there is much love. Hedonists only want pleasure without pain. They view others for what they can give, not because they have inherent value.
2nd segment: Scot picked up where he left off in the Cardinal’s talk:
To be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ in the Catholic Church is much more than a head trip. It is a way of life together, the whole person is engaged in the process. Education for this journey must therefore be experiential, personal, engaging and life-giving. We learn discipleship the way we learn a language, by being part of a community that speaks that language. Our young Catholics must be mentored in the faith by others, either peers or older Catholics who are walking the walk.
Scot said he’d never heard that way to pick up faith is like the way we pick up language. Fr. Chris said Christ called us to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, and soul. You don’t learn a language by yourself. It takes a community. Similarly, it takes a community to raise us in faith. It takes apostles, priests, religious educators, parents, and neighbors.
Confirmation sponsors are often those in their lives who witnessed to them in the faith and became good examples. Blessed John XXIII has a great quote: “Lord, let me live my life in such a way that when people see me they say, if this is the servant, how much greater must the master be?”
The Holy Father describes the university’s privileged task to unite the two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition as though they were antithetical: “the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the font of truth.”
The Catholic community needs our institutions of higher learning to be venues of evangelization and faith formation. In the past there is often been the presumption that young people come to our universities fully catechized and initiated into the life of the Catholic community; and therefore, the best way to serve them was to expose them to a highly speculative theology and to present the Church’s Magisterium as simply another option. Today I hope it is obvious to all of us that young Catholics often lack a sound catechetical formation. I am comforted that when I meet with the six presidents of Catholic colleges in the archdiocese, they all assure me that although there is much religious illiteracy, they have never experienced a generation more open to the faith. Therefore I urge all of our Catholic colleges and universities to provide our Catholic students with the opportunity to learn about their faith and to receive a sound catechetical formation, that presents the church’s teachings and traditions enthusiastically and accurately. Nothing is sadder than when in our own institutions, those who have the responsibility of teaching the rich theology of our church present the Magisterium in a dismissive and condescending way and fail to recognize the profound philosophical and theological traditions that are part of the treasury of Catholicism.
Josh said he was someone who came to college lukewarm in his faith and graduated with a greater zeal, so it is possible to go through the university and come to a greater experience of Christ. His conversion came in a class that walked him through an explanation of the Catechism of the Church and it was the farthest thing from a dry experience.
Scot asked Fr. Chris to explain what the Magisterium is: The Pope and the bishops who share the teaching, governing, and sanctifying role in the Church as handed down from the apostles. Scot said we trust that the Holy Spirit preserves the teaching of the Church in the areas of faith and morals, so we know who to follow when there is a dispute over what is true. Fr. Chris reminds the academic community that true theology is revealing to people in new ways the same truth that has been with us as a received from Christ. The Cardinal makes it clear that the search for the Truth and the knowledge that Christ is the Truth is not a contradiction or opposed.
He said the bishops are conservators of the faith, to protect the flock from any error that will lead us astray in our faith and keep the faith conserved. The Church doesn’t change with the times because what Christ gave us will always remain the same, even if we express it differently at times.
As your pastor I wish to share with you the deep concern expressed so often by our priests, deacons, religious and lay leaders; namely, the crisis of absenteeism at the Sunday Eucharist. This needs to be one of the focal points of pastoral concern for all who love our church. Our Catholic colleges have the unique opportunity and I daresay a responsibility to address this problem. The Pew Study has indicated that it is in the late teens and early 20s that young Catholics will make those commitments and decisions that will affect their practice of the faith for the rest of their lives. That is precisely the demographic which is in our universities and in the military service. As an archdiocese we have tried to dedicate as many resources as possible to this demographic. We probably send more priests to be chaplains in the armed services than any other diocese in the United States – and we have sent very fine priests. I am told that there could be almost a half-million university students within the Archdiocese of Boston with a large percentage of them are Catholic. The last two years we have brought the “F.O.C.U.S. Ministry” to work in two of the universities, and our university chaplains are working very hard to make the church present on the campuses. As I am sure is the case here at BC.
Scot said the Cardinal describes this as a crisis of absenteeism. Josh said in his work in pastoral planning they are discovering that people who graduate from Catholic colleges with ministry degrees aren’t going to work in parishes because they have received the personal formation during their college years to live their faith actively.
Scot has always viewed people not going to Mass as an active choice. Fr. Chris said absenteeism is an active choice, not being present at some place where you should be present. This idea of absenteeism shows us that we have brothers and sisters who are absent from Mass. It is partly the responsibility of those who are present to be the missionary inviting others to come back and show them how essential Mass is. Josh said a friend who regularly skipped Mass was told that he was actively hurting the community by being absent. We build up the body of Christ by our presence.
The Cardinal then shares stories of people who say why they come to Mass.
When I was a seminarian, I remember reading an article in the newspaper, an interview with Flannery O’Connor, about what it was like to grow up Catholic in the South. Obviously there were very very few Catholics in those days and many prejudices against them. In this interview Flannery O’Connor talks about her best friend who was a little Baptist girl. Flannery often invited her to accompany her to mass. Finally the little girl got permission from her mom to go to Mass with Flannery one Sunday. Flannery could not wait for the Mass to be over so she could ask her little friend: “did you like it, did you like it?” The little girl said: “WOW. You Catholics really have something special. The sermon was so boring, the music was lousy, the priest mumbled the prayers in a language nobody could understand, and all those people were there!” Obviously they were not there to be entertained. I’m sure that most of them were probably there because they couldn’t live without the Sunday Mass.”
Fr. Chris said Cardinal Van Thuan, the Vietnamese cardinal who was imprisoned by the Communists for many years and was tortured, regularly celebrated Mass from memory with a little scrap of bread and a little drop of wine in his hand. He said, “The Eucharist is our energy. Lights can’t work without electricity. Cars don’t run without gasoline. Why then should the Catholic without receiving the Eucharist expect to be able to function and live the way Christ is calling him.” He added another quote from Flannery O’Connor in a letter to an agnostic friend: “If the Eucharist ain’t the Body and Blood of Christ, to hell with it.”
The truth is that the Catholic Church sprang up around the Eucharist. Christ commanded us, “do this in memory of me.” Ever since, we have been doing this: celebrating his Eucharist, changing bread and wine into his body and blood so that the good Shepherd can continue to feed his flock. I was pleased that this year on World Mission Sunday by chance the Gospel was the great commandment of love. I fear that often when we think of Christian charity we think only of feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and elderly, providing for the homeless and the poor. But if we truly love our neighbor we will likewise be very concerned that many people are spiritually homeless, spiritually hungry, spiritually imprisoned and spiritually sick. The church exists to evangelize, to announce the good news of God’s love and his desire that we follow him as part of his people. Discipleship is never a solo flight, but rather an adventure we live together. And at the heart of that adventure is the Eucharistic banquet where Calvary and the Last Supper become present in our lives and history.
Scot said the Cardinal has often said we do a good job in Boston with the corporal works of mercy, but from a spiritual standpoint do we pray as much as we should and invite others to partake of the Eucharist, or are we too shy to say something as simple, “Would you like to come to Mass with me Sunday?” Josh said the statistics said Catholics are more generous with their money than non-Catholics in Boston, but from a spiritual viewpoint, participation in Mass is declining at about 3% per year.
Scot said there are so many activities that Catholics do that connect them with Christ, but there’s only one he said to do in memory of him: The Mass. He thinks of all the people who are “spiritual, but not religious”, which means they want to pray in their own way, not the way Jesus asked us to pray. Fr. Chris said when one member of the Body of Christ is absent, the whole body suffers so it is essential that all come to the Eucharist.
Typically we think of the Eucharist as that which sends us out to do the corporal works of mercy, but the Cardinal reminds us that it’s not enough to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, but we have to have a personal relationship with Christ. How can you give what you do not have?
In a society that is so highly individualistic, described in Professor Putnam’s Bowling Alone, where each successive generation of Americans spends more time alone, eating alone, living alone, spending hours alone before television or computer screen, we must communicate that discipleship means being part of Jesus’ family, part of the community. In a culture that is addicted to entertainment some Christian churches have turned themselves into entertainment centers. In the Eucharist we have something much more important than entertainment, we have love taken to the extreme. Our God has made a gift of himself to us as he invites us to wash each other’s feet and to make a gift of our lives to God and to others.
Love taken to the extreme is the Eucharist. The Mass unites Calvary, heaven, and all of us taken together. Josh said as a parent he sometimes think of what he would do for his children and we too are children of God.
Scot said the fact that the Christian life is a family adventure. Too many people are depriving themselves of so many graces that come from being part of this family and this sacrament. Fr. Chris said the typical parish church shows the richness and diversity of our faith in all the different kinds of people and what brings us together is nothing but the love of Jesus Christ himself. In talking about the washing of feet, the Cardinal is referring to Holy thursday where he washed the feet of the apostles, reminding us to serve our neighbor. We have to be connected with one another in order to be connected to God. It also shows that connection between charity and the Eucharist.
Today people speak much about diversity. I don’t think there is another organization in the world that is as diverse as the Catholic Church. As some pundit once said about the church, “here comes everybody”. In reality we are over 1 billion Catholics in the world today and we come in all sizes shapes and colors, and we’re all the Church. In the archdiocese, and here at BC, more and more are arriving from all over the globe. Many of them are Catholics and we want them to feel a part of our home despite the differences of language or custom. At the Eucharist all the barriers and frontiers that divide us melt away and we’re forged into a new solidarity, a new identity in the Body of Christ.
Josh said we experience that melting away of barriers every day in Boston. The Catholic community in Brockton is a great example of this, where people come from various backgrounds to worship together.
For us, each Sunday is the day of the Resurrection. On that first Easter, Jesus appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. The disciples were confused, hurt, full of fear and doubts. They were trying to determine what to make of Jesus death and the empty tomb. They discuss these developments with Jesus whom they did not recognize. When they reached the village they asked Jesus to stay with them. St. Luke says when they arrived at Emmaus, Jesus made as if he were going to continue on his journey. It was only the insistent invitation of the two disciples that brought Jesus to their table. I think that’s a very important detail of this Gospel. The Lord does not force himself on us, he likes to be invited into our lives. When they sat down for the evening meal, Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it and began to give it to them. At that point, the disciples recognize Jesus. Suddenly Jesus vanished but the bread remains. Then the disciples immediately return to Jerusalem to tell the apostles that Jesus had truly risen and appeared to them.
We too live in times where many people are confused hurt and full of fear. Jesus wants to meet us in the same way he met the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Like them, we will recognize Jesus and encounter him most profoundly in the breaking of the bread at Mass. The Eucharist is the fulfillment of Jesus promise’ to be with us until the end of time. I pray that our love for the Mass and our Eucharistic amazement will increase so that our hearts will be burning within us when we hear the Sacred Scriptures proclaimed and observe the breaking of the bread. Let us do what those two disciples on the road to Emmaus did. Let us rush to tell the world that Christ is alive and that our family must gather at the Lord’s Table to experience God love, to learn our own identity and to fill our mission together. Let us say to the world: we have seen the Lord and we have recognized Him in the breaking of the bread.
Scot said he loves the Emmaus story. We empathize with the disciples who were left despondent. Fr. Chris said he loves there’s a little bit of sarcasm in the man who says to Jesus, you must be the only one in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard the news. It’s in the breaking of the bread, the offering of the Eucharist, that they recognize Christ. We have to stop on our road to recognize him in the breaking of the bread and then to go out to evangelize others. Scot said it’s important for us to express to those around us that Jesus Christ is real.
Josh said the disciples were dejected, they thought it was all over. It wasn’t a rational process that convinced them otherwise, but the power of the Eucharist. Scot emphasized that this wasn’t a parable, but a historical event. Jesus chose to make himself known in the breaking of the bread so we would know the best way to encounter to him.
The Cardinal gave this address as a precursor to a pastoral letter he will be issuing within the next few weeks on the topic of attendance at Sunday Mass.