Thursday, October 13, 2005

Reduced Eucharistic Veneration and its Correlation with Reduced Vocations to the Priesthood

Many Catholics appear to be rightly concerned about the reduced number of vocations in particular to the priesthood. Apparently, so is the media – whose mocked concern is centered upon the need to discredit the Catholic Church, the priesthood, chastity etc etc... at every possible opportunity that avails itself.

In our parish, probably like in many other parishes around the US, we have set up a vocations committee to address the issue of reduced vocations to the religious life and in particular to the priesthood, and to try and find a way of promoting vocations to the priesthood and religious life among the parishioners and in particular among the youth. It is a problem that should be on everybody’s agenda – every priest, deacon, brother, nun, and lay person – irrespective of what our vocation is. As I stated in a previous posting, the word “vocations” is derived from the latin vocatio which means summons, and from vocare to call. We are ALL CALLED – and we tend to forget that!

Problem 1 – The lack of understanding of the greatness of the mystery of the Holy Eucharist.

A. The Stats

Statistics show that the national Catholic population has just under doubled since 1965, while priests have decreased. From my rough estimation, it appears as if, at the moment, nationally there is 1 priest per 1500 Catholics. Two confounding statistics to this data, which I do not have available as I write this, are –

1. the percentage of those “Catholics” that attend Mass and are practicing of their faith &

2. the percentage of the priests that are not near or at retiring age

B. The Problem

We can be and tend to be judgmental about the current situation in the Church, often pointing fingers in all directions, while forgetting that in pointing one finger towards someone else, we point three towards ourselves. However, I assert with great conviction that the problem is not simply rooted in the paganism of modern society that surrounds each and every one of us, but it is also and probably more detrimentally rooted in the lack of faith that WE as Catholics have. These two factors explain the reasons for the state of society and our Church.

We are coming to the close of the Year of the Eucharist. It is fitting therefore, in the context of my discussion here today, that I discuss this great mystery at this point and to some extent, since I truly believe that the lack of appreciation of this, most Holy of all Mysteries, is probably the primary causative factor for all the problems we face today as a Church and society. I believe it is the sole cause for the decrease in numbers of priests, the decreased attendance to church, decreased youth participation etc.. etc… We have lost the conviction the apostles had. We have lost our Faith.

The Lord said, "If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this sycamore tree, 'Be uprooted, and be planted in the sea,' and it would obey you. (Luke 17:6) and again “He said to them, "Because of your little faith. Amen, I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Mt 17:20)…..How true ring these words of chastisement! We are all guilty of this at some point in our life. We all need to work on it & now more than ever. Christ’s words are echoed by a modern day saint living among us … Mother Angelica of the Nuns of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Hanceville, Alabama, who has said that “If we are not ready to do the ridiculous, God will not do the miraculous”.

To summarize – I believe that the problem is nothing more than a lack of serious Faith in God. This ultimately becomes reflected in how we perceive the Mass, the sacraments, Eucharist etc. etc. resulting in a withered faith.

C. Transubstantiation, the Body of Christ & the Priesthood

Faith confers community, vanquishes loneliness. He who believes is not alone”[1]. This is a concept we need to grasp. St. Paul greatly emphasizes the fact that we comprise the one Body of Christ. To the Corinthians he writes “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because the load of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Cor, 10:16-17)

Therefore, being “one in the body of Christ”, can only be possible if Christ is truly present in the Eucharist and therefore present in us when we receive Him. This is an essential pillar, an essential dogma of our faith – and it is essential that we believe and proclaim this – it is what makes or breaks us. There is no other way around this argument for several reasons:

1. Blood in an infusion bag in a hospital is nothing more than just that – blood in a bag & belongs to no particular person. On its own it serves no function – it is meaningless. However that blood becomes part of a person once it is infused. Furthermore, it is all and not part of the blood that now becomes an integral part and gives life to the body. Likewise, with the Body of Christ. Simplistically explained, we can only be part of the Body of Christ if we receive Him (c.f. blood in my analogy) i.e. only if He is truly present in the Eucharist. To extend the analogy further, if a finger becomes disconnected from the body and the blood of that person stops running through it, that finger is no longer part of that body. Thus it is with the body of Christ – It is only with His true presence in the Host that we can be part of His mystical body. If, then, Christ was not truly present in the Host, we would not be part of His mystical body – we could not be. Moreover, as with blood, where all and not part of it returns to the heart and lungs to be re-oxygenated so as to give life to the body, so it is that we receive the whole of Christ’s Body, Blood and Divinity in order to be whole in Him and have life in Him.

2. Christ was not speaking figuratively when he said “Amen, Amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood remains in Me, and I in him.” (John 6:53-56).

When Christ wanted to speak figuratively he did so and he explained teachings in parables. When he said this statement however, he never backed away from it, never reworded it. In fact “many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him” (John 6:66). Seeing this did not change what He had said. On the contrary He turned to His apostles and challenged them -”Do you also want to leave?” (John 6:67).

Christ’s words are not easy to understand and yet we need to believe and have faith in what he taught us for “blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (John 20:29). Let us have more faith then many of his disciples did. In the same chapter where Jesus reveals to us His true presence in the sacrament that he was about to institute on the last day of his life, John also tells us that “there are some of you who do not believe”. Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him." (John 6:64). Given the context of this whole discussion in John’s gospel it appears that this was the downfall of Judas. Let is not let it be our downfall too. However believing it is not enough. We need to proclaim it.

So what is the connection between the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the priesthood? In Dominicae Cenae – On the Mystery and Worship of the Eucharist, Pope John Paul II said “The Eucharist is the principal and central raison d’etre of the sacrament of the priesthood, which effectively came into being at the moment of the institution of the Eucharist, and together with it……… The priest fulfills his principal mission and is manifested in all his fullness when he celebrates the Eucharist….”[2]

In his speech as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on October 1st, 1990, the then Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, said “If Church usage calls ordination to the ministry of priesthood a “sacrament”, the following is meant: This man is in no way performing functions for which he is highly qualified by his own natural ability nor is he doing the things that please him most and that are most profitable. On the contrary, the one who receives the sacrament is sent to give what he cannot give of his own strength; he is sent to act in the person of another, to be his living instrument” [3](my emphasis).

It is thus very clear that the two – priesthood and the Eucharist - are intricately linked. In all of this “The priest must be a true believer”[4]. And this IS the punch-line. The priest MUST be a believer….. But the priest is not born of a special lineage of believers!!!! He is born part of the same society that you and I live in…. Thus the “believer syndrome” needs to start from society – most importantly from the FAMILY.

To summarize – We, as lay Catholics, as individuals, as families, as parishes etc etc need to foster greatly the true appreciation and the true belief in the Holy Eucharist and the true presence of Christ. Having achieved this, we are sure to have more young people, who, recognizing the immensity of the sacrifice of the Mass, would WANT to be and would HEED Christ’s call for more workers in the vineyard. Simply put without one (true belief & veneration of Christ in the Eucharist), we won’t have the other (priests).


Problem 2 – The Youth and their unrealistic expectations

The second major problem facing our Church and society in general is the attitude of the youth. While it is easy to point the finger to the youth however, it is well worth remembering that three other fingers point to US. Who formed the youth of today? Which generation brought forward and formed today’s generation? We only have ourselves to blame and our ancestors. Today is a consequence of yesterday. However tomorrow is also a consequence of today – and therefore there still is the potential to change the course. We CAN, if we want, change the situation. However we need to have the will to do so.

Where do the youth, their formation and their expectations come into the problem with vocations? Many years ago, I recall listening to a psychologist speaking about the reasons for the earlier onset of depression (from age 25 to 15 – if I recall correctly). He gave three reasons that could not be more valid:

1. The lack of recognition and acceptance of a superior being/God in whom one can find anchorage

2. The lack of necessity to actively earn their way through life (i.e. finding everything laid out on a plate for them)

3. The lack of acceptance of proper emotions (and with it I would add the exaggeration of false ones)

I summarize these into three simple terms respectively:

1. atheistic narcissism: self absorption; self-deification – at the cost of sanity, since the finite created human mind cannot provide the stability that can be provided by the infinite, ever present, creator, God.

2. psychophysical lethargy: being self absorbed, and unable to see the greater picture of reality, has to result in lethargy – boredom – for how long can a person dwell upon his/her own self?

3. Emotional deconstruction: I refer to it a deconstruction because rather than developing emotions appropriately, society, through denial and falsification of emotions, has led to a break down in emotions which has ultimately led to an exacerbation of psychiatric problems.

The above three concepts can be further summarized as an inability to accept REALITY. It appears that the famous quote of William Penn, English religious leader and colonist (1644 - 1718), the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania may as well have been buried with him "No pain, no palm; no thorns, no throne; no gall, no glory; no cross, no crown." We do not comprehend William Penn's message anymore because we do not want to deal with reality anymore. The ultimate consequence is psychological instability and the multitude of psychiatric problems that our current society faces. For, it can truly be said that, a common trait of any psychiatric disorder that incorporates madness as a symptom involves an inability to experience reality.

Being a neuroscientist, I have delved and still do into the brain and its workings. I find the work fascinating and certainly an eye opener as to the greatness of God’s creation. However a nagging aspect that stands out like a sore thumb, and one that would certainly be looked upon in horror by many of my fellow neuroscientists, and is sure to discredit me in their eyes, is that in all that I do and in all that goes on in science, I cannot but realize that the decision making aspect in humans, and therefore human acts, are driven by a level that is above and beyond the relative simplicity of the processes that exist in animals. To me this is nothing more than the soul – the part of us made in the image of God (see Genesis 1:26 and 2:7)[5]– that transcends the physical. It is an underlying fact, that I am sure others have also observed but few scientists dare approach it or mention it – it is a taboo subject – most only want to deal and accept what can be proven experimentally – which is limited and finite in its capacity to provide us with solutions. To some, however, including some Catholics, this is a phenomenon they cannot and will not ever grasp!!! Ultimately this incapacity to observe and accept, is nothing more than
pride and conceit and ultimately a total obstinate rejection of reality, and consequently God, who being infinite in all respect, being Yahweh (the “I AM who AM”[6]) as He said to Moses, is therefore eternally present, and thus IS the ONLY reality.

It becomes clear how detached youth have become from the REALITY / God when one listens to their comments about Mass - about how boring Mass is - who ever said that Mass was meant to be entertainment? Was Christ partying on his last evening with His closest friends? If the answer is "no" then how can one expect the Mass to be any different? Grant it that in celebrating the Mass we also celebrate the risen Christ. However, what a distorted concept of celebration the youth have!!!!

The then Cardinal Ratzinger summarizes this misconception well saying that “By its very essence, by its very nature, Christian belief is “glad tidings”…..the joyous character of Christian faith does not depend on the effectiveness of ecclesiastical events. The Church is not a society for the promotion of good cheer, whose value rises and falls with the success of its activities. If the events of such a society are boring and without humor, it has become superfluous. The joy it gives depends on its activities. But the strength of the Christian message lies deeper” [1].

What is it that does not enable people to see the greatness of what happens in the sacrifice of the Mass? How could we so blatantly shut the door in Christ's face? Whose fault is it? - There certainly is an easy response to the last question - It is EVERY CATHOLIC's fault. At some point or another we have all been neglectful. Maybe at times more than others and some more than others. Every form of negligence eats into the sturdiness of our faith, of our Reality/God. Once that goes, all else falls apart - and this is what is happening with our youth today.

Therefore, with such poor formation, and such unrealistic expectations, how can the youth ever appreciate the priesthood and its intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, who IS God and is therefore the only reality?

To summarize: The problem with our youth and our society in general then, is that we are refusing to incorporate God in our lives as much as we should. The result is a detachment from reality and this is particularly visible in the expectations and behavior of the youth of today. With the unrealistic expectations and the detachment from reality/God present in many youth, it becomes impossible for them to consider the priesthood. One can never wish for the fruit he/she never saw or tasted.

What the Priesthood is All About – A Married Man’s perspective

To me the priesthood was always something to be admired. Although I never appreciated the priesthood the way I do now, it was always something “awesome”. God called me to another vocation. That, did not in anyway diminish the respect and love I had for the priesthood. In fact it made it stronger. Contrary to the way certain people portray the priesthood, I have never felt intimidated by the position of the priest in the Church. I have never seen the priest as being superior to me, although I have recognized the difference of his call, a call to a closer relationship with Christ, a higher call to serve. I see the priest as the vessel that through the Eucharistic sacrifice carries to God, my needs, my thanks, my whining and all that I am and all that I have. Should I have a problem with that? NO not unless I do not understand what Christ and His Church are all about.

An associate pastor, at the parish of which I am currently a member, once said words during the homily to the effect that he was irritated at the fact that the Church always portrayed the priest as “up there” while the congregation “down there”. I challenged him on this after the Mass. He was not happy with what I had to tell him – he ran away from the truth!!!!

I gave him the analogy of a river. It starts in the mountain, and flows down. There is a waterfall at some point, it is a large river at another, it may be a narrow one at another, finally a stream – I challenged him to tell me if the water at the beginning was any less important than the water at the end; whether the water at the top of the waterfall was any different to the water at the bottom. So it is with the priesthood and each of our vocations. Our vocations and our life are a continuum. It all ultimately flows to God and from God. The end of the water flowing into the sea would be nothing without the beginning of the water flowing down the mountain. That is what the priest is to me – a person called to a greater dedication to God, an intermediary between me and God. It does not remove anything from his humanity nor his equality to me. His role remains however DIFFERENT to mine.

To me a priest or any Catholic person that complains about this as a “hierarchy” is a person that has lost the focus at the center of Christ’s Church i.e. Christ himself. Unfortunately many have lost this focus. Even more unfortunate some priests have as well!!!! This becomes evident in the way Mass is celebrated by these particular priests. They take liberties to change and ad lib, to make the Mass into a show. They literally lose the plot of the Mass and all that it means. With that they lose the people who given the daily attacks on their faith, the last attack they suspect is from within. It confuses their faith. Given the immense depth and sanctity of the Mass and the immense repercussions on souls of abuses, is it any wonder that such behavior is sacrilegious?

To summarize: I could say much more but I think I can summarize my thoughts by one sentence that I said above: “I see the priest as the vessel that through the Eucharistic sacrifice carries to God, my needs, my thanks, my whining and all that I am and all that I have.”

Conclusion - The Loop: Eucharistic Veneration, The Priesthood, Reality and the Youth

The topics discussed above seem broad. I could not possibly discuss them to the extent that I wish to do so, without spending my life doing solely that. What I wish to do below is to link the all that I said in as few sentences as possible.

  • The Eucharist is the principal and central raison d’etre of the sacrament of the priesthood, which effectively came into being at the moment of the institution of the Eucharist, and together with it……… The priest fulfills his principal mission and is manifested in all his fullness when he celebrates the Eucharist….”[2]

  • "No pain, no palm; no thorns, no throne; no gall, no glory; no cross, no crown." William Penn (1644 - 1718)

  • “The priest must be a true believer”[4]

To conclude – To have an increase in vocations, we need to have a greater appreciation of the Eucharistic mystery. We need to believe it. The priest has to be the foremost believer, since his belief will mold/shape the faith of those whom he shepherds. In the most Holy Eucharist, and in venerating the Holy Eucharist, we experience God and therefore we experience the ONE and ONLY REALITY. The youth and society also need to come to this comprehension. Youth in particular, nowadays face a great challenge in coming to understand reality. Society is constantly bombarding them with false hopes and realities. In forsaking God, they and those of us guilty with them, have forsaken REALITY. How can there be an increase in vocations to the priesthood unless there is an acceptance and consequently and increase in adoration and veneration to HIM whom a person called to the priesthood would be serving in a more profound way?

I will revisit this topic many more times in the future. In one of the next blogs I wish to delve further into the link between the lack of prayer, Eucharistic adoration etc. and their consequences on our Church, vocations, our life as Catholics and society in general.

God Bless (+)

Stephen

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[1] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology
[2] Pope John Paul II, Dominicae Cenae, 1980
[3] Cardinal Joseph Ratiznger, Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, The Nature of the Priesthood, Speech given on October 1st, 1990
[4] Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, from A New Song for the Lord, tr. by Martha M Matesich, NY: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1996, and quoted in Magnificat for Holy Thursday, March 24, 2005.
[5] Genesis 1:26: "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth" and Genesis 2:7 "And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul"
[6] Exodus 3:14