On the eve of Corpus Christi, Observed, 2012, my family and I attended Mass in my parents' home parish. A retired priest who helps out at the parish celebrated Mass. He gave a lengthy homily—something I'm always happy to see, especially on an important feast. The homily was largely theologically correct; most of the errors were minor and stemmed, as the priest himself admitted, from the fact that he had never studied Eucharistic theology. (Presumably, he meant that he had not studied it beyond his time in the seminary, 50 or so years ago.) For an admitted novice, he did pretty well.
In his homily, Father stressed the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist; he made it clear that the Eucharistic elements are not and cannot be mere symbols. On the afternoon of Corpus Christi Sunday itself, the parish was holding a Eucharistic procession, which would involve a walk of several miles from my parents' church to the Catholic church in the neighboring town. The entire procession would take place along state and federal highways, and would cross over a bridge that forms a bottleneck for people coming from miles around to spend their Sunday at the Lake Michigan shore.
In short, the procession, led by the Eucharistic Body of Christ, would be a great sign of the parish's belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament of Holy Communion and a wonderful tool of evangelization.
So I hope it is clear that, in the following remarks, my intention is not to run down either the priest or the parish. Still, there was one part of Father's homily that bothered me greatly, because it illustrates how easy it is for our belief in the Real Presence to become merely abstract, and not something that affects how we live our lives.
Father told a story from his days, a few years back, as the Catholic chaplain at a local hospital. A patient had told the hospital that she was a member of my parents' parish, but she didn't recognize Father, and he didn't recognize her.
As they talked, she revealed that she had left the parish a few years earlier, when a previous pastor had removed the tabernacle from the center of the church (where the high altar had once been) and placed it in the "Eucharistic chapel" (which had previously been Saint Mary's chapel), off to the side of the sanctuary. The wall of the chapel facing the sanctuary is glass, and the tabernacle was placed in the corner nearest the sanctuary, on an altar made from the wood of the former altar rail, which was removed shortly before the tabernacle was moved. The tabernacle was, therefore, visible to most (though not all) of the congregation.
Still, this change was upsetting to many parishioners, and not just to the woman in the hospital, and it was made worse by the fact that the pastor who had moved the tabernacle replaced it with his celebrant's chair. That's right: He moved the tabernacle to a separate chapel so that he could place himself where the tabernacle and high altar had been, up three steps at the rear wall of the sanctuary. To many parishioners, this signified an inversion of priorities. (Another former pastor, the priest who had baptized me, given me my First Communion, been present at my Confirmation, and presided over my marriage, often celebrated Mass at my parents' parish after he moved back to the area in his retirement. A few minutes before Mass, he would always ascend the three steps to where the former high altar had been, take hold of the celebrant's chair, and move it back down to its proper place in the sanctuary.)
But back to Father's homily on Corpus Christi.
Father did not say that the woman in the hospital had quit attending Mass altogether; she may well have started attending Mass at a different parish. What he did say, though, was that this woman had made a mistake. What is most important is not what used to be up there, he said—pointing to where the tabernacle used to be—but what we are doing down here at every Sunday and daily Mass.
As it happened, just two days earlier, Pope Benedict, discussing the need for Eucharistic adoration, had said something rather different in his homily for Corpus Christi:
It is a mistake to establish a contrast between celebration and adoration, as if they were in competition with one another. The opposite is true. The cult of the Blessed Sacrament represents the spiritual "environment" within which the community can celebrate the Eucharist correctly and truthfully. Only if preceded, accompanied and followed by this interior attitude of faith and adoration, can liturgical activity express its full meaning and value.
I doubt that Father had read Pope Benedict's homily, but his remarks seemed exactly what the Holy Father had in mind. And when it came time to receive Holy Communion, I was struck by the truth of Pope Benedict's words. My parents' parish makes extensive use of extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, and that night, several were not dressed as well as they should have been, considering what—or rather, Whom—they were distributing. Indeed, my mother told me, a few weeks before the pastor of the parish had requested that more parishioners volunteer to be extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist—and, in doing so, had said that they shouldn't refrain from volunteering because they weren't properly dressed.
Think of the lost opportunity: Would it not have been better to have used the call for volunteers as a teaching moment, by suggesting that everyone should come to Mass dressed as if he or she might be the one to distribute Holy Communion that night? It is not as if the pastor or the retired priest doesn't understand what is signified by dressing well for Mass; their own vestments are quite nice, and all of the ushers wear matching coats, and the choir all have fairly elaborate robes. But when it comes to those who will distribute the Body and Blood of Christ—well, anything goes, apparently.
Again, the parish's Corpus Christi procession and Father's homily seemed to indicate that belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is alive and well in my parents' parish. But what effect does that belief have on those who believe it?
"Say what you mean, and mean what you say." If we truly believe in those things we profess, our actions should mirror our words. If they don't, we need to take a step back and consider whether we really do mean what we say we believe—or whether we're simply repeating the words.