The Difference Between Liturgical Naïveté and a Eucharistic Culture of Affiliation

Liturgical naïveté often defined the twentieth century approach to ecclesial renewal. The simple idea was: if we get the liturgy right, then all social and ecclesial problems will dissipate. Secularization, racism, and individualism will be cured through a new rite or better catechesis around the existing rites.

This naïveté often finds its way into discussions regarding disaffiliation. Progressive Catholics will sing a new Church into being through the adoption of a more egalitarian liturgical celebration, hopefully attracting the disaffiliated. Traditionalists seem to believe that we are a single Extraordinary Form liturgy from stemming the tide of disaffiliation (and perhaps restoring the papal states in the process).[1] Not a few dioceses suppose that if we change the age of Confirmation, then young people will commit themselves not only to the Church but likely become consecrated religious.

Unlike some naïveté (such as Patriots fans still believing there are Super Bowl victories in their future), this liturgical gullibility is sensible. Disaffiliation feels like a loss of control for the Church, and the liturgical rites are one of the few places where the Church possesses genuine control. We can re-translate the Mass, restore church buildings, explain the doctrine of real presence, and add more chant or praise and worship music. If we do all these things, then we will return to whatever era we imagine to be the Golden Age. And Catholics will flock back to Mass.

The problem with this liturgical naïveté is twofold. First, Catholics are not being formed exclusively by the liturgies of the Roman Catholic Church. There are what the philosopher James K.A. Smith calls cultural liturgies, practices that form and malform the human heart.[2] Cultural liturgies include consuming and producing, mindlessly surfing the web, our use of Twitter or Instagram, and even the “public” liturgies of the polis such as standing to pledge allegiance to the flag. Most Catholics spend but an hour a week at Mass. During the rest of the week, they are fully, (sometimes) consciously, and very actively participating in a variety of cultural liturgies that foster an instability that contributes to disaffiliation.

Second, there is a fundamental confusion about the nature of liturgical formation. Liturgy does not communicate a worldview, vision, or what we call a “culture” as explicitly as was presumed by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council.[3] Adopting Clifford Geertz’ account of culture, the Church presumed that a credo or worldview was enshrined by the rituals of a society. Change the rituals, it was assumed, and the society will now believe new things and discover novel forms of life.

Certainly, the rituals of a society communicate something about what it means to belong to a social body. But ritual practice is not reducible to an act of conveying a worldview. Ritual action requires a bodily competence, shaping the self to become a certain kind of person in the world.[4] The monk does not participate in the rituals of the monastery as a way of learning a worldview. Instead, he sits in a certain place at dinner, says the Psalms in a particular way during the divine office, learning to think about his common life in a certain way, and dresses in specific clothing to take up the habit of “monk-dom.” In performing these ritual practices, the monk becomes monk. Inhabiting this monastic culture takes time. If the monk spends 90% of his time engaging in non-monastic practices, then we should not be surprised that this “monk” never becomes all that monastic.

Most Catholics spend no more than .5% of the week engaged in liturgical practice primarily through the Eucharist. Such marginal participation in a liturgical culture will not lead to a sudden adoption of a Catholic ethos. It is just as likely that our imagined U.S. Catholic will adopt the worldview of the MSNBC or Fox News commentator. After all, they spend nearly 12 hours per day connected to some form of media. And because the liturgy is peripheral to his identity by comparison, he is far more likely to believe what MSBNC or Fox says about reality than the Eucharistic vision of human identity proposed by the Church.  

If we are to cultivate a Eucharistic renewal, one that contributes to deeper affiliation with the Church, it will require more than the celebration of the liturgy. As Romano Guardini argued in his 1918 Spirit of the Liturgy, liturgical renewal requires the existence of a culture that supports the liturgical act. Post COVID-19, parishes must build a Eucharistic culture in their communities, a deeper understanding of what it means to belong to the Church.

What Is a Eucharistic Culture?

What is a Eucharistic culture? To begin, we must first define culture. In his Clashing Symbols: An Introduction to Faith and Culture, Michael Paul Gallagher argues that culture involves three different dimensions. Culture carries and expresses:

            (a) meanings and beliefs (or visions of life);

            (b) values (norms for behaviour);

            (c) customs, practices and traditions (patterns of response)”[5]

These meanings, values, and customs are self-perpetuating within the context of the community. Take the O’Malley family, for example. There is a culture to being an O’Malley, one that I have become conscious of with the arrival of children into our home. While this culture is multi-faceted, focusing on one dimension (our support of Notre Dame football) may be illustrative. In the O’Malley household, we believe that Notre Dame football is integral to human flourishing. We order the totality of our household toward the support of the Fighting Irish. On Saturday, we dress in specific ways to demonstrate this support. We talk about the game both before and after it is played. When tickets are inexpensive, we take our children to Notre Dame Stadium. We listen to the Band of the Fighting Irish, learning the various fight songs. We watch Our Lady’s University play football to the bitter end, even when Alabama is obviously the better team. Our children picked up this culture not through a series of seminars on Notre Dame football. They learned what it means to be a fan of the Fighting Irish through belonging to our family.     

Parishes also possess cultures in this sense. For the Church, this culture should be understood as something primarily Eucharistic. What constitutes a Eucharistic culture? Benedict XVI’s Sacramentum Caritatis proposes a Eucharistic culture for the renewal of the Church. In the opening paragraph, the emeritus pope writes:

The sacrament of charity, the Holy Eucharist is the gift that Jesus Christ makes of himself, thus revealing to us God's infinite love for every man and woman. This wondrous sacrament makes manifest that "greater" love which led him to "lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). Jesus did indeed love them "to the end" (Jn. 13:1). In those words the Evangelist introduces Christ's act of immense humility: before dying for us on the Cross, he tied a towel around himself and washed the feet of his disciples. In the same way, Jesus continues, in the sacrament of the Eucharist, to love us "to the end," even to offering us his body and his blood. What amazement must the Apostles have felt in witnessing what the Lord did and said during that Supper! What wonder must the Eucharistic mystery also awaken in our own hearts!

Notice how Benedict XVI understands the Eucharist. The Eucharist is not just the religious ritual that Catholics perform each Sunday. Rather, the Eucharist is the gift that Jesus makes of himself here and now for the life of the world. The Mass is the source and summit of the Church’s vocation. The Church is not a bureaucratic entity, interested only in producing documents or rubrics governing the life of her members. The Church is not even reducible to the political infighting of bishops. The Church is that communion of love, the first fruits of a new way of being human defined by love unto the end. The Eucharist is the very identity of the Church, the gift of salvation offered by Christ to the human family in a way that we can receive it. 

Yet, the Eucharist must become integral to the vocation of every member of the Church. Here, Benedict XVI notes that the Eucharist is a mystery to be lived out. Near the end of this document, he writes:

Christianity's new worship includes and transfigures every aspect of life: "Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Cor 10:31). Christians, in all their actions, are called to offer true worship to God. Here the intrinsically Eucharistic nature of Christian life begins to take shape. The Eucharist, since it embraces the concrete, everyday existence of the believer, makes possible, day by day, the progressive transfiguration of all those called by grace to reflect the image of the Son of God (cf. Rom 8:29ff.). There is nothing authentically human—our thoughts and affections, our words and deeds—that does not find in the sacrament of the Eucharist the form it needs to be lived to the full. Here we can see the full human import of the radical newness brought by Christ in the Eucharist: the worship of God in our lives cannot be relegated to something private and individual, but tends by its nature to permeate every aspect of our existence. Worship pleasing to God thus becomes a new way of living our whole life, each particular moment of which is lifted up, since it is lived as part of a relationship with Christ and as an offering to God.

Benedict XVI is presenting the way that Eucharistic cult must become culture. Cultic activity within Catholicism is not a private affair of individuals who happen to come together once a week to worship God. Rather, the Eucharistic liturgy is to transfigure every dimension of what it means to be human. The totality of life is to become a sacrifice of praise to God, an offering for the salvation of the world.

In this sense, Eucharistic affiliation is not the same as showing up to Mass. Even catechesis around the doctrine of real presence is insufficient for a robust affiliation with the Eucharistic Church.[6] Eucharistic affiliation is a common act of an entire parish that fosters a Eucharistic culture in the world. Neighborhoods, towns, cities, rural hamlets are to become spaces of Eucharistic love.

Parishes, therefore, must learn to cultivate this Eucharistic culture. We must admit that one reason for disaffiliation today is the lack of a Eucharistic culture in many of our parishes. A couple comes forward to receive baptism. They have been away from the Church for years. They are greeted not with merciful joy but by a reminder that baptisms are only given to those who have been members of the parish for six months. The parish never reflects on the artificial quality of this regulation, which does not appear in canon law. The culture of the parish makes this kind of reflection nearly impossible, precisely because it is governed more by the construction of a sacramental bureaucracy than by the Eucharistic love of the Lord.

Or imagine the typical U.S. parish. What is experienced in the Eucharistic liturgy on a Sunday? Is there devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, a reverence that proclaims that this act of Eucharistic worship is an encounter with the source of all Reality? Or is the act of worship itself rather joyless, even perfunctory? Is the Eucharistic Prayer prayed or is it read like a phone book or proclaimed in the voice of a baseball announcer? Are liturgies governed more by efficiency than contemplative worship of the God-man, Jesus Christ?  

Lastly, consider the typical political orientation of the U.S. parish. Is there a Eucharistic love that recognizes the dignity of every person from birth to death? Or, does the parish let itself be governed more by the maxims of a political party? Are we afraid to join in solidarity with our black brothers and sisters when George Floyd is murdered in the streets of Minneapolis? Do we care for the unborn and their mothers, or do we find evasive strategies to avoid witnessing to the dignity of the unborn in the womb? 

A culture of Eucharistic affiliation requires that every diocese, parish, and school undertake a process of self-examination. The conversion of culture begins not with the world but with us. Do we as brothers and sisters in Christ live a Eucharistic existence, or do the cultural liturgies of late modern life inform parochial life? And if it is the cultural liturgies that govern the parish, we should not be surprised if disaffiliation grows.

Signposts of a Eucharistic Culture of Affiliation

A Eucharistic culture of affiliation involves four different dimensions that the parish, diocese, and school must contemplate.

First, a Eucharistic culture of affiliation is defined by an enculturated reverence. Reverence does not mean the use exclusively of Latin chant in liturgical celebration (nor for that matter does it preclude the use of Latin chant). Rather, a culture of Eucharistic reverence means that the parish, diocese, and school understand the Eucharist as the real presence of Jesus Christ, the sacrifice of love that is made available for the life of the world. Do we adore the blessed Sacrament, giving ourselves over to a Presence that transcends our own individual and communal self-constructions? Is what we do on a Sunday a matter of salvation or the pious practice of a religious body? 

If we understand reverence in this way, then there is a myriad of ways that communities will express this reverence. Black Catholics, Latino/a Catholics, and white Catholics may each live a Eucharistic culture of reverence according to their own cultural genius. Further, the whole Church may learn a deeper reverence through encountering the reverence of other cultures. This attention to reverence is a way of countering a kind of practical atheism, living as if God is absent from human life. Reverence is the disposition that recognizes a presence of Love, a medicine of communion that we cannot create ourselves.

Second, a Eucharistic culture of affiliation is dedicated to a holistic Eucharistic formation. Eucharistic catechesis is not reducible to explaining the doctrines of real presence and transubstantiation, no matter how important these doctrines are. The human person is more than the intellect. Eucharistic catechesis must involve every dimension of the human person. We are creatures who possess memories, imagination, intellect, affections, and a will. Eucharistic formation should deepen for us appreciation for the mystery of the sacrifice of love that is made available on the altar. For this reason, parishes, dioceses, and schools must ask ourselves a series of questions. Is our preaching Eucharistic through and through? Do we introduce Catholics across the lifecycle to the various Eucharistic sources of the Tradition? Is the art and music of the parish thoroughly Eucharistic? Are there occasions of Eucharistic worship outside of the Mass? Do we understand the Eucharistic nature of all that the parish does including service to the poor, the work of the parish council, and the Catholic school itself? How do we speak about the Blessed Sacrament in catechetical instruction within the parish? Without this comprehensive and integral approach to Eucharistic formation, a Eucharistic culture of affiliation is unlikely to be created within the parish.

Third, a Eucharistic culture of affiliation is public and domestic alike. A Eucharistic culture will not come into existence simply through a weekly or even daily celebration of the Mass. Rather, if worship is to become the meaning of all of life, then all of life should be infused with this sacrificial love. Here, we must ask ourselves what happened to Eucharistic processions and other devotions that allowed men and women to live a Eucharistic life in the world. Why do we focus exclusively on the weekly celebration of Mass rather than all those rites and practices that allowed men and women to offer their lives as a sacrifice of love each day? Do we understand the Eucharistic mission of the family as an agent and recipient of Eucharistic love within the world? If we do not, is it because we remain attached to a clericalism that refuses to acknowledge that the baptized possess an intrinsic priestly and therefore Eucharistic vocation that is distinct from the ministerial priesthood but nonetheless an authentic exercise of Christ’s priestly identity?

Fourth, a Eucharistic culture of affiliation is marked by the exercise of solidarity in the parish, diocese, and school. As Benedict XVI noted in Deus Caritas Est, a Eucharistic celebration that does not result in the concrete practice of love is fragmented or incomplete (§14). Solidarity is the Eucharistic virtue par excellence. Solidarity is not a vague feeling of a “sort of” compassion for the suffering of the other. As John Paul II noted:

The exercise of solidarity within each society is valid when its members recognize one another as persons. Those who are more influential, because they have a greater share of goods and common services, should feel responsible for the weaker and be ready to share with them all they possess. Those who are weaker, for their part, in the same spirit of solidarity, should not adopt a purely passive attitude or one that is destructive of the social fabric, but, while claiming their legitimate rights, should do what they can for the good of all. The intermediate groups, in their turn, should not selfishly insist on their particular interests, but respect the interests of others (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, §39).      

To live solidarity, that is to recognize everyone as a person worthy of dignity and love, to let the interests of my brother and sister penetrate my own self, is a mark of a Eucharistic culture. The flourishing of my brother and sister is a consequence of my reception of the Blessed Sacrament. Eucharistic coherence, therefore, is not just about the life of an individual politician but the entire parish, diocese, or school. Do we live a Eucharistic existence that is defined by promotion of the common good, of the flourishing of my neighbor in need?

A culture of Eucharistic solidarity has political consequences. For this reason, it makes little sense to object to the politicization of the Eucharist. A Eucharistic culture of affiliation is intrinsically political insofar as it calls for every man and women to create a world governed by sacrificial love rather than the at times merciless logic of the market or the polis.

So, the parish, diocese, and school must ask itself, do we promote the dignity of all life from birth to death? Do we operate according to the preferential option for the poor? Are we more likely to worship the pursuit of political or social power rather than the at times uncomfortable Eucharistic logic of the Gospel? Do we engage with our neighborhood as part of our Eucharistic mission, or are we more likely to see Mass as a private affair of individuals receiving the Blessed Sacrament all by themselves?


The naïveté of the early liturgical movement was ultimately a misunderstanding of the liturgical act. Liturgical renewal requires an accompanying culture to support the liturgical act. This culture—insofar as the Church is necessarily Eucharistic—must be infused with a Eucharistic logic. If the Church is to experience the kind of renewal that leads to deeper affiliation, it will require every parish, diocese, and school to assess, promote, and develop Eucharistic culture(s). This Eucharistic renewal of the Church is not a passing fad but intrinsic to the work of the new evangelization, that is, of gospelizing all of existence through the sacrifice of love of the God-man, Jesus Christ.    

EDITORIAL NOTE: Part I of this reflection, A New Model for Understanding the Dynamics of Catholic Disaffiliation, can be found here.

Learn about our Summer Liturgy Series, "Will They Come Back After COVID?: Disaffiliation, Affiliation, and the Liturgy" 

[1] See Peter Kwasniewski, Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Brooklyn, NY: Angelico, 2020).

[2] James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009).

[3] See Massimo Faggioli, True Reform: Liturgy and Ecclesiology in Sacrosanctum Concilium (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2012).

[4] Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 1993).

[5] Michael Paul Gallagher, S.J., Clashing Symbols: An Introduction to Faith and Culture (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2003), 26.

[6] See my Real Presence: What Does It Mean and Why Does It Matter (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria, 2021).

Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash.


Timothy O'Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley is the Director of Education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life, where he also serves as Academic Director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy. He teaches and researches at Notre Dame in the areas of liturgical-sacrmental theology, catechesis, and aesthetics. He is the author of numerous articles and books, most recently, the forthcoming Divine Blessing: Liturgical Formation in the RCIA.

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