What Should the Eucharistic Revival Look Like?

Uncontrollably Charismatic

Long ago there was a priest from Cilicia. Loved by his people, he was an “elder of great prestige and virtue.” Though we don’t know his name.

His people, however, no longer wanted him. Esteemed and beloved, they wanted to be rid of him. And so, they appealed to the bishop: “Take this elder away from us . . . for he is objectionable to us.” Their complaint was this: “When Sunday comes around, he holds the service at the ninth hour and even then he does not follow the appointed order of service.” He did not celebrate the liturgy on time nor to their liking; he did not celebrate the liturgy properly. So, the bishop looked into it.

Taking the old priest aside, the bishop asked, “Good elder, why do you behave like this? Do you not know the procedure of holy church?” To which the old priest answered: “Truth to tell, great sir, it is just as you say . . . but I do not know what to do. After the vigil service of the holy Lord’s Day, I remain close by the holy altar; and until I see the Holy Spirit over-shadowing the holy sanctuary, I do not begin the [eucharistic] service. When I see the [έπιϕοίτησις] coming of the Holy Spirit, then I celebrate the liturgy.” At this, the bishop “was amazed at the virtue of the elder,” the story goes. And he shared the priest’s answer with the people and “dismissed them in peace”; and “they went their way glorifying God,” their complaints satisfied.[1]

An old story collected by John Moschos, back in the seventh century, as he wandered about a vanishing Christian world now completely gone, it is a tale, a parable. I have recalled a lot recently with all this talk of the Eucharistic Revival. A story I have at times found inspiring, at other times haunting, it is a story that has caused me to wonder about the manner of today’s so-called revival, to wonder why what we are doing today feels so distant and different from what that old priest was doing then, irritating his people waiting for the Spirit.

Because it does feel very different. Perhaps it is the word “revival” that has got me flustered, for I have never thought revival a marketable, manageable thing; you see, it is a word I have always kind of revered and feared. I have never thought revival could have a website, a timeframe, a schedule, or a program. I have never thought revival a thing that a bishops’ conference would inform me would be happening—and when and where. I have never thought revival something inaugurated institutionally. This likely is due to the fact that I have long been fascinated and influenced by those movements early in our nation’s history that we call the “Great Awakening.” Perhaps it is my Protestant background, the convert in me. Whatever it is, I have long longed for something like a Catholic great awakening, and so I suspect my caution and trepidation about this so-called revival is influenced by those earlier movements, how they haunt and inspire me, by about what those old revivals apparently were and what this new revival apparently is not.

Now there are some parallels. For instance, as the bishops hope this Eucharistic Revival inspires and involves young people, so too did these earlier movements.[2] For decades, beginning in the late seventeenth century, Protestant religious leaders had called for “covenant renewal”; by the beginning of the eighteenth century, Samuel Danforth, Jr. claimed to see the effects of the Spirit “on all Sorts among us, especially on the young Men and Women.” But although these movements were widely reported and publicized, they remained organic, chaotic, unpredictable, charismatic phenomena. These movements disrupted ministries and structures; they created conflict and commotion. Danforth, for instance, had to give up his normal pastoral work supposedly to care for all the young people seeking salvation. He thought it a sign; he wondered if it indicated the final coming of the Kingdom. “I think sometimes that the Time of the pouring out of the SPIRIT upon all Flesh, may be at the Door,” he wrote.[3] And they were movements born of fundamental, eternal questions and not merely concern about the decline of doctrinal belief. These earlier movements began because people feared for their souls, because they wanted to be saved from hell. As Jonathan Edwards put it, “All seemed to be seized with a deep concern about their eternal salvation.”[4]

This is my first note about our so-called Eucharistic Revival: that it will be a true revival only insofar as it is an epicletic event, uncontrollably charismatic. About this, these quite anti-Catholic Protestants were quite correct. As Jonathan Edwards’ grandfather, Solomon Stoddard put it, “The Spirit of the Lord must be poured out upon the People, else Religion will not revive.”[5] Of course, that may mean revival will be a socially iconoclastic and messy thing—again, if we are going to use the word revival and pray that is what this movement genuinely becomes. It will raise the volume on voices that challenge us, that make us nervous: like when that fierce critic of revival, Charles Chauncy, complained that all of a sudden women and African Americans had taken up the “Business of Preachers.”[6] It will also foster grifters and charlatans; it will suffer from stupidities and extremes: like when James Davenport in the 1740s decided to do some book burning (“Hallelujahs and Gloria Patri over the whole pile,” his followers sang), burning not just books but also clothes he considered vain and ungodly—which stopped only when he shocked the crowd by taking off his own pants and throwing them onto the fire.[7] Think more of the Asbury revival but with Eucharistic adoration, things getting a little out of hand, and less a paid conference with lanyards and an exhibit hall, everything going according to plan. True revival, at times, is a weird thing, more like the former than the latter.

And it will also be revival only if it is a spiritual movement born of the most fundamental questions the soul poses, like questions about eternal salvation. As Jonathan Edwards said, it will deepen belief in God and in the Scriptures. It will increase love for God and for neighbor, and it will work “against the interest of Satan’s kingdom, which lies in encouraging and establishing sin, and cherishing men’s worldly lusts.”[8] That is, theologically and spiritually, revival will be a simple thing, a very simple ressourcement. It will not become a movement synonymous with any political agenda, any conservative and progressive populism, any identarian project. Rather, as the bishops say (and we should hold them to their word), it will begin and proceed only and always as adoration and reflection upon “Christ’s gift of himself in the Eucharist and our response to that gift.”[9] That is, the Eucharistic Revival must be Eucharistic from beginning to end.

Pauline Accompaniment

We should not take any of this for granted; it matters. Otherwise, we will not be able to think through, much less realize, the “personal and moral transformation” the bishops rightly teach is fundamentally part of Eucharistic life. We will not be able to address the contradictions and incoherence evident in much conventional Catholic practice, which operate often together as what the bishops call “a counter sign, a lie.” Nor will we be able to understand, much less preach, the call to conversion or invite people afresh to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.[10] We must think the spiritual basics through. Absent such spiritual understanding, what we would end up seeking would not be a revival in any sense at all but something else; for not only would it be unspiritual, it would not be moral. Because it would not demand we change the way we live—always a telltale sign of the Spirit (Acts 2:37).

Now what is promising about the Eucharistic Revival—if we take the bishops’ document as our starting point—is that the teaching of The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church is simply Pauline; that is to say, it is simply Catholic. To admit, for instance, that there are indeed some sins that “rupture the communion we share with God and the Church,” and to admit that if we have committed such sins, “we are not properly disposed to receive the Eucharist” and should seek to repair that rupture in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is merely to read and faithfully apply to ourselves Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians.[11] Paul was clear. The Church is Christ’s presence in the world; it is therefore called to be one. That is why divisions among Christians are bad—“Is Christ divided?” Paul asked the adelphoi of Corinth (1 Cor 1:13). It is also “called to be holy” (1 Cor 1:2). Morally, juridically, in matters of cult, the Christian community is distinct, existing in tension with the world, within the world but sometimes against it, believing the world to be dying away anyway (1 Cor 5–7). This is the Church—the body of Christ, one and holy. And it is built and sustained by the Eucharist, which is why morals and the Eucharist are inseparable. The common life of the body of Christ and the celebration of the Eucharist are always to be identified with one another. That is why Paul said it was impossible for Christians to “partake of the table of the Lord and of the table of demons,” because the Church is holy (1 Cor 10:21). That is why the rich and the poor should celebrate the Eucharist together, why they should “wait for one another,” because the Church is one (1 Cor 11:33). Otherwise, it may not be the Eucharist at all that Christians celebrate, Paul said (1 Cor 11:20). It is why Christians should discern the body before daring to celebrate the Eucharist because to fail to see how the body of Christ and the Eucharist are identified is to celebrate the Eucharist unworthily; which is dangerous, Paul warned (1 Cor 11:27–30). Again, because the Church is one. And it is also why sometimes it is advisable to prevent some people from receiving the Eucharist, why sometimes some people should be “expelled” from the gathering (1 Cor 5:2), particularly when otherwise the Church’s witness (in holiness and unity) would be destroyed by not expelling them, which is not to abandon those expelled or to despair of their salvation. Rather, it is how the Church takes such souls seriously, radically calling them back to God and the Church. This leads us to a point I will explore further below, a vitally important point critical to Eucharistic pastoral care, and that is, that Pauline discipline itself is not just a path of reconciliation, it is also for some the path of sanctification, demanding from us clergy true pastoral art. This is precisely what we must think through carefully—how to help those called to walk this path do so faithfully with hope and love and in true accompaniment.[12]

As I said, this is simply Paul and the teaching of the bishops. Undoubtedly, though, we have difficulty accepting this and applying this teaching to ourselves today. Such is the challenge of The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church and the Eucharistic Revival as a whole: to what extent can we renew ourselves as a Pauline Church? Now the reasons this is difficult are several—the first, of course, being old-fashioned sin. But also, it is difficult because we are all conditioned individualists and sentimentalists. It is almost impossible for us to imagine ourselves morally bound to an organization that we cannot help but think (no matter how hard we try) is merely voluntary, much less obliged by its discipline. We are pietists, even us Catholics. We are just not the sort of people—most of us—who believe the Church can tell us no. This, whatever the merits are of such individualism or sentimentalism, simply makes us un-Pauline and therefore un-Catholic—no matter our piety, ritual, or devotion. For this reason, the Eucharistic Revival must be more than processions, congresses, catechesis, and hours of adoration because the theological pathologies we confront are deeper. Those are they described long ago by Henri de Lubac, first in Corpus Mysticum. We must recover, he said, the unity of the three bodies: the historical body of Christ, the sacramental body of Christ, and the ecclesial body of Christ.

Following the story De Lubac tells of the migration of the term corpus mysticum from the sacramental body to the ecclesial body, but “without any reference to the Eucharist,” thereby straining the conceptual association (and quite biblical association) of the Eucharist and the Church, we must—De Lubac insisted—“relearn from our Fathers, those of Christian antiquity and also those of the Middle Ages, to see present in the unique Sacrifice the unity of the ‘three bodies’ of Christ.”[13] “Eucharistic realism and ecclesial realism: these two realisms support one another, each is the guarantee of the other,” he said.[14] How we exist and function as the Church, how we define and discipline ourselves, relates to our celebrations of the Eucharist; that they are not two distinct matters is the simple point. This, of course, is to say nothing different from Paul who warned the Corinthians to examine themselves and discern the body (1 Cor 11:28), or from Augustine who preached to his people to look on the altar and “receive what you are.”[15]

Eucharistic Revival and ecclesial revival are the same; it is one revival. The signs, therefore, that the Eucharistic Revival will be a real revival will be holiness and unity, these basic Pauline markers. It will look like what William Cavanaugh described in Torture and Eucharist—Cavanaugh’s haunting theological reflection on the Catholic Church in Chile during the Pinochet regime. Not until the Church rediscovered its own form as a body, one and holy and distinct from the world and its coercive liturgies did the Church rediscover its own capacity for healing and renewal and the strength of its own witness against principalities and powers, against the state. It meant seeing the Eucharist as more than merely a commodity of individual spiritual consumption. “The Eucharist is not a wonder drug which, taken regularly, simply removes the stain of sin from the individual’s soul,” Cavanaugh writes. Rather, the Eucharist is “demanding, requiring not simply a proper internal disposition but right conduct.”[16] Catholics cooperating with the state in the disappearances of political enemies and innocents could not be permitted to share in the Eucharist. Expelling them from the Eucharist revealed the true Eucharistic body, the Church: people who kidnap and torture in the name of the state have not discerned the body; thus, by their actions, they do not belong to the Eucharistic fellowship and should not pretend that they do. And the Church, simply articulating the fact, simultaneously strengthens the witness of the Church against the violence of the state and radically, and with genuine mercy, calls those Catholics perpetrating such violence to repentance. That is how a Pauline, fully Eucharistic ecclesial body works. It understands how the social body and the sacramental body identify, and it does not retreat into any number of willful individualisms. It understands, as Cavanaugh put it, that discipline “is not opposed to forgiveness but is it’s embodiment.”[17] Again, this is simply Paul, simply Catholicism. But it is also perhaps the biggest question that the Church faces today, explaining the angst underneath our Eucharistic Revival, the conflict between episcopal camps, between the McElroys and the Paprockis of the American Church: and that is whether we really want Paul to bother our Catholicism again or whether we want something else.

Pastoralia as Penitential Poetics

The challenge, though, as I said, is how to apply this pastorally. That is, if the Eucharistic Revival, to be authentic, must be charismatic and Pauline, what does charismatic, Pauline accompaniment look like? Once we log off Twitter and realize, as Timothy O’Malley says, that “Eucharistic coherence is not just for Catholic politicians,” how do we help ourselves and the people in our pews understand this, embrace it, and struggle to live it?[18] This task belongs—among others, but also mostly—to priests, and probably to parish priests more than other kinds of priests. For they are closer to the people, are among them every day, and perhaps are more aware than others of just how difficult the task is.

That is, what of the pastoralia of the Eucharistic Revival? Canonically it is clear that the “faithful have the right to be assisted by their Pastors from the spiritual riches of the Church, especially by the word of God and the sacraments.”[19] They are not to be denied the sacraments “who opportunely ask for them.”[20] But what does that assistance look like? How do we help the faithful, often slowly, become “properly disposed” to celebrate the sacraments? And how do we pastorally care for those who “are not to be admitted to holy communion”? As Benedict XVI said, “an authentic catechesis on the meaning of the Eucharist must include the call to pursue the path of penance.”[21] But what does that look like on the ground in parishes?

It looks, I suggest, like inviting people to remember and re-inhabit genuine asceticism, remembering especially the journey-like nature of asceticism—its gradations, steps, degrees. We must perhaps be more serious and more thoughtful about how we guide people in grace to the sacraments, how we help each other draw nearer to God. Perhaps we need not go so far as to warn the faithful—as do our Orthodox brethren before Holy Communion—that holy things are for the holy, but maybe we should highlight the wisdom, say, of Bernard of Clairvaux, applying his ascetical humility to sacramental life: “I do not wish to be suddenly on the heights, my desire is to advance by degrees.”[22] Now, of course, Bernard is not here talking about Eucharistic discipline, yet such ascetic humility still applies, for it reminds us of Paul’s counsel to examine ourselves and discern the body, that it often takes time and is rarely sudden.

It also looks like remembering and re-inhabiting the imaginary and symbolic orders of penance, remembering simply that Christian asceticism is also necessarily ritually penitential. To put it strangely but aptly, we must help our people see themselves in poets and pilgrims like Dante, that living man who made his way through hell and purgatory not merely as a tourist; he was changed by it. Through hell, Virgil washed Dante’s face.[23] Purgatory, although a mountain “where Justice tries our souls,” which is “harder at the outset and, as one ascends, becomes less toilsome,” is still truly “the road to beauty.”[24] Our evangelism, our preaching, and even our bureaucracy, must be this beautiful again, or at least our pastoral care must strive to initiate the faithful into this arduous beauty. Dante had to bear the wounds—“the seven P’s upon my forehead”—but on the journey they were washed away.[25] This is precisely what was so beautiful, that on the journey his sins were both acknowledged and forgiven, slowly as he ascended.

One can think of this also in terms of story and plot, as an ascetical poetics. And doing so, as I suggested earlier, one can see how this path of reconciliation becomes a path of sanctification. That is, if one can think of the plot—the arranged incidents—of a person’s story as the conflict of sin and truth leading to the graced denouement of salvation, one can begin to imagine the purpose of sacramental discipline. Aristotle said that plots are bad when the incidents or episodes of a plot “succeed one another without proper necessary sequence.”[26] A story is bad when either the complications or the resolutions of a story do not arise out of the plot itself, but when, say, complications are resolved merely “Deus ex Machina.”[27] That is, without a good plot, there is no good story because there is no intelligible conflict or resolution. The story becomes flat, unbelievable, and more tragically, it fails to imitate the action; it fails as art.

This is exactly what happens when we remove Eucharistic discipline from Eucharistic life; it fails as an art of conversion. When we remove the moral conflict that examination and discerning the body inevitably bring to light, when we remove the ethical warnings and disciplinary prohibitions traditionally surrounding the Eucharist (for instance, warnings about mortal sin or about divorce, remarriage and Communion. etc.), we ruin the plot of a person’s unique Christian story. We immaturely remove conflict, and we introduce an altogether implausible and false resolution. We ruin the chances for what Aristotle called “recognition,” the moral movement from ignorance to knowledge—as when Oedipus realized that he had been living under “a dread curse without knowing it,” or when David realized that he was the man of Nathan’s prophecy, or when Thomas Merton discovered his own successful dead ends, when he realized that “it was to be my defeat that was to be the occasion of my rescue.”[28] That is what is stolen by shallow mercy, that painful moment of grace. We rewrite the person’s Christian story flat, making it into some senseless sentimental montage. Which inevitably makes the story uninteresting, even unbelievable. But, what is even more tragic, it steals from the Christian’s story a genuine resolution. For the plot was meant to be purgatorial and redemptive. It was meant to wash away sin, not ignore it.

But again, what does this look like? All of this belongs to the pastoralia of the Eucharistic Revival; at least it should if this revival is to be genuine, charismatic, and Pauline. It belongs to the work of the priest. But what does that priestly work look like? Beyond glorified event planning, what will priestly ministry look like during this Eucharistic Revival? Here we should begin where I will end this essay—with our saintly forebears. We priests should learn from them. We should be strange and spiritual like they were. And we should pray that our bishops will let us be so, for it is possible that the Eucharistic Revival will require more than a few strange priests to get it going. Priests like that ancient anonymous Cilician who irritated his people waiting so long on the Holy Spirit. Or, like John Vianney who wept in the confessional when his penitents would not.[29] Or, like Philip Neri: once when a man came to Neri for confession, he sensed the man was not truly sorry for his sins, so he told him that he would have to wait a while, for he had something important to do, and the saint gave the man a crucifix and walked out of the room.[30] That is what all of this may look like, which is my last parochial note on the Eucharistic Revival, which I do hope becomes a genuine revival: it must be something strange like this—full of strange priests, strange people, strange saints.

[1] John Moschos, The Spiritual Meadow, 27.

[2] The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church, 53.

[3] Thomas S. Kidd, The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America, 5.

[4] Ibid., 13.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Ibid., 213.

[7] Ibid., 153–154.

[8] Thomas S. Kidd, The Great Awakening: A Brief History with Documents, 91.

[9] The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church, 7.

[10] Ibid., 44–47, 50.

[11] Ibid., 46, 50.

[12] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, §§169–173

[13] Henri de Lubac, Corpus Mysticum, 114–119, 256.

[14] Ibid., 251.

[15] Augustine, Sermon 272.

[16] William Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist, 237–238.

[17] Ibid., 239.

[18] Timothy P. O’Malley, Becoming Eucharistic People: The Hope and Promise of Parish Life, 104.

[19] Code of Canon Law, can. 213.

[20] Ibid., can. 843 §1.

[21] Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, §20.

[22] Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, Sermon 3 II.4.

[23] Purgatorio i 121–129.

[24] Purgatorio iii 2–3; iv 88-90; ii 75.

[25] Purgatorio ix 112–113

[26] Aristotle, Poetics ix.10.

[27] Ibid., xv.7

[28] Ibid., xi.2; Sophocles, Oedipus the King 217­–218; 2 Samuel 12:1–15; Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, 165.

[29] Francis Trochu, The Curé d’Ars, 290.

[30] Paul Türks, Philip Neri: The Fire of Joy, 34.

Featured Image: Image by Robert Cheaib from Pixabay.


Joshua Whitfield

Fr. Joshua J. Whitfield is the Pastoral Administrator of St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas, Texas. He is a frequent contributor to The Dallas Morning News and the author of The Crisis of Bad Preaching: Redeeming the Heart and Way of the Catholic Preacher.

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