Why Americans Struggle to Understand Catholicism

Americans struggle to understand the nature of Catholicism. In the U.S. context, religion is often understood as a strictly private affair. On Sundays, we go to church (or at least we once did, before many people stopped going to church at all). Such attendance, of course, is an optional dimension of what it means to be a flourishing human being. A good Christian could survey the rolling hills of Texas or the stunning vistas of Arizona on a morning hike. It is this individual communion with God that matters.

U.S. Catholics have, for the most part, avoided this trap. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we grasped something important. We needed to be together to pray, to celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy, and to mark the great seasons of the Church year. This desire is written in the bones of a Catholic. The ringing of bells across the northern Indiana plains on Easter Sunday 2020 could not replace the communal singing of the Easter Alleluia at our parish churches. We understand that participation in flesh and blood liturgies are part and parcel of what it means to belong to Christ’s Body.

But this does not mean that the U.S. Church has grasped the public dimension of Catholicism. Our struggle is recognizing that the liturgical rites we celebrate have public consequences. Liturgy is not an exercise for private edification of an individual or a community. It is not leaving behind the world, while we escape into some space of sacramental nostalgia, avoiding all that troubles us. The task ahead of us in this presentation is to think anew about how the liturgical rites of the Church draw a Catholic into the world, seeking to create spaces of divine love that are consequences of the Eucharistic identity of the Church.

We will focus on this task through a prayerful exegesis of a Eucharistic antiphon by St. Thomas Aquinas, the Sacrum Convivium. Before beginning this discussion we can listen to this antiphon, performed by the English composer Thomas Tallis here. The text in English is: “O sacred banquet/in which Christ is received/in which the memory of his passion is renewed/the mind is filled with grace/and a pledge of future glory is given to us. Alleluia.” Our exegesis seeks to understand how the Church is not just a private religious body but a public one. The liturgical rites of the Church—integral to the Church’s identity—therefore drive us toward love within the world.

O Sacrum Convivium in quo Christus Sumitur: O Sacred Banquet in which Christ is Received

St. Thomas begins his Eucharistic antiphon, written for the feast of Corpus Christi, in a strange way. He speaks to the Eucharistic event not as the presence of Christ but as the sacred banquet or convivium. The Latin word convivium means a good deal more than a party. It is a symposium, a festive gathering in which there will be food but, more importantly, communion with one another. The Eucharist is the sacred symposium, according to St. Thomas, a festive communion of all the members of the Church.

St. Thomas, therefore, provides medicine for our late modern Western approach to religion. In the DNA of the United States, we treat religious practice as an individual decision. The salvation that is at stake is exclusively my own. Yes, I as individual, belong to a parish. I choose to go to this or that parish, but this means that at any moment, I can leave this ragtag group for one that better meets my needs. A form of libertarianism takes over in such a view. We are all individuals. Our salvation does not depend on one another, and therefore you go your way, and I go mine. Pope Francis speaks against this individualistic account of salvation. In his Gaudete et Exsultate, the Holy Father writes:

In salvation history, the Lord saved one people. We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. That is why no one is saved alone, as an isolated individual. Rather, God draws us to himself, taking into account the complex fabric of interpersonal relationships present in a human community. God wanted to enter into the life and history of a people (Gaudete et Exsultate, §6).

The Eucharist is a sacred banquet, a convivium, not because a group of individuals have decided (at least for the time being) to gather around the altar. Rather, this festive gathering of Christ’s Body is intrinsic to the very event of salvation. The triune God has saved men and women not as isolated individuals but in a communion of love. The People of God, often evoked as a kind of democratic credo for the Church, is something more. It is a Eucharistic vision of the Church in which men and women are convoked, pilgrimaging through history accompanied by the Eucharistic presence of the Lord.

This gathering is not around a series of self-constructed ideals, however beautiful they may be. After all, human communities that depend on ourselves alone inevitably fall prey to violence or idolatry. We will construct the ideal community, leaving out all those who do not fit into what we want. All are welcome, except those who I do not really want here.   

But as St. Thomas notes, the sacred banquet is not a political project of a group of individuals, affirming a set of ideals that bind us together. No! The banquet gathers around a single act, the reception of the person of Jesus Christ. The feast is a Eucharistic banquet in which the one who gives himself is Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.

The Latin is sumitur, which has a variety of meanings taken from the world of commerce. It can mean taken, seized, bought, consumed, or acquired. And yet, what is acquired in the Eucharistic gift? It is the presence of Jesus Christ, freely given without cost for the life of the world.

Think about language that we often use in the Eucharistic Prayer. We ask that the Father send the Spirit upon the gifts of bread and wine like the dewfall. Dewfall, of course, is a reference to the manna that falls from heaven in the Book of Exodus. The nascent Israel has been rescued from slavery in Egypt. Their captors drowned in the Red Sea. They are free! Free to be a people who worship God and love the neighbor. But they cannot! They want something more from God and from Moses. In Egypt, they grumble, they at least had stew to eat. But no more! What is this God going to do? What will Moses do?

God does not respond with punishment for their lack of faith. Rather, God does what God does throughout the Scriptures: God gives. Each morning, like the dewfall, bread will be given from heaven. This heavenly bread must be received as a gift. It is not a commercial product, part of an economy of exchange. Do ut des. I give so that I might receive. Rather, each family is to take enough manna exclusively for that day. No more. No less. And yet, each day, God will give. Such bread from heaven is not a product of human production. It is pure and absolute gift. And it is from this pure gift of love that a people come about.

Jesus himself shows us this. He multiples loaves and fishes not just to show his power. Rather, in each of the Gospels the miraculous gift of bread creates a new people gathered from all the ends of the world. The people did not assemble themselves, convoke themselves, or create themselves. The people became a people exclusively because of a gift: Take and eat, this is my body, given up for you.

Furthermore, Catholicism sees all men and women as potential recipients of this gift. The Church is not limited to a particular culture. It is not only the wealthy or the powerful that are recipients of the Eucharistic gift. At times, the Church has forgotten this, setting up hierarchies in which the important people are those with wealth, those who exercise political power.

I remember once attending a Eucharistic liturgy at a prestigious east coast Catholic university. The Cardinal Archbishop began his celebration of the Eucharistic liturgy through a lengthy occasion of welcoming all the special guests who were present in the chapel: the president of the University, the bishops who were there, etc. He meant well, of course. But this welcoming forgot something integral about the sacred banquet, the sacrum convivium.

Mass is not a fundraising event, or an occasion to develop the right kind of friendships that increase one’s social standing. It is the Eucharistic banquet of love in which the Church—in all her members—become one body, one Spirit in Christ. The Mass begins not with welcoming the important but bringing us into our common identity, of those baptized into the triune God, brothers and sisters of Jesus, the Son of God.  

It is because of this idolatry, this worldliness that infects the Church, that Paul reacts the way he does against the community at Corinth. The Corinthians are celebrating the Eucharist, at least they think they are. At the time, the Eucharist included a meal or a feast. And the rich—who did not work—are arriving early, eating as much as possible, and getting drunk along the way. Paul castigates the community, “When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat” (1 Cor 11:20). It is not the Lord’s supper because it has become a purely human gathering, a love feast that is nothing more than a way of upholding the social hierarchies of the time.

Let us reflect on the words of Paul, spoken now to us. Is our celebration of the Lord’s Supper focused more on ourselves than the Lord who gives himself to us? To all of us? We must reflect on this, dear friends, if we are to become a truly Eucharistic Church.

Recolitur Memoria Passionis Eius: The Memory of his Passion Is Renewed

You have likely heard something that is true about the Second Vatican Council. The Council grounded all liturgical celebration in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ. The Paschal Mystery is the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. It is not only Jesus’s death that saves men and women. No! It is the totality of his life, his death, the resurrection in which the Father accepts the sacrifice of love, and his ascension into heaven where he now intercedes for all men and women unto the end of ages. Amen.

So, St. Thomas’s focus on the Eucharist as the memory of Christ’s passion may seem antiquated. After all, don’t we focus on the whole life of Christ? Is it only the passion that matters to the Church’s celebration of the Eucharistic liturgy?

The answer, of course, is no. But this is also true for St. Thomas Aquinas. Throughout his commentary on the Eucharist, he addresses the Eucharistic mystery in a variety of ways. The Eucharist is true bread for the journey, the Eucharist is the true Paschal Lamb liberating us from sin and death, and the Eucharist is the foretaste of eternal life. 

But the Eucharist is the memory of Christ’s passion. The importance of this is clear in the Last Supper. On the night before he suffered death, taking upon himself the totality of human darkness and sin, he celebrated a meal with his disciples. It was not the first meal that our Lord had with his beloved friends. And yet on this night, so closely linked to the Passover, Jesus took bread, broke it, gave it to his disciples, and said, “This is my body . . .” He did the same with the cup, adding, “. . . do this in remembrance of me.”

At the heart of Catholicism is the memory of a death. The death of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh and splendor of the Father, who loved his own until the end. At Mass, we remember the story of a victim. And the passion narratives of the Gospels make clear that everyone has some responsibility to bear upon his death. His fellow Jewish brothers and sisters, the Roman government, and the crowd who all cry out for his death. In Jesus, love became flesh and rather than greet this fact with joy, love was murdered. God died.

Jesus Christ sacrifices himself for the life of the world. This sacrifice is not an occasion of self-destruction. It is not the Father, punishing the Son for the sins of men and women. Rather, Jesus Christ loved his own and loved them unto the end. It was a love that entered the totality of human darkness, revealing that even in the depths of Sheol, in the hellish places of human history, love alone is credible. The powers of death and darkness do not have the last word. Jesus Christ suffered, died, and was resurrected. Through his death and resurrection, we see a new possibility for all men and women. Suffering, death, the darkness that we inflict upon one another is contrary to the divine plan. There is another way. The way of sacrificial, self-giving love: the end of making victims.

Yes, it is the whole life of Christ that saves. But the whole life of Christ must deal with the flesh and blood human condition. In the best of situations, we do not live forever. We will die. And some of those deaths will be terrible. We know the ravages inflicted upon those suffering from cancer. We know the tragedy of those who die too young in a car accident. We know the loss of those who have taken their own life, who have suffered from mental health problems. We know all this.

We also know the suffering inflicted upon the human family. There remain many victims in our world. There are migrants who must escape from their home country because of political violence and pressure, leaving behind their native land only to be rejected by the other nations of the world. There are the unborn who never had a chance to live. There are birth mothers who feel that they must end the life of their child, forced to do so by husbands and boyfriends and a social system that does not provide the needed support. There are those suffering from domestic violence in their homes, afraid to cry out for help. There are those harmed by the Church’s ministers, who abused their power, committing heinous crimes of sexual abuse. There are young men and women, addicted to social media, who cannot see themselves as created in image and likeness of God, who develop a hatred of themselves so intense that they think their life might not be worth it.  

These victims are those who often feel forgotten. And yet, in the Eucharistic liturgy, it is these women and men who are remembered in the renewal of Christ’s passion. We remember the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ not as an abstract fact of history. Christ’s death and resurrection is the beating heart of the world. Ascended into heaven, he has the power to redeem our suffering and sorrow here and now. Not by asking us to climb above it, to ignore it, to enter some stoic disregard for it. Rather, it is only through his death and resurrection, that our suffering can be redeemed here and now.

This is what the Eucharist is. Through recalling his death and resurrection—still present among us—we make the fruits of this event available to all the faithful. The Gospel is not a fairy tale, a once upon a time story. It is the presence in this world of a love that can redeem anything. That can heal everything.

For this reason, we must recognize anew the privileged status of the victim in our midst, of those who have suffered at the hands of life, Church, and state. The real scandal of Catholicism today is a Pollyannish disregard for the suffering of human beings. We have become blurry-eyed optimists who forget that at the heart of our liturgical life is a supreme gift of love offered by the God-man, Jesus Christ, intended to redeem men and women in their life, suffering, and death.

To remember the passion of Jesus Christ, therefore, is to remember those who have suffered in our midst. It is to know their suffering, to make it our own. Remember that we are a communion of men and women on the way, gathered around the Eucharistic altar. Eucharistic solidarity is a consequence of the Eucharistic remembering of the Church. The suffering of my neighbor is my suffering, because our Lord Jesus Christ suffered and died for the many, for all of us. Your good is my good. This is why Pope Benedict XVI noted in his encyclical, God Is Love, that a Eucharist that does not result in concrete acts of love, in care for all men and women, is intrinsically fragmented. It is incomplete, because we have forgotten to properly celebrate the memory of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection.

The task, therefore, is to learn to remember aright. It is to celebrate with solemnity the sacrifice of Christ in the Eucharistic liturgy, and through this remembering, to perceive anew the suffering of those in our midst. And to respond with the same heart of Jesus to this suffering, escaping from political ideology, to reach the heart of the Gospel: love unto the end.

Mens Impletur Gratia: The Mind Is Filled with Grace.

Of course, this act of becoming a communion of Eucharistic love is not one that we can perform on our own. I must say that I often laugh when I hear parishes cry out with almost joyful vigor to send down divine justice upon the world. For after all, this justice could first be directed to the parish, rather than its imagined enemies. Sending down the fire of your justice might burn you first.

St. Thomas reminds us that this task of becoming a communion of love is not our own. In the Eucharist, we do not eat and drink Christ. He consumes us. He takes us up into himself, into his own logic of gift-giving. The mind is filled with grace.

Again, we must understand the Latin that St. Thomas is using. Mind is not reducible to brain power. It is not our brains that receive grace, while our bodies are left behind. Rather, mens or mind involves the heart and affections. It is the whole self that is filled with grace.

Further, grace is not a quantity. When I was young, I imagined that it was. Each time I received the Eucharist, I got a bit more grace that would eventually fill me up. By the time I died, I hoped to have all the grace that I needed.

Grace or gratia is gift. What is the gift that we are filled with? In the Eucharist, we are filled with the totality of divine love, the very presence of Jesus Christ that seeks to consume every dimension of our beings. This is what the Church’s teaching on real presence and transubstantiation is about. What is given in the Eucharist is the substantial presence of Jesus Christ, Body and Blood, soul and divinity.

Jesus gives everything to us. But he gives himself to us in a way that we can receive it. The species or accidents (what we touch and taste) remain. Bread and wine—as created realities—are taken up entirely into the self-giving love of Jesus. They become him. And through our reception, we are called to the same vocation as this bread and wine. It is our flesh and blood lives that are to be transubstantiated. To become the Body and Blood of Christ, poured out for the life of the world.

To receive the Eucharist as Catholics reveals something about our vocation in history. Having received the gift of Christ’s love, we are therefore to participate in the project of creating spaces of hospitality, communion, friendship, and hope throughout the world. In his apostolic exhortation on the Eucharist, Pope Emeritus Benedict wrote, “The substantial conversion of bread and wine into his body and blood introduces within creation the principle of a radical change, a sort of "nuclear fission," to use an image familiar to us today, which penetrates to the heart of all being, a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all (cf. 1 Cor 15:28)” (Sacramentum caritatis, §11).

To receive grace in the Eucharistic banquet obligates the whole community, beginning with each member of Christ’s body, toward a new way of living within the world. The works of mercy, therefore, are extensions of the grace of Eucharistic reception. When I feed the hungry, treating the man or woman without a home as my neighbor, I am doing more than caring for basic needs.

I am acknowledging the dignity of this man or woman, so often passed over in the street by those of us operating in the workaday world. I am creating a space of communion, of friendship, in what Pope Francis calls a throwaway culture. This person does not matter, at least according to economists, because they do not participate in the acts of consumption and production. They are expendable. Yet, in this act of offering food, in gazing into the eyes of those who hunger and thirst, I am rejecting this hellish economy. I am participating in a priestly act of “transubstantiating” the world.

This concrete act of love, of course, does not relieve me from the act of participating in social renewal. Still, we too often hear members of the Church draw a firm distinction between charity and justice, between acts of service and advocating for social change. This distinction is an artificial one, at least from the perspective of a Eucharistic vision of the Church.

In every domain, men and women are to create spaces of hospitality and communion. This means caring for the concrete needs of the neighbor. At times, what the neighbor most needs is friendship, the pouring out of time spent in communion with one another. Tending to the forgotten dying, like Mother Teresa did in Calcutta, is part of fostering a Eucharistic world.

Equally so, transforming the social structures that lead to the endless cycle of creating victims is also a Eucharistic act. To receive the Eucharist, Christ’s Body and Blood, is an intrinsically political act. It forms the Church into a new way of being a polis, a city ordered not toward violence, power, or prestige. Rather, it is a communion of men and women who scandalously proclaim that human life is about love.

Here, we have a patron saint to be in Dorothy Day. She knew the Eucharistic heart of the Church. The houses of hospitality she opened in New York cared for the concrete, mundane needs of the hungry and thirsty. She did not romanticize the poor she served. She knew them as human beings, as complicated as we all are, but who deserve friendship. Day did not stop there.

She spoke out against nuclear weapons, the endless wars that have occupied the United States over the last 75 years. She knew the plight of urban life upon the human condition, the way that reducing each of us to economic consumers and producers imprisons us in an economy of scarcity rather than gift. She recognized the scandal of racism, a scandal that members of the Church have too often capitulated to.

Most of all, she knew that the presence of the flesh and blood poor, the scandal of social injustice, was a Eucharistic problem. She celebrated the Liturgy of the Hours and the Eucharistic liturgy each day. She spent time in adoration before the Eucharistic Lord. From the Eucharist, from the grace she received, she became an accidental icon of love for all those who knew her.

Are our parishes willing to follow Dorothy Day in this Eucharistic receptivity? Will we remain entrenched in idolatry, bending our knee more before an image of the donkey or the elephant, instead of Jesus Christ crucified? Will we become Eucharistic communities who perform the works of mercy, while offering a prophetic voice in a throwaway culture? Will we care for the migrant, the unborn and their parents, the prisoner, and those without homes? Will we speak out against racism? Against the kind of will-to-power that, to be frank, is the fundamental logic of politics in our day? Will our lives be coherent, attuned to the Eucharist?

If our minds are filled with the grace of charity, of Jesus Christ, then we will. Happily, this task is not entirely up to us. It is not entirely our own. It is the gift of Jesus, poured out for the life of the world, who will form us in this Eucharistic communion.

Et Futurae Gloriae Nobis Pignus Datur. Alleluia: And a Pledge of Future Glory Is Given to Us, Alleluia.

Of course, we will continue to fail in this task. This is not because the totality of Eucharistic communion is impossible, a mere utopian dream. No! It is because the human family will not be fulfilled until the beatific vision, until we gaze upon the face of the Lord, singing together in the city of God hymns of praise for ever and ever. Amen.

I love the Eucharist. But what I love about St. Thomas’s account of the Eucharist is a reminder that it is still a sacrament. A sacrament is an occasion of invisible mediation. When I look upon the Host, upon the assembly singing along with me, I do not see Jesus Christ. I see what looks like bread. I perceive what looks like ordinary men and women. The task of my life, of course, is to develop a renewed perception. To learn a new way of seeing.

But one day, the great promise, is that I will see the Lord face-to-face. In the Book of Revelation, this does not mean leaving behind the world. The Book of Revelation is the supreme Eucharistic book of Scripture in which the liturgy of heaven is conducted while the violence of earth unfolds behold.

The powers and principalities seek to be adored, but it is only the Lamb once slain to whom we should bend a knee. And yet, at the end of time, the earth is not left behind. No! Heaven descends. The city of God transforms his flesh and blood world. The sun is no more because the only light needed is the presence of God. Until then, the Book of Revelation proposes to us a way of seeing, of looking at the violence of this age in light of the heavenly liturgy.  

In other words, the city of God is not entirely here yet. And this is why the Eucharist is but a pledge of future glory. St. Thomas knows that the vocation of every man and woman is to gaze upon our Lord face-to-face. It is the beatific vision, where perfect communion is possible among the saints.

Thus, no matter how beautiful the Eucharist is, no matter how wonderful reception of our Lord is, no matter the beauty of the hymns we sing, we are made for more. I suspect this is what St. Augustine means when he says in his Confessions that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. Restlessness, that is desire, is good for us. In the silence of the Eucharistic liturgy—if we dare include such silence—we long for a communion with God that no mortal tongue can tell. In working to feed the hungry and thirsty, to enact social change, we see the horizon of the kingdom of God. But we know that there is more to see, more to behold, more to love, more to come.

Dear friends, this is why in Catholicism, there ought not be a radical distinction between action and contemplation. Our parishes too often split along these lines. There are those who do things. And those who pray. But prayer is integral to the whole project, to letting ourselves be desired by God, to savor that desire as we seek to build spaces of freedom, love, and hospitality in the world.

Perhaps, most of all, this is the gift of Eucharistic adoration in our day. Among many liturgists and scholars, Eucharistic adoration has become suspect. The Eucharist is made for eating, not for looking at, many have said. But this is wrong! It mistakes the purpose of Adoration, which is not to look and not to eat. But rather taps into an essential element of Christian life. Desire sometimes means distance.

In gazing upon the Host, surrounded in the golden glory of the monstrance, I am looking upon and not consuming the Eucharist. There is distance. Lovers know that distance often makes the heart grow fonder. We long for the presence of our beloved, for when we can finally be together. Gazing upon the Eucharist is a lover’s gaze. God can be all-in-all. I long for Jesus Christ to be the very meaning, the source of all my life. So, I wait. I wait for the more that will come. I learn a posture of expectation. Not yet, I say. Not yet. But soon.

This posture of adoration can allow us to retrieve the eschatological dimension of the Eucharist that I fear that our privatized approach to the Mass has forgotten. Our parish is not a perfect community. The Mass that we celebrate is not the complete communion with Jesus. There is more. We should learn to await, to long with desire for the final coming of Christ.

This posture of contemplative expectation, of course, is precisely the disposition that Christ calls us in the Gospel of Matthew. The judgement of the nations is a terrifying parable. The sheep and the goats are equally judged for their performance of the works of mercy. But in both cases, they do not recognize the presence of Jesus in those they serve. And yet, those who did serve, those who gave food and drink, the coat off their backs, understood somehow that this concrete act of love was service to the hidden Christ.

The more that we learn a Eucharistic way of seeing, the more that we recognize the presence of Christ coming to us each day. The mom and dad who care for their vulnerable child, who put their phones down, and love the child before them. The businesswoman who stops on her way to work to ask the name of the man seeking a bit of change, perhaps bringing along a sandwich each morning to feed him. The teacher who sees in his most troublesome students, the very presence of Christ demanding love.

This is a Eucharistic vision, a way of seeing that is only possible for those who practice receiving the pledge of future glory. We can learn to see more and more of this presence, to serve the Christ who is before us. But we must give ourselves up to a new way of being, a way given over to worship.

I suppose, dear friends, this is my hope for the Eucharistic Revival that is being sponsored by the USCCB. As we learn to participate more fully in the Eucharistic sacrifice, as we recognize the presence of our Lord, as we grow in communion as Christ’s Body and Blood given over for the life of the world, we will begin to create a Eucharistic culture in the Church and the world. And this culture will become the horizon of a kingdom of love, of peace, and of hope that changes the very meaning of human history.

Christ wants us to build this culture, to love God and neighbor. And to create those spaces that make it easier to do so. This is our task. It is a liturgical one. To become a Church that gathers not around strategic plans or bureaucratic wrangling but the Eucharistic Lord who reigns forever and ever. Amen.

Featured Image: James Tissot, The Gathering of Manna, 1902; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


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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