Last September, this series of articles on the Catechism of the Catholic Church made a detour. After completing my reflections on Part One of the Catechism -- on doctrine and the Creed -- I veered off to consider Part Four which focuses on personal prayer.
I did this after reflecting on my adolescence when my own experience of the Catechism's Part Two -- liturgy and sacraments -- went dead. I kept going to church but my own life of prayer, my personal relationship with God, had already evaporated.
One of the key statements of the Second Vatican Council is that "The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the church is directed; it is also the font from which all her power flows" (Constitution on the Liturgy, 10). Well, in my case, there was no mountain underneath the summit, no personal life of faith. No wonder the summit collapsed!
In fact, the summit has collapsed for millions of other Catholics. Catholic Sunday church attendance in Canada outside Quebec fell from 75 per cent in 1957 to 43 per cent in 1990. In Quebec, the decline was even more drastic. If the liturgy is "the font from which all (the church's) power flows," then we have a major power shortage. Moreover, that shortage will not be overcome if Catholics lead lives of dynamic personal prayer without participating in the liturgy.
It's worth noting that this is not the view of most Canadians. Canadians do not believe the liturgy is the source and summit of the church's life. A 1996 Angus Reid survey found that 83 per cent of Canadians (not just Catholics) believe "you do not need to go to church to be a good Christian."
Why are these people wrong? Why is it wrong to believe you can live a full Christian life by praying and doing good works but not participating in the liturgy?
It's wrong because this belief does not understand, as I did not understand, the nature of the liturgy.
This series on the Catechism has just completed 30 articles on personal prayer. When we move from personal prayer to public liturgy, we are doing more than including extra people in our conversation with God. Liturgy is more than group prayer. Liturgy is also more than a group of Christians who pray together, using a prescribed ritual or format.
Vatican II's Constitution on the Liturgy states that liturgy "is an action of Christ the priest and of his body which is the church." And when we talk about Catholic church attendance, we are referring to attendance at Sunday Mass. This is a specific type of liturgy -- a sacramental celebration of the Eucharist. Christ is really present at that liturgy as both priest and victim. We, his body, act in communion with him at the liturgy and, as communicants, eat his body, the life-giving bread of heaven. This is "a sacred action surpassing all others" (ibid).
If we believe Jesus' words that "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you" (John 6:53) and if we believe we do consume Jesus, then the Eucharist will be the high point of our lives.
Yet, it appears a majority of Catholics do not believe this either. A 1994 New York Times-CBS News poll found that 70 per cent of U.S. Catholics under age 45 believe that the bread and wine consecrated during the Mass are "symbolic reminders of Christ" rather than actually changed into Christ's body and blood.
With such an understanding of the Eucharist, it is totally understandable why one would see no special point in rousting oneself on Sunday morning to attend Mass. One may as well pray to Christ in one's home where there may also be symbolic reminders of Christ's presence.
Our Catholic belief is that Christ is physically present in the Communion elements and that liturgy is the source and summit of our lives of faith. People have given their lives out of fidelity to this belief. If the Eucharist really is the body and blood of Jesus Christ, then it can give new energy to every aspect of one's life. If one wants to be a good Christian then one ought to be there when Christ again comes into our midst.
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