Online Edition – Vol. V, No. 10: February 2000
The Real Presence: Center of faith — and witness
Pro-life leader explains why we must never "hide" the tabernacle
by John C. Willke, MD
We have been told that the Lord Jesus Christ is present in four different ways. He is present in the Word, in the congregation, in the celebrant and in the Host. I accept this as Church doctrine.
It happens that I’m a bit different from many other parishioners, as I lecture nationally and internationally. I usually get to Mass in my parish church only once or twice a month, as I attend Mass in many different cities. I’m perhaps so unusual in that I preach in many Protestant churches on my visits to other cities. As many may know, my daily commentaries on radio are aired daily on approximately 1,000 stations across the United States. The great majority of these stations are Evangelical. Accordingly, I have been associating with believing and devoted Evangelical Christians for almost two decades. I have grown to respect them highly. I have grown to love them. In many ways they frequently outshine many of us Catholics in their devotion to Jesus. In the light of this let me comment.
Our Lord is present in the Scriptures. There is no question about this. We are using Scripture more directly in Catholic worship in the last several decades, and this has been a major advance. There is no question that Evangelicals center their service about the Word. There also is no question but that, person for person and clergyman for clergyman, they are considerably better educated and more attentive to Scripture than we Catholics are. My point is that if I were to choose between Catholicism and Evangelical faiths, they would out-point us on Scripture.
Our Lord is present in the congregation. This is also true. In terms of brotherhood, fellowship and the spirit it engenders, we Catholics have come a long way in the last several decades. However, Evangelicals out-point us on this also and have for a long time. At the very least, we can say the Lord is present in the congregations in both our faiths.
The Lord is present in the clergyman, the priest, the preacher. Again I agree. We should give great respect to the priest who celebrates our Mass. I also give respect to the preacher who preaches to Evangelicals. Forgetting for a moment the sacrament of Ordination, if we compare the preaching of Catholic priests with Evangelical ministers, we can find excellence or lack thereof, depending upon the individual. But taken as a whole, I have not found Catholic preaching to be superior to Evangelical preaching. Maybe I have just gone to the more eloquent preaching churches. But again comparing the two, I do not see any superiority as a general rule in Catholic churches.
Finally we come to the Eucharist. This is why I remain and shall always be a devout Catholic. I truly believe that Jesus Christ is present, body and blood, in the consecrated host and wine. This is the center of our faith. The Mass is the reenactment of the sacrifice on Calvary. This is a treasure beyond belief. We, as Catholics, have this Sacrament. Evangelicals do not.
My Evangelical friends have often come to me, and, complimenting what I am doing, they ask why I do not "convert" and become a born again Evangelical. I tell them that we have, in our faith, a treasure beyond belief that they do not have. We have the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist, and this is the front and center of our faith. They may not agree, but they always respect my belief.
One of the things they tell me that has always impressed them with Catholic services has been the silence, the genuflecting, the reverence that we hold to the Tabernacle. I cannot tell you how many times I have been told that there is something about a Catholic church that they do not have. To come into a Catholic church in the quiet and see people kneeling in front of the Tabernacle, perhaps in dim light, with the candle there, praying, is something that has impressed them immensely. I do not have to tell you that if we remove the center of our worship and hide it in a closet in the back of church and turn our churches into Protestant meeting halls, that this will be lost. The Eucharist makes us different. Why, under heaven, are we Catholics throwing away and hiding the central belief that makes us different from all other Christians?
At our church we were told that this change (hiding the Tabernacle) is mandated by Vatican II. This is false. We are told that this change is on instructions of the American Bishops in a 1978 directive entitled, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (EACW). This is not true. The EACW was a letter written by a committee. It was not discussed by the full body of and was not approved by the full body of American bishops. We were told that such changes are necessary to comply with "Catholic Liturgical Code". But such an official code simply does not exist.
Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, the US Bishops’ representative to the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, spoke to the Society for Catholic Liturgy in 1998. In discussing the letter of Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, he said that some liturgists have conducted "a war against devotion". He said that mistakes have surfaced and that this letter has, in essence "relegated the Eucharist to a closet".
He and other bishops, at the US Bishops’ meeting in November 1998, criticized the fact that committees of bishops have issued statements that have not been approved by their entire body. There was discussion on how to control this, and suggestions were even made that such letters should cease. The two letters most roundly criticized included the one above and "Always Our Children", which was so soft on homosexuality that the Vatican intervened to correct it.
This liturgical letter (EACW), which I believe has led so many astray, is being replaced. Expectations are that it will bring some devotion and correction back into our churches. [The new draft, Domus Dei, was discussed at the November 1999 meeting. See AB Dec-Jan p 1. – Ed.]
Here is an example that I fear will become common. A young Catholic person goes with a friend to an Assembly of God Church. (We are told that 50% of Assembly members are former Catholics). He is impressed with the preaching, with its vibrant youth group, with the fellowship and with the evangelical fervor of its members, all of which is superior to his parish. They do not have the Eucharist but devotion to "it" had been so de-emphasized that he has no appreciation of the Real Presence. Result? He joins them.
In conclusion, I can only say that we cannot support a parish that openly discourages and undermines devotion to the Real Presence in the manner that has been done.
Dr. John C. Willke is an internationally renowned physician and expert in bioethics. He is the founder and president of the International Right-to-Life Federation, and was president of the National Right to Life Committee from 1980-1991. He and his wife, Barbara, live in Cincinnati. This is Dr. Willke’s first contribution to the Adoremus Bulletin.