Online Edition – September 2005
Vol. XI, No. 6
In the Year of the Eucharist: A Personal Memoir
by Anthony Corvaia, Jr.
Let us suppose that the last day has come and that our doctrine of the Eucharist turns out to be false and absurd. If our Lord now asks us reproachfully: “Why did you believe thus of my Sacrament? Why did you adore the Host?” may we not safely answer Him “Yes, Lord, if we were wrong in this, it was you who deceived us. We heard your word, This is my Body, and was it a crime for us to believe you? We were confirmed in our mistake by a hundred signs and wonders which could have had you only for their author. Your Church with one voice cried out to us that we were right, and in believing as we did we but followed in the footsteps of all your saints and holy ones”.
– Saint Robert Bellarmine
My initial understanding of the Eucharist, like that of most people of my generation, came from the Baltimore Catechism, which stated matter-of-factly that “The Holy Eucharist is the Sacrament which contains the body and blood, soul and divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ under the appearances of bread and wine”.
Growing up in an Italian-American family, I naturally attended Mass with my parents in the Italian parish, Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary, which was some distance from where we lived. On occasion I would attend the local Catholic Church, a Polish parish, St. Anthony of Padua. It was a tiny structure, holding barely 150 people, and every square inch of its walls and ceiling was covered with pictures and designs and decorations.
It was the custom there to have Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament right after the Sunday High Mass. During the interval, while those slackers who had more pressing engagements (which as a young devout Catholic boy I could not imagine) tiptoed out of church as the altar boys lit the candelabra on the altar, I would study the artwork and the architecture.
I can still remember the brightly colored three-dimensional Stations of the Cross, the ornate Victorian Gothic wooden altar painted to look like marble, and, on the ceiling over the altar, the mural of God the Father, with a full, white beard and a grandfatherly smile, arms held wide in welcome and blessing. I might examine the color plates in my St. Joseph Sunday Missal for the hundredth time, re-arranging my impressive collection of holy cards (the prettiest ones were always from Italy) and fixing the ribbons for next week’s Mass.
Soon the little bell would ring and the altar boys would reappear, followed by the pastor — Father John, as he was called — resplendent in his pom-pommed biretta and cloth-of-gold cope, so heavily embroidered with metallic thread that I’m sure it was bulletproof.
We would fall to our knees as the tabernacle was opened, and when the jeweled monstrance was raised to its throne on high, and when the pipe organ swelled and we all began to sing “O Salutaris Hostia”, and when the altar boys bowed low in adoration and the thick clouds of sweet-smelling incense rose up to the open arms of God the Father, my heart would thump and my eyes would fill and I knew with the conviction of a martyr that here God dwelled among mortals.
The rite was soon over, and I would remain for a short time with the sound of “Holy God, we praise Thy Name” ringing in my ears and the unmistakably Catholic aroma of beeswax and incense filling my sinuses, savoring the afterglow of my all-too-brief encounter with the Transcendent.
Some forty years have passed, and during that time I have had many opportunities to deepen my understanding of and appreciation for the Eucharist. Undoubtedly all the sermons, CCD classes, theology courses and liturgical studies have made their contributions, but it’s interesting to note that while the memory of my studies has faded, the teachers’ names forgotten and the textbooks long since disposed of, I can still describe that service in detail.
There is a very important lesson here. As valuable as formal catechesis is, and it is, since a faith that cannot be defended is a faith not worthy of belief, it is no match for experience. Any good teacher will tell you that. We sometimes fail to understand how powerful the liturgy is in forming our understanding of the faith. We forget that actions do speak louder than words. Formal catechesis inculcates a faith of intellectual assent, but experiencing the liturgy instills a faith that permeates one’s total being because it engages not only the mind, but the spirit and the senses as well.
What keeps my remembrance of Benediction from being just a nostalgic reverie is that it is but one of many liturgical experiences that has formed and informed my faith. Such experiences have been repeated in countless Triduums, Forty Hours’ Devotions, Corpus Christi processions, Ash Wednesdays, All Souls’ Days and, just as importantly, Sunday and holyday Masses.
For most adult Catholics, attending Mass is the primary — if not the only — venue for being exposed to the truths of the faith. That is one of the reasons why the proper celebration of the liturgy is so important, especially at a time when a whole generation of Catholics has been grossly under-catechized. As the American bishops have wisely observed, “Faith grows when it is well expressed in celebration. Good celebrations foster and nourish faith. Poor celebrations weaken and destroy faith”.1
And as the Fathers of Second Vatican Council have said, “Although the sacred liturgy is above all things the worship of the Divine Majesty, it likewise contains much instruction for the faithful. For in the liturgy God speaks to His people and Christ is still proclaiming His gospel”.2
How does the liturgy accomplish this? Through preaching of course, but also in a more structured way through the Church’s annual cycle of readings, prayers and rituals — what we call the liturgical year. The liturgical year, beginning with Advent and ending with the Solemnity of Christ the King, provides a point-by-point review of the faith, and those who participate in the liturgical life of the Church, especially on Sundays, holydays and major festivals, will find that they have been exposed to every dogma and theological concept of the Catholic faith. The Sacred Liturgy was the Church’s first catechism, and when properly celebrated is still the best.
Since “the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed” and “at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows”,3 it follows that those who are responsible for the preparation and execution of our liturgical celebrations hold the fate of the Church in their hands. This is an awesome responsibility, one that too often gets delegated to the uninformed or worse yet, the misinformed.
Given the resulting plethora of poor liturgies with their muddled theology, trivialized rites, heterodox innovations, simplistic music and “popular appeal”, is it any wonder that attendance at Mass has declined so precipitously along with belief in basic doctrines like the Real Presence and the sacrificial aspect of the Mass?
One of the first things I learned as a liturgist was never to underestimate the congregants’ abilities or their intelligence. They aren’t persuaded by felt banners proclaiming “Joy!” They are able to sing music of quality (if they are supported by real musicians). They don’t need to be reminded that Mass is a “celebration” by having balloons tied to candlesticks.
If they want a show with an emcee they can watch any number of late-night TV shows. If they want to see clowns they will go to the circus. They are only interested in liturgical dance if one of their kids is performing it.
Liturgy that tries to appeal to the faithful by incorporating popular culture will always come up short because the secular world, unrestrained by morality, contemptuous of propriety and obsessed with sensationalism, will always be able to out-dazzle the Church.
I respect those who endure poor liturgy out of loyalty to their parish. But one can only live so long without being fed. They may continue to attend Mass albeit passively. They show up to fulfill their Sunday obligation. Some drift away to other parishes, and even to other denominations. “Good celebrations foster and nourish faith. Poor celebrations weaken and destroy faith”.
But what constitutes a good celebration? Much ink has been wasted on this topic. May I suggest that a good celebration of the liturgy is one in which:
– the official rubrics are observed to the letter — no more, no less.
– all the liturgical ministers are prepared to carry out their roles with poise, reverence, and decorum. The clergy have prepared their texts and lectors, their readings. Altar servers and musicians have rehearsed their parts, and the congregation understands its role and participates with fervor.
– the music and the rites are in harmony with the liturgical season or feast and with the ethos of the Roman Rite.
– there is a palpable sense that what is being done is supremely important.
I realize that this rather dry list of prescriptions flies in the face of the modern definition of good liturgy, which typically goes something like “an assembly of the People of God led by their delegated spokesperson (i.e., a priest) in which the validity of the feelings and condition of each person is affirmed, in which community is realized by sharing a meal, and in which all are missioned to bring the message of God’s unconditional inclusiveness to a hurting but basically good world”. In other words, good liturgy is really group therapy, except with hymns.
Real good liturgy does not depend on cheeriness, sentiment or group hugs; it simply depends on doing what the Church expects, and doing it with absolute fidelity, utmost care and genuine enthusiasm.
Let me conclude my memoir. One day the little church of St. Anthony caught fire. Father John was seen rushing into the burning structure. He emerged unharmed, bearing not the cloth-of-gold vestments, not the jeweled monstrance, not money from the poor box, but the Blessed Sacrament. He did not endanger his life to save a mere wafer. By his actions he gave eloquent testimony to both his personal faith and the faith of the Church. So it should be with the Sacred Liturgy.
To those of us who are engaged in fostering the authentic celebration of the liturgy, I say, “Take heart!” We may be weary from the constant onslaught of abuses marketed as liturgical reform. We may become discouraged at having to defend the provisions of the GIRM as if we were accused of heresy. We may bristle at being labeled as rubricists, reactionaries and worse.
But let us console ourselves with the realization that we are no less than catechists and evangelists, for through the Sacred Liturgy we help to pass on the faith that we have had the great privilege of inheriting from those who have gone before us.
And should the modernists disparage us, let us borrow some words from Saint Robert Bellarmine: “Your Church with one voice cried out to us that we were right, and in believing as we did we but followed in the footsteps of all your saints and holy ones”.
1 Music in Catholic Worship (US Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy statement – 1972), paragraph 6
2 Sacrosanctum Concilium (Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy), paragraph 33
3 Sacrosanctum Concilium, paragraph 10
Anthony Corvaia, Jr. has been actively involved in liturgy for more than 20 years, and has served as parish liturgist, music coordinator and hymnographer. Recently he was commissioned to write a hymn text for the National Shrine’s celebration of the 150th Anniversary of the Proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Mr. Corvaia lives in Philadelphia. He has written another article for Adoremus Bulletin, “Signs and Wonders”, which appeared in the March 2005 issue.