I am convinced that one of the main reasons 76 percent of Catholics in the United States don't believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is the shallowness of a big number of liturgical celebrations as well as the numerous and audacious liturgical abuses that have proliferated all over. Nowadays, attending a liturgical celebration free of errors, if not of abuses, is strange. It might seem simple: just follow all the rubrics in the Missal. Nonetheless, this doesn't happen ordinarily. How can we make people truly believe Jesus is present in the Eucharist when the sense of reverence before the sacred mysteries doesn't exist? Who will believe bread and wine really become the body and blood of our Lord when priests, deacons, and extraordinary ministers of the holy communion alike handle the sacred species so nonchalantly? Who will take seriously the fact that Mass is a Eucharistic sacrifice when so many jokes are heard from the altar and the attention seems to be centered in the choirs, who receive a big applause at the end as if they were the pop idols of the moment?
The faith crisis the Catholic church in the United States is going through, demands a sense of utmost reverence and sacredness as well as liturgical correctness. Mainly, from priests, as celebrants of the sacrifice of the altar, during which they act in persona Christi. Yet, when it is nearly three out of four Catholics who won't believe in the Real Presence in this country, it won't be surprising to accept the fact that among those, there are also priests and deacons, who can recite by heart all the Eucharistic dogmas, but who won't believe Jesus in their minds when he says, "This is my body. This is my blood."
Traveling to Mexico for Christmas, as I do every year, I had a great and joyful surprise on the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday. For the first time in my life, I attended mass at one of the parishes close to the home where I used to live. My parents began attending Mass at this parish lately, and dad insisted I would love it -I gladly went to Mass with them.
The demeanor of the priest as he approached the altar in the entrance procession, struck me. He was focused on the altar and not on greeting the faithful -I could sense he was one of those who take Mass very seriously -And I would be right.
I could see him incensing the altar, the crucifix (thrice), the image of Mary (twice), and of the patron saint (twice). I noticed the Reading explanations were read from a lectern, while the ambo was properly reserved for the Readings, the Gospel, the Homily, and the Universal Prayer. The homily was precise and to the point. The Eucharistic Prayer grasped my attention. The reverence of the priest was evident, and would reach its climax during Consecration. The celebrant priest elevated the consecrated host first, followed by the chalice, and kept holding each in the high for a long period. I could sense the contemplative silence of the faithful, who amidst the stillness, focused their attention on the host and the chalice as the priest held them with utmost reverence. I was moved by the delicate way the priest handled the host and made it rest on the paten, very carefully, as if it could break on his hands. It was clear the priest knew and felt in his hands he was holding no one else but Christ himself, a fact he reaffirmed with the two genuflections after the elevations. The priest did not just touch the floor with his knee and bounced back up to his feet. On the contrary, he remained touching the floor with his right knee for a long period, adoring Christ, present in the Eucharist.
The priest's reverence before the Most Holy, who had become present in his hands by the power of the Holy Spirit after being sent by the Heavenly Father, made me feel a lump in my throat. After communion, I could observe the priest was taking the same care as he handled the sacred vessels during Purification, evidently not taking any chance whatsoever of spilling any particle of the body or the blood of Our Lord.
This happened to be only the second Mass correctly celebrated, with no flaws or liturgical abuses, from beginning to end, that I have attended both in the United States an Mexico in the past 10 years.
Don't take me wrong. It is not that I am some sort of liturgical critic, who focuses on every subtle detail, as a film critic does, to make a commentary on every Mass I attend. No. But it happens that, by means of speaking, writing, and teaching about Sacred Liturgy, the same as speaking so extensively about liturgical abuses as part of my apostolic work, I have developed some sort of sixth sense that detects instantly when something is wrong. It is similar to the skill I have developed as editor of a Catholic magazine. By means of thoroughly chasing typos, spelling, and grammar mistakes before the magazine is sent to the printer, I cannot help but noticing errors of this kind every time I hold any kind of publication in my hands, even when my intent is not to chase errors but to read its contents.
Just the same, as Mass progressed, I could notice the priest was following every rubric in the Missal to a T, including the hand positions, the corporal inclinations during the Eucharist prayer -so commonly disregarded by priests-, and the sacred silence after the readings, the homily, and communion. Indeed! Both the organ and the cantor kept silent after communion.... Believe it or not.
I certainly couldn't care less about liturgical orthodoxy for the sake of fulfilling the rubrics and the prescriptions listed in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. That would be pharisaic and pedantic. My interest rather, as well as my passion about forming the faithful in liturgical correctness, is helping to safeguard the sacredness of the sacred mysteries that unfold at the altar during the celebration of Holy Mass. For sure, the pristine celebration of this Mass helped the faithful to have a full experience of God throughout the liturgy.
When Mass was ended, I came to the priest. I introduced myself and thanked him for the Eucharist. I also praised him for the pristine liturgy he had just celebrated and asked him for an interview to chat more about this experience. He gladly accepted.
I went back two days later in the evening, and held with Fr. Carlos a delightful conversation, sitting in a pew outdoors, going deep into each of the parts of his liturgical celebration that had struck me. I was not interested in asking Father why Mass has to be celebrated correctly. I was rather interested in exploring the feelings that burst in the heart of a priest who takes the Holy Mass so seriously. Every time I present my lecture At the Lord's table, understanding the Holy Mass, I focus on the ways Mass shall become an experience of God to the faithful, as we actively participate from the pews. But I had never pondered how priests experience God as they go through the celebration. This was the best chance to reflect on the latter, hand in hand with a priest himself.
I offered Fr. Carlos to record the interview in video for my YouTube channel, or in audio for my radio program. He preferred me to publish it in writing. Every answer from the priest merits an article on its own. So I will being to translate each answer Fr. Carlos shared with me and will publish them with a commentary of my own. This is the first of a series of articles that, without a doubt, will benefit all those who know the Holy Mass is the personal experience of God par excellence.
Be passionate about our faith!