The question no Catholic can avoid

Fr George Kuforiji is confronted by a parishioner (YouTube screenshot)

The Lutheran pastor and humorist Hans Fiene recently remarked “the most obnoxious Protestants in the world are liberal boomer Catholics.”

The comment, both funny and true, was prompted by a video which surfaced of a June 30 protest at a Mass celebrated at St Francis Church in Portland, Oregon. The sparsely attended parish was filled mostly with older progressives who were angry that their new priest, Fr George Kuforiji, had been steadily introducing liturgical reforms aimed at restoring their liturgy to be in conformity with the Catholic Faith.

Most of the protesters were women who shouted at this gentle African priest because he had removed their own supplement to the recitation of the Creed, and had taken down political statements from the front of their parish. The conclusion that these “liberal boomer Catholics” had drawn was that Father must be against love! “We are following the voice of Jesus, of love,” one woman chanted. “The Jesus of inclusion. The Jesus of resisting the authorities because when we resist the law, we are in the Spirit of God.”

One of the protesters asked Fr George, “How can you be a priest?” Suggesting he did not have the authority to change their local customs of worship, she asserted her own authority: “I’ve been here for over 15 years. You’ve been here a year.”

Without a hint of clericalism, Fr George simply asked in reply: “Do you have reverence for God?” The woman turned her back on the question, which is a pity because it’s the only one which matters.

Some have suggested that Fr George has moved too quickly. People are creatures of habit, and so he should have moved more slowly to move their hearts and minds into conformity with the Church.

There is a certain truth in this. I am not opposed to “gradualism” in forming a more reverent parish. Sometimes it takes a year or two to prepare a parish for an altar rail, or silence. But the early Church Fathers never took a “gradualist” approach to heresy embodied in liturgical irreverence, and when parishes as extreme as St Francis come along, bishops and priests must act decisively to guard the Mass against the abuses of local custom. As Chesterton says, some habits must be crushed underfoot.

The question Fr George asks his own flock must become an ever more pressing one for each of us: “Do you have reverence for God?” If it be God’s will that only African priests can regularly ask us this question, then I say the African Church can’t get to America fast enough.

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The latest Pew study shockingly states that only 31 per cent of Catholics in the United States believe that “during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus”.

Out of the 69 per cent of Catholics surveyed who believe that the bread and wine are mere “symbols”, only 22 per cent of those understand that they are dissenting from the Church’s teaching. The rest are accidental Zwinglians.

It sometimes surprises students how little dispute over the Eucharist there was in the early Church. Certainly one could see how Donatism or Pelagianism or Nestorianism might touch upon Eucharistic understanding, but there were no serious disputes until the 9th century – when the aptly named Ratramnus taught Charles the Bald that the elements of bread and wine should not be regarded as “verily” Christ’s body and blood, but as “figures” which spiritually communicated the reality to us. Yet this never rose to the level of a grand ecclesial dispute.

By the 16th century, dissenting theologians had become more sophisticated in their denials – usually rejecting the view of the Mass as Sacrifice, rather than the doctrine of the Real Presence directly. Lutherans stepped back from “transubstantiation” as the “most apt description”, yet tried to preserve some liturgical continuity with Eucharistic celebration, while Calvinists loosened the liturgical continuity still further, tending to speak of Christ’s “virtual presence”, and then Zwingli went for his “memorialism” that broke every real connection between sign and reality. Thus it took 16 centuries to arrive at a truly substantial ecclesial dispute over the Eucharist.

What the Pew study shows is something like an echo of this Protestant history, yet very much downstream from another set of reforms: a series of unnecessary and para-conciliar liturgical reforms that were implemented by Catholic priests in the US to better accord with their view of what it meant to be “open to the modern world”.

Many have said that the Pew study reflects a catechetical failure. I fear the opposite: it reflects a certain kind of catechetical success. It is the result of an unwritten catechesis that American Catholics have been slowly learning. Through a deracinated, spiritualistic, and emotivistic treatment of the Eucharist, many Catholics have learned their faith from a generation of pastors who stripped the altars, razed the bastions of reverence around the Lord in the sacrament, and generally treated the Most Holy Eucharist itself as something to be passed out like a leaflet rather than received in awe, as people prostrate before the fire of divinity. Far too many have received this kind of unwritten catechesis.

It’s past time that our pastors preach what St Cyril of Alexandria taught. Namely that the Eucharist is divine fire. Mistreat it, and it will burn you. The whole “razing of the bastions” theme has played itself out to disastrous effect in the Church. The bastions turned out to be things like altar rails, and liturgical actions which conform us to the reality of the Eucharist. The Pew study proves that it’s time to put the bastions back.

CC Pecknold is associate professor of theology and a fellow of the Institute for Human Ecology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Read his columns at CatholicHeraldUS.com