by Samuel Ng, The University of Texas at Austin
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A recent Pew Research Center survey found that merely less than one-third (31%) of U.S. Catholics believe that “during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus”. This belief is called transubstantiation, and it is a dogma of the Catholic Church meaning that the Catholic faithful are bound to give assent of faith to it. The Council of Trent states that “by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation”.
Since the Eucharist is truly “the source and summit of the Christian Life”, it is astounding that the majority of Catholics do not even believe in what the Church teaches the Eucharist to be. In response to this finding, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) seeked ideas in solving this lack of belief. Many Catholics responded by suggesting that the Church return to traditional liturgical practices. Examples of specific comments include: “Kneeling to receive and receive on the tongue”, “Return the altar rails”, “Ad orientem”. A common thread in all of these responses is that they are aspects of what happens in the Liturgy. None of these examples have anything to do with catechesis.
The ancient maxim “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi” roughly translates to “the law of prayer is the law of belief”. What this means essentially is how we pray affects what we believe. This saying has been stated and reiterated amongst the saints and in Church documents throughout the centuries. It is an adaptation from St. Prosper of Aquitaine’s phrase “legem credendi lex statuit supplicandi” which many theologians have interpreted in causal terms to mean something along the lines of “the law of praying forms or causes the law of believing”. The phrase also appears as recently as in the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, a 2007 papal document which liberalized the use of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. In it, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, quoting the third edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, stresses the need for particular Churches to “be in accord with the universal Church … as to the usages universally received from apostolic and unbroken tradition. These are to be observed not only so that errors may be avoided, but also that the faith may be handed on in its integrity, since the Church’s rule of prayer (lex orandi) corresponds to her rule of faith (lex credendi).” It is clear that throughout the Church’s history, the importance and role of liturgy in forming belief cannot be understated.
Practices like reception of the Holy Eucharist on the tongue while kneeling, the use of patens and communion rails, and strictly obeying liturgical law increase reverence and belief in the Holy Eucharist because they show us that the Eucharist is important and sacred. Celebrating the liturgy ad orientem (literally “to the East”) communicates that the Mass is the Most Holy Sacrifice of our Lord made present. The priest facing the same direction as the congregation and leading the body of Christ in worship facilitates our understanding of the true nature of the Mass. Human beings are body-soul composites. Performing physical acts of reverence (body) moves us to deeper devotion and affects our beliefs which involve acts of the will (soul). Think about it – all other things equal, a person who continuously experiences liturgy that involves strict adherence to liturgical law, kneeling for reception of the Eucharist, the use of patens, and Ad Orientem worship will have a stronger belief in the Real Presence than the one who experiences liturgy without such elements. Our actions can communicate the truth of what lies in front of us.
In order to restore belief and reverence for the real presence of Jesus in the most Holy Eucharist, we must act and pray like He is truly present in the tabernacle and in Holy Mass.