Since seventh grade (1988-89) I have played the organ for church, as often as five times a weekend. At first an occasional substitute, finally I reached out to local parishes for regular work, and soon I was picked up by the former St. Francis DeSales Parish in Mount Carbon, suburb of Pottsville.
The sacristan, Kathleen Glaser, called herself the “Assistant Pastor,” and certainly knew as much about the building and community as any assistant. We had many colorful chats before Mass. When Kathleen died, the pastor, now-retired Father Edward B. Connolly, designed her memorial card. Beneath her photo was Psalm 26:8, which reads, “O Lord, I love the habitation of thy house, and the place where thy glory dwells.”
In June 2019, I became pastor of Saints Peter and Paul in Lehighton. In my first visit to the vestibule, I spied above the entrance to the nave that same Bible verse, which connected me to those early experiences that kept me off the streets and in the sanctuary. Upon reaching my seventh assignment in 18 years of priestly ministry, I knew I was home, where God’s glory dwells.
The pandemic is the latest of many changes over these decades. Now 70% of Catholics do not regularly attend Mass in otherwise normal times, and only 25% believe that Jesus is truly, really, and substantially present under the appearances of bread and wine in the Holy Eucharist. These facts prompted Allentown Bishop Alfred A. Schlert to declare this 60th Diocesan Anniversary the “Year of the Real Presence” (yearofrealpresence.org).
Catholics know Christ abides and feeds in many ways, as the Second Vatican Council told us: in the proclaimed Scriptures, in the priest, and in the assembly, but most tangibly in the Holy Eucharist, where His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity pitch their tent among us.
Our new parish Society of Saint Vincent de Paul ritually recalls how Jesus is present wherever two or three are gathered (Matthew 18:20). Saint Teresa of Calcutta often said the needy are among Jesus’ “most distressing disguises”: it can be as hard to see Him in our suffering brothers and sisters as in the consecrated bread and wine. But Mother Teresa’s sisters adore the Eucharistic Lord each day before serving Him in the streets, and our SVDP Conference has chosen to begin our meetings in the same way.
The Missionaries of Charity and the Saint Vincent de Paul Society embody another principle from the same Second Vatican Council: the Sacred Liturgy is the “Source and Summit of the Church’s life and activity”: Christ is everywhere because He is present unmistakably, most intimately, in the Holy Eucharist and the Holy Mass. We take His Real Presence in the Mass to the real people and situations of our lives, which in turn we offer alongside the bread and wine that becomes Him in the Mass.
It makes you wonder, though: if Jesus is here, why isn’t everyone else? Other faiths are asking the same of their own adherents. A global pandemic accounts for the current dearth of ritual involvement, but the “real absence” is nothing new to any religious body; even secular organizations have been reporting diminished returns over the years. In defense of their defection, some have cited God’s ubiquity when choosing to “worship in nature” or to follow some ersatz deity who makes no demands upon their conduct or allows them to worship on their own terms.
Sacred and secular alike, feeling the fatigue and isolation of these days, can take to their lips the author of the Letter to the Hebrews: “We should not stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another, and this all the more as you see the day drawing near” (10:25). What day? The Day of the Lord, Whose Presence is real and revealing and worthy of reverence.