The Catholic Salt

The typical dictionary will tell you that “salient” means conspicuous, standing out, significant, or prominent. “Salience” suggests that a given topic is noteworthy. The word offers a hint that there is something appetizing or tasty associated with the matter at hand.

Sociologists speak of the “salience of religion” as an indicator of religiosity or depth of religious commitment in a person or group. If they use a questionnaire in searching for the importance of religion in a person’s life, they will typically ask: “How important would your say that religion is to you?” And they usually scale the possible answers in this order: Extremely important, quite important, fairly important, not too important, or not important at all. If they attempt to measure religiosity quantitatively they ask about the frequency of prayer and the regularity of attendance at worship services.

There is a notable decline in the salience of religion in the American mind as we move along in the 21st century, and a measurable drop in participation rates of members of the Catholic community, particularly among the young, in Sunday worship. We Catholics have a formidable challenge on our hands.

First we have to recognize that something is wrong, and next we have to do something about it. And in doing something about it, we have to look first at ourselves, not at those who are no longer showing up for services.

To put this in a scriptural context, turn to the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says: “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Mt 5:12-13).

We should open our ears, our minds, and our hearts to the reality that, in our midst, in our day, the Catholic salt is losing its savor and it is up to us in varying degrees to guard what’s left from being trampled underfoot. Priests have to assume a leadership responsibility for turning things around, of course. That’s what they were ordained to do. But laypersons have to be part of this effort as well.

The etymological link between salt — the Latin word for which is sal — and salience is obvious. So we have to wonder how and why we’ve managed in recent years to stand by idly (despite our so-called “Year of Faith” and all our talk about the “New Evangelization”); we have to wonder why we seem to be standing by idly as the salt of Catholic practice (measured, for example, in Sunday Mass attendance) is losing its savor.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about published reports of fewer Catholics showing up for Mass on Sundays, and some of them checking out of the church altogether. I wonder whether or not those who leave miss the Eucharist. And that raises the question of the effectiveness of Catholic catechesis relative to the centrality of Eucharist to Catholic life.

What does the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist really mean? And if it means anything at all, why are growing numbers of Catholics saying, in effect, “No thanks. Not interested”?

Christ is present to us in the Eucharistic liturgy in four ways: (1) in His Word, (2) in His body and blood, (3) in the worshipping community (as Jesus said, “whenever two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there in their midst,” and (4) in the presence of the priest through whose ministry Christ now offers what He originally offered on the cross.

These four modes of Christ’s presence in the Eucharistic liturgy are, to say the least, insufficiently understood and vastly underappreciated in Catholic worshipping assemblies today. This four-way real presence should be a four-way stop sign halting the exodus from the Catholic Church that researchers are tracking and journalists are reporting.

For the good of the Church, catechetical repair work is needed. Pastoral attention has to be paid to this problem. Priests, bishops, deacons and lectors can “proclaim,” but they and many others must also “explain” the four-way presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

It takes faith, of course, to see Christ where only bread and wine are visible, but that’s what faith does for the believer. It gives sight where vision fails.

Priests have to work with wafers — not an easy task. They use wine, but many of the faithful never see it or taste it. So it is not easy to get at the reality underlying the signs of wafer-like bread and un-tasted wine, namely, the body and blood of Jesus.

Similarly, it will take a lot of faith for the people to see Jesus in the person of an unsmiling priest or bishop, even those who try to make themselves more presentable at the altar (I call them the weightwatchers) and try as well to make themselves less unworthy of their calling to serve the faithful by offering sacrifice. Some laypersons with the appropriate equipment and skills, might volunteer to videotape a priest-presider and sit down with him for a video replay of how he looks at the altar and in the pulpit. Does he, for example, maintain eye contact with the people? Does he really “celebrate” or just routinely “read” the Mass? He might also benefit from the remark that one Catholic observer made recently: “There is no shortage of priests in the United States, but there is a serious shortage of celebrants.”

The sacrifice of the Mass is also a meal, and worshippers have to attend to their role to gather around the table with their priest not as isolated worshippers but as brothers and sisters in the Lord who recognize Christ in one another as well as in the breaking of the bread. Priests have to summon people out of their isolation and get them to the table and keep them engaged.

At the Last Supper Jesus said to His disciples, in effect: This is how I want you to remember me — as bread broken and passed around, as a cup poured out. And this is how I want all of you to relate to one another — as bread broken for the nourishment of others, as a cup poured out in generous service. Every priest has to ask himself, to what extent am I being broken and passed around for the nourishment of others? To what extent am I letting myself be poured out in generous service? To what extent is mine a “poured out” life? And all who gather for the celebration of the Eucharist, all who receive Holy Communion, have to be asking themselves the exact same questions.

Our attempt to give honest answers to those questions will inevitably open the door to questions of how we are living our lives, how we are managing our wealth and property, how we are caring for or neglecting the poor and needy. Pope Francis is offering the whole Church good leadership in this regard. It is time for the followership to get engaged.

Are we up to the challenge? That’s for us to decide.

FATHER BYRON, S.J. is University Professor of Business and Society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, Pa., and author, most recently, of The Word Proclaimed: A Homily for Every Sunday of the Year, Year A (Paulist Press).