Reinvigorating Devotion

Revived: Parish Consolidation and Pope Benedict XVI on the Eucharist

The National Eucharistic Revival is a provocation. I am grateful for it, even amid the trials of parish consolidation.

I am the director of evangelization for the Stella Maris Family of Parishes in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Here, we are about two years into a five-year, archdiocesan-wide pastoral planning process known as Beacons of Light.1 Beacons, which aims to best arrange resources for mission and growth, is a response to population shifts, declining numbers of Catholics, smaller family sizes, and a shortage of priests. Naturally, this involves parish consolidation—going from 208 canonical parishes to 57. In a few years, the family of four parishes at which I serve will become one canonical parish.2

The situation on the ground is about as chaotic as you can imagine. Think about trying to change just about any pattern of behavior within any household. Painful is a good word for it. Every family struggles with its own forms of disharmony (largely due to the disconcerting reality of sin). A parish is a family of families—discord amplified. A Family of Parishes is like multiple discordant concerts happening in the same place at once. The net result is... well, you get the point.

In my family of four parishes (not to mention those of two parochial grade schools), I deal with four different parish processes, four parish staffs, four budgets, four everything. Communication falls apart quickly. The devil loves details. Some parishioners are enthusiastic about all of this and some aren’t. Most don’t fully understand it and maybe they are reluctant to engage. It feels like everything is changing and nothing is changing. And, this is largely true. Beacons of Light signals a new reality. The way this or that parish functioned in the past does not work for the whole Family of Parishes. So, we need to develop new ways of doing things. All the while, we’re trying to honor each individual parish’s legacy and history.

Monstrance on an altar during Eucharistic adoration in a church lit by candlelight

Revival in the Midst of Chaos

Despite the challenging circumstances, I find myself moved to respond to the U.S. bishops’ call for a Eucharistic Revival. Rather than seeing it as “another thing” to be sloughed off for self-preservation, my Family of Parishes has taken the opportunity to set the Eucharist as a clear beacon—a necessary focal point in the fog of change. Now, to its credit, the Beacons material lists the Eucharist as one of the guiding principles. However, the details of how it is to be a guiding principle is left unspecified. For us, we see the Eucharist as a tangible part of the Beacons process. The Eucharist can become a way, perhaps even the way forward for parish transformation and renewal.

In what follows, I’d like to offer a counterpoint and a beacon of hope to those in consolidation situations who are tempted to see the Revival as superfluous, as “another thing,” or as something being foisted upon them from above “when we already have so much going on bringing these parishes together.”

Like consolidation, the Eucharistic Revival is also all about change, but the Eucharistic Revival provokes change differently. So often, consolidation efforts devolve into purely human efforts—no matter which side of the consolidation you’re on. Conversely, Eucharistic Revival places God squarely in the center of transformation. For parishes caught in the throes of consolidation, the Revival invites us to embrace the Eucharist as an objective fixed point in the midst of chaos. It invites us to take the concreteness of Christ’s Eucharistic Presence as that which will renew the local church (and every parish, for that matter). Revival, then, is a necessary safeguard against relying too much on our own devices to consolidate, unify, and grow. In this way, it is not “another thing” at all, but the one necessary thing.

Change and Constancy

Beacons of Light is all about change.

Well, “people don’t like change.” I hear this all the time.3 The great irony, of course, lies in the fact that Christianity is all about change in the form of conversion. We can think of St. Paul to the Romans and his clarion call: Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind (Rom 12:2). We can turn to his invitation to put away the old self and take up the new one in Christ (cf. Eph 4:22–24). Or, the most striking of such statements, perhaps: “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Or, consider Jesus’ teaching itself, the call to repentance and belief, the invitation to become like little children, the challenge to lay down worldly riches and take up heavenly ones, the call to love perfectly, and the ultimatum about dying like a grain of wheat in order to bear fruit (see John 12:24).

Concerning the nature of conversion, Joseph Ratzinger turns to the work of Dietrich von Hildebrand, who regarded the chief characteristic of Christian conversion its boundlessness, its utter radicality. Ratzinger says, “To be a Christian, one must change not just in some particular area but without reservation even to the innermost depths of one’s being.”4

Black and white image of people's hands folded in prayer while they kneel in a pew

Christian transformation differs from the contemporary self-help movement, where one selects an unlikable aspect of him or herself and makes it likable (e.g., weight loss, fitness, mindfulness, etc.). In such cases, the person is in complete control to change this and to not change that. Change is limited. It is circumscribed by one’s own desires. Change is also constant. Self-help is a cult of constant activity, but always within the boundaries I set up for it and the time and energy I allot for it. Christianity stands in contrast to such a view. There is no such thing as self-help Christianity, for Christianity exists precisely because the self can’t help, can’t save itself. Consequently, the individual does not choose for him or herself, or determine what will be changed. Instead, everything will be changed. Christianity refers to unlimited change brought about by subjecting one’s will to that of Another. For these reasons, von Hildebrand describes Christian conversion as utterly boundless. Christ wants to touch every fragment of life to make it whole. He will leave no stone unturned. This is not a matter of preference. It’s not a “cafeteria” approach to Christianity. Christian conversion is about transforming everything, or it’s about nothing at all.

How does such boundless change come about? Rather than a frenetic activism or a cult of constant activity, Christian conversion results from constancy. Hence, we have a paradox: in Christianity, constancy changes. The more we close in on Christ, the more open we become to being changed by him. On this point, Ratzinger says:

Readiness to be changed by Christ has nothing to do with the lack of direction of a reed shaken by the wind; it has nothing to do with that indecisiveness about existence, that facile conformity, that can be pushed in any direction. It is, rather, a standing-firm in Christ, a “standing-firm against all tendencies to change that come from below and a sensitive receptivity to every change that would mold us from above.” In other words, Christian metanoia is, to all intents and purposes, identical with pistis (faith, constancy)... Once the true way… has been found, it never ceases to be a way, a path.5

Now, the constancy von Hildebrand and Ratzinger are talking about, this unchanging “way,” is not some ecclesial structure. It’s not a particular parish. It’s not a particular program or “the way we’ve always done things.” No, the constant thing is faith in Jesus Christ. Faith in Jesus makes conversion possible, and conversion is the thing needed most.

Close-up of the Eucharist in a monstrance held by a priest

Eucharistic faith concretizes faith in Christ. The Eucharist is a visible, substantial anchor, a spiritual fixture for the Church. Indeed, as the Catechism says, “The Eucharist makes the Church” (CCC, no. 1396). By receiving the Eucharist, clinging to the Eucharist, fixing our eyes on him, affixing ourselves to him, entering into him, he transforms us. Applied to the Revival, we see it invites us to allow a Eucharistic faith to transform parishes and bring about the necessary change. God is the change-agent, not us.

This is precisely why those moving through Beacons of Light or some other parish consolidation process need the Revival as much as, or more than, anyone else. Parish consolidation efforts call for boundless change—every part of a parish will be touched. In the face of these circumstances, the Eucharistic Revival invites us to make Jesus, and his objective presence in the Eucharist, the fixed point, the point of constancy, and, hence, the initiator and means of change. Eucharistic faith ensures that consolidation isn’t simply a reflection of our efforts, of ourselves and our preferences, but is guided by God himself. Without pistis, without faith, the whole process can devolve into a cult of activity, groups clinging to “our things,” politicking, and self-serving activity. The Eucharistic Revival is a blessing because it gives this pistis a definite shape. It renders it tangible for individuals and for whole communities.

How can all of this be? How does the Eucharist itself effect change? Are these simply pious ramblings?

I’d like to dig just a bit deeper.

Eucharistic Transformation

Ratzinger frequently references St. Augustine on the topic of Eucharistic transformation. Augustine imagines the Lord speaking with him about the Eucharist as an altogether different kind of food. Rather than receiving the Eucharist and assuming it into our bodies, the Eucharist works in the opposite way. Christ receives us and assumes us into him. Ratzinger describes Augustine’s reflection in a 2002 address:

“Eat the bread of the strong, and yet you will not change me into yourself; rather, I will change you into me.” In other words, the bodily nourishment that we consume is assimilated by the body and itself becomes a structural component of our body. But this bread is of another sort. It is greater and more substantial than we are. We do not assimilate it into ourselves, but rather it assimilates us to itself, so that we are conformed to Christ.6

Ratzinger goes on to describe this transformation in further detail by noting that the celebration of the Eucharist sets in motion a series of transformations. The progression begins with the movement from bread to body. Jesus says, “This [bread] is my body.” Body includes the whole of Christ’s Person, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. So Jesus is saying, “This bread is me, my person.” As Ratzinger says, “Bread becomes body, his body. The bread of the earth becomes the bread of God, the ‘manna’ from heaven… which prepares for the Resurrection, indeed, initiates it.”7

But, the bread is not only Jesus’ body. It is his body given. “This is my body, which is given up for you.” “This is my blood, which will be shed for you.” The second transformation is the movement from body to divine gift. This is a deeper expression of Jesus’ identity. He is the Son, the one sent by the Father, wholly given to the Father and, on behalf of the Father, to all of humanity. He gives his life of his own accord; it is not taken from him. He anticipates this gift at the Last Supper, a gift that culminates in the crucifixion. On the Cross, he willingly allows the act of violence committed against him. In so doing, he turns their act of violence into an act of love—a gift. He gives himself despite being rejected. Ratzinger says:

This is the fundamental transformation upon which all the rest is based… Because Christ from within transforms violence into an act of love and thus conquers it, death itself is transformed: love is stronger than death. It lasts.8

The transformation of death into life by divine gift, by Love itself, is the Resurrection. And the Resurrection, Christ’s living body, makes the Eucharistic gift possible. Christ is alive. He is present. He is here. He is given for the sake of communion.

We’ve already anticipated the third transformation, where we move from divine gift to communion. Here, the Body given to us establishes unity. We become one bread with him and one body with him, and through him, with each other. We receive this gift, this supersubstantial food that is stronger than we are, and Jesus takes us into himself. The Eucharist transforms us into him, it transforms us from the inside out. We become his Body.

Golden vessels holding Eucharistic hosts

Finally, we see a movement from communion to mission. This is the final transformation: As Christ was sent, so are we. The Eucharist is Jesus’ Body given; so are we. We are given to God and given to our neighbor—indeed, to the whole of creation, on behalf of it all. Wholly given. Totally sent. We are sent on mission to draw all God’s creatures back to God by offering ourselves, with Christ, on their behalf.

By clinging to the Eucharist, then—by the constancy and concreteness of Eucharistic faith—God himself transforms persons and communities. This is the Eucharistic key to parish consolidation, parish renewal, or whatever it may be. Such efforts will be successful only to the degree in which a parish experiences conversion. And parishes are converted to the degree in which persons are converted. And a sure way to personal conversion is the Eucharistic one.

The Eucharistic Revival at Stella Maris

To be sure, our priests, parish leadership, and parishioners are stepping into change, perhaps with some fear and trepidation, but head-on nonetheless. And we’re taking Eucharistic revival as our foundation. What does this mean practically? I can only speak for my Family of Parishes. To make Eucharistic faith a fixed point in this time of transition, we put together a simple initiative to kick off 2024: The Eucharistic Revival at Stella Maris. The revival consisted of the following:

We’re just getting started, and we’ve found that these events are giving our parishioners a common fixed focal point and common experiences of personal transformation. Naturally (or, better, supernaturally), these events are transforming the community as well. The Revival invites us to look to a new horizon—and to do so together. This matters because the default move in a situation like ours tends to be inward-looking.

A monstrance on an altar during Eucharistic adoration with people kneeling in front of it.

Here, I have to stop myself, however. Despite what I just said, we have to remember the Eucharistic Revival is not simply parish events, lengthy processions, or a national Congress. These might be necessary elements, but, at the bottom of it, Eucharistic Revival is a spiritual reality resulting from an encounter with our Eucharistic Lord. After all, it’s not the Eucharist that needs to be revived. We are the ones who need to be brought to life again… and again.

The Revival then is not “another thing” at all, but the thing, so to speak. It is a reminder to not rely on our own devices in the midst of challenging circumstances but to turn to the One who transforms everything and let him do it again. As Ratzinger concludes, “The Eucharist is a process of transformations in which we become involved…Therefore we pray that he will transform us, and the world together with us, into the new Jerusalem.”9 And I pray he will transform our parishes by clinging to him with greater fidelity and reverence.

Brad Bursa, PhD is director of evangelization for the Stella Maris Family of Parishes in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

1 Consolidation is not unique to Cincinnati, but has been and is the case for many dioceses around the country. So, what I have to say here applies far beyond my Archdiocese. In this article, I do not intend to get into all the ins and outs of consolidation, the arguments for or against consolidation, or the way that decisions are communicated. I choose to respond in obedience to Providence operative in the local ecclesiastical authorities. This article reflects my fundamental position.

2 For those unfamiliar with the concept, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati defines a Family of Parishes as follows: A grouping of parishes led by a common pastor and characterized by collaboration and shared resources. The “family of parishes” will give way to one parish as stated in the Beacons material: “The expectation is that, over time, a Family of Parishes will become one canonical parish.” This said, “it is important to remember that a parish can be made up of a single church or multiple churches.”

3 This is only so true, by the way. I can think of plenty of things people would love to change; it’s just that if the change costs them something, they’re less inclined to get behind it.

4 Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, 60.

5 Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, 62.

6 Ratzinger, “Eucharist—Communio—Solidarity,” in Joseph Ratzinger Collected Works: Theology of the Liturgy, vol. 11 (San Francisco: Ignatius, 362). See also Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, §70.

7 Ratzinger, “Eucharist—Communio—Solidarity,” 368.

8 Ratzinger, “Eucharist—Communio—Solidarity,” 369.

9 Ratzinger, “Eucharist—Communio—Solidarity,” 370.