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Fr. Michael Denk: Hi, this is Father Michael Denk. I am from the Diocese of Cleveland and working with The Prodigal Father to bring new Evangelization and help people encounter Christ. I am very excited today because we are heading into this time of the Eucharistic Revival, and pretty soon, on the Feast of Corpus Christi, parishes, at least in our diocese, are going to be focusing on the Eucharistic Revival. I am blessed to have the author of Becoming Eucharistic People: The Hope and Promise of Parish Life. We have with us Timothy P. O’Malley, and maybe you can introduce yourself a little bit.

Tim O’Malley: Sure. I’m Tim O’Malley. I am the Director of Education here at McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, where I’m also the Academic Director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy. I am a Liturgical Sacramental Theologian here at Notre Dame, where I teach in Liturgy Sacraments, Theology of the Mass, and a big class for undergrads on Marriage and Family Life, second-level theology.

I grew up in East Tennessee. I have lived in South Bend and in Boston. I am married and have two kids. This is my life here in Northern Indiana. It’s May 2, 2023; of course, you might be listening to this whenever, but it’s cold and rainy, so I am considering a vacation somewhere else. That is the deepest part of my life right now.

Fr. Michael Denk: Good, I hope you get that soon.

Tim O’Malley: I don’t think that will happen, but that is okay.

Fr. Michael Denk: Well, dream about it.

Tim O’Malley: Exactly.

Fr. Michael Denk: This book, by the way, is written for parishes to try to evaluate what the culture of the Eucharist is like in your parish. What I like is that at the end of each chapter, you get very specific questions to look at and just evaluate and brainstorm how your parish is doing and maybe what you could do during this Eucharistic year.

It was really good for me. I am a new Administrator here at St. Matthias in Parma, OH. I am coming to the end of my first full year, but this was good to practically give me a way to look at liturgy here at the parish. Look at the Eucharist and how we are celebrating that here and how we may be able to use this year of Eucharistic Revival to enter more deeply into that. So, thank you for this. I appreciated reading this, and I encourage any parish leaders that are watching, the priests, or anyone who might be the point contact person for the Eucharistic Revival in your parish or diocese to check out this book.

You start off by saying in the Preface that the Pandemic often precipitates renewals. I read that, and that brought my heart immediate joy because I’m experiencing, and I am sure, a lot of other parishes are experiencing that I don’t think we have fully recovered from the Pandemic. Many people are still engaged as they once might have been before the Pandemic, and this could be a providential renewal in the church. What are your thoughts on that?

Tim O’Malley: I think that says something about our American culture. We are highly optimistic people. We like to think perpetually that we’re moving ever forward, upward, upward, and upward and the Pandemic was just a mere blip in our lives, and therefore, now we can move to the old normal, whatever the old normal was, but of course, a lot of things happened to folks during the Pandemic. There was isolation and distance. Folks who were probably on their way out got an excuse to go all the way out. I mean, they did not miss it, or they weren’t missed, I should note. They didn’t miss going to weekly Mass, or they weren’t missed from involvement in the life of the parish. I think we are still in that time. There are people who are mourning isolation and loneliness. 

My undergraduates here at Notre Dame are suffering from mental health issues and anxiety partially precipitated by the Pandemic and I think you look at that and you could bemoan it, or you could be sad about it, you can whine about it, you can be annoyed that it exists, or you can do something. The church has always renewed itself when faced with these moments rather than retreating back into her shell. People are not coming back necessarily in the same number so, what are we going to do about it? Yet at the same time we know that amid this Pandemic it seems like Gen Z, this youngest generation, suddenly has all this interest in religion and spirituality, at least partially. There are a lot of folks who are asking questions. What are we going to do about it and how can this be a source of renewal for us?

Fr. Michael Denk: You talk about the parish itself having a culture, a Eucharistic culture. Talk about that a little bit. What do you mean by culture in the parish?

Tim O’Malley: I serve partially, I should note, as the Executive Director, I am on the executive team in the USCCB’s Eucharistic Revival, and I was involved from the beginning. One of the things I thought about was, “What is a Eucharistic Revival?” A Eucharistic Revival of course, has to be deeper devotion to the person of Jesus Christ. Of course, every person has to have that devotion both in the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. But, the parish, as Pope Francis always reminds us or the church, is not just individuals alone, but it is a communion of people who are called to manifest this Communion of Christ to the world. I guess by parish culture, I mean parishes developed certain like personalities just like I do. They’re shaped by the personalities of their clergy, the priests, and the deacons. They’re shaped by staff; they’re shaped by long-term lay involvement. Father, as you know, if you are a new pastor, there is always someone in their 60s who is involved in running the place or at least has this sort of long-term memory. Our culture, a Revival, can’t just be me the individual person who comes to understand more about Christ in the Eucharist, it has to be the whole parish life. The parish life has to manifest that the church’s roots in the end is not bureaucracy, it’s not strategic planning, it’s not the endless writing of Mission Statements, but it is an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ in union of love. If we don’t do that, then every individual can have a conversion and that is good and right and, but cultures can continue even with individuals who are on fire with The Lord and I think that is one of our tasks as well that our parishes manifest this space of encounter. 

Fr. Michael Denk: My special focus for my priestly ministry has been on the New Evangelization, specifically prayer life, but this always is, and you mentioned it so many times throughout the book about the encounter, an encounter with Christ. So, keeping that as the focus for this whole next year how can we help people encounter Christ in the culture of our parish and specifically in the Eucharist?

You talk about four different things, praise, celebrating communal life, and teaching, as well as worship, that can all contribute to the Eucharistic culture. There is just one line I’d like to read by Pope Benedict XVI from the Sacramentum Caritatis. “In the sacrament of the Eucharist, Jesus shows us, in particular, the truth about the love that is the very essence of God. This Evangelical truth challenges each of us and our whole being. For this reason, the church, which finds in the Eucharist the very center of her life, is constantly concerned with proclaiming that God is love precisely because Christ has become the food of truth for us. The church turns to every man and woman, inviting them freely to accept the gift of God.

Talk a little about this idea of the Eucharist being celebrated, remembered, and made present in the Mass.

Tim O’Malley: The Mass is integral to Catholic life; this seems obvious and patent. If folks don’t go, it does kind of presume a lack of involvement in ecclesial life. Mass is a complex practice, this prayer practice. Father, you noted your ministry is to prayer and I think the Mass is prayer but not Prayer 101 necessarily; it’s pretty advanced. It has lots of different styles of prayer. The sacrifice of Christ that’s made present but the sacrifice of our lives in return. There is a contemplative wonder before the presence of the Lord made manifest in all sorts of ways: In the word that is proclaimed, in the priest, in the assembly at song, as the Second Vatican Council notes, especially in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist. 

One of the things that I have grown concerned about is an analogy like this: I’ve been married for 17 years and I remember when I first got married, I sort of look often at my wedding ring and think, “Wow, it’s amazing that I’m married.” All this time I was waiting for this moment but now I’ve been married for 17 years, and I think, “I’m married, but I don’t think often about it with much wonder at all.” 

One of the precarious dimensions of the Eucharist for Catholics is that we forget the wonder of it. It’s not just a rite that the priest does on a Sunday morning or that we go to because we’re obligated to do so. There the Lord comes to exercise the power of His resurrection anew. He lives, and dies, and He is raised anew in our lives here and now and He gives Himself to us as food to be intimately united to us so that we can go out to every end of the world and consecrate it back in love to the Father, to the merciful heart of the Father. This is our task. 

I think about Eucharistic reverence and the church’s commitment to reverence. This is what I am talking about. This is real. This is a very real thing that’s happening. The Mass is a real sacrifice of Christ. It is His sacrifice. His true presence dwelling among us precipitates and brings about communion with the church and thus the whole world.

So, we have to get the Mass right, which doesn’t mean stodgy, and it doesn’t mean obsession or feeling obsession over everything that might be wrong, but it means that you have to understand that it’s real and true presence given to us.

Fr. Michael Denk: We had First Communion this weekend, and I was with some parents, and we were discussing what we remembered from our own First Communion. I know for me, at least, a lot of times in childhood and growing up through my high school years, I did go to Mass out of that obligation. I didn’t, in my mind, get that much out of it and I think that is what we often hear from people; at least they tell me as a priest, “Father, I don’t get anything out of Mass.” What would you say to address that?

Tim O’Malley: Yes, I hear that too. I think there are a couple of issues to consider with this.

The first is that nobody wants to think about this, especially those of us who are involved very deeply in the heart of the church, but if there are some people who aren’t getting Mass or anything out of Mass, some self-examination is needed first. Is the preaching on fire with the love of Christ? Is the music an encounter with Our Lord? Does it sound like we are praying in the first place? It’s easy to blame, like, “Well, people just don’t care.” Absolutely but start with me; physician, heal thyself. I can start with myself, so it’s self-reflection to say, “Well can we do more out of the Mass?” On the other hand, as I said, the Mass is a complicated prayer. It’s like someone who goes to the gym but doesn’t know how to use any of the machines saying, “I don’t get anything going out to the gym.” That’s right. You don’t. Instead of blaming you for it I should probably sit down and start to help you play the thing. If you don’t get anything out of the Eucharistic Prayer, do you know the structure of the Eucharistic prayer and what you are supposed to be doing at each moment, and can I help you pray it better?

The homilies are boring, and I often hear people say. Homilies should improve but have you prepared to encounter the Lord in Scripture before you arrive at Mass? That is something that you can do.

Then there is a third dimension which is this. I fell in love, I know my story is somewhat unique, through regularly going to the Mass and learning to pray the Mass. It’s there that I met Him and that I fell in love with Him and therefore I keep going back to Mass to do that.

I think many people who do not get a lot out of Mass don’t yet know that they know Jesus Christ. They don’t yet know that they have encountered Him. They don’t know yet that they need Him and so they’re happy that the Mass is like a nice little Sunday event in their lives, but it’s God working with you. So, I think that in some ways ironically some of the best work we need to do for the Eucharistic Revival has nothing to do with the Mass itself or the Eucharist itself but inviting people to develop that personal relationship with The Lord that of course has lived out in the Eucharist. It’s not to separate it to say, “The Mass is not a personal relationship with The Lord.” It is, but you may not be able to recognize it right away until you have started from the beginning with learning to speak to Him and to be with Him and to wonder at Him. There are all sorts of ways to do that. I know your ministry is involved in that.

Fr. Michael Denk: Yes, that is my kind of call within the call to help people. You illustrate that so wonderfully in the book that the Mass they’re connected so the more the people are growing in their spiritual life, the more the people are serving then that is brought forward into the Mass; it just kindles all of that fire so much more so.

You talk about Eucharistic coherency, that we should have this coherency with the Eucharist, not only when we go to Mass on Sunday but in our lives throughout our week. You also said that it’s not reserved exclusively for politicians. Politicians should, if they’re going to say that they’re Catholic, they should follow the Catholic faith. It’s true for all of us. Every individual Catholic and parish is to become Eucharistically coherent. Then you use this phrase, who we are, what we do finds its source in the Blessed Sacrament. That reminds me of Cardinal Rupe’s prayer, what we fall in love with will decide everything for us.

Tim O’Malley: This is a really important point for me because part of the Eucharistic Revival occurred initially around political discussions. Many people early on were asking me, “So is this like a secret way that the church is speaking to this and this politician?” I have to admit that I feel somewhat paralyzed by this because I’m a Roman Catholic Theologian. I’m not a politician. I have no political power at all or at least sort of no advanced political power. I vote, and I represent, and I try to sort of be involved in the governance of my own university in some way, shape, or form, but that’s it.

One of the things people forget about is when they say, “That person needs to get better, and that person needs to get better, and that person needs to get better.” I am just reminded by Our Lord in the Gospels that says, “Pay attention to the boat in your own eye before you before you deal with the splinter in your neighbor’s eye.” I don’t know if I am Eucharistically coherent. Being around the hungry and the thirsty makes me pretty uncomfortable, and when I approach someone on the street in desperate need, my first response is not to drop everything to be with them. It’s not even to drop everything and be with my kids; when my kids need me, it’s not even that.

So, am I Eucharistically coherent? When I receive each week the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, and I say, “Amen,” have I become what I’ve received? Do I recognize His hidden presence in all those who hunger and thirst for justice, for all those in need of Divine love wherever they are? I’ll start there. If the whole church, by the way, started there, we would have quite a Eucharistic Revival. We wouldn’t have to worry about this or that politician because we’d start with ourselves. If you do this to young people, one day they too will be politicians, and they might live out Eucharistic coherence. 

To me, Eucharistic coherence is the task of every individual person baptized in Christ.

Fr. Michael Denk: You mentioned later on in the book, too, that we come to Mass as well acknowledging that we’re not coherent. We come to Mass always acknowledging our sins, confessing our incoherence as we enter Mass. Not that we’re supposed to be settled in that, but just to acknowledge the reality and ask that God to heal us and transform us so that we do walk out of there more coherently.

Tim O’Malley: So different when we think how we normally think about apologies and gatherings where we think, “That one’s at fault, that one’s at fault, that one’s at fault,” but instead, “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa”, my fault. If it was me saying that, then that would be rather sad and sadistic, and I would hate myself. But when hundreds of people recognize that it’s not your fault, but it’s my fault, the good news is that it’s all our fault. It is all our fault, and we must be converted, and we need each other for this is right. That’s why we rely on the angels and the saints to do so and each other, our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Fr. Michael Denk: That brought me a lot of hope, too, with the division. I was talking to someone last night. In our country, it seems to be that people are more associated with their political party than their Catholicism and that can divide us, priests, Bishops, and lay people. Sometimes I’ll hear Confessions, and people will come in and describe one person as being the Antichrist and the next Confession comes in and the other person is the Antichrist, and you never know until the end who they are talking about.

It did something in me just realizing that we all come together to celebrate Mass. We are all gathered there to celebrate together and be joined there as one.

Tim O’Malley: Yes, it is a way of coming to heads with this sort of polarization and this confusion of Catholic identity versus political identity. It’s one of the gifts of being my age, 41, which means I’m in between a couple of generations. I’m not a millennial, but I am sort of a millennial; I’m not a Gen X, but I’m sort of a Gen X. I live in between these generations, and when I went to Notre Dame, one of the things that was pretty remarkable is as an undergrad 85% of people were going to Mass and we were all in it together but none of us necessarily share the same political perspectives, but there was a kind of unity that transcended that disunity. I’ve had so many professors here who challenged me not to let politics be my god but that the Eucharistic mystery of love is at the heart of everything.

I feel like we’ve lost that as a social body right now, and one of the gifts of the Revival is, can we bring it back and recognize that communion of love draws us together? It’s not Twitter, and it’s not with Twitter, which doesn’t draw us together or anything else. It’s only the source of love that can heal these wounds that are quite endemic on the body politics but also on the church’s body right now in Christ.

Fr. Michael Denk: There is just something about coming together because we are so divided. Families are divided. You could say something that is very contentious and can cause a great division in the family. If we can all come together around the Table of the Lord and really let that be what unites us and go there knowing that I’m going to go there with these people that I don’t agree with, but we are going to be united around Christ. That gave me a great deal of hope.

You were talking about wonder and awe before, and there is a part where you talk about the reverence needed for this Revival. You define reverence as either religio or veneration. The word religion does not simply mean coherent systems of beliefs but means the posture of awe and wonder before God. The religious act commences with reverent off-field worship. God is the center of what we do, not us.

I want to have you comment a little bit on that as being the focus on the reverence of the Eucharist and what that reverence means.

Tim O’Malley: When you use the word reverence, one of the dangers today is that you sort of jump right into the Liturgy wars that exists in fact and that’s the division. 

I am a post-conciliar Catholic. I was raised in the rites after Vatican II. I always think to myself I received my First Communion a little over ten years after the Councils released the New Liturgies and in fact, they’re the source of my whole spiritual life. Yet, I’ve been to parishes that seem the rites with both the extraordinary form and the reform rites to worship more themselves rather than The Lord comes to dwell among us. 

We need a sense of reverence, not this religious practice alone or that religious practice alone, but it is a fundamental recognition that it’s God who is active, and therefore, it’s awe and wonders that probably involves silence, stuff, and material worship. It’s not just an idea, but it involves beauty, matter, and attending to the best way that music ought to lift us into the heart of God, and it involves all these things. It doesn’t mean reverence, especially for this Revival; everything has to be in Latin, or everything has to be distant. Reverence is awe in wonder before a God who is merciful enough to dwell among us and to take flesh among us. Awe and wonder are something we can be educated into and enter into.

Fr. Michael Denk: How can you educate somebody into awe and wonder?

Tim O’Malley: That’s a good question. It’s a project we’re working on in my center linked to children’s education, but it takes a little time and distance. You can’t be frenetic in your activity. You kind of learn to slow down a little bit and pay attention. If I walk through the world all the time looking at my smartphone, it is probably harder for me to awe and wonder at anything, but if I don’t and I’m looking at things that I notice, that little flower that sprouted and I can look at it and sort of wonder at it, in a church that might not be the most beautiful in the world. We have the churches we have and we’re not going to spend 75 million to build a new church every time we get dissatisfied with our architectural space. 

You know the way that incense rises if we’re attentive to it at Mass, is a vision of our prayers like rising up to The Father. If we’re attentive to the way we hold hands because we’re placing our very will into the hands of the Triune God, of The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit, we’re giving ourselves over to the Lord that becomes an occasion of awe and wonder for me. It’s this kind of formation into wonder and reverence, which of course, requires beautiful things, and it requires intentionality, and it requires all of that, but it doesn’t exclusively being overwhelmed so that I don’t understand what’s going on so I’m reverent before it. There are all sorts of types of reverence and awe and wonder in our lives and God wants to come in all these ways to us.

Fr. Michael Denk: You cite the Directory for Catechesis reminding us, at the center of every process of catechesis is the living encounter with Christ. The definitive aim of catechesis to put people not only in touch but in communion in intimacy with Jesus Christ. Only He can lead us to the love of The Father in The Spirit and make us share in the life of the Holy Trinity.

It seems to me that He is the one that leads us to wonder and awe.

Tim O’Malley: Yes, that’s what Pope Francis means in his recent letter on liturgical formation, which is a separate thing, but it is The Lord. It is The Lord and when He comes before us to do this for us then He is the one who leads us into awe.

That’s the awe that the priests must have. The priests must have this awe before the great mystery that he has been invited to participate through his ordination and it is the same mystery that the people of God participate in.

Fr. Michael Denk: There’s a section where you use these three terms repeatedly: memory, imagination and experience. Can you tell our listeners why those three things are important?

Tim O’Malley: When we think about the formation of a person for the Eucharist, it means not just telling them things about things. I often hear the word catechesis used so that it almost seems like a violent act. Like, “I have to catechize that person.” Sometimes my graduate students talk about it in my course on Catechetics. If we catechize them it will be great but what does that mean? You can’t just tell human beings things and then they automatically believe it. Otherwise, doctors wouldn’t have to work so hard. If you just say, “Listen, you have to give up eating 15,000 calories a day.” I know that. I know it’s true but it’s hard to do. The church has always known this, and the church has talked about formation. Memory is linked to the narratives or images we have as part of us that allow us to make sense of the world from the very beginning and that presume we’re involved in a world from the beginning. We’re praying in this world; we’re paying attention to light and darkness and images. That’s really what the church means by experience. We experience a world, see it, and have questions about it, but it enters into us, all that we’ve experienced in the world, into our memories. But we have to contemplate it and ask questions about it. It’s not just going to Mass that’s sufficient, but you have to wonder about it and say, “What does this mean for my life?” Then of course, there’s will and practice and love. We have to grow more into loving and doing what’s become part of our memory and imagination and our desires. We have to sort of desire that end to continue with an analogy that’s already been sort of implicit. 

We love things the more that we do them and come to understand and know more about them. An example is, I haven’t used this, I grew up, I hated country music. I liked country music, but I grew up in the South, so sometimes I had to hate it to rebel against it, but it turns out I liked it, and the first decision I had to make was to recognize that I liked it. From there, I started looking at it, studying its history, and wondering about it and its connections to other things. 

Not even the same way that the Eucharist can function in our lives. We have to love The Lord who is present, and then a whole world opens up of memory, of questions of the church’s tradition and experience of wanting to know more about it. We spend our free time thinking about it and wondering about it. That’s what good adult Eucharistic Catechesis should do, not just tell people about things, but to that sort of deeper wonder.

Read more of the interview here