In Search Of The Holy Grail
The root cause of the current problem in Catholicism is a loss of the sense of the sacred,
of the sense of God's presence. We must find it again There have been
conflicting reports this summer about the search for the Holy Grail - the cup or chalice
that Jesus used the night of the Last Supper, when he instituted the central mystery of
the Christian faith, the Eucharist (see p. 52). One report has it that the Grail
has been found in an ordinary house owned by an ordinary woman in southern
England. Another has it that it is in Rome, not in the Vatican, but in the possession of
the last of the Knights Templar, who, though not an ordinary man himself (he is a
Knight Templar, after all!), lives in an ordinary apartment in the Monteverde Nuovo
section of the city. We don't put much stock in such reports, of course. But, more
importantly, we wouldn't become overly excited< even if they were true>.
Why? Because, though the story of the search for the Holy Grail is one of the great,
enduring themes in Western culture, a thread which winds down through the centuries
from Arthur and Lancelot and Galahad and Parsifal to emerge in a modern Steven
Spielberg film (and though we, too, have longed to seek, and find, the Grail) .
It is of no consequence because all it represents, its mysteriousness, the divine aura
around it, the power to heal it is said to possess, all this is infinitely surpassed by the
mystery celebrated at every Catholic Mass, using every ordinary chalice in
Christendom (if the use of such a word may be permitted in this "post-Christendom"
age): the mystery of the Eucharist. . When any priest lifts
in his hands the consecrated bread and, in a chalice, the consecrated wine, he makes of
his hands and of that chalice< divinity-bearing instruments>. Those chalices bear
divinity as truly as if they were each the Holy Grail over which Jesus at the Last Supper
spoke the words: "This is my blood of the new covenant."
And to what purpose? That those who eat that bread and drink from that cup may
themselves become divinity-bearing instruments, may bear divine life within them,
may live eternally. This is why primitive Christians gathered to share the Eucharistic
meal: because they wanted to transcend time and stand at the threshold of eternity even
in this life, because they wanted to re-enact that moment in the history of the cosmos
when the new and everlasting covenant was sealed through the perfect sacrifice of the
This is what we have lost: the belief that we are in the presence of the Holy Grail at
every Mass, no matter whether celebrated by an old priest or a young one, a learned or
an ignorant one - a holy or a sinful one. We have lost the sense of the Real Presence, of
God's presence with us: .
But if what happens at Mass is simply a memorial and not a re-enactment of that
unique sacrifice in a mystical communion with Christ, then no chalice is the Holy Grail.
The Second Vatican Council called for liturgical reforms in a desire to restore and
strengthen the Church. "Renew the liturgy and the Church will be renewed," said the
Fathers. But no observer of Catholicism needs to be told that the Church has undergone
a bitter winnowing for 30 years. The quip common among US Catholics is that the three
largest religious groups in America are: 1) the Catholic; 2) the ex-Catholic; and 3) the
Southern Baptist. We cannot precisely measure belief in the Eucharist, but we do know
that in many places in the Western world the doctrine of the Real Presence is not even
taught. A national US liturgical publication recently offered this definition:
": Jesus with us in the signs of his Body and Blood." This is more a doctrine
of the Reformation than of Catholicism.
It is sadly ironic that the most dismissive analyses of Vatican II now seem almost
prophetic. In the last year of the Council, 1965, Philip Rieff , historian, psychologist,
social commentator, observed that religions were turning away from "ascetic doctrines"
that had possessed "spiritual perceptions of great depth" because those doctrines were
embarrassing to Churches "competing as they do for pride of place in a culture of
affluence... specially among Americans." He went on: "Nor does the present ferment in
the Roman Catholic Church seem so much like a renewal of spiritual perception as a
move toward sophisticated accommodations with the negative communities of the
therapeutics. Grudgingly, the Roman churchmen must give way to their Western laity
and translate their sacramental rituals into comprehensible terms as therapeutic
Few at the Council dreamed it would be used to move the Church into an
"accommodation" with the therapeutic sciences. And equally few foresaw that the
would lead to more than 100 additional
documents and countless compromises that would erode the faith of millions.
In July, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told he will address the issues
involved. He hopes, he said, to produce soon a document on "the theology of the
liturgy" (see article, p. 16). Cardinal Newman held that doctrinal definitions come
when the truths of the faith are attacked, and from these definitions the sacred is
preserved, in many cases restored. Now, with Ratzinger's projected study as a catalyst,
we may be at a turning point between attack and deeper understanding. The longed-
for end of all current divisions is perhaps unrealistic. But one small step toward reform
of the liturgy is being taken. It could end up being a gigantic step toward restoring the
sacred to the Church's liturgy and life - toward finding the Holy Grail.