The National Eucharistic Revival and The Art of Gathering

I recently hosted a party that was much more elaborate than any I had hosted before. It was at a beautifully-refurbished parish hall and featured English Country Dancing, led by a young woman caller. There were about forty people in attendance, and while some were friends of mine going back over twenty years, others were relatively new acquaintances. The party was planned according to its purpose, which was to see many people that I love in one place at one time, and to introduce different groups of friends to one another. It was a success, a memorable night for everyone.

I’m telling you about this because it was my first big attempt at putting into practice various concepts from Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering, which I read in 2020 and promptly lost all opportunity of trying out. The book’s genius is that it redirects our attention to the point of gatherings, rather than the accoutrements. Instead of focusing on the food and drink to be served, Parker begs us to consider meaning and purpose: Why are we gathering? What is the need of the person or community? Use those answers to think about the best way to organize things. I want to apply these ideas to the U.S. Church’s current plans.

The U.S. Church and Gathering with a Purpose

The Catholic Church in the U.S. has begun a three-year process called the National Eucharistic Revival. On June 19, 2022, the Feast of Corpus Christi, dioceses around the country kicked the process off in various ways, often with a Mass and a public Eucharistic procession. The stated mission of the revival is, “To renew the Church by enkindling a living relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist,” and the vision statement reads, “To inspire a movement of Catholics across the United States who are healed, converted, formed, and unified by an encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist—and who are then sent out on mission ‘for the life of the world.’” All of the events, then, no matter where they take place in the country, ought to keep these purposes in mind, applying them to their unique circumstances. How does the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon heal Catholics through the Eucharist? How does the Diocese of San Antonio convert hearts? How does Cleveland form disciples? And how do we, in Washington, D.C., show unity in a broken world?

These are big questions. Today I am starting a series of reflections (and suggestions) for the National Eucharistic Revival by looking at our Eucharistic gatherings through the lens of Priya Parker’s work—not with a view to changing them at any fundamental level (the Church is, after all, wiser than Priya Parker), but rather to wonder whether there are any accidental[1] changes that could help better achieve the purposes of the revival. I will start with the Mass.

The Mass: The Gathering Par Excellence

If Priya Parker was looking for a good example of a gathering that is admirably designed for its purpose, she could look no further than the Catholic Mass. The Mass has been developed through the centuries after its beginnings at the Last Supper, and is structurally and essentially the ideal expression of its purpose. What is that purpose? To fulfill the will of Jesus Christ, who asked that His people “Do this in remembrance of me.” The Church understood from a very early period the necessity of certain elements being part of their worship of God: Scripture being read out loud to the congregation; music; exhortation; almsgiving; sending forth. At the center of it all, the words: “This is my body… This is my blood.”

Rule #1: Decide why you’re really gathering

Parker’s first rule of gathering is: “Decide why you’re really gathering.” You may have lots of reasons for bringing people together, and many of those reasons may conflict with others. There ought to be one clearly-defined purpose, though. At a given Sunday Mass at a parish, every person there has a different reason for being present—but those reasons are not the purpose of the gathering. Those are simply the individual intentions or burdens that each person carries with them to the gathering. The Mass itself already has a meaning and purpose given by God: to draw us into the saving work of the Trinity.

At the center of the “liturgy wars” is, I believe, a disagreement about how to do that. The “TLM” folks, I imagine, would point to how many saints were fed from the celebration of the “old” liturgy, while the “progressives” might point to the way that people feel included and important by such practices as lay speakers. But I hope (and pray) that while we argue about those things, we cling to what is true and objective at the same time: the Father has called each of us to be present once again at the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ, to be filled with the Holy Spirit and go out- changed- into this broken world, so in need of healing. If we could all start from there, perhaps our disagreements would be tempered with more patience and charity.

Rule #2: Close Doors

If a gathering has a clearly defined purpose, it will exclude people. You would not host a party to celebrate a new line of Coca-Cola products and invite the CEO of Pepsi, to take a banal example. This is not mean or cruel; it is simply sticking to your purpose. Parker writes about the kindness of exclusion—a paradox—because a person who threatens the purpose of the gathering thus threatens the common good. A person who does not agree with the purpose of the gathering is, at best, a distraction, and at worst, a saboteur.

I thought of this aspect of gatherings during the conversation surrounding Catholic politicians and the reception of Holy Communion. Setting aside for a second St. Paul’s admonition to sinners not to receive the Eucharist in a state of serious sin (which I don’t think that you can do, in reality), and setting aside canon law (which I also don’t think you can do), it seems to me that Archbishop Cordileone discerned, after years of attempted conversation, that Nancy Pelosi does not share in the purpose of the gathering—the liturgy—such that there is a portion of it that she should not partake in. She does not desire to be drawn into the life of the Trinity— which is Life, not death. I found it fascinating when celebrities and others said that the archbishop had no right to do such a thing when, in fact, he is precisely the person who must do it if it is to be done. If Nancy Pelosi’s receiving communion is a scandal to the faithful (which I believe that it is), then it is only just that she be told not to, for the common good. No gathering can have unity if a person goes against its purpose.

In this second section of her book, Parker also talks about the importance of choosing a proper venue for the gathering; a venue that fits the purpose. This aspect could be incorporated into the discourse about Church architecture. One certainly experiences a different feeling when approaching La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain from pulling into the parking lot at Holy Spirit in Annandale, Virginia, and it is not hard to say which of the two better fits the purpose of the Church.

One of the churches in the Archdiocese of Washington was designed with particular sensitivity to the fact that you need different spaces for the different needs of the faithful: Jesus the Good Shepherd has a beautiful, light, and airy sanctuary for communal worship and a small, stone, stained glass space for Eucharistic adoration and prayer in front of the tabernacle. Considering our spaces and what we could do to make them better suit the purpose of communion with God and one another could be a fruitful exercise over these years of revival.

Rule #3: Don’t be a chill host (or: Father, be the priest)

This section of Parker’s book focuses on the responsibility of the convener of the gathering to protect their guests from things such as boredom or someone’s hijacking the gathering for his own purpose. In Church-speak, first, I think it’s an exhortation to prepare a good homily. Second, I think it is an admonition for priests to be leaders, not friends. Outside of Mass, yes, we want to know the human being who is our priest, but during the Eucharistic prayer, for example, the faithful should not be distracted from what the Lord is doing—for remember, the purpose of the gathering is to enter into this mystery. (This is also, incidentally, why you should take your child outside if he is having a tantrum at this point in the Mass.) For the most part, I would say that priests are very good about this. They do not tend to make jokes or ad lib during the Eucharistic prayer, but there are notable exceptions. And lastly, this is why respecting the rubrics is important. The rubrics are there to keep order and ultimately to allow the faithful to enter into the mystery. The faithful should know what to expect and be able to rest in the familiarity of the liturgy in order to enter into it to be united to God.

I will stop here for today and use Parker’s remaining points in my column next time!


[1] I’m using this in a loose philosophical sense—as opposed to essential