Book Review: History and Presence
by Robert A. Orsi
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016
Robert Orsi, a professor of religious studies at Northwestern University, has written a fiercely inquisitive book on the heart of Roman Catholicism: History and Presence deals with the wider implications of the “real presence” that Catholics celebrate in the Mass, when the Host is transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Orsi shrewdly looks at some of the more brusquely functional aspects of that regularly-performed miracle, such as stressing “the reality of the Catholic supernatural as opposed to the empty simulacrum of the Protestant holy,” but the bulk of History and Presence concentrates on something far more personal and intense, the perception phenomenon at the back of worldwide cults of saints’ relics, holy shrines, saints’ cults, apparitions of Mary, and the like. Through very nimble and wide-ranging research, Orsi lays bare the complex intermingling of faith and psychology that has been a key element of Catholicism for five hundred years. One of the persistent strengths of the book is its keen awareness of the day-to-day meaning of its mysteries for the ordinary people involved. “If I can’t believe that God is really present on the altar in the consecrated host,” according to one representative Catholic in the book, “then I have nothing.”
The detailed ideological history of modern Catholicism is too replete with ironies and contradictions for Orsi to resist, and some of his book’s most grimly knowing asides dwell on manias the Church might like to forget. One of these, the mass burnings of comics books in the late 1940s and early 1950s, provokes a typically pointed series of observations:
The sisters and priests who organized the comic book autos-da-fe knew whereof they spoke, of course. They spent their lives, as we have seen, forming and stimulating children’s imaginations in relation to images of violence and evil, mutilated and dismembered bodies (in particular women’s bodies), and the sweet and uncorrupted flesh of the saints’ bodies, exhumed from their graves. What secular comic book was as terrible and graphic as that of the life of [19th century Catholic saint] Maria Goretti? The same sisters who protested ghoulish and gory comic books prepared children for making their First Communion by telling them over and over again that if they bit down on the consecrated Host the priest put in their mouths, the Host would spurt blood … Picture lines of children returning to their places in the pews after receiving Communion, blood dripping from their mouths. What comic book could depict supernatural horror as well?
Keeping a somewhat nervous eye on the Enlightenment, Orsi nevertheless ends his book on a ringing note in favor of the reality of the unseen for the faithful:
The unseeing of the gods was an achievement; the challenge is to see them again. If the presence of the gods in the old Catholic sense is an absolute limit that contemporary scholars of religion and history refused to cross, then they will miss the empirical reality of religion in contemporary affairs and they will fall to understand much of human life.