A few weeks ago, the Pew Research Center released an article titled “Just one-third of U.S. Catholics agree with their church that Eucharist is body, blood of Christ.” Immediately after the study’s release, social media erupted with reactions of disbelief, shock, and anger, as well as theories of how to “fix this,” including greater catechesis and adjustments to our general liturgical practices. Despite the immediate reaction, there is no need for panic, as Christ assures the Church that “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it,” (Matthew 16:18). Furthermore, jumping to such dire conclusions after one survey is not necessarily good pastoral or catechetical practice. As the Church examines the status of belief in the Real Presence and how to cultivate a greater understanding of that reality, she is also very aware of the need to deepen our encounter with Christ. As we ponder Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, we must ask ourselves if we have truly encountered him. In his encyclical letter Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis suggests that we “look at those first disciples, who, immediately after encountering the gaze of Jesus, went forth to proclaim him joyfully: ‘We have found the Messiah!’ (Jn 1:41).”
In the end, how we catechize and what our liturgical practices are both require deeper reflection and greater discernment as to how God is calling us to use them as methods of ongoing conversion and evangelization. The doctrines and dogmas that we teach, how we celebrate the Mass, how we best serve our fellow man, are all likely to fall on deaf ears if they are not built on a deep and personal encounter with the Risen Christ. To examine this issue of Eucharistic belief, we should first look to chapter 4 of Christus Vivit, where Pope Francis reminds young people (and all of the people of God) that God is love, he saves us, he gives us life, and he is alive! If these four truths, which are expounded upon in good catechesis and experienced in their fullness in the Mass, are not understood deeply and intimately in the heart of every baptized Catholic, then moving forward will be extremely difficult. If I do not know Christ as the one who saves me, who walks with me through my life, as the one who gives me life, then why does it matter if it is truly his Body and Blood that I receive in its fullness at the Mass? Similarly, if we don’t understand the Kerygma—the mystery of the salvific work of God culminating in the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ—then how can we begin to understand the mystery of transubstantiation (CCC1376), especially when philosophical distinctions like matter and form aren’t in the everyday vocabulary of most Catholics? Pope Francis reminded pilgrims of this reality during a November 2017 General Audience when he said, “Every celebration of the Eucharist is a ray of light of the unsetting sun that is the Risen Jesus Christ. To participate in Mass, especially on Sunday, means entering in the victory of the Risen, being illuminated by his light, warmed by his warmth.”
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI famously wrote in his encyclical letter Deus Charitas Est, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” I certainly don’t have the “easy fix” answer as to how to increase belief in the real presence in the Eucharist, but I heartily believe that it begins with a renewed sense of the encounter Pope Benedict XVI was writing about. We use the word “renewed” because even those of us who profess our faith in the Risen Lord are invited “to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I [Pope Francis] ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day” (Evangelii Gaudium). We must witness to the encounter that has given our lives “a new horizon and a decisive direction,” and share that with those whom we meet. When we accompany our brothers and sisters on their journey to know Christ more fully, we help them to encounter him in the way that the Holy Spirit guides them. If that encounter is through theological and philosophical distinctions, through service, through the liturgy, etc. then praise God, because it is through him that those are effective and not because of their own merits. As we continue to wrestle with this recent study and its implications, may we meditate on this: if we believe that the Eucharist changes us, strengthens us, heals us, then we must show it, we must witness to it authentically and humbly in all circumstances.
The recent news of scandal within the American Church has understandably been the cause of immense frustration, anger, and disappointment in the public and, most especially, among the faithful. I have also seen many who have become disillusioned by the Catholic Church and decided to separate from the rest of the faith community. The danger in this response is that it risks throwing out the baby with the bathwater, as our faith community is one of the greatest gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit.
Through my travels this summer, I had the opportunity to experience two very different cultures very much tied to our Catholic faith. My experiences in these cultures reminded me of the great blessing of our faith community.
In early July, I set off with a group of teenagers and adults from my parish on a mission trip to visit our sister parish in Dessalines, Haiti. When we landed and traversed the countryside, I came face to face with poverty unlike any I have ever experienced. My concern over a lack of modern amenities quickly dissipated, however, as I was overwhelmed by the warm hospitality of our Haitian hosts. Most especially, the Haitian children and teens we worked with throughout the weeklong summer camp showed us true joy and hope. The pastor told us that our presence meant so much to the community, solidifying our relationship as brothers and sisters in Christ more than any monetary donation could achieve.
In September, I travelled to visit extended family in Ireland. Despite it being only the second time I had met most of them, our conversations continued well into the evening and it felt as though we were picking up right where we left off. Evident among our conversations was a shared concern for the scandals facing the American Church, but there was also a resolute hope that keeping our eyes fixed on Christ would see us through. As we talked about the family history and previous generations, I was reminded of how grateful I am to have had the faith passed down to me and how much I owe to my ancestors.
In these distinct experiences of encounter, the hospitality I was shown and the underlying hope I received from my conversations with my hosts reminded me of the great blessing of our faith community, no matter how far flung it might be. This an especially difficult time to be Catholic, but I firmly believe that with God’s grace our faith community, broken and imperfect as it may be, will also be among our greatest sources of hope. In times of adversity, let us cling to our communities of faith and to Christ Himself. Rather than abandon our parishes and local church communities, let us work to ensure that they are rooted in the love of Christ in order to build a holy Church, a community of hope.