As I was walking back to my pew after receiving Communion, I spotted a fellow who was holding the host in his hand and staring at it curiously, as if he didn’t know what it was or what to do with it. Maybe he wasn’t Catholic or maybe he was one of those Catholics who think the Eucharist is just a symbol with the same efficacy as a crust of Wonder Bread.
A disturbing survey by Pew Research in 2019 concluded 70 percent of self-identified Catholics “believe the bread and wine used at Mass are not Jesus but merely symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” (I’ve often thought that those who believe it’s just symbolic shouldn’t object to receiving unconsecrated hosts.)
Some 43 percent were “unaware” of the teaching about the Real Presence and 22 percent knew but didn’t believe it. This lack of belief in the fundamental mystery of our faith has consequences that go far beyond whether politicians who promote abortion should be given Communion. At the turn of the millennium, Jesuit theologian John Hardon, whose cause for sainthood is before the Vatican, foresaw dire consequences as a result of unbelief in the Real Presence.
“I believe the center of the Church’s crisis in the Western World is the doubt and denial in an ever-widening circle of once-professed Catholics about their faith in the Real Presence,” he wrote. “As a result, we see the massive desacralization of the Mass, hidden tabernacles, iconoclasm perpetrated on Catholic Churches, reduction of hundreds of churches to mere social meeting halls and the casual handling of the Sacred Species. The future of the Catholic Church in one Western country after another is on trial. One thing I have learned is the deepest and most devastating crisis in all the 2000 years of the Church’s history is what we are undergoing now…. In one declarative sentence: Without faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, there is no Catholic Church.”
Many disbelieve the teaching, and even more just don’t care, which is one of the greatest tragedies of our age. When the priest holds up the Eucharist and says, “Body of Christ,” he really means it. And when you say “Amen,” you’re saying you believe it too.
It’s time for believers to say prayers of reparation. The Litany of Reparation to Our Eucharistic Lord says in part: “Lord, for so many unworthy communions, we offer you love and reparation. For the infidelity of those who call themselves your friends but betray you, we offer you love and reparation. For the sacrileges which profane your sacrament of love, we offer you love and reparation.”
In “The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor,” the celebrated Catholic author recounted a dinner she had with critic Mary McCarthy and their exchange about the Real Presence. She wrote: “I was once taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy. (She just wrote that book, ‘A Charmed Life.’) She departed the Church at 15 and is a Big Intellectual. I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but, overcome with inadequacy, had forgotten them.
“Well, the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. She said when she was a child and received the host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the most portable person of the Trinity. Now, she thought of it as a symbol…. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of, but I realize now that is all I will ever be able to say about it, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”
Since the first Holy Thursday when Jesus gave us the Eucharist in the Upper Room, it has been the Sun that illuminates the Church because Jesus is really present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.
If that teaching sounds unreasonable, far-fetched or preposterous to you, remember one thing: Nothing is impossible with God.
And like Flannery O’Connor, we all should say, “The Eucharist is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”
(Joe Pisani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)