Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff reporter for the National Catholic Register. He covered Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United States in 2015, and to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 2014. He has reported on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, including from Jordan and Lebanon on an Egan Fellowship from Catholic Relief Services. Before coming on board the Register in 2013, he was a freelance writer, reporting for Catholic media outlets as the Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He is a graduate of the National Journalism Center and earned a B.A. in Philosophy at Christendom College, where he co-founded the student newspaper, The Rambler, and served as its editor. He comes originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
DETROIT – Jesus Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist stands at the center of the Catholic faith. And it is also the “source and summit” of the Archdiocese of Detroit’s pastoral vision for Catholic renewal and evangelization called Unleash the Gospel.
In this Register interview, Father Steve Pullis, director of Evangelization, Catechesis and Schools for the Archdiocese of Detroit, discusses the recent Pew survey on Catholics and the Eucharist. He shares how the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is key in the archdiocese’s blueprint to revive the Catholic faith and form Catholic men and women as disciples in complete fellowship with Jesus.
Father, what are your thoughts about the Pew survey on Catholics belief in the Eucharist? The survey overall shows a majority of weekly Mass-going Catholics believe Christ is actually present in the Eucharist, whereas large majorities of Catholics who attend Mass monthly or seldom, if ever, believe Jesus is only symbolically present in the Eucharist — and not truly present.
Just the difference that you mentioned there shows us how coming to Mass is an opportunity for two things: through catechesis to come to know our faith more deeply through the teaching. Both the prayers [of the Mass] and the homily are meant to be catechetical and break open the reality of who God is and how he relates to us. And then secondly, that belief is tied to an experience. You know, the Eucharist is not just an intellectual reality; like all aspects of our Faith it’s meant to be experienced and lived. And so, if I am not part of the Sunday community, if I'm not making Mass a regular part of my life, then that’s going to manifest itself not just spiritually in how I live and act, but it also manifests itself in how I understand the faith, and how I understand what’s happening in how God is present to me, and wants to be present to me here and now.
I think it’s a reminder that our catechesis throughout the last number of decades has been lacking. We have some real work to do in thinking about how we share the faith, how the faith is passed on to young people here now, but also to older generations. I'm in my mid 30s, so I will kind of straddle the line (in my mind) between the young and the older generations. But we have a lot of work to do, to build up what they should have learned, or maybe they did learn and has fallen by the wayside. Because the Eucharist is so central to everything we believe about the nature of God, who he is, how his presence with us continues to abide here and now, his sacrificial nature to us, and the sacrificial nature of the Mass.
So, so tell me, how does the Archdiocese of Detroit, address these issues with your pastoral plan, Unleash the Gospel?
Well, the Eucharist is central to our faith; we know that it is the source and summit. So we've been thinking about it that one cannot be fully [Catholic], even evangelized without sharing with them the beauty and the truth of the Eucharist. So as we look at the pastoral plan, the Eucharist is one of the markers — our plan is laid out as “guideposts” and “markers” – one of the markers to say "we're on the right track" where we're faithful to God is an understanding that the Eucharist is God’s inestimable gift given to us, so that I can be as close to God as possible this side of Heaven. In the big plan, it has to be part of how the faith is brought to people. I think the evangelizing power of the Eucharist is present in so many ways. Most notably in my mind, in my experience, has been Eucharistic Adoration: bringing people, whether they’re lukewarm believers or non-believers, spending some time with them, and then inviting them to Eucharistic Adoration, has been kind of a foolproof method for me of showing them that they can have a relationship with God.
Pretty much everyone I've brought to Eucharistic Adoration knows there’s something going on here more than just a few of us sitting in the same direction, silently staring at something. They get that there’s a reality there. And I think that’s a powerful tool for evangelization.
What are some of the things regarding the Eucharist that you've seen done in the Archdiocese of Detroit, to bring people into a real encounter with Jesus who’s really present there in the Eucharist.
We have done a number of things. We've done these “Come, Encounter Christ” nights that are centered around Eucharistic Adoration, with music that’s directed to not just ourselves, or singing about how good we are or who we are, but music that’s really directed to lift the mind and heart to God. It’s music that is praise-oriented; it can be a more traditional chant-like setting, or it can be a more contemporary kind of praise-and-worship setting. But the key is that the music and the lyrics are directing us and teaching us (as so often they're meant to do) the reality of what we're experiencing: that God is present here, that God is awesome and powerful, and he makes himself so small in the Eucharist, so that we can be so close to him. So our "Come Encounter Christ" nights that we've done have been powerful experiences, especially for young people.
We've also done a number of Eucharistic processions throughout the year in different parishes. And that’s a beautiful opportunity for people to go into the public square with the truth of who Jesus is in the Eucharist. And really it’s an easy way for the community to witness to those who are not part of the Church or those who are not actively part of the Church, about the beauty of what we celebrate, who we are connected to, and that Jesus wants to be brought out of the Church into the community, into our streets, into our neighborhoods, so that He can share His love with us. Those are two huge ways. And we've seen a growth also of adoration chapels, that time of silence or quiet adoration before Jesus in the Eucharist, has grown in the number of our parishes as well.
Why do these experiences with the Eucharist help bring people into a real personal encounter with relationship with Jesus?
Because so often a time of adoration is marked by a time of silence, and because our culture is starved for silence nowadays, going before Jesus in silence allows us (sometimes very painfully) to be awakened to who God is, and consider maybe the way that my life has not been in accord with His will for me. So I think just the very act of silence in the presence of the Eucharist can help us hear the voice of God more powerfully. I think it helps us know the Incarnation is real: that God is not just far away, but He’s very close to us, He wants to be close to us, and that that’s manifested in the Eucharist. I think [the Eucharist] is a reminder to people that in the midst of their challenges, their difficulties, their stresses of life, that God desires (and is actively working) to be close to us, to be intimately close to us, and he wants us to come and to lay our burdens on him; to come and find rest in Him and to take up his yoke. And because we believe and know that [the Eucharist] is Jesus present, to be in the real presence of Jesus, his sacramental presence in the Eucharist, it cannot help but effect us, because God is so powerful.
Being in the presence of Jesus is like being in the sun. Right? Maybe we don't always experience moment to moment what’s happening to us. I'm a pale-skinned redhead, so when I'm in the sun for more than about 20 minutes at a time, it’s pretty clear afterwards the effect it had on me. And I think about that in the presence of Jesus, that just sitting there, even if I'm distracted or tired, or don't know what to do, just being in his presence has an effect on me and helps me to be more like Him.
How would you say that bringing people into contact with Jesus present in the Eucharist fits within the whole picture of what the Archdiocese is trying to do with Unleash the Gospel?
It leads and follows in some ways. It leads in the sense that we have to have that understanding of the reality of Jesus present in the Eucharist in how we celebrate the liturgy, what we understand is happening at the liturgy, and how we handle the Eucharist. Whether that’s priest himself in celebration of the Mass, or how we kind of teach and model for the congregation, or whether it’s through ministers of Holy Communion or sacristans, about how we treat these sacred things. Right? There’s a very catechetical nature in how we relate to the sacred things, especially the Eucharist, in our churches. So I think the reality of the Eucharist leads, in some ways, the change we want to happen.
But we see it as the result of when people come to know who Jesus is. They encounter Him really present either in His Word, or an experience in their life, and then they know that Jesus is close to them, and that they can come and be with him. So I've seen with people that the Eucharist can be the entryway into relationship with God. But I've also seen it where they meet him powerfully either in or through a Protestant denomination or a nondenominational community, and then they come to know the fullness and the beauty of God’s abiding love for us in the Eucharist.
So I think the Eucharist is integral to everything we do [with Unleash the Gospel]. Because Jesus left himself as a gift for us, to sustain his Church and to make his Church holy, because we are united to him.
Excellent. As we wrap up here, tell me how has Unleash the Gospel been going in the Archdiocese of Detroit? What developments or fruit have you seen from it so far?
I would say two fruits we've seen are that it’s attracted people who are excited about the Gospel to want to either come here or to be part of the movement. So it’s attracted really talented and Christ-centered missionary disciples who want to be part of it, and that’s been a beautiful fruit. We've also seen it’s brought a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm. You know, the kind of common understanding of Detroit for decades had been of a former glory or kind of run-down Rust Belt city. And what’s been very clear to me is Unleashed the Gospel has given us a re-found energy and a re-found confidence that God wants to work here in Detroit and wants to do something new, and make something new and beautiful out of what we've inherited in his Church.
Thank you so much, Father! Anything that we haven't talked about Unleash the Gospel that we haven't discussed and you would really like to mention.
There’s one thing. We do a bi-monthly [every other month] magazine called Unleash the Gospel. And the magazine’s next edition coming out in October is all about the Eucharist. So that’s our theme for the next edition. We had planned it before the Pew survey came out, but after the Pew Survey, it became much clearer, much more obvious, that this is certainly the direction we need to go in. We realized that the faithful, both parishioners, and people who maybe just want to learn more about the faith, really need kind of a shot in the arm in their understanding of the Eucharist. So we are devoting some pretty particular efforts around that over the next few months here.
Related Register coverage on Unleash the Gospel: