On her travels across the country, Sherry Weddell asks highly engaged, practicing Catholics this important question: “Where’s Jesus right now?”

The top answers vary from “He’s in my heart” to “Well, where two or three are gathered.”

But the Forming Intentional Disciples author said while they could recognize Jesus as present in the poor and others, “The Eucharist was always last.”

According to a new Pew survey, 7 out of 10 people who identify as Catholic do not believe that the bread and wine “actually becomes” the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Pew’s survey also found that among Catholics who regularly attend Mass once a week, 63% know the Church’s teaching; 14% flat out reject it; and 23% don’t know.

However, 75% of Catholics who attend monthly or yearly believe the Eucharist is just a symbol, and so do 87% of Catholics who seldom or never attend Mass.

Long before the Pew survey on Catholics and the Eucharist came out, Weddell realized the answers to her question “Where is Jesus?” suggest many of today’s disciples of Jesus are not thinking of Jesus as truly present among them through the gift of the Holy Eucharist.

“I’m not surprised by this,” she said. Even among the most committed Catholics, she said, the Real Presence of Jesus is a doctrine they know with their heads, but “he does not come to mind” as a person with whom they can have a heart-to-heart dialogue through his presence in the Eucharist.

 

State of Catechesis

Many Catholics have naturally turned to focus on the question of how to reconnect Catholics today with the Church’s teaching on the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. But the solution involves many different approaches and no single magic bullet.

Petroc Willey, director of the Catechetical Institute and the Office of Catechetics at Franciscan University of Steubenville, told the Register that the Pew survey is a “wake-up call” to the Catholic Church on the “starkness” of the situation.

“Because of the way the Church positions the Eucharist at the heart of the faith, this crisis of faith we’re seeing has to be related to a more general crisis,” he said. Willey also said the Church does need to renew catechesis, but unlike decades past, the issue today is not lack of resources. He said those resources are available in abundance. Rather, the Church needs to make a concerted effort on adult and family catechesis, following the graduated model of the catechumenate, instead of pouring its resources into children’s catechesis. Children’s catechesis, he explained, is undermined when the adults in their lives do not know or practice the faith, and so cannot share it with their children, or be an example of what an adult Catholic following Christ looks like. 

He also said the Catechism of the Catholic Church is underutilized as a direct resource.

“The Catechism is an amazing tool to help people reengage in the faith,” he said, suggesting that the Catholic Church restore a role to the laity that was vital in the formation of the Church in North America: the lay catechist.

“To do this, you need a well-formed, mature group of catechists in every parish,” Willey said. 

However Lucas Pollice, a theology and catechesis professor at The Augustine Institute and its director of curriculum development, said the Church has a “gold mine” opportunity to evangelize adults when they bring their children to church for sacramental preparation. Pollice said in his 20 years of experience as a catechist, half of the parents asking for the sacraments are in the demographic Pew describes as attending Mass monthly or less.

Parishes need to “leverage that moment” to invite parents to attend classes — or at least make two or three sessions mandatory — to form them in the teaching of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. But he said the methods should be both articulate and inspiring and connect them with the reality that God wants a personal relationship with them in the Eucharist and that this is part of the plan of salvation revealed in the Bible. Pollice said  the Augustine Institute took this approach in Presence, a video-based catechesis for parents of first Communion children.

“They need to learn about the sacrament, but [the catechesis] has to have the charisma built in of the Gospel story,” he said, “that [the Eucharist] is part of God’s loving plan. From the beginning, God wants to have this communion of love with you in the Eucharist.”

 

Pastors’ Role

Willey said pastors need to be preaching on the Eucharist more at Mass, providing the basics of the faith. “We need to hear far more homilies on the ‘basics of Mass’ and not presume everyone in the pews knows it.”

Father Edward Kondas, pastor of St. Mary’s parish in Hudson, Ohio, which has produced seven vocations to the priesthood in seven years, told the Register that he preaches about Jesus in the Holy Eucharist fairly often, and the parish has many opportunities for encountering Jesus in Eucharistic adoration and the Mass.

St. Mary’s is a “large parish with multiple ministries” and does not have a school, the priest explained. But the parish thrives on bringing people to Jesus Christ.

“There’s basically something here for every age,” he said, saying people join small groups within the parish that anchor them in parish life. 

Father Kordas said people in the parish hear what’s being preached, and they go and tell their friends. However the Mass is celebrated, whether the music is traditional or contemporary, St. Mary’s parish seeks to “make sure the quality [of the liturgy] is always high.” He explained the “vitality of the Eucharistic celebration” in the parish also makes clear Jesus is truly among them in the Eucharist.

Pollice agreed that how the liturgy is celebrated is “very important” to helping remind Catholics that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist. He said parishes that have care for the liturgical celebration, deliberately put the tabernacle at the center of the church, and provide “liturgical catechesis” from the pulpit can really open people’s eyes to the reality of Jesus’ personal presence among them in the Eucharist. “Adults want to know about sacraments; they want to know about the Mass that they experience,” Pollice said.

“And if we do that catechesis, since the [Eucharistic] liturgy is the source and summit of the Christian life, then it’s going to have ramifications on a much wider way,” he said.

Bishops are also writing to the faithful in the hopes of educating them about the Real Presence.

Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Illinois, has released his 2020 annual teaching document, “The Real Presence,” a year early in the hopes of a renewed witness to the Real Presence. “It is a defined dogma of the Catholic Church, revealed by the Holy Spirit and preserved from any possibility of error, that the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ are truly and substantially present in the Most Holy Eucharist. This is not an opinion to be measured against any opinion poll but, rather, divine Revelation as expressed by the absolute authority of Scripture and Tradition.”

In his letter, Bishop Jenky encouraged Eucharistic devotions such as Benediction, processions, visits, Holy Hours and quiet times of personal prayer before the tabernacle. “These Eucharistic devotions are obviously also intended to deepen our conscious recognition of the centrality of the Real Presence of Jesus within the liturgy of the Mass,” he wrote.

Bishop Jenky pointed to what he sees as a “noticeable decline in our ritual reverence and recognition” in recent decades. “Sometimes our churches may seem more like hotel lobbies than an awesome House of God,” he said.

Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland in Oregon addressed his flock in August regarding the results of the Pew survey.

“These results have to be a real wake-up call for all of us,” he wrote Aug. 30. “To simply shrug our shoulders at such disturbing news and move on with business as usual is simply not an option. We must do everything in our power to reverse this trend. People will more easily grow lax in the practice of their faith, or drop out altogether, if they don’t understand and believe the mystery we celebrate in the Holy Eucharist and how that drives everything else we do in the ministry of the Church.”

Archbishop Sample challenged those in the archdiocese’s Catholic schools, parish religious-education programs, and adult faith-formation programs to put a greater emphasis on the Church’s teaching about the Eucharist. “To put it bluntly, we have lost much of the reverence, awe and respect for the Holy Eucharist that we once had in the Church. How we celebrate the Holy Mass and treat the Blessed Sacrament are at the heart of this,” he said.

 

Experiences of God Needed

Mark Gray, researcher for Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, told the Register that previous polls have shown that belief and regular practice go together.  “If they believe in the Real Presence, they’re more likely to go to Mass,” he said.

The percentage of adult Catholics going to Mass every week has consistently hovered around 23%, although Gray indicated those numbers have weakened with the renewal of the sex-abuse crisis. CARA found that number of weekly Massgoing Catholics dropped to 21% in 2018.

Still, Gray added that he did not expect the numbers of Catholics who believe the Eucharist was just a symbol, as cited by Pew, to be that high. CARA, he said, plans to conduct its own field survey later this fall and will see, using different language, how people respond to the question about Jesus’ Real Presence in the Eucharist. Besides catechesis, Weddell said Catholics need teaching on Jesus being really present in the Holy Eucharist that is more than an intellectual presentation of “transubstantiation.” Catholics need to have laid out “in living, real-life, concrete terms” without “code” what it means that Jesus is really present in the Eucharist.

“They want to have the experience of a living God that is really present, really cares, and could possibly change their lives,” she said. Weddell said one recommendation would be to make “adoration as widely accessible as possible.” People have experienced answered prayer and healing in their lives by being able to meet Jesus personally in Eucharistic adoration. She added that dioceses could provide the “40 Hours Devotion,” with the Eucharist going from parish to parish, to show Jesus truly present in their midst. Weddell said the disconnect between Catholics and the Eucharist is real: She’s heard priests talk about Jesus “as if he was actually gone,” instead of really present among us in the Eucharist. And she’s heard prayer groups asking for the presence of God, when he’s actually “next door” in the chapel. Other statistics show younger Catholics, particularly Gen Z, are shedding their Catholic identity, starting as early as middle school.

Weddell said approximately 8 million Catholics are evangelicals now because they said they “never met Jesus in the Catholic Church” and did not realize that he was actually in residence in the church.

“If some of those 8 million understood that [Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist] was real, and it really changed lives, because they were hearing stories from parishes, a lot of them would come back,” she said.

Weddell said discipleship of Jesus is intimately connected with belief in the Real Presence — and it is the only kind of witness that is going to be compelling after the sex-abuse crisis.

“They’re going to believe someone whose life has been changed because their life has been transformed by Jesus in the Eucharist.” Lina Simms at St. James Catholic Church in Lakewood, Ohio, said her parish has been providing an experience of Jesus in the Eucharist called “Light for Love.” The experience is simple: The doors of the church are open and lead straight to Jesus exposed in the Blessed Sacrament, surrounded by candlelight. Somebody outside the church invites passersby to come in: “Light a candle for someone you love and sit with God.”

Simms said people are yearning for an experience of God, particularly youth. “Experience is always going to precede belief,” she said. “And to be honest, the Catholic Church does not do a good job of having an experience of God.” Simms said they are not arguing people into the Church — they are just inviting them to meet Jesus so they can start the conversation with him. “Come and see: That’s the motto of Jesus,” Simms said. “Come be in my presence and see what happens.”

“You don’t meet someone and say, ‘Now you have to love me!’ No one would ever think that,” she said. If Catholics believe in the Real Presence in the Eucharist, then they need to introduce people to Jesus and trust him to do his part to build a relationship with the person who is a “stranger or acquaintance of Jesus.”

“Let him do the work,” she said.  “What would it look like if every Catholic church once a month was open with the doors open, saying: We want you here,” she said. “Come in — experience God.

“Can you imagine what that would look like?”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.

CNA contributed to this report.