Editor’s Note: The Register will include this commentary in a special section dedicated to the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist in its Sept. 29 print edition.
In the book In Sinu Jesu: When Heart Speaks to Heart, an anonymous Benedictine monk relates his conversations with Our Lord and Our Lady beginning in 2007. They are private revelations that echo the thoughts of many recognized holy women and men.
He writes that Our Lord told him:
“I want you to speak to the faithful of the Holy Mass as a true sacrifice. They have forgotten this … that I am present upon the altar as upon the cross, as both priest and victim. It is the whole of my sacrifice of love that unfolds before their eyes. You must tell them this.”
The recent survey “What Americans Know About Religion,” published July 23 from the Pew Research Center, seems to provide resounding confirmation of this sad reality: 69% of adult Catholics in the U.S. believe that the Eucharist is a symbol, not truly the body and blood of Christ. That means less than one-third of us believe in the Real Presence.
The study also found that 50% know the teaching. In other words, the study indicates that half of the Church in the U.S. may not know a fundamental teaching, and, of those that know it, a full 40% (20% of the population surveyed) reject the teaching.
Teachings make little sense when there is not a corresponding lived reality. Based on my own familial and parochial experience, I probably would not believe in the Real Presence.
Born and raised in a Catholic family, I attended Catholic grade school and participated in parish religious education, made my first Communion and even argued successfully to be confirmed at a younger age than the diocesan norm. This had nothing to do with piety on my part. I happened to have a crowd of older friends who were being confirmed and I didn’t want to be left out. My confirmation instruction was so bad that it could be parodied.
My instruction to receive the Eucharist was even worse.
Several years ago, I happened across the textbook that was used when I was prepared for my first Communion as a child. It really was as banal as I remembered. And there was no mention of the Catholic belief that the Eucharist is really the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Then college happened. I was almost overwhelmed, not only with the intellectual life but with the first comprehensive presentation of the Catholic faith that I had ever experienced. I remember calling each of my parents and yelling at them because I didn’t know about things like transubstantiation and the Real Presence. I felt like I had been cheated, like I deserved to know these things long before.
Despite the frustration, a profound consolation came as I learned things that I could never have conceived of on my own. As children, most of us go through some basic philosophical phases, even if it’s just watered-down Descartes, where we wonder if nothing exists outside of our own minds. But the Real Presence? That’s revealed truth. We can reason to it because of the knowledge we have from revelation, but it’s not a truth that we can know from nature or on our own. It has to be shown to us.
College also exposed me to beautiful liturgy. The chapel was not particularly attractive, but it wasn’t ugly. The priests offered Mass intentionally and reverently. They communicated with every gesture and word that this was where they wanted to be and that this was the most important part of their day. The music was also beautiful.
Overwhelmingly, my senses communicated to me that there was something amazing happening in that space, whether during Mass or in prayer before the tabernacle. It was a place where students and faculty alike stopped by throughout the day, making a visit to see Someone. Seeing the faith lived uniquely and intentionally, in the liturgy and subsequently in the community, changed me. But all of this happened outside of my familial and parochial experience. My father later explained that he and my mother had made a mistake thinking that schools and parish programs would teach us. Instead, he said, they should have taken us on their laps and taught us themselves. My generation, he hoped, would have learned from his and would assume primary responsibility for teaching our children.
Based on anecdotal observations, many more of my generation who have become parents understand this than our parents’ generation. But it’s only a beginning.
If we, as a Church, want people to believe in the Real Presence, we not only have to teach it, but we have to live it. Our churches, and what happens inside them, need to communicate that Jesus Christ is truly present in the sacrifice of the altar.
Last week I arrived especially early for Mass at a nearby chapel. That in and of itself made me take notice. But what really startled me was my thinking process. I was actually inclined to stay in my car to pray because the environment was more conducive.
It took me a few minutes, but I realized that I wouldn’t be missing anything since the chapel didn’t have a tabernacle. There truly was very little difference between my car and the chapel, except that my car was quieter, more comfortable, and — honestly — more aesthetically pleasing.
The Pew study confirms what we already know: The status quo has failed. Study after study confirms that the Catholic Church in the U.S. is losing practicing members. Many dioceses are closing churches. Those that are building churches are only doing so because of overall population increases, not a real increase in the proportion of believers.
In 2016, the Public Religion Research Institute, in partnership with Religion News Service, conducted an extensive survey investigating why Americans are leaving religion and why they’re unlikely to come back. They found that 90% of former Catholics who no longer identify with any religion (“nones”) left the practice of their faith before age 29.
If we want more of the same, we can continue in the same vein. Or we can take this as an opportunity to make some substantial changes. My professional and personal experience tells me that we need to begin a widespread catechesis of what is the Mass, one that is not overly programmatic.
In order to do this well, the clergy would first need to be prepared to be able to do the principle teaching. Further, people need to be taught how to pray, especially before the Blessed Sacrament. Then we need to get out of the way so that Jesus can speak to each individual soul himself.
Every element of our worship should point to God, starting with our own dispositions and including architecture, art, music and liturgy.
A pastor I knew required every youth group gathering and every confirmation class to begin with 15 minutes of adoration. As a result, some of the teens began discerning religious vocations, without any outside prompting. These were students at public high schools and mediocre Catholic schools. But when heart speaks to heart … well, lives are changed.
Pia de Solenni, SThD, is a moral theologian. She most recently served as the chancellor of the Diocese of Orange and theological adviser to the bishop.