I was on the beat. Steve was looking to sell some ad space. Industry conventions bring together odd travel mates.

We met at the airport, Steve and I, two of a sizable contingent our publisher was sending to this particular conference. The company had asked us to fly together and share a room at the hotel to save a few bucks, so, with an hour to kill at the gate, waiting to board our flight, here was a good chance to practice some inter-departmental diplomacy.

I knew things were a tad testy of late between sales and editorial at the business magazine we both worked for. I knew Steve and I would be spending the next four days in and out of one another's orbit. So I should have done all I could to keep the conversation light. The weather. Sports. The pros and cons of doing the Macarena at company parties. Anything but politics or religion. But no. I had to go and ask about the cross he was wearing on his lapel. (Hey, at least I refrained from barbing him about showing up in a suit and tie for a six-hour flight.) The cross had a number “7” where the corpus would be on a Catholic crucifix. What was the significance of that?

Steve didn't know. The person who gave it to him had told him the numeral somehow signified “God's greatest blessings” and, well, that was good enough for Steve.

When it came to religion, Steve said, he only knew two things. One, he loved Jesus and the Bible and all the “positive energy” his faith gave him to succeed in his career and family life. And two, he had no stomach for the Catholic Church.

It was going to be a long four days.

Bread Alone

Steve, I quickly learned, was a confirmed Catholic who had left the Church when he divorced his first wife and married a second. As he talked, it became obvious that his present faith was a singular syncretism of born-again-Christian orthodoxy and New Age, power-of-positive-thinking novelty. “The Lord wants us to realize all our dreams,” he explained in an excited whisper, citing a verse of Scripture to prove it.

Seeing his uncontainable zeal, I figured the best thing to do was to let him know he was talking to a Catholic, then lay low and hear him out. That's what I did and, to his credit, Steve cooled it on the Church and just preached the Gospel According to Steve: Seek health, pursue wealth and give God the glory — what we've lately come to know as basic Prayer of Jabez stuff.

As it turned out, once we boarded our plane, I didn't see a whole lot of Steve the rest of the conference. He went his way and I went mine; as for being reluctant roomies, by the time I got in each night, he was already sacked out. It wasn't until our final morning at the hotel, while we were both packing our bags, that Steve and I had another chance to chat. He quickly brought up the “R” subject again. It was evident he'd been itching for the opportunity.

We jawed about matters of faith and Christian doctrine a bit, the task at hand providing a convenient distraction and a safe buffer zone.

That cracked quickly enough when Steve paused from his packing, folded his arms and said, “Look, I still believe everything the Catholic Church teaches.”

“Really?” I asked, feigning credulity as I recalled the wacky theology lesson I'd been treated to at the airport. “Then why'd you leave?”

Visibly perturbed, he shot me a cross look. Then he said something I'll never forget: “Because they say I can't receive the bread of Christ there.”

“The what?” I asked, thinking I might have heard wrong. “You mean Communion?”

“Right. Communion. The bread of Christ.”

“Steve, where did you hear that term — the bread of Christ — for the Eucharist?”

“What? Am I saying something wrong?”

“Actually, you are. It's not his bread. It's his body. There's a big difference.”

“Semantics,” said Steve, a familiar facial expression betraying his aggravation with a nitpicking editorial type. “The bottom line,” he added as he folded a crisp white shirt and set it in his suitcase just so, “is that the church we belong to now doesn't judge. They give all their blessings, including communion, to anyone who comes forward in faith. If you ask me, that's what Jesus would do — not what the Catholic Church does.”

Only a third of the nation's Catholics said they believed Christ is really present in the Eucharist.

Yeah, like I possessed the apologetical acumen to cut through that. And without risking opening up a major inter-departmental rift? L'impossible. It was time to shake hands, say I was sorry we saw things from a different point of view and make a mental note to pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament for Steve later.

Looking back, I suspect that, had the conversation proven an isolated incident, I would have forgotten about Steve's unintentional trope in the busy weeks that followed. What ended up burning it into my brain was its timing. For it was right around this period, the mid-'90s, that the mainstream media began splashing a survey of U.S. Catholics in print and broadcast outlets from coast to coast. Among the study's most striking findings: Only a third of the nation's Catholics said they believed Christ is really present in the Eucharist.

And, for me, a Catholic who'd returned to the Church from evangelical Protestantism a few years prior — largely because of the Eucharist — this was to become a time when those statistics would begin taking on real faces with real voices, some much closer to home than a co-worker on a business trip.

“You can't confine Jesus to a thing you can see and touch,” insisted a former Catholic in my family who now partakes of pita bread and grape juice every Sunday morning in an independent evangelical church.

“It's the faith you bring to Communion that makes it meaningful to you as an individual,” declared a Catholic neighbor.

We are Eucharist,” proclaimed a would-be defender of the faith in an anti-Catholic discussion board on the Internet.

Where was The Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist: Basic Questions and Answers when I needed it?

I don't know — but, thanks to the U.S. bishops, it's here now.

I'm happy to report that it was worth the wait. Cogently spelling out all the key points of the Church's teaching on the Eucharist — source and summit of the Christian life, focus and foundation of true Christian unity — the bishop's statement, released in July, is a doctrinal dynamo. Not a word is wasted, not a punch pulled.

Only the hardest of heart and the thickest of head will be able to spend the 10 to 15 minutes it takes to read these 20 pages and walk away still missing the core of the Catholic faith: The Eucharist is, was and always will be Jesus Christ. Body, blood, soul and divinity. Right here, right now. Physically. Mysteriously. Eternally. Really.

At less than $2 a copy, I think I'll order a few. They'll make great stocking-stuffers this Christmas.

Now that I think of it, better make that a couple dozen. After all, it's only a matter of time before my path converges with that of another starving soul, another Steve straining to convince himself that one blessed bread is as nourishing as the next. This booklet will fit snugly in the inside pocket of a suit jacket or with room to spare in the shirt compartment of a designer suitcase.

Suitably armed, I'm saying goodbye, corporate diplomacy and hello, charitable catechesis. In these days of famine in the midst of plenty, I'll happily hazard being labeled inter-departmentally incorrect.

Reach Features Editor

David Pearson at dpearson@ncregister.com.

To order The Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist: Basic Questions and Answers, call the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at (800) 235-8722 or visit http://www.usccb.org on the Internet.