Rekindling Eucharistic Belief
A NOTE FROM THE PUBLISHER: During the pandemic when many have yet to return to worship in our churches, Pope Francis’ reminder at the Eucharistic Congress of the centrality of the Blessed Sacrament in Catholic life is more urgently needed than ever.
On Sept. 12, Pope Francis will travel to Budapest, Hungary, to celebrate the closing Mass of the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress. Like other recent popes who attended past Eucharistic Congresses, his trip will bring into focus the total centrality of the Eucharist to our Catholic faith and will remind us all of our need for the Bread of Life.
In this time of pandemic, when we have been restricted from participating in Eucharistic worship — including attending the Budapest gathering that was originally set for last September — this papal reminder is more urgently needed than ever.
Pope Francis prefaced the message of his upcoming trip to Budapest in his Aug. 22 Angelus comments that reflected on the Gospel of John in which Jesus communicated to a crowd of his disciples that only those who “eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.” Many of Jesus’ followers were so scandalized by his insistence that they must consume his Body and Blood that they turned away from him. The Pope noted how this “scandalousness” of the Eucharist remains present today. “What sense can there be, in the eyes of the world, in kneeling before a piece of bread?” he said. “Why on earth should someone be nourished assiduously with this bread?”
Unfortunately, disbelief about the reality of the Real Presence, and its centrality to the Catholic faith, is not restricted to the secular world. Recent polls of U.S. Catholics have found that only half of them agree with the Church’s foundational teaching that Jesus becomes truly present physically in the Eucharist every time a Catholic Mass is celebrated. This disbelief stems primarily from a catechetical failure to communicate this truth of faith. But for more than a few Catholics, their unbelief is also tethered to a false claim that the Second Vatican Council irrevocably reoriented the Church primarily toward the pursuit of social justice, instead of adherence to supposedly “stale dogmas” like belief in the Real Presence. And some Catholics go even further, falsely asserting that Pope Francis has endorsed this view himself.
It’s certainly true that, throughout his eight-year pontificate, the Pope has consistently and forcefully emphasized the importance of living out our Christian calling through service to others, and most especially to those who are marginalized, materially and spiritually. But it’s categorically untrue to imply the Holy Father has in any way disconnected this Catholic love of neighbor from the Catholic love of God, experienced mysteriously yet concretely in our encounter with Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Indeed, Francis has stressed repeatedly that it’s only through our Eucharistic relationship with Jesus that we can be formed fully as Christ’s followers to see his presence in those who suffer, and thus be inspired to accord them the love and justice they deserve.
Budapest’s International Eucharistic Congress, which takes place Sept. 5-12, has as its fundamental mission to make the faithful aware that “the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Church’s life” and “to reinforce the faith, the knowledge, and the apologetics of Catholic faithful … so they would live a consistent Christian life and continue the work of the Good News of salvation with a renewed missionary spirit.”
The Church’s weeklong International Eucharistic Congress, which was first held in Lille, France, in 1881, has a long history of fostering these goals. Their scope has been global; other sites have included Nairobi, Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, Bombay and Seoul. This is the second one to take place in Hungary. The first occurred in 1938, shortly before the start of World War II. Two have also been held in the U.S.: 1926, in Chicago; and 1976, in Philadelphia, which was attended by then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla. The 1926 Chicago Eucharistic Congress, with its Eucharistic processions and its Masses attended by more than 500,000 people, including one at Soldier’s Field, captivated the nation. The gathering became a transformative event in the history of American Catholicism.
Popes since Pius XI in 1922 in Rome have attended and used these moments to stress the importance of the Eucharist and to foster belief in the Real Presence. Paul VI, who presided over the majority of the Second Vatican Council, attended the one in Bombay in 1964 and Bogotá in 1968. “He is here in the Eucharistic Mystery which this Congress celebrates,” he said in Bombay. “He is really present, not merely represented, not only invoked [sic] remembered. He Himself is here, real and unique; only under the sacramental appearances is He multiplied. And He is multiplied in order to be communicated to each of us.”
Pope John Paul II attended several congresses, including Nairobi, Seoul, Seville, and Wroclaw in his native Poland.
“As we contemplate the Eucharist we are filled with wondering faith not only concerning the mystery of God and his boundless love but also concerning the mystery of man,” John Paul said at Wroclaw. “In the presence of the Eucharist the words of the Psalmist come spontaneously to our lips: ‘What is man that you care so much for him?!’ … What great value man has in the eyes of God, if God himself feeds him with his Body! What vast spaces the human heart conceals within itself, if they can be filled only by God!’”
While U.S. Catholics may be a continent away from the latest Congress, it still provides us with a great opportunity to refocus on the Real Presence, on adoration and on the questions of Eucharistic coherence and consistency that have arisen over the course of this year. Furthermore, it can serve as a timely staging point for U.S. Catholics to embrace the U.S. bishops’ call to participate in the upcoming three-year National Eucharistic Revival that begins in July 2022 and aims to light a fire of devotion to the Eucharist with a particular focus on the local level — dioceses, parishes and families.
The idea for the revival predated the pandemic, but its focus on diocesan and parish renewal seems Providential. Coming out of the pandemic’s earlier extended lockdowns, many dioceses are reporting that a substantial share of the faithful have not yet returned to Mass attendance. Too many Catholics have grown complacent about Eucharistic worship and in their hearts are questioning, like those in the Gospel of John, how Jesus can offer his Body and Blood to us in the Eucharist. We cannot stand by idly and let them turn away from the Bread of Life.
We must each do our part to worship and adore our Eucharistic Lord and to catechize those we can reach. We can also pray with confident hope that the Eucharistic Congress and our own nationwide events in the coming years will assist in reminding Catholics in the U.S. and elsewhere that Jesus is present in the Blessed Sacrament and yearning to renew and deepen his Eucharistic relationship with each and every one of us.
God bless you!