Female Former Protestant Pastor Reaffirms the Centrality of the Real Presence in the Eucharist
Speaking to the Register during the International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest, American missionary Barbara Heil discusses her path of faith and highlights the need to recatechize the faithful worldwide.
BUDAPEST, Hungary — The Catholic Church is losing ground in secular societies largely because its faithful are becoming more and more ignorant about their own faith. It is this conviction that drives Barbara Heil — a former Protestant missionary and pastor — to spread the fundamental teachings of the Church to as many people as possible through conferences and webinars worldwide.
Indeed, when she embraced the Catholic faith for the first time, Heil found that most of her new fellow parishioners knew less about their faith than she did, even though she had just joined the Church.
According to her, such a phenomenon that is becoming more and more widespread explains the growing disbelief about the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist among Catholics.
Based in Iowa, Barbara Heil was confirmed in the Catholic Church in 2013. In this interview with the Register —conducted during the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest, where she was a featured speaker — she discusses her spiritual journey, the life-changing encounter she had with Christ in the Eucharist, and the deep meaning of Holy Communion.
Can you tell us about your path of faith? How did you become a Catholic?
I was really converted from being a Protestant to a Catholic through the beautiful writings of the Church Fathers, by studying the liturgy, by studying the Eucharistic Mass — what it means — and finding such beauty in the Holy Scripture. It was orthodox; it was such beautiful theology that eventually I didn’t have any arguments left for not being with the Catholic Church. I lost my arguments by studying the Church’s own theology, and then I began to hunger for the sacraments, partaking of the Eucharist. That’s when I realized the only way I’m going to fully enjoy what I’m learning about the Church is to actually enter the Church.
You used to be very involved in the Protestant church. This conversion must have had a big impact in your life …
I had to resign everything that I was part of, because I was involved in a full-time ministry in the Protestant church, in the evangelical stream. They didn’t understand why I was becoming a Catholic, so I had to resign everything. And then to become part of a Catholic parish. I didn’t come into the Church through Catholics. I came through the teachings of the Church, so when I got to the parish, it was a little bit of an adjustment for me. I didn’t know any people, and, also, I had actually studied the teachings of the Church more than people in the Church, so it was not easy at first.
You used to be a missionary when you were a Protestant. What form does your mission take now in the Catholic Church?
By right of our baptism, we’ve been commissioned by Jesus himself, if we believe the words of the apostles, that we will go into other worlds and share the Gospel. That’s for the believer; that’s for the average Catholic. If you believe, you’re called to go. You’re called to pray for people. So I understand I’m still commissioned by God to share my faith. I just simply share my faith everywhere I go. I do a lot of conferences, a lot of retreats, online Zoom [video conference] teaching, and the beauty of that is that it is all around the world. I don’t know how the Lord did it, but almost immediately people wanted to hear what I had to say. I teach the Scriptures, and pray with people, and to the people who ask if I miss being a woman in the ministry, in the Protestant church, I answer: “Are you kidding me? There’s so much to do!” There are so many people that need prayers; there is so much teaching of Scriptures that needs to happen.
As a Catholic woman, who are the feminine Catholic figures who inspire you the most?
From the past, I love St. Teresa of Ávila, St. Catherine of Siena and St. Bridget of Sweden, who is actually one of my favorites … her writings, her encounter with Jesus; she talks about not just knowing about God, but knowing God. These were women that were reformers. They were part of the reformation of the Church to bring people back to basics, back to the fact that Jesus came so you can know him. St. Bridget of Sweden’s writings are very good. And another very inspiring model for me was St. Hildegard von Bingen from Germany. Such a high model of Renaissance woman! She was so amazing! These are our legacy in the Church. Way before I even thought about becoming a Catholic, I found myself, as a Protestant pastor, already drawing on some of these many sources I was reading to teach what they were teaching, because it is so perfect. Therefore, I want to encourage your readers to dive into the things of their faith. If you’re hungry, there is more — there is so much more!
You were invited to be a speaker to this International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest to share your experience of faith with the faithful. What place does the Eucharist have in your life?
It is absolutely central because of the encounter I had with Christ in the Eucharist many years before I came into the Church. I had that encounter. So I knew Jesus was there, even more than a lot of Catholics. So, when I come to Mass, I’m a big adorer. I go to adoration a lot. When I go to adoration, when I am at the Eucharistic Mass, the whole Mass is the Eucharist. It means “thanksgiving,” so I know I’m with Christ. And I also know that Christ is with me. I don’t leave him when I leave the Church: He goes with me; he’s with me; he’s in me; he feeds me of himself by giving me his Body and Blood. And he’s real.
Nowadays, many Catholics seem to doubt the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which is nevertheless a fundamental dogma of the Church. With your personal spiritual journey, what would you say to those faithful?
I find that when I appeal to logic, that does not work, because this is a supernatural thing. One can reason with one’s mind, all kinds of things — but look into the teachings of the Church; look into the Scripture. What we need is an encounter with God himself. And if you seriously want to know him, you can ask: “Lord, are you here?” “Lord, are you with me?” And invite him in. And he will show you. That experience can change everything. A lot of time, when I’m evangelizing, I’m not worried about trying to convince somebody I’m right. I bring him in prayer with me and allow God to minister to his heart. And once you’ve encountered Jesus yourself, you’re never turning back. So I want to encourage your readers to seek the Lord; ask the Lord; start asking [in prayer] to the Lord. Simply pray; everybody can pray. He hears everybody. And get in the Scriptures and see what Jesus says himself. Don’t take my word. Take his word.
Do you think the Church should do more to address this growing loss of belief in the Real Presence?
Definitely! One of the things that shocked me when I became a Catholic is that, suddenly, I was in the parish, and I was surrounded by people that knew less of their faith than I did. They didn’t know the teachings of the Church. They were poorly catechized Catholics. In Scripture, the prophet Hosea says “my people perish for lack of knowledge” (4:1).
It’s like sitting at a buffet and just staying in a corner eating crumbs. We need more people teaching, more catechesis, and not just dry philosophical things. What is Jesus really saying to us? Get in the Scriptures, and I will say, since I’ve come into the Church, I’ve seen many ministries starting to spring up, of laity, and people in the priesthood, and sisters. They have taken up that burden to share with our neighbor what is our faith. This is what the saints teach, this is my Church teachings, this is what the Scripture says, and when we have that deep encounter with God, we become everything we talk about during the Mass.
Is there any specific message you want to share with the Register’s readers?
Everybody is called to be a saint. All of us are called to be saints. And what we are really hungering for is not a religion. My religion is a vehicle to bring me to Christ. But I need to receive the gift that is being given to me. And it is Jesus who wants to know me: walk with me, be with me, heal me. And we crave this in the world — we crave the mysticism, we crave the mystery, and it’s right here.
If you find yourself dry in your faith, or wandering or distracted, turn to Jesus himself. And open the Scripture: Start with the Book of John. And let that love letter from God start to speak to you. Because he is for you; he’s not against us. He’s for us so much that he gave himself for us. So we see the fullness of what he’s offering, and that is friendship with God.
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