Do you remember the old advertising slogan “Is it live? Or is it Memorex?” Christians the world over sort of ask a similar set of questions. And their answers are equally confused.
Is the Eucharist the “Real Presence?” Does the bread genuinely become the Body of Christ and the wine become the Blood of Christ? Or are they merely remembrances, simply symbols?
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Son of God probably has an opinion. More than one-billion Roman Catholics throughout the world should be unanimous in their opinion, since the Church has an official teaching on the subject. Maybe different cultures can be excused for having different thoughts on the subject. But, at least, all those who live in the same country, who should have been educated in the same faith and in the same way, surely all those Catholics should agree, right?
What about the 78 million American Catholics?
Hold on. When I started praying about writing this piece, then prepared to write it, I planned to make it a reflection on the Scriptures that were read at last weekend’s Sunday Mass. Of course, many Catholics have an opportunity to attend Mass daily in some parts of the world, where there are enough priests. But if an American Catholic is faithful, he or she at least will try to show up in church on Sundays.
Vatican Council II calls the Holy Mass “the source and summit of the Christian life.” The Mass features the Liturgy of the Word – during which we hear directly from Scripture – and then the Liturgy of the Eucharist, that contains Holy Communion; bread and wine, Body and Blood.
What do people think as they line up in thousands of church aisles ready to receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist?
Is it the Real Presence? Or is it just a poor facsimile, merely a small wafer of bread and a sip of red wine?
These contemplative questions came to mind during my Lectio Divina prayer time with the Scriptures for what the Church called the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, or Corpus Christi.
Fact is, when I went through those Bible readings and tried praying about them, nothing jumped out at me. That’s not the first time that has happened. I read them again. Usually by the second reading, something starts speaking to me from the pages. A word. A theme. A question. A memory.
Last week: Nothing like that.
My mind and heart couldn’t even begin to dive into the selections from the Book of Exodus, Psalm 116, the Letter to the Hebrews and the Gospel of Mark. They are all fine readings. They each have inspired me to prayer in the past. The Gospel reading, in particular, is important because it recounts the Last Supper, when Jesus instituted the Eucharist.
Yet, those writers had no effect on me this week. Instead, my mind was completely preoccupied with the special feast we celebrated on Sunday: The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.
In Latin: Corpus Christi.
What do we truly think is happening on that altar during every Mass? How many people believe in the Real Presence?
Let’s get one thing clear right now: The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the bread and wine are not symbols. A document that was produced by the Church’s Council of Trent in 1551 clearly states that the “body and blood,” “soul and divinity” of Jesus Christ are “truly, really, and substantially contained” in the sacrament.
The Church holds – and has since the earliest days of Christianity – that when Jesus broke the bread at the Last Supper and said, “Take it, this is my body,” he was speaking literally of his own body. And when he took the cup filled with wine and said, “This is my blood of the New Covenant, which is poured out for many,” he was speaking literally of his own blood.
Referring to the Gospel of John, Catholic apologist Scott Hahn had this to say:
So did Jesus say to them, “I didn’t mean it, guys. I was just kind of, you know, using hyperbole or metaphor.” No. He actually intensifies the scandal. He actually raises the obstacle even higher. “He said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood, … unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.’”
The Catholic Church is pretty clear on this most basic of doctrines and has been for a very long time – indeed, forever. So why aren’t individual Catholics as certain? I mean, if men and women, boys and girls knew that they could physically receive the Real Presence, wouldn’t things appear different than they are now? The honest-to-goodness body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ! Wouldn’t you expect the pews to be packed and aisles crowded with hungry Christians?
A 2013 Pew Research study showed that only 24-percent of U.S. Catholics attended Mass at least once a week – down from 47-percent in 1974. Only 27-percent of the 2013 respondents called themselves “strong Catholics,” and among that group a mere 53-percent attended at least one Mass weekly, 32-percentage points lower than 1974.
In 2011, the National Catholic Reporter surveyed American Catholics specifically about the Eucharist and relevant Church teaching. That poll came up with these results:
- About 63-percent of adult American Catholics believed that “at the consecration during a Catholic Mass, the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”
- The largest group, called “knowledgeable believers,” involved Catholics who knew what the church teaches regarding the Eucharist and also expressed a belief in this teaching. About 46-percent of adult Catholics in the study were knowledgeable believers.
- The second largest group in size, 33-percent of respondents, is the “unknowing unbelievers.” Those Catholics did not know what the church teaches regarding the Eucharist nor do they believe in this teaching.
So of all Americans who identify themselves as Catholics, one in three really isn’t Catholic. Not only do those men and women not have a clue what they are supposed to believe, they believe in the wrong thing anyway.
Is it any wonder that so few people are visiting Catholic churches every Sunday? Clearly, millions of people weren’t catechized well because they don’t know Church doctrine. They likely made their first Holy Communion, and many more subsequent experiences, without knowing what they were really doing. Maybe if they were taught correctly, and taught why the Church believes what it does, they might align themselves with those beliefs.
Even among those who understand and believe, though, something isn’t registering with their hearts. Too many of them dismiss the spiritual significance and impact of witnessing the Real Presence, of receiving the genuine Body and Blood of Christ.
We should hunger for Corpus Christi, for the Body of Christ. We should desire to join with our fellow Catholics, the people who make up the living Body of Christ, in service and interaction and worship.
Even more essentially, we should hunger for the Eucharist. Please pray along with me, a prayer offered for our entire Church.
For the Body of Christ.