Rich Hundley photo
Rich Hundley photo
"  Belief in the Eucharist may yield different understandings and expectations at different points in their faith experience of the “source and summit of the Christian life.” The Lord Jesus instituted the Eucharist, however, to be a means of unity in every experience and circumstance. " Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M.

In the summer of 2019, the Pew Research Center (PRC) published the results of a February survey conducted among 1,835 adult Catholics in the U.S. about their belief in the Eucharist. Numerous other studies have been done over the years by various research organizations about religion and the Catholic Church in particular.

This Pew study, however, was especially alarming because its subject matter concerned a central belief of the Catholic Church’s faith. Through responses to a variety of questions, PRC concluded, “Just one-third of U.S. Catholics (31%) agree with their Church that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ.” As a “headline,” that garnered much attention.

It is understandable that such a statistic is a grave cause for concern in the US Catholic Church, especially among American bishops, priests and those entrusted with the transmission of the Catholic faith. Before jumping to any dire conclusions prompted by startling headlines and sound bites, however, we must remember that this survey was conducted among a relatively small segment – 1,835 – of the total self-identifying U.S. Catholic population, numbering well over 70.5 million, about 21-22 percent of the entire U.S. population. Despite similar research surveys and consequent media projections to the contrary, the number of self-identifying U.S. Catholics has remained relatively stable since 2014.

We should also take note that “self-identifying Catholics” can be an elusive term. Recalling the phrase attributed to the Irish writer James Joyce in his 1939 novel “Finnegan’s Wake,” that “Catholicism means ‘here comes everybody’,” we need to recognize that the Catholic Church includes “self-identifying Catholics” in a variety of circumstances: baptized women and men, practicing and non-practicing people who “self-identify,” Catholics at various and different social-economic-educational levels; younger and older adult Catholics; fervent, devoted Catholics and “occasional” or sporadic yet self-identifying Catholics; Catholics dealing with personal issues at variance with traditional Catholic teaching, laws and practices, and so forth.  “Here comes everybody,” indeed!

Belief in the Eucharist may yield different understandings and expectations at different points in their faith experience of the “source and summit of the Christian life.” The Lord Jesus instituted the Eucharist, however, to be a means of unity in every experience and circumstance. “All of you, take this bread and eat of it for this is my Body, given for you.”

Eucharistic Faith

I must say that what the PRC published in its findings does not match what I regularly hear and encounter and experience among Catholics in the Diocese of Trenton whom I frequently meet. Although our churches may not be full and Mass attendance may have declined for any number of reasons – some known and others not – Catholics participating in Mass and Eucharistic devotions have a deep and abiding faith in the Eucharist.

Take the experience of the recent pandemic, for example. When our churches closed briefly and Catholics had to watch Mass via livestream and make a “spiritual communion,” the outpouring of desire among many Trenton Catholics for the Eucharist and other sacraments was nothing short of overwhelming!

When first confronted with the results of the Pew study, well-known Catholic apologist Bishop Robert Barron responded with alarm and anger “because it showed poor formation for generations in the Church” (“Survey on Catholic Belief in the Eucharist prompts Calls for Better Catechesis,” National Catholic Register, Aug. 19, 2019). “It’s hard to describe how angry I feel after reading what the latest PRC study reveals about understanding of the Eucharist among Catholics,” Bishop Barron wrote in his Aug. 6, 2019, blog. “This should be a wake-up call to all of us in the Church – priests, bishops, religious, lay people, catechists, parents – that we need to pick up our game when it comes to communicating even the most basic doctrines of the Church.” 

I agree with Bishop Barron when he states in a video commentary on the topic that “any Catholic worth his or her salt knows this is a central teaching, a basic tenet of Catholicism” (“Pew survey shows majority of Catholics don’t believe in ‘Real Presence’,” National Catholic Reporter, Aug. 9, 2019).

Somewhere along the way, we – all of us – somehow “dropped the ball.”

The experience of the pandemic and its resulting confusion and anxiety notwithstanding, the return of Catholics to Church, albeit it gradual but steady as reported by pastors, does raise questions about the underlying doubts or lack of understanding among those Catholics who have not or do not come to church for the celebration of the Eucharist. 

Keep in mind that the PRC study was conducted in 2019 among its targeted segment and selection of the U.S. Catholic population before COVID reared its ugly head!

What happened, and why, are certainly important questions to be studied. The more important questions now, I believe, are where do we go from here and what do we need to do?

Catechesis, catechesis and more and better catechesis are the answers!

In a previous article, I wrote that “catechesis is nothing other than the process of transmitting the Gospel, as the Catholic Christian community has received it, understands it, celebrates it, lives it and communicates it in many ways.” Perhaps, as the PRC study reveals or suggests, our past “catechesis” has been found wanting, sadly. There is no time like the present to correct what is lacking there, especially regarding the Holy Eucharist.

The Presence of God

Our Catholic faith and teachings draw their inspiration from and rely upon the Word of God as the source of their truth. The Holy Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, are filled with constant accounts of God’s presence among us.

Beginning with the Old Testament’s Book of Genesis, we read that after God’s creation, God could be “heard walking in the Garden” (Genesis 3:8). The Book of Exodus quotes God assuring Moses “my presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14). The Psalms proclaim that “the mountains melt like wax at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the Lord of the whole earth” (Psalms 97:5). The list of ancient biblical citations and references to God’s presence among us goes on and on.

The New Testament Gospels, of course, center on the mystery of God’s incarnation in the Lord Jesus Christ. “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). They tell the story of the Lord Jesus Christ, the very presence of God on earth. “God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9).

Again and again in the four Gospels and the other writings of the New Testament, the sacred authors reflect upon the meaning of the Lord Jesus Christ’s presence among us: who he is, why he came, what he has said and done and what his presence offers to us who believe in him.”

The whole of Holy Scriptures lead us to the moment at the Last Supper when the Lord Jesus took bread and wine only to become his very Body and Blood, blessed, broken and given to his disciples and, through them and their successors, to us throughout the rest of time. “Do this in memory of me,” he commanded. And then, out of love for those he came to redeem by what followed, he died and rose from the dead. “Observe all that I have commanded you. Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20).

The Eucharist is the way the Lord Jesus Christ is “with us always.” It is the central belief of our Catholic faith: a mystery, a sacrament, the “source and summit of the Christian life.”

In the centuries that followed up to the present day, the Catholic Church and its theologians, teachers and preachers have reflected upon the Eucharist in the faith, catechesis and spiritual life of the Church. In Part Three of this series, we will consider many of those reflections and teachings.