Father Scott Shaffer, pastor of St. Joseph Parish, Toms River, gives Holy Communion to a parishioner attending the Easter Vigil April 16. 
Rich Hundley photo
Father Scott Shaffer, pastor of St. Joseph Parish, Toms River, gives Holy Communion to a parishioner attending the Easter Vigil April 16. Rich Hundley photo

As a professional “Church lady,” a lay person working for the Church in religious education, I felt a seismic shift in 2019 concerning my perspective on our goals in handing on the faith. The impetus for this was the pretty shocking and well-publicized Pew Research study published in the summer of that year, which indicated that many Catholics did not believe in or understand the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Considering how essential this belief is to what it means to be Catholic, that the consecrated Host is not a mere symbol but is truly Christ – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity – this news began a well-founded wave of deep concern among clergy and the lay faithful.

The silver lining to this problem is that it awakened in us the realization that there was a special urgency in ensuring that all Catholics, especially the young people who are the future of our Church, understand that the Eucharist is nothing less than the very heart of our faith and is really and truly Christ, present to us.

To be fair, the Eucharist is a profound miracle and mystery that, as I tell my students, even the smartest theologians and greatest saints could never completely understand. Even St. Thomas Aquinas, known as the “Angelic Doctor,” was said to have burned his own great theological work after a mystical encounter with the Divine, because in that encounter he realized that nothing a human being could express could possibly come close to touching the mystery of God.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we don’t devote our mind and spirit to understanding the Eucharist, quite the opposite; it just means that there is always more depth of understanding to pursue, more room to grow in faith. 

A good way of understanding how human beings evolve and grow in their understanding of God and in their faith is expressed by St. Gregory the Great, who once described the Word of God as being “like a river both shallow and deep, in which the lamb walks and an elephant swims.”  His words were on my mind at our recent Communion practices when I was reviewing the basics of the Sacrament with our children.

Since our practice time is relatively short, I had to summarize the Eucharist for them very simply and practically, in a way that a 7-year-old would understand.  I explained to them that in the miraculous, consecrated Host is all of the love, goodness, and mercy of Jesus. All of the beautiful Bible stories they have heard of Jesus healing people, forgiving sinners, telling his friends to love one another – all of this is in the Host, because the consecrated Host is truly Jesus. 

As I experienced the incredible blessing and privilege of witnessing them each receive Communion for the first time a couple of weeks later, I thought that there are probably fewer things more beautiful to God than to have his children, no matter the age, receive him with a childlike wonder and a humble heart.

Teaching the young well is only one aspect of ensuring that all of the faithful truly understand the gift of the Eucharist. The Bishops of the United States recognize this need among all Catholics, and have initiated a national Eucharistic Revival, which will fittingly begin on June 19th, the Feast of Corpus Christi. This revival will extend for three years, and plans are underway in our own Diocese to join this exciting movement, which is essentially an opportunity for “Catholics across the United States [to be] healed, converted, formed, and unified by an encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist – and sent out in mission ‘for the life of the world”’(eucharisticrevival.org). 

May the next three years be a time of conversion for believers and non-believers alike, as we open our hearts and minds to the transformation which can only be found through the great Divine Love with which we are gifted in the Eucharist.

Jessica Donohue serves as director of religious education in St. Joan of Arc Parish, Marlton.