I just don’t get it

By Tim Lilley

August 30, 2019

Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center released the results of a far-reaching survey regarding what Americans know about religion. Since that release, more than a few Catholics have been talking about the portion of the survey that deals with what their brothers and sisters in faith believe about the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.

Here is the bottom line according to Pew: “Just one-third of U.S. Catholics agree with their Church that (the) Eucharist is (the) body (and) blood of Christ.”

Actually, it’s 31% of surveyed Catholics who believe in the real presence; 69% of those surveyed view the bread and wine they receive as symbolic. Pew broke down percentages by three age groups – those under 40, those ages 40-59 and those ages 60 and higher. The percentages were not significantly different when broken down by age.

When I was born, the only satellite orbiting the earth was the moon. I’m in that 60-or-higher group. Only 38% of my peers who were surveyed told Pew they believe in the real presence.

I just don’t get it.

We (i.e. those in my age group) learned Catholicism using a different Catechism – the Baltimore Catechism, which was the Catholic-instruction “bible” until the late 1960s. Here is what you’ll find in Lesson 22 of Baltimore Catechism #3, which was used for those preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation:

  1. 870. What is the Holy Eucharist?
  2. The Holy Eucharist is the Sacrament which contains the body and blood, soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ under the appearances of bread and wine.
  3. 871. What do we mean when we say the Sacrament which contains the Body and Blood?
  4. When we say the Sacrament which contains the Body and Blood, we mean the Sacrament which is the Body and Blood, for after the Consecration there is no other substance present in the Eucharist.

Here is what our current Catechism says:

1381 "That in this sacrament are the true Body of Christ and his true Blood is something that 'cannot be apprehended by the senses,' says St. Thomas, 'but only by faith, which relies on divine authority.' For this reason, in a commentary on Luke 22:19 ('This is my body which is given for you.'), St. Cyril says: 'Do not doubt whether this is true, but rather receive the words of the Savior in faith, for since he is the truth, he cannot lie.'"

I have asked myself why I believe in the real presence and why I have for as long as I can remember. It’s a question I can’t answer because I can’t remember how I learned about it or specifically who taught me. I surely didn’t have TEC or Source + Summit weekends to attend.

Pew also reports 63% of those who attend Mass weekly believe in the real presence. I suspect many of them attend precisely because of that belief and what they know they will receive in the Holy Eucharist. Even so, that means 37% of those at Mass every week believe they are just receiving “symbolic” bread and wine.

I wonder whether those who don’t believe realize that the Church has officially recognized more than 130 Eucharistic miracles, one of which led Pope Urban IV to institute the Feast of Corpus Christi. None of those miracles affected my belief. I never heard about any of them until I was well into my 50s.

What can we do? Let’s pray for everyone who sees the bread and wine only as symbols. We can talk about the real presence, but those who are Catholics have heard what our Church teaches – even though the Pew research suggests that many of them don’t remember hearing about it because so many of them said they didn’t know that’s what the Church teaches.

I can’t bring myself to point a finger of blame, and I don’t believe that approach is right. Instead, let’s agree to pray that people come to a greater understanding of the tremendous gift we receive in Holy Communion – the real and true presence of Jesus.

Editor’s note – I asked our regular young-adult columnist Maria Sermersheim to reflect on the Pew numbers. Her thoughts appear in her column for Aug. 30.