August 28, 2019 // Perspective

Do we really believe in the Real Presence?

When Pope Francis recently said that every time we receive Communion, it should be like our first time, it reminded me of a friend’s story.

He had left his then-youngest son in the pew while the rest of the family went up to receive Communion. Upon his return, his son was missing. Looking around to see where he went, he suddenly saw his little boy racing down the aisle shouting, “I got one! I got one!”

I’m not sure how many of us can equal that excitement, but what do we feel when we receive Communion? What are we thinking when the priest says the words of consecration?

A longtime editor in the Catholic press, himself a convert, once confessed that the hair on the back of his neck stood up every time the priest uttered those words, so powerful was his sense that God really and truly became present in a unique and tangible way.

For 2,000 years, this has been the teaching of the Church. But what do most Catholics believe these days about the real presence of Christ under the forms of bread and wine?

A recent survey by Pew Research Center suggested that a majority of Catholics do not believe that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. In fact, Pew said 69% thought the host and wine were only “symbols” of Christ’s body and blood.

The polling results stirred a great deal of breast-beating, and accusations flew about who was to blame for this sorry state of affairs.

But one must always approach such surveys with caution, as Mark Gray from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, known as CARA, subsequently pointed out in his blog named 1964.

Gray noted that Pew gave Catholics the following choice: The bread and wine (a) actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ, or (b) are symbols of the body and blood of Christ.

The results are significantly different from a 2011 survey in which 63% believe in the Real Presence (46% of whom knew what the Church teaches.)

The earlier survey asked the question this way: “Which of the following statements best describes the Catholic teaching” on the Eucharist: (a) The bread and wine really become the body and blood of Jesus Christ, or (b) the bread and wine are only symbols of the body and blood.

The difference is the use of the phrase “really become” versus “actually become.” “Actually,” Gray suggests, may make it sound like something that could be analyzed under a microscope or empirically observed.

Instead, the Church describes the Real Presence as “an inexhaustible mystery,” and that the “substance” of the bread and wine are changed at consecration, but “the ‘accidents’ or appearances of bread and wine remain.”

Past CARA surveys, Gray said, used the wording “Jesus Christ is really present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist,” or the “bread and wine are symbols of Jesus, but Jesus is not really present.”

Gray hopes to test this hypothesis further, but I suspect he is on to something. As one theologian told me when a similar survey came out years ago, Catholics may not be able to articulately define the “Real Presence,” and the phrase “transubstantiation” may be obscure to them, but in their reverence and demeanor, they demonstrate their belief that this is not just a symbol.

What all of these surveys underscore, however, is the Church’s great need for adult faith formation. A few years of religious education classes as children is not sufficient, and we are paying the price for this neglect now.

Greg Erlandson, director and editor in chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at gerlandson@catholicnews.com.

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