Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Transubstantiation. It’s a ten dollar word some of us may be familiar with, some of us may know very well, or some of us may have never heard of and think is just as crazy as consubstantial in the creed. But transubstantiation is one of the most important words for us as Catholics. What does it mean? According to the surprisingly accurate Dictionary.com: transubstantiation: n. The changing of the elements of the bread and wine, when they are consecrated in the Eucharist, into the body and blood of Christ (a doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church). Even if we aren’t familiar with the word, we’d like to think it’s still a concept most of us would be familiar with, because it’s at the heart of our faith. We believe that at Mass in the Eucharist, Christ becomes present to us here and now and offers us his own Body and Blood as the means of our salvation.
Sadly though, a recent Pew Research Center survey has revealed some bad news: only one third of U.S. Catholics believe that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ. And looking at the numbers, it’s hard to know if the more detailed breakdown makes it better or worse. Because really only 22% of Catholics know this is a teaching and willfully reject it, as compared to 28% who know this is a teaching and accept it. That’s bad enough. But far worse and far more surprising is the statistic that 43% of Catholics believe the Eucharist is only a symbol, and do not even know that the Church teaches otherwise. This means that almost half of Catholics have never been taught this most fundamental and essential tenet of our faith. And if it could get any worse, when you look at Catholics under the age of 40, that number jumps to 75% who do not know.
It’s hard to imagine how this is possible. Even many of those who come to Mass each week, don’t realize the incredible gift they are receiving. What has happened? Obviously our first instinct should be to recognize that we Catholics have done a poor job of teaching our faith – without a sense of judgment, but honesty. I know for myself, religious education even in a Catholic school was far from rigorous. As Bishop Barron often comments, he’s amazed that his niece is doing 10th grade math in 8th grade, but her religion book still looks like it’s for a 4th grader. We no longer present our faith as a beautiful and rationally coherent whole that explains the world around us and gives us meaning and direction. This is something we certainly need to focus on, and I look forward to working together with our principle and director of religious education in crafting a stronger curriculum for our students.
Another article made a much more challenging point, and something that has gotten me thinking. The author comments “Many have said that the Pew study reflects a catechetical failure. I fear the opposite: it reflects a certain kind of catechetical success.” He goes on to speak of how there has been an unwritten catechesis in how we have treated the Eucharist, in how we have removed from it all forms of reverence that help us appreciate it’s true nature. All of us then have to ask ourselves, not only if we believe in the Real Presence, but if that belief is reflected in how we treat the Eucharist. Our hope should be that when people see us, they see the love and adoration we show the Eucharist and believe that we truly believe. I know some have commented on my emphasis in this area, particularly in how the Mass is celebrated, but all of us share the duty of approaching the Mass and the Eucharist with utmost respect, for God’s glory and for our salvation.
As only the wonderful Flannery O’Connor could say of the Eucharist so succinctly and clearly, “If it’s only a symbol, to hell with it.” May we all have that same fervor in defending the belief in our Lord’s abiding presence among us.
Yours in Christ,