Polls can’t capture our understanding of the Eucharist
A eucharistic minister distributes Communion in this CNS file photo (CNS/Karen Callaway, Chicago Catholic)
First off, I’m inclined to give the pollsters a break, at least in the case where they were asking Catholics about the Eucharist and the real presence. This isn’t quite as easy as “Do you like Donald or Hillary?”
Pollsters aren’t looking for paragraphs.
When Pew Research asked the questions (providing multiple choice answers), the researchers concluded that nearly 70 percent of Catholics believed the bread and wine were symbols of the body and blood of Christ and that only about 30 percent believed that during the Mass “the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus.”
Well, the devil, ahem, is once again in the details. What do you mean by symbol? What do you mean by “actually”? Were the wording and the answer choices weighted in a way that determined the outcome? Are Catholics so disbelieving that we have to get our catechetical hair on fire and go back to the drawing board?
Our national correspondent, Heidi Schlumpf, relentlessly inquisitive and perpetually dissatisfied with pat answers (and polls), got to it and found out — as you’ll learn here — that the reality is far more complex and genuinely edifying than either the bare-knuckle prose of a poll summary or the breathless indignation of church elders.
Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron, the hip hierarch of evangelizers, was spitting mad. “It’s hard to describe how angry I feel,” he tweeted. “This should be a wake-up call to all of us in the Church.” He was mad at himself, at other bishops, at priests, “at anybody” involved in passing on the faith. Whew. Shall we expect soon the marketing of a new Barron video on the Eucharist?
I recommend reading Schlumpf’s interviews with considered and less hysterical thinkers and teachers of the faith. You’ll find their words rich and textured, their understanding of Eucharist steeped in history and reality, and their optimism that a significant number of Catholics are quite reverential and considerate of the countless shades of understanding of the subject.
I would also recommend reading the letters readers have written responding to the issue — so many of them we’ve had to divide them into two batches here and here — thoughtful letters that are consoling, smart, challenging and moving.Related: Richard Rohr synthesizes his lifetime work of ‘alternative orthodoxy’
I happened to be reading Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr’s book, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe, when the poll came out. The book’s section on the Real Presence would have been valuable to pollsters and the polled. Rohr noted that his education makes him aware “of the distinctions and clarifications about what Jesus’s words are supposed to mean: he is giving us his full Jesus-Christ self — that wonderful symbiosis of divinity and humanity.” A little later he writes, “Presence is a unique capacity that includes body, heart, mind, and whatever we mean by ‘soul.’ Love affairs never happen just in the mind.”
The need for deepening our understanding of the mysteries of faith and for sound teaching is lifelong, but I would wager heavily that the millions who regularly approach the Eucharist have an innate and compelling understanding of real presence, Pew polls notwithstanding.
As a 90-year-old retired but active Anglican priest who is still privileged to celebrate Mass, and attends Mass at least 3 days a week besides Sunday, my experience of the validity of Christ’s presence in the Liturgy of The Eucharist is palpable.
As an Anglican Franciscan brother for 3 years, I learned the value of Daily Mass in a situation where it was at the heart of Franciscan spirituality. Later, as a parish priest, I felt the need to meet Christ in the Mass every day – before setting out on the pastoral tasks that were mine in four different parts of the parish – each with its own church and community. For me, meeting with Christ in the Mass at the beginning of each day was my empowerment for whatever came up in the daily round of ministry – thus furnishing me with the means to deal with each situation that cropped up.
If, as I believe, our life here on earth is a preparation to live the fullness of life in the presence of God; we need to ‘practise the presence’ of the God/Man Jesus – in the only vehicle he provided for us to do so – the Eucharist; the Mass (or Mission’) for which the sacrament is designed to equip each one of us for ministry to others in our world. As the words of the Dismissal challenge us: “Go out into the world in peace, to love and serve the Lord. (I often include the words: “In one another’).
My parishioners learned – by my example and my expository preaching – of my own reliance on the empowerment of Christ that was only available through gathering with others to celebrate our unity in Christ, and we never had an occasion where I could not celebrate Mass because of a lack of others to share the Sacrament. I still encourage members of our congregation to regard the Daily Mass as the ‘Place of Meeting’ with our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ – “From whom all blessings flow”.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand