A recent Pew Research survey polled Catholics on their belief in the Eucharist. Only about one-third of self-identified Catholics professed to believe in Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist. While this number is shocking for many who believe in and love deeply this central sacrament of our Catholic faith, the question that should most concern us is: What can I do about this? Before we explore that aspect, let’s explore what Jesus says about the Eucharist.
The Eucharist in the Gospels
His words (and actions!) in all four Gospels frequently reference this sacrament. The two key areas where Christ speaks most clearly about the Eucharist are the Last Supper accounts, found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and in his “Bread of Life” Discourse in the Gospel of John.
The first three Gospel writers present the same reality of Jesus gathering his closest followers — his apostles — into the upper room that was prepared for the Passover. The Last Supper is Jesus’ fulfillment of the Passover celebration, the annual ritual remembrance of God saving the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt and leading them into the Promised Land.
During this rite, Jesus takes unleavened bread and speaks new words over them: “Take and eat; this is my body” (Mt 26:26). Then taking the cup of wine, he says, “This is the blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many” (Mk 14:24). He concludes with the words, “Do this in memory of me” (Lk 22:19). The apostles partake of what Jesus offers, the bread and the wine that he has called his body and his blood.
Jesus’ words are deep and profound but also clear and simple. What was previously bread and wine are no longer such. Through the divine power of Jesus, the Son of God, they have changed their very substance. Though their appearance does not change — they look, smell and taste no different than before these words were spoken — something substantially different is now there. As the humanity of Jesus hid the reality of his divinity (for he was truly God made man), the outward sign of bread and wine hide the reality of Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist. We call this incredible change in the Eucharist “transubstantiation” to show that the substance has changed.
This change is effected in two ways. First, by the word of God. In the first chapter of Genesis, we read, “Then God said: Let there be light, and there was light” (Gen 1:3). When God speaks a word, it comes into being. He makes present what he speaks. By the same power — for we profess in the Nicene Creed that Jesus is “consubstantial with the Father” — the word of Jesus makes present what he speaks, most clearly when he says, “This is my body.” Secondly, Jesus’ words at the Last Supper are fulfilled on the cross. It is here that Jesus becomes “the blood of the covenant, shed for many.”
Additionally, Jesus gave to his apostles the power to “do this in memory” of him. Not only did he share the gift of his body and blood with them, but he taught them to be ministers of this great gift to others who enter into this covenant in his blood. Therefore, the Eucharist became central to the life of the church. St. Paul writes to the community at Corinth that he is not making up something new for them but rather is handing on exactly what he received in the Eucharist (cf. 1 Cor 11:23-26).
The other clear text in the Gospels comes to us from John. Here we hear Jesus speak the words: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” He then continues a few lines later to emphasize his point, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you,” and, “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” (Jn 6:51-56). Reading this whole discourse (Jn 6:22-71) paints a vivid picture of the intensity of Jesus’ teaching.
What Can We Do Today?
Many Catholics do not believe in this “source and summit” of our faith. Some have never been confronted with the reality of the Eucharist; others have drifted away from poor catechesis, poor example or the distractions of our post-Christian society. How should we respond to this crisis of belief in the Eucharist?
First, we must make sure we ourselves are worthy to receive this great gift. Never on our own could we be truly worthy, but Christ makes us worthy through our baptism and our participation with his grace. I worthily receive Jesus when I repent of any serious (mortal) sin before reception of Communion. This means I must make a sacramental confession before receiving Communion, if I have these sins in my life. Taking seriously the reality of the Eucharist — including regular participation in Sunday Mass — should be our first response.
Second, seek out regular opportunities to spend time before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, especially in Eucharistic adoration. St. Augustine is known to have said, “No one partakes of this Flesh before he has adored it.” Adoring Jesus in the Eucharist leads us to be more prepared and more conscious of what (and who) he is offering us. There are numerous Eucharistic adoration chapels around the Archdiocese of Detroit. (The archbishop’s pastoral letter, Unleash the Gospel,called for every parish to create regular times for Eucharistic adoration and to promote its participation.) For many people, this silent time in the presence of Jesus is an antidote to our busy, noisy, demanding lives. Even 30 minutes per week — one TV show’s worth of time — spent quietly before our Lord can increase our faith in the Eucharist and make us more ready to share this truth with others. In fact, inviting a friend to join you in this time of silence is an easy and effective way to evangelize.
Finally, small acts of devotion to the Eucharist are great ways to stir up our own faith in Jesus and humbly witness to others the awesomeness of the Real Presence. For some people, this is simply whispering “My Lord and my God” at the elevation of the host or chalice during the Mass or making the sign of the cross when they drive past a church. Silently praying after the reception of Communion, or genuflecting when approaching the tabernacle or entering the church, demonstrates that there is something special happening there. Priests, deacons and extraordinary ministers have a special task in communicating the real presence of Christ in the way we handle the Eucharist. Do we treat this sacrament like it is something ordinary, or do we handle it deliberately, reverently and solemnly?
Receiving Jesus in the Eucharist is the closest we will get to heaven this side of eternity. In all our interactions with the Eucharist, Christ invites us to see with eyes of faith that he is truly present, offering himself to us each time we go to Mass or spend time with him in adoration.