August 23, 2019


Teaching the Eucharistic mystery

At the heart of the Eucharistic celebration are the bread and wine that, by the words of Christ and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, become Christ’s Body and Blood. Faithful to the Lord’s command the Church continues to do, in his memory and until his glorious return, what he did on the eve of his Passion: “He took bread....” “He took the cup filled with wine....” The signs of bread and wine become, in a way surpassing understanding, the Body and Blood of Christ; they continue also to signify the goodness of creation (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1333).

Central to our Catholic faith is the teaching about the mystery of the Eucharist. We believe that the bread and wine offered back to God become—really and truly—the body and blood of Jesus Christ. How this happens is a mystery, but the fact that it happens each and every time the Mass is celebrated is an article of faith that defines who we are, what we believe and how we are called to act as Jesus’ disciples.

The importance of this teaching helps to explain the anger expressed by many Church leaders in recent weeks to a new study from the Pew Research Center whose findings say that a majority of Catholics in the United States either don’t understand or don’t believe that the bread and wine used at Mass become the body and blood of Christ. Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron released a statement on Twitter that said: “It’s hard to describe how angry I feel after reading what the latest @pewresearch study reveals about understanding of the Eucharist among Catholics. This should be a wake-up call to all of us in the Church.”

Bishop Barron says his anger is not directed at Pew, but at himself and his brother bishops, priests and anybody responsible for transmitting the faith. “We’re all guilty,” he said. “It’s been a massive failure of the Church carrying on its own tradition.”

Not everyone reacted as strongly as Bishop Barron. Some have observed that the way survey questions are posed, and their context, can have a significant effect on the way people answer. For example, when the Pew report says that “69 percent of all self-identified Catholics said they believed the bread and wine used at Mass are not Jesus, but instead ‘symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ,’ ” one would have to probe more deeply into the respondents’ understanding of what the word “symbol” means in this context. After all, our Church teaches that all sacraments, including the Eucharist, are signs (symbols) that cause what they signify.

Without in any way diminishing the significance of the Pew findings—or saying (as Bishop Barron fears) “Oh, well, who cares?”—we believe that the appropriate response is to focus our catechetical efforts on teaching the Eucharistic mystery in all its many dimensions.

What should Catholics know about the Eucharist?

First of all, as the Catechism says quite clearly in #1333: “At the heart of the Eucharistic celebration are the bread and wine that, by the words of Christ and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, become Christ’s Body and Blood.”

It’s not important to use—or understand—technical terms such as “transubstantiation” which theologians and Church historians can debate. It’s enough to say that by God’s miraculous intervention, at each and every Mass, ordinary bread and wine really and truly become Christ himself, while retaining the appearance of bread and wine.

Secondly, it’s important to teach that the Eucharist is both a sacred meal and a sacrificial action. As the Catechism states in #1382, “The Mass is at the same time, and inseparably, the sacrificial memorial in which the sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated and the sacred banquet of communion with the Lord’s body and blood. But the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice is wholly directed toward the intimate union of the faithful with Christ through communion. To receive communion is to receive Christ himself who has offered himself for us.”

Finally, devotion to the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is indispensable to the Church’s social ministry. As Bishop Barron says, diverse women and men across two thousand years of Christian history, have shown “a profound understanding and love for the Eucharist.” These are saints who see the Eucharist not as some vague or superficial symbol but as a powerful sacrament that unites us with the person of Jesus Christ and empowers us by the grace of the Holy Spirit to carry on his work until he comes again.

We are right to be deeply disappointed that so many of our fellow Catholics appear to misunderstand what a great gift we have been given. Let’s use that disappointment to motivate ourselves to teach the Eucharistic mystery at every available opportunity.

—Daniel Conway

Local site Links:

Like this story? Then share it!