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THE BISHOP'S VOICE: Responding to the Pew survey on the Real Presence

09/06/2019 | Comments

By now it should be well-known that a recent Pew Research Center study has found that a significant majority of self-identifying Catholics do not believe that the bread and wine used at Mass actually become the Body and Blood of Christ when the words of consecration are spoken by the priest celebrant.

Sixty-nine percent of the Catholics who responded to the Pew survey said that they believed the consecrated elements to be “symbols of the body and blood of Christ.”  While that number is lower for Catholics who attend Mass regularly, the study is still very worrisome. It indicates that fully 22% of those participated knew what the Church taught, but did not believe it.  So what are we to make of these findings?

 We might first be inclined to disregard them as “skewed” or “misleading.”  It’s true — surveys like this one don’t always provide as accurate a picture of things as they claim. However, if we consider that in 1998, a similar survey of Catholics produced similar results, the Pew results don’t seem far off the mark. Twenty years ago the majority of Catholics did not believe in what the Church calls the “Real Presence” either. Let’s not be quick to dismiss the Pew findings.

So, who’s to blame for these very disturbing numbers?  Bishop Robert Barron has answered that question as clearly and accurately as anyone. “I’m blaming myself, bishops, priests and anybody responsible for transmitting the faith. We’re all guilty.” That’s right. The two generations of Catholics in the years following the Second Vatican Council were treated to what George Weigel has termed “Catholic Lite,” and some of them were not even given that. 

Are things any better today?  In our Catholic schools they are indeed. In this diocese, our Catholic schools teach the full truth about the Eucharist. Depending on the age of the students, the term “transubstantiation” may not be used, but our young Catholics know that bread and wine really become the Body and Blood of Christ, and are not merely symbols of Christ. 

But precise theological language is not the only consideration — as important as that is.  My grandmother couldn’t pronounce the word “transubstantiation” if her life had depended on it, but she knew very well who was in the tabernacle and whom she was receiving as her spiritual food. Where did a woman who did not even have an 8th-grade education learn about the Real Presence of Jesus under the signs of bread and wine? At the feet of her father (she was an infant when her mother died), whose faith, prayer, example — and the grace of God — were all she had.  But when current studies reveal that barely 30% of Catholics attend Mass regularly on Sunday, it’s likely that what our children are being taught in school may not be reinforced at home.

But there’s more.  Even if we do understand and believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation, are we careful to always express that belief?  For example, when we enter and leave the Church, do we genuflect, showing our belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the tabernacle? That’s not only a sign of our own faith; it’s also a reminder to others of the Lord’s presence. As one whose arthritic knees make genuflection virtually impossible, I am always edified by those who continue to bend the knee reverently before the Blessed Sacrament.  Although we are not required to kneel to receive Holy Communion, what a beautiful acknowledgment of the presence of God in the Sacred Host that is.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops asked lay Catholics on Facebook for advice following the release of the Pew report. One respondent wrote:  “Banal, casual, modernized and secularized liturgy that no longer lifts the soul to God” is to blame for lack of belief in transubstantiation.  Another, a non-Catholic, said; “Here’s an idea. Start treating it like you believe it is the Real Presence. When it’s offered by priests [or bishops] who scandalize the church or to unrepentant sinners (such as pro-choice politicians), you’re telling the world that the Eucharist is meaningless.”  That one went viral.

But it’s not all bad news.  There is evidence that many of our young people — including millennials — are very robustly embracing their Catholic faith.  Eucharistic adoration has become especially important to them. This is reason enough for us to pray that God will help us bring the Catholic Center at UCCS to completion, so that our Catholic college students will have a place to pray and worship on campus. All this bodes well for the future.  For now, let’s all begin to renew our faith in the central tenet of our religion: the Real Presence of Jesus under the signs of bread and wine. And let’s live it!

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