Last week, I made the annual spiritual retreat with the bishops of ecclesiastical Region XIII (Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah).
The retreat master did a fine job of leading us through our meditations, but — as always for me — the best part of the annual retreat is the time that we have to spend in prayer and adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. In the course of those periods of adoration, I couldn’t help but recall the much-publicized Pew report of Catholic faith — or lack of faith — in the Real Presence.
As a reminder, the Pew Research Center asked American Catholics if they knew what the Church teaches regarding Christ’s presence under the signs of bread and wine. Only 50 percent of the respondents indicated that they knew that the faith of the Church assures us that the elements are changed into the body and blood of Christ. Another 45 percent said that they believed that the Church teaches that the consecrated bread and wine are merely symbols (reminders) of Christ’s presence. Five percent reported that they didn’t know what the Church taught about Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. What is particularly striking in the report is the fact that, of those 50 percent who claimed to know the teaching of the Church, a third of them did not believe it.
In the face of these statistics, we immediately began to blame poor catechesis — and rightly so! Any Catholic over 50 knows that the last two generations of Catholics were not taught well about the meaning of the Eucharist — as well as many others elements of the Catholic faith. It is no wonder that barely 30 percent of self-identifying Catholics attend Mass every Sunday. We can take some consolation in the fact that religious education has significantly improved in recent years. Standardized tests show that students in our Catholic schools and parish-based religious education classes are learning the tenets of the faith far better than their parents and grandparents.
But learning the catechism is not enough. Unless we are also learning to live our faith — more specifically, to express our faith — improvements in classroom catechesis will not be sufficient to make us the “Eucharistic people” that Jesus calls us to be.
Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, as well as other prominent bishops, has made an urgent plea to all Catholics to consider carefully the very manner in which they receive Holy Communion. “Why do we receive Communion standing and on the hand?” Cardinal Sarah asks. Our faith in the Real Presence can influence how we receive Holy Communion and vice versa. Even though there is evidence that the reception of Holy Communion in the hand was permitted in the earliest days of the Church, that practice was done away with as the Church’s faith in the eucharistic presence of Christ developed and intensified. Greater reverence and care for the eucharistic elements grew out of a more profound faith in the Holy Eucharist.
In our own day, we have returned to a more casual reception of Holy Communion. Let’s be clear: Communion in the hand was not called for by the Second Vatican Council. But because this way of reception began to be practiced the United States, Pope Paul VI granted an indult (a special permission) for the Holy Eucharist to be received in the hands of the faithful. The universal liturgical discipline still calls for reception on the tongue.
Two of our pastors have asked their parishioners — with my encouragement — to return to the reception of Holy Communion on the tongue. The priests have reported that most of the parishioners did so happily. It was simply a request, but it seems that after some time now, many parishioners are finding that reception of Holy Communion on the tongue has increased their reverence for Jesus in the Eucharist.
It’s something to consider.