The headline on the article published by the Pew Research Center was stunning: “Just one-third of U.S. Catholics agree with the church that Eucharist is body, blood of Christ.”
The article, which was published in August 2019, summarized the results of a Pew Research Center survey. The study focused on the Catholic teaching of transubstantiation, claiming that fewer Catholics than ever still believe in this core doctrine.
The article continued: “In fact, nearly seven-in-ten Catholics (69%) say they personally believe that during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine used in Communion ‘are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.’ Just one-third of U.S. Catholics (31%) say they believe that ‘during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus.’”
I have tracked a sad decline here over the years, but even this news seemed overly pessimistic. Although I barely passed my graduate statistics class at Wharton (“as one escaping through the flames,” shall we say), I knew that there are ways to come up with a predetermined conclusion. What was the sample size? Was there something in the phrase “self-described Catholics” that might give us pause?
After a bit of digging, there were some figures that even a math-challenged deacon could not miss: the vast majority of the data came from Catholics who do not regularly participate in the Mass on a weekly (or even monthly) basis. It is not very surprising that these people have come to view the bread and wine as simply symbols. For those Catholics who attend regularly, over 91% still believe in the Real Presence.
Although this news was still vexing, it was not impossible to comprehend. Those Catholics who leave regular Communion with Christ at the Mass will soon adopt a Protestant assessment of Communion instead of their formerly Catholic one. It’s hard to say which came first: Did Catholics stop believing in the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ and thus stop attending Mass, or was the decrease in regular Mass attendance the cause for a lack of belief in the New Testament teaching and example of holy Communion? Either way, it speaks to a great challenge in our faith communities — to teach, affirm, and proclaim the Real Presence of Christ in Holy Communion — and get people back into regular Mass attendance.
As a deacon, I had an opportunity to preach on John 6 (The “Bread of Life” discourse) this past August and greatly exceeded my traditional allotment of homily time on this subject. We had an additional two-page insert in the weekly bulletin with scripture and early Church teaching on the subject. We did some preaching and teaching, and the faithful left encouraged.
That got me thinking — as a deacon and as your book review editor for The Colorado Catholic Herald — there had to be some great books to read on Holy Communion for a wide variety of Catholics — young and old, new disciples and grizzled grey-hairs like myself.
The book that convinced me to return from being a Protestant minister to my childhood Catholic faith was Dave Armstrong’s “A Biblical Defense of Catholicism” (Sophia Institute Press). Any uncertainty about the Real Presence can be clarified by a dive into the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Nos. 1373-1374; 1378-1381), but chapter 7 of Armstrong’s book is itself powerful in this matter. Clarifying terms like “accidental v. substantial change,” “essence and appearance,” etc., is a big part of his careful approach. He then shows clearly from the New Testament, early Church writings, and continuing down through history — including Cardinal John Henry Newman — that there was no other truly Catholic viewpoint.
Armstrong’s remaining question, after a thorough examination (and nine other helpful chapters on the Bible and Catholic doctrine) is to ask why a Christian could believe in the Incarnation, the Hypostatic Union of the Triune God, the Resurrection of Christ and his miracles, and yet “have some doubt” about the Real Presence of Christ in Holy Communion? In studying the history of the decline in belief in the Real Presence, which gained momentum after the twin gut-punches of the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment, we find the answer. It appears that, in the quest to find a better, clearer, more logical and reasonable approach to religious faith, it was inevitable that essential Catholic teachings were discarded.
Other resources for this level of introductory study also include “Eucharistic Doctors: A Theological History” by Owen Cummings (Paulist Press), a historical tour de force from the early Fathers to Chrysostom, Ambrose and Augustine, to Aquinas through to Cardinal Robert Bellarmine and John Henry Newman.
Of a similar tack but a bit more accessible is “Our Daily Bread: Glimpsing the Eucharist Through the Centuries” by Ralph Wright, OSB (Paulist Press).
There have been recent reflections on the Mass that bring the Eucharist into closer view. Edward Sri’s “A Biblical Walk Through the Mass” (Ascension Press) is a wonderful journey for new Christian and the long-experienced as well. Following Dr. Sri’s lead, I had a group of RCIA catechumens stand around the altar to observe me and a priest in a simulated Mass, and it was very effective.
Bishop Robert Barron’s “The Mass” (wordonfire.org) is a comprehensive presentation, filmed before a gathering of Catholic priests, and is a resource easily used in a group study. Another helpful (and no technical expertise required, just reading and discussion) is “The Eucharist in Scripture” from the Little Rock Scripture Study (Liturgical Press). It is great for a small-group or class-sized study on the Eucharist.
For those looking to explore the topic more comprehensively, “The Eucharist in the New Testament and the Early Church” by Eugene LaVerdiere (Pueblo Books/Liturgical Press) goes deeply from the scriptures through Justin Martyr in the mid-second century A.D. For those whose theological German is rusty, we welcome the English translation of Helmut Hoping’s “My Body Given for You: History and Theology of the Eucharist” (Ignatius Press). The book firmly sets the Real Presence of Christ within the context of the liturgy of the Mass.
From the Upper Room to the teachings of Pope Francis, Lawrence Feingold’s monumental study “The Eucharist: Mystery of Presence, Sacrifice, and Communion” (Emmaus Academic) is one of the more significant deeper dives into the Eucharist. It is a biblical, patristic, medieval, modern and thoroughly Catholic study of the sacrament.
A “local” resource whose scholarly contributions continue to provide greater insights to both Catholic scholars and lay teachers is Dr. Brant Pitre, Distinguished Research Professor of Scripture at The Augustine Institute in Denver. His “Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist” (Doubleday) and “Jesus and the Last Supper” (Eerdmans) are but two recent studies that will expand our understanding. Dr. Pitre has published segments of these books on YouTube and through the Formed.org online streaming service popular in the diocese.
(For comments, reactions, or to suggest a book or resource that might be helpful for Catholics, please write Deacon Rick at email@example.com.)