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For Your Weekend: Believing in the Real Presence

Caitlin Bean

Dig Deeper into Sunday’s Gospel: Read John 6:51–58

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Eucharist is described as the “source and summit of the Christian life.”[1] It is the beginning of our spirituality, the fount from which our faith flows. Simultaneously, it is the highest point of our faith, the apex to which our whole life should be directed and the ultimate goal of our deepest desires. And yet, a 2019 Pew Research Center study found that only 31% of American Catholics believe in the Real Presence of the Eucharist.[2] In other words, 69% of self-described Catholics do not believe that the Eucharist is the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus, but rather think that the bread and wine are just that—bread and wine, mere symbols of a beautiful idea. Interestingly, the majority of people who believe that the Eucharist is a symbol did not know the Church’s teaching on transubstantiation—the belief that through the words of consecration, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the whole substance of the bread and wine are changed into the real presence of the body and blood of Jesus.[3]

Upon hearing those statistics, what is your reaction? What do you feel? Can you relate? 

When I first read this study, I was saddened. However, I was not entirely shocked because we live in a culture that often idolizes science. In fact, a recent study reveals that 70% of emerging young adult Catholics in America today believe there cannot be any harmony or conversation between science and religion.[4]

It is not surprising, therefore, that one of the greatest mysteries of our faith—in which we believe that the humble substances before our eyes have been transformed into Jesus while remaining scientifically unchanged—is rejected by many people. But this rejection, doubt, and disbelief are nothing new. Even without all the scientific knowledge we have today, the people of Jesus’ time also struggled with this teaching, turning away from Him and returning to their former way of life. 

Lest we become like the crowd, let us pay particular attention to tomorrow’s gospel. Here, we find ourselves at the end of the bread of life discourse (John 6:32-58), in which Jesus teaches that He is the bread from heaven, given to us by God for eternal life. In no uncertain terms, Jesus makes it explicit that this bread is His flesh, and unless we “eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,” we “do not have life within” (John 6:53). 

Horrified at the idea of eating His flesh (for the Torah forbid eating bloodied animal meat, making eating human flesh and drinking human blood unimaginable [5]), the Jews begin to argue among themselves, asking how this is possible (John 6:52). Jesus does not relinquish His statement or soften His words. Instead, He boldly insists on this truth, reiterating the necessity of consuming His “flesh” and “blood” four more times in this short passage. 

To reduce the Eucharist to a symbol or metaphor would be to entirely dismiss these words spoken to us by Christ. In order to dwell with Jesus, we must receive Him in His body and blood (John 6:56). The reception of the Eucharist, made possible through Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself on the cross, allows us to share in His divine life and be transformed, even more, into His image.

Before converting to Catholicism, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton wrestled with the teachings of the Church on the Real Presence. Nevertheless, she found herself drawn to this teaching and began to think the Catholic Church might indeed be correct. In a letter to her daughter, Rebecca, she questioned whether Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist was more improbable than the other things she had come to believe: “How did he breathe my soul in me, and how and how a hundred other things I know nothing about [emphasis added].”[6]

I would be remiss if I did not share that in my faith life, I have also struggled at times to comprehend how it can be that Jesus is present in a tiny white wafer. Whenever I find myself doubting, I pray for childlike faith and recite the words of the man who fell before Jesus’ feet, asking for a miracle while also confessing, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). 

Like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, I realize there are so many things in this life I do not understand. Indeed, God’s wisdom and power are far greater than any knowledge I will ever possess. 

One of my favorite Scripture verses occurs a few verses after tomorrow’s gospel ends. Shocked by the words Jesus has spoken, people begin to walk away. Jesus turns to His disciples and asks them if they will also leave. And Peter—ever so humble, honest, fallen, and yet full of love for our Lord—says, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). 

Yes, Lord, to whom else shall we go? We believe. Help our unbelief. 

Food for thought or journaling…

Take time to silence yourself and ask Jesus to reveal to you any area you doubt the power of His presence, even in the slightest way. Perhaps it is a doubt of the mystery of the Eucharist, maybe it is doubt in His ability to offer you peace, or are you questioning whether you can fully depend on Him? Whatever it is, ask Jesus to speak truth into your darkness and to grant you the gift of faith. 

Anima Christi
Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, inebriate me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O Good Jesus, hear me.
Within your wounds hide me.
Permit me not to be separated from you.
From the wicked foe, defend me.
At the hour of my death, call me
and bid me come to you
That with your saints I may praise you
Forever and ever. Amen.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 1997), #1324.
[2] Gregory A. Smith, “Just One-Third of U.S. Catholics Agree with Their Church That Eucharist Is Body, Blood of Christ,” Pew Research Center (August 5, 2019): https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2019/08/05/transubstantiation-eucharist-u-s-catholic.
[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 1997), #1376.
[4] Nicolette Manglos-Weber and Christian Smith, “Understanding Former Young Catholics: Findings from a National Study of American Emerging Adults,” The McGrath Institute for Church Life (2014): https://mcgrath.nd.edu/assets/170517/icl_former_catholics_final_web.pdf.
[5] Francis Martin and William M. Wright IV, The Gospel of John: Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), 128.
[6] Catherine O’Donnel, Elizabeth Seton: American Saint (Ithaca, NY: Three Hills, 2015), 136.

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