There was a very interesting article in The New York Times two weeks ago in which journalists Elizabeth Dias and Ruth Graham reported on the Eucharist (“Beyond the Politics of Communion, an Ancient Holy Ritual”, 6/27/21). The impetus for the piece was the recent meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, at which the bishops discussed the possibility of issuing a teaching document about the Most Blessed Sacrament, something they last did in 2006. The article noted that Sunday Mass attendance among Catholics has been declining, and that there seems to be widespread confusion about what the Eucharist is. The authors cited a statistic from a Pew Research poll that found only 30% of Catholics in the United States believe that the Eucharist is more than a mere symbol, that it truly is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. This is certainly troubling news, and it is unclear why such a relatively small number of Catholic believe the Eucharist is what the Church has always taught it to be – which is what Our Lord told us it is, when He said, “This is my Body.”
The article included beautiful accounts of Eucharistic devotion among the faithful. It described a missionary priest’s experience of saying Mass under a tree in Kenya. Those in attendance, he said, carefully moved the portable altar as Mass progressed in order to keep the Eucharist in the shade. They did this because “they wanted to show the reverence and respect to Jesus.” The journalists also interviewed a man who has used millions of dollars that he won in a lottery to fund the construction of a series of adoration chapels as a way of promoting devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. Explaining his decision, he said: “If you’re receiving the Eucharist, you’re saying, ‘I believe this is the true presence… This is for us the apex.’” The article included the testimony of a woman who refrained from receiving the Eucharist for almost a decade because she and her second husband had married outside the Church. Not being able to join others in receiving Communion was something that filled her with great sadness. Then, with the help of her parish priest, her first marriage was declared null and she was able to have her marriage blessed. With that, she began receiving Communion again. “Recalling her first return to the Eucharist still makes her tear up,” the article notes. Finally, there was the story of a young mother’s experience of making a visit with her husband to their church after learning she’d had a miscarriage. “We were only there 10, 15 minutes maybe, but just to really feel like you were just sitting at the feet of Jesus, and just pouring it all out.”
What also made the article unusual was its simple – and pretty accurate – description of some important theological realities. “The [Eucharist] is a holy mystery. It is the most personal and intimate way Catholics connect with God and one another, part of the weekly or even daily routine…. [It] is more than a set of theological beliefs. It wraps the divine and the human all into one, connecting the Church and God across time and space.” Indeed, we confess that the fullness of Christ’s divinity and humanity are present in the Eucharist. To receive Him in Communion is never an individualistic act, but the way in which we enter into deeper unity as the Church with Christ and each other. As members of the Church we are never closer to God and each other as when we encounter Him and worship together at Mass. Improbably, it seems that this article from The New York Times has discerned something true about the current challenges we face. Renewal in the Church, including our parish, is intrinsically tied to a renewed understanding of what the Eucharist is. Greater understanding of the Eucharist will transform all of our relationships because it will move us to love God, the Church, and our neighbor much more.