by Bishop Robert Reed
The news last August that growing numbers of Catholics no longer believe that the Holy Eucharist is Jesus Christ naturally led many commentators to wonder how we can reignite people’s faith in this profound mystery again. How can we reverse the trend, which the Pew Research Center reported now stands at only about a third of Catholics believing that the Blessed Sacrament is truly the Body and Blood of Christ?
While I would agree with many commentators who say we need far better catechesis and more beautifully and reverently celebrated liturgies, I would prefer to focus on the Catholics who do believe. I would humbly suggest that iffaithful Catholics strive to deepen their faith, it will go a long way in drawing the skeptical back, with the help of the Holy Spirit.
In short, we need to pray and witness to others. What is the state of our faith in the Eucharist, and is it evident to others that we believe? I’m not saying we have to wear our religion on our sleeves, but let’s ask ourselves: Do our lives revolve around this central mystery of our faith? In short, are we living “Eucharistic lives”? If so, our faith will “show” naturally, and others will come to understand that Catholics are indeed Eucharistic people.
We have legions of models of people living Eucharistic lives in the centuries preceding us. Just think of how the events of the first Holy Thursday and Good Friday have been handed down from one generation to the next.
“Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19), Christ said at the Last Supper, only hours before offering his own body up on the cross. The apostles remained faithful to that command. In turn, their followers continued to celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy, “doing this” in remembrance of Jesus. Christ promised to be with us always (see Matthew 28:20), and through the fidelity of generations of disciples, he has indeed remained with us in the “breaking of the bread” (Acts 2:42). When you attend Mass, you are following in that line of disciples.
The early martyrs of the Church must have had such a strong faith in this “Emmanuel,” a name for Christ which means “God is with us.” Why else would they continue to believe and practice in the face of the various persecutions that took place from Roman times onward?
Just in the past century, we’ve had a number of martyrs —both those who died for the faith and those who suffered greatly for it —whose faith in the Eucharist has led them to persevere.
I’m thinking in particular of Vietnamese Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan. Ven. Van Thuan was arrested by the communist authorities and spent 13 years in prison, nine of them in solitary confinement. Ven. Van Thuan would not accept that the harsh conditions of prison prevented him from celebrating Mass. He had no church, but his palm could serve as an altar. A crumbled host and a few drops of wine smuggled in were the materials he would consecrate. And Christ would be with him.
Would such a disciple put his life on the line for a mere symbol?
And so, might we think of ways we can witness to this faith for the benefit of others? In our country, we are not facing an atheistic regime such as the one Cardinal Van Thuan faced. But in a multitude of little ways, our culture and society try to pretend that the supernatural does not exist. These are opportunities for us to witness.
Let’s consider what has become of Sunday in our culture, because that is the day most people associate with church. Even those who are mere “cultural Catholics” have a vague idea that you’re supposed to go to Church on that day.
But if we regard that Sunday obligation merely as one activity in an otherwise busy day, if we think of it as something we need to “get out of the way” before moving on to things like shopping or going to the beach or the movies, we are not really living a Eucharistic life. It’s not my purpose here to condemn people for going shopping or going to the movies, and I’m not suggesting that we spend the entire day in church. But I do hope that we would all come to see what our priorities as disciples of Jesus should be.
Look at it this way. We try not to getto the movies late, because we don’t want to miss the opening scenes. Do we take that attitude in regard to Mass? Or regarding shopping: If we’re in the market for an expensive, important item, we do our homework and investigate the competing brands andtry to find the one that has the best quality and will give the best value for our money. If we can take the time for that, do we “do our homework” before Mass, too, perhaps by reading some spiritual writings or studying the day’s Scripture readings ahead of time so that our hearts and minds are fertile ground to receive the Word of God when we hear it proclaimed in church?
Again, we try to look our best if we’re invited to a special dinner. Do we strive to put on our best garments (a clean soul) when we go to the Banquet of the Lord? In other words, if we are not in the state of grace before Communion, do we go to confession and try to make sure that we are?
The disciples of Jesus who faced persecution still strove to “do this in memory of me.” Their lives provide the dramatic witness that inspire our faith today. But countless generations of our fathers and mothers in the faith also persevered in leading Eucharistic lives, attending Mass and striving to receive the Eucharist worthily —weekly and evendaily, in spite of the temptations of doubt or the million-and-one things in life competing for their attention.
Why? Because they knew that this is where they would meet, know, and have an intimate relationship with the Lord, and at the end of their lives they could face death with confidence based on what he told his first followers: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day” (John 6:54).