In a recent article, Fr. Dwight Longenecker indicated that half of the U.S. Catholics think that the Eucharist is only symbolic. However, the Pew Research Center’s data reveals a worse figure, that only 31% actually believe in the Church’s teaching regarding transubstantiation. Even though these data points make me really sad, I can honestly say that I am not surprised because I can see the confusions and doubts my own priestly ministry. Due to many factors, ranging from failed catechetical formation to poor and invalid theologies, many people only think of the Eucharist as something symbolic. I would like to offer my personal reflection as a Catholic and a priest as to why we have failed to pervade the necessary message and belief to many fellow Catholics.
First of all, I think many of us are guilty of losing our “first love.” (cf. Revelation 2:4) Many of us forgot the joy when we received the Lord Jesus Christ for the first time. Therefore, over time, communion just becomes something we regularly do when we go to Mass. It is so easy for us to just go through the motion just because we see everyone around us doing the same thing! Hence, when we no longer receive the King of the universe with joy and devotion, our hearts become hardened and filled with calluses. If we have never spent enough time to develop our personal relationship with Christ, really paying attention and learning about the Real Presence, we simply treat communion like how we tried to finish the checked box as to get our “graduation” from First Communion classes. For many people, their first communions were simply a nice experience; hence, regular communions when going to church becomes a redundant part of the worship experience. Numerous pictures were taken, great party time with the family, they got dressed nicely, but nothing changed because they never understood the reason why they receive Him and how the Eucharist is the manifestation of divine love for all of us. Perhaps many never really loved, or many of us just forgot our first love; but if we do not understand why and who we receive in communion, we will end up treating the beautiful act of receiving Him like everything else, boring, redundant, or simply as a liturgical symbolism.
In Catholic catechesis, preparation for First Communion goes hand in hand with First Reconciliation. This combination of catechetical formation is supposed to remind us that we have to be free of mortal sins in order to receive Him worthily. Yet, it is sad to also say that many young people stopped going to confession after their first time for many years. Perhaps many just went through the motion to finish the requirements and get their pictures taken after their first confession. They fell out of regular reconciliations because their family never cared to practice this beautiful sacrament as a family.
In the world where personal accountability and responsibility is no longer important, it is so easy for us to think that we have never done anything gravely wrong if we never break any civil law or get caught hurting anybody. We tend to connect sin on a humanistic and legalistic standpoint but not from the point of faithful love. We tend to excuse ourselves that God knows our weaknesses but we do not like to frequent the humble act of confessing our sins in the confessional. It is too easy for our culture to find excuses to not assume personal accountability based on genuine self-giving love. We are scared to be honest and transparent in front of God and His representatives because we do not want to face the reality and consequences of sin that affect others. It is easier to put the blame on other things or people as to excuse ourselves that “I’m not that bad!” or that “God understands!”
Only when we lovingly and humbly receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation can our love for the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist be enflamed by true devotion and personal love. I believe there is an integral connection between these two sacraments in the life of faith. We cannot treat the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ as something symbolic if we know, understand, encounter, and love Him through the other sacraments, in prayers, and in our very own lives of faith. The Lord Jesus Christ has never given us anything symbolic, He has always been real and radical in loving us. The Savior of the world never gives us something half-hearted or lesser than Himself because He truly loves us. Only God who is so passionately in love with us could ever think of an uncomprehensible and humble way to continue to give Himself to us on earth after His ascension to heaven.
The Eucharist is Jesus Christ! The only reason why we call this profound reality a sacrament because His divinity is hidden behind ordinary forms of bread and wine. Our human senses cannot comprehend this radical love of the Savior who chose to give Himself to us in an incomprehensible way. Even though our senses see, feel, taste, and hear of something so ordinary (whether they are ordinary words coming out of a priest’s mouth or what is conceived as ordinary bread and wine), the Lord gives Himself totally and completely to us — Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity — hidden behind ordinary forms and means. The Eucharist is the real reminder that we have to seriously take Him as He is, as He has promised and chose to give Himself to us. We have to believe Him with His very words even though our feeble minds failed to comprehend Hid radical, divine, and humble love at times. (cf. John 6)
One of the clearest points to determine whether a Catholic believes in the Most Blessed Sacrament is how they live their sacramental life. If one only think that the Eucharist is symbolic, they will receive it at every Mass without the need for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. If everyone is receiving the Most Precious Body and Blood of Christ regularly without truly reflecting on their way of life and state of grace, they will see communion as something to be done when going to church. They go to receive because everyone else is doing it. They are too scared of being judged by others if they do not receive so they just go up like those around them, not preparing themselves properly to receive the King of the universe. Think about it… There is something wrong when the line to communion is longer than the line of people wanting to go to confession!
I am not here to judge whether one is in the state of grace or not. I am not trying to shame people in going to confession regularly. It should be a natural desire to go to confession regularly, especially when we committed mortal sins since our sins rupture our relationship with God, ourselves, and those who are around us. As we become more in tune with our spiritual lives, we want to avoid the near occasions of sin; and if we have failed, we try to confess our sins and get ourselves reconciled with God. Hence, what I am sharing with you is not anything burdensome or earth-shattering, something special for a few or only reserved for the holy people, they are simply the basic principles and foundations of love and respect for the Almighty. If we do not see ourselves needing to mend, be reconciled, and confess our faults to God, we continue to look at all things sacred as symbolic and suggestive. When we do not have tender hearts to be in touch with what displeases God, we risk the error of profaning the sacred by doing things as to make us feel good or be accepted instead of being honest, properly preparing ourselves, and lovingly receive Him. When we get too worried about what other people are thinking of us, we lose focus on the One who truly loves us and only do things to fit what we want or to be portrayed in certain ways to others.
This unreflective redundancy perhaps happens because many people have become too preoccupied with day-to-day, lesser, worldly, or mundane things; therefore, they have not understood nor taken their personal and proper places in the life of faith seriously. Since many people have become so self-focused and absorbed in their own little worlds, we have lent our hands into creating a world of more subjective relativism where there are no real objective truths. This causes everyone to think that they know anything and everything better than what the Magisterium of the Church has to say. In other words, we think we know best and would rather stick to our personal interpretations instead of what has been handed on to us from ages past. We rather stick to what sounds “true” and appealing instead of objective moral, eternal, and divinely-revealed truths taught by Holy Scriptures and Tradition. Hence, many people receive the Eucharist unworthily because they no longer know, understand, or care about what is truly right and wrong, not confessing their mortal sins and continue to allow their venial ones to build up like calluses each and every day. All the things that we experience nowadays stem from our lack of genuine transparency, honesty, and humility on our part to be vulnerable and true to the Almighty and His representatives.
Furthermore, while I agree that it is important to focus on the community of faith in order to nourish the sense of belonging and welcoming; if we lose focus on the sacramental life, we end up losing our very Catholic identity. As a priest, I want to make my parishes into loving and caring communities where believers live out what they have received at Masses. I want my communities to love and care for one another, but I also realize that none of it would be possible without the Most Blessed Sacrament. We are all human beings, and no matter how pure and good our intentions might be to love, we will end up failing to love each other one way or another. Without the Eucharist as the center of our life, it is very easy for the Church to become a community of like-minded people, coming together because there is something common, attractive, appealing, or because we find each other amicable. Yet, all good feelings or attractions are short-lived because we are all broken, fragile, and fall short to love in many different ways! Without the genuine understanding and love for the Most Blessed Sacrament, it is very easy for us to jump from a denomination to another or simply choose one faith community after another as long we like the message or the people surrounding us for the time being. Only in recognizing that the Eucharist is truly Jesus, we can never put into practice radical, self-giving, and faithful love that continues to choose to give life when it is challenging and hurtful.
I can spend a lot of time trying to tell you what the Church Fathers teach, and how from of old Christians always believe in in the Real Presence. I can tell you how Satan and his demons and followers know and profess the Most Blessed Sacrament to be true toward the point that they want to steal it for their perverted rituals in profaning the sacred even though many rejected and do not believe. Nevertheless, nothing makes sense if we do not have the right understanding of communion. Who we are as the Church is and can only be defined and nourished by our communion with God!
Too often times, we only like to focus on the tangible communion with one another based on some types of human connection. Nevertheless, our Christian identity cannot just be human-based or connection-based, it has to be Christocentric. What we have properly prepared and lovingly received at Mass nourishes us in our human relationship with one another. The lovingly and humble receiving of the Eucharist at communion strengthens and defines our Christocentric communion with one another as believers. In the proper communion of the Body and Blood of Christ, we reaffirm our commitment to love one another as the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church.
Therefore, in the world where many people would rather profane the sacred (the act of sacrilege) than to acknowledge and conforming our lives to the Truth, we are called to believe and love the Lord Jesus Christ more passionately, the One who has given Himself to us in the Eucharist. It is easier to treat the Most Blessed Sacrament as a symbol and do it “because everyone else is doing it!” It is easier to receive without proper understanding and preparation when we do not have to be honest and personally accountable for our actions in receiving the true Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Savior. All of these failures in our understanding in the life of faith require the change of heart and conversion of soul that has to begin with how we want to live our lives as to receive and love Him genuinely, the One who has given us everything from His own self-giving love.
I would like to end this reflection by using the words of the poster I found hanging outside of the Perpetual Adoration Chapel in Patzun, Guatemala.
I saw the poster when I was in there on a mission trip. Even though I captured it as a photo, the words on it captured my heart as they beautifully expressed the loving reality of what I am trying to pervade to you in this reflection! It was written in Spanish that, “Once you understand the Eucharist, you cannot reject the Church. It is not because the Church will not let you, but because your heart will not let you.”
I hope and pray every day that Catholics truly understand and believe the real love that Savior has for us so we properly prepare and lovingly receive Him with our whole heart. It is sad when our religious formation and education, our liturgical celebrations, prayers, and life of faith failed to pervade this wondrous love and humbling reality. It is sad when many of our believers come to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the real unbloodied offering and reliving of the salvific and redemptive act of self-giving love of the Lord Jesus Christ, and only see the Eucharist as something symbolic. Therefore, let us try our best to look beyond what our human senses can comprehend and see the Lord whom our heart loves, desires, and longs for each and every day. If we love Him, we yearn to prepare ourselves worthily and lovingly as to receive Him with our whole heart. And we understand this, we will know deep within ourselves the joy that nothing in this world can ever describe and nothing can take it away from us.
“O Sacrament most holy, o Sacrament divine. All praise and all thanksgiving, be every moment thine.”