On August 5th, Pew Research Center released a survey that found that a majority of Catholics don’t believe that Jesus Christ is truly present in the Holy Eucharist—Body, Blood, soul, and divinity. I became aware of this study the very next day via Bishop Robert Barron, who released a brief video of his initial reaction to the survey. He expressed anger and disappointment at himself and others who share in the task of teaching the faith in our parishes and schools. “This should be a wake-up call,” Bishop Barron said, “to all of us in the Church—priests, bishops, religious, laypeople, catechists, parents, everyone—that we need to pick up our game when it comes to communicating even the most basic doctrines of the Church.”
There has, understandably, been an explosion of Catholic commentary in the weeks following, with people doing their best to get their minds around the simple fact that many, if not most, Catholics in the U.S. just don’t believe in the Eucharist. The clarion call from most commentators was essentially all the same: better catechesis; no dumbing down the Faith; emphasis on core teachings; better liturgy, which translates to greater reverence for the Eucharist (receiving on the tongue, restore the altar-rails, get back to preaching hard truths, and so on).
Bishop Barron is correct when he says, “It represents a massive failure on the part of Catholic educators and catechists, evangelists and teachers.” The list can go on and on, some points (and solutions) more significant than others. There is, as far as I’m concerned, enough blame to go around that at some level—some levels more responsible than others, to be sure—we have all failed in this most basic task.
But what exactly is the task, again?
The answer to that question comes, I think, on the heels of a still more basic one: What exactly is the Eucharist? And no, it’s not quite enough to say, “It’s Jesus’ Body and Blood.”
I’m convinced, well aware that many others are not, that the ultimate answer is found in a comment made by Bishops Barron himself in his most recent video St. Paul’s Masterclass in Evangelization. It was a side comment, to be sure, but, as far as I’m concerned, it was the most powerful point his excellency has ever made. If one were to add up all the great points about this or that saint, this or that spiritual principle, this or that theological point made by Bishop Barron over the years, they would all still fall short in importance compare to these words:
When we lose the link between Jesus and Israel, we miss the point… Can we distill timeless truths from His teaching? Sure, sure. But what’s interesting about Jesus is, in His dying and rising, He is the fulfillment of all the promises made to Israel.
I have argued here and elsewhere that the Church can only make sense of its life and mission when it sees itself within the story of God, Israel, the nations, and the world. There are few more pressing words for the Church today than these sentences by Barron. And when it comes to the Eucharist, nothing else will do.
The Eucharist comes to us as the climax of the biblical narrative, as the climax of Jesus’ own ministry, as the climax of Jesus’ death and resurrection, which is itself framed by the story of Israel and the prophets. Thus, whatever else we want to say about the Eucharist (Transubstantiation being true, cf. CCC 1376), the one thing we must say is that it has something to do with Jesus’ death and resurrection, which is itself the fulfillment of the biblical narrative, of the story of Israel and Israel’s God, of the promises made to Abraham (Gen 12), and those promises as the solution to the problem of sin (Gen 3).
Transubstantiation is the greatest truth, but it is only great because it comes to us as the moment in which God has moved the story of Israel into its final stage. It is great, it is true, and it is truly Jesus’ flesh and blood, but only when it is placed within the framework of the story of Israel’s God, Israel’s Messiah, and Israel’s mission to the nations.
To tell another story is to get the Eucharist all wrong.
But if the Eucharist ushers the story into its final stage, which of course it does, then what exactly is this final stage? What, then, is the Eucharist for, and how does it do this? We must keep in mind that if the Eucharist comes to us as the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises, then the promises to Abraham themselves come to us as the climax to the story of creation begun in Genesis 1-2. In particular, however, we must keep in mind this: the promises to Abraham come to us as the answer to the problem of sin outlined in Genesis 3, spiraling out of control in the chapters that follow, creating friction and then division within the human family. God’s promise was simply that in and through Abraham’s seed, the Seed of Genesis 3 would be provided, and the human family would be renewed and reunited around and within Abraham’s family.
It is not a coincidence that Paul sees the Eucharistic flesh of Jesus creating the one family of Abraham that God had always promised (1 Cor 10:17). If one is tracking the story, as every Catholic is called to do, then the point about unity is not just a side comment by Paul. Unity, rather, is the Gospel message. And that message of unity is both contextualized by the story of Abraham and God’s promises to him and made a reality in those who eat Jesus’ flesh and drink His blood. All this, however, is for the purpose of restoring creation to its former glory. The point about going to heaven when we die (which, interestingly, is not explicitly talked about in the New Testament) is true, but the authors of the New Testament, not least Jesus Himself, were looking beyond heaven to a union of heaven and earth (this, of course, is what the resurrection of the body is all about). As Paul states in his epistle to the Ephesians:
For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Eph 1:9-10)
Paul was mostly concerned with God’s rescue operation for the creation through Israel. And that operation is picked up and made active in the Abrahamic promises finding their fulfillment in Jesus.
Without that story, as Bishop Barron says, we miss the point about Jesus. But the sharp edge of that point is made that much sharper with the recent Pew Research center statistics: without the story of Israel, the Eucharist can’t (and won’t) make the sense it does.
Oftentimes the solution to the crisis of faith, and in this case the specific crisis of faith in Our Lord’s real presence in the Eucharist, is to “do things better”, or to have better training for catechists, or to preach the hard truths of the faith. What is too often left out as a solution, never-mind as the solution, is the story of Scripture itself, in and through which all these things make sense.
Does it really matter all that much that we “do things better” if the things we are doing has little or no reference at all to the story of Israel and Israel’s relationship to the nations and the world? Is not the telling of the story of Abraham the one thing we should be ‘doing better’? It is the story of the Bible that gives the Eucharist the meaning that it has. What does it mean to train better catechists if they aren’t trained in the story of the sacred page, in and through which the Eucharist makes the sense it does? As far as preaching ‘hard truths’, well, that’s been a given for some time now. Yet, the hard truths themselves make the sense they do when framed within the larger story of Israel, Israel’s God, Israel’s Messiah, and the nations. For those who still believe, the task is ours for the taking. And if we are to take up that task, then it is to that story that we must go.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!