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Bishop Hying on the ‘crisis of understanding’ on the Real Presence

Bishop Donald J. Hying of Madison, WI, says Catholics should be ‘cut to the heart’ when they realize the depth of Christ’s love for us in the Eucharist.

Bishop Donald J. Hying elevates the host at his Mass of installation as the fifth bishop of the Diocese of Madison in June 2019. (Photo: Joseph M. Hanneman)

MADISON, Wisconsin — The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic that prompted the shutdown of public celebrations of Holy Mass for more than two months has strengthened the belief in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist among some Catholics, Bishop Donald J. Hying says, but there is “clearly a crisis” in the Church over this core teaching.

“There’s a crisis of understanding and faith regarding the Eucharist,” said Hying, the fifth bishop of the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin’s state capital. “That’s borne out by the fact that in the pre-COVID church on any given Sunday, 70 percent of our baptized Catholics were not at Mass.”

Public Masses were suspended in the Diocese of Madison from March 16 until the last weekend in May due to concerns over spread of the Wuhan coronavirus. Masses resumed under limitations on attendance, which are still in force. Hying said he got a lot of feedback from the faithful during the pandemic, from those who felt “a physical aching for the Eucharist” to those who seemed content to watch livestream Masses from home.

“There’s also people that I think kind of settled into this comfortability of watching Mass online and making a spiritual communion and essentially saying, ‘That’s just as good.’ ” Hying said in an interview with Catholic World Report. “It really underlies for me the radical need for catechesis, certainly on the Eucharist, on also the sacrificial nature of the Mass, but just Catholicism in general.”

A survey released by the Pew Research Center in August 2019 suggested 70 percent of self-identified Catholics don’t believe that the Eucharist is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ. “Just one-third of U.S. Catholics agree with their church that Eucharist is body, blood of Christ,” the headline on Pew’s survey article read. The survey received wide coverage in the mainstream media.

“It’s clearly a crisis, regardless of the accuracy of the numbers,” Bishop Hying said. “I’d be curious to know how many of that seventy percent actually went to Mass last Sunday, number one. Number two, how was the question phrased? So often how the question is framed is going to dictate the answer. So I’d be a little bit suspicious about the ironclad accuracy of that statistic.”

According to the Pew survey, 69 percent of Catholics believe the bread and wine remain mere symbols of Christ, while 31 percent believe that at consecration, the substance of the bread and wine changes into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ. However, among those who attend Mass at least once a week, the survey found 63 percent believe in the Real Presence, while 37 percent believe the bread and wine are symbols. For those who attend Mass between once a month and once a year, only 25 percent believe in the Real Presence. That figure drops to 13 percent for those who seldom or never attend Holy Mass, the Pew survey found.

“My mantra is always if you understand the Eucharist and believe the Eucharist, there’s no way you would not be at Mass every week, if not every day,” Bishop Hying said. “If you truly understood and believe what the Eucharist is, Who the Eucharist is, you would be there.”

A 2008 survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University found much stronger belief in the Real Presence than shown in the Pew survey 11 years later. The CARA survey found among all self-identified Catholics, nearly six in 10 believe Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, while just over 40 percent believe the Eucharist is symbolic of Christ. However, among weekly Mass goers, 91 percent said they believe in the Real Presence and only 9 percent viewed the Eucharist as symbolic.

Hying said he wonders how many Catholics struggle with the concept of Christ present in the consecrated hosts and wine because it seems “implausible.”

“It seems too good to be true, that the Lord would give us this precious gift. Part of coming to faith in the Eucharist is getting over … that whole dynamic that this just seems implausible,” Bishop Hying said. “It’s almost too good to be true, that the Lord could love me that much. If we could impress upon our people the Eucharist is the deepest expression that Christ has for us. John Vianney put it well. He said if there is a more beautiful, efficacious gift that the Lord could have given us besides the Eucharist, He would have given it to us. That sums it up.”

Hying said Catholics need to see their religious practice not as a heavy obligation or something done out of fear or simply because Church law says so. “People’s hearts and attitudes are changed when they come to realize in a profound way the depths of God’s love for them and that their religious practice becomes their response to that,” Bishop Hying said. “Jesus’ death on the Cross and His Resurrection demands a response from us. So that going to Mass, receiving the Eucharist, going to confession, embracing a life of prayer, doing acts of charity; all that in a sense is our response to the graciousness of God’s invitation to us.”

Bishop Hying pointed to two moments in scripture that demonstrate the response when God’s truth is revealed. The first is St. John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness, and the other is St. Peter proclaiming the kerygma on Pentecost morning. In both cases, scripture says the crowds were cut to the heart.

“When the love of God is proclaimed, when the power of Christ is offered efficaciously, that’s going to cut us to the heart, the way it’s going to demand a response from us,” Hying said. “In both cases, the crowds were saying to John and Peter respectively, ‘This message is so overwhelming, it has upended all of my sense of what my life was about and I need to do something about this.’ When people are cut to the heart, they stop seeing their faith response as this obligatory fulfillment of a law and they start seeing it as this is my way of generously loving God, who has lavishly loved me.”

A good example of a “maximalist” response to Christ, Bishop Hying said, is found in chapter 12 of John’s Gospel. Lazarus’ sister Mary brought precious nard worth 300 days wages to anoint the feet of Christ. Judas Iscariot protested, questioning the rationality of the expense. Mary was the maximalist. “Once your heart is there, the rest of you is going to follow,” Bishop Hying said. “So I think the challenge for priests especially is how do we move our people so they’re not just going through the motions? That this faith becomes my discipleship response to the love of Christ.”

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About Joseph M. Hanneman 101 Articles
Joseph M. Hanneman writes from Madison, Wisconsin.


  1. With sincere thanks, Peter, for your attachment of the Seattle Archbishop’s Pastoral Letter. It is well worth the time it takes to read it and, even better, worth sharing. It speaks so beautifully of Our Blessed Lord and what He intends for us to know, to do and to be as we celebrate His sacrifice. It is THE core of our faith and we are sadly ignorant of so much of this Divine food.

  2. We are a Church of signs and symbols. When I was an alter boy in the 1950’s, before communion we would flip a linen cloth over the alter rail for extra protection. I would hold the patten under the person’s chin who was receiving communion on the tongue. In all my years of serving I never saw part of the host large enough to see fall on the patten, but the symbolism was there – we can’t take a chance on the host falling to the floor. People knelt at the communion rail to receive the host. There are those who say that standing is a sign of respect, and that is true. But, you can respect a symbol. Kneeling is a sign of adoration, and you adore the real thing. Only the priest’s consecrated hands touched the host. Compare these things to current practice.
    The world can influence what we believe to be moral or immoral. But the world did not cause us to loose believe in the real presence. We did that to ourselves. And, in my opinion, no amount of pastoral letters will affect our beliefs on the issue of the real presence. For one thing, they are not read. Only a change in practice will change our belief.

    • An excellent article about a fine bishop. How long, I wonder, will we have to endure the very UN-Catholic pews cut off, sitting 6ft apart, and forced to receive Him, Who causes the angels to fall on their knees in adoration, standing and in our hands? Where is the reverence? This is a terrible price to pay.And not only will the Church pay as people drift away, but souls who love our Lord will die of starvation.

    • I agree emphatically !! Until there is consistent sacred preparation of the altar, followed by sacred consecration of bread / wine, and reception on the tongue, while kneeling before the altar (if able, standing humbly before it if unable) will change the perception of those who believe the Eucharist is only a symbol. Homilies on historical Catholic teaching would also clarify unbelief. Many priests today do not believe themselves so are not going to transmit sacred truth. The disbelief is closely related to inadequate seminary education and catechesis. Catholics who have been exposed to Jesus own comments in John 6 on His true presence should be convinced.

      How often is this addressed in homilies? Heaven forbid, that might also require being in a state of grace to receive Communion and a prior confession. When the Real Presence was accepted by 99% of Catholics, people were lined up at the confessionals. That is non-existent today unless one attends the Extraordinary Form of the Mass which is a rare choice in the Catholic churches. In other words, the correction in belief must come from Rome, pastors and parents of upcoming generations.

  3. I followed the letter of Reverend Etienne of Seattle very devotional and well written about The Holy Eucharist God bless you Reverend Etienne Kindly pray for my husband Frans Sammut from Malta Europe who is suffering from Cancer spreading through his body we are enduring the most difficult times of our lives thank you for your support and prayers

  4. As someone who attends daily Mass I believe more teaching has to come from our Priests on the subject. An awful lot of people DO believe in the Real Presence. I am encouraged by the dead silence I hear in church during the Consecration, when people’s attention is totally focused. But equally, many people do NOT believe. Its unfortunately true that since the Bishops decision to bow to the wishes of the govt and close, they opened a can of worms. Many people DO now think watching Mass on TV is enough. In my diocese, the obligation to attend Sunday Mass is still suspended, even though the churches have re-opened. Numbers of those people staying home were disaffected by the Bishops agreement to close the faithful off from the sacraments for an indefinite time frame. Betrayal would be the word for what they felt. That will be hard to overcome. Expressing the church’s belief in the reality of Christ in the Eucharist may be a way to draw these wounded people back. Its worth a try.

    • You poor people like sheep without a Shepard, it been a joy live streaming the mass I’ve and many more have been and are more appreciated the sacraments we can not have or receive and participate in. The missions in the third world this is their normal it has been a joy to share in their life style without the freely available access to the sacraments.

  5. When Jesus said at the last supper which he had celebrated many times before ,do this in memory of me what did he mean , no frequently was suggested or mentioned as their was no need . The fact they where celebrating an annual feast was enough in its self. Remember Jesus said my ways are not your ways or my thoughts are not like your thoughts.

  6. You miss the point on why people do not attend Mass.
    It first started with the Liturgy. 50 years ago taking a lot of the precious Liturgy from the Canon, for a Traditional Respectful Mass it takes 30 minutes+ with the Novus ordo Mass it takes 5 min.the clergies over the years have done this to us…The Traditional group has a Missal to learn from and to follow the Mass. The Mass and our Faith was never taught to us, we were taught how to memorize not to understand why to attend Mass, why to Pray, all the what, who and why. Why did we not learn from the Bible and encouraged to read it?
    To sum it all up, we do not know our Faith nor why we should attend Mass.
    The other part the clergy have lost their faith and their belief in and have left the rest to wallow…
    If the Catholic church does not go back to the Traditional way they will lose…Traditional people will go underground and win because we believe…

  7. There needs to be a revival of The Real Presence Eucharist Miracles Exhibit in every diocese and a rotation of this exhibit at ever parish in each diocese

  8. “Bishop Donald J. Hying of Madison, WI, says Catholics should be ‘cut to the heart’ when they realize the depth of Christ’s love for us in the Eucharist.”

    And I say bishops should be “cut to the heart” when they realize what they did by denying Eucharist to their people for so long.

    If a real shepherd did not feed his sheep or tend to them for months he would be fired, and possibly even prosecuted for animal cruelty, yet these false shepherds are still here…

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