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Rediscovering the reality of the Eucharist

This in-between time is a privileged time to re-catechize (or in some cases, catechize) the Church in the U.S. on the full, amazing, supernatural meaning of the Eucharist.

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Thinking out loud about a return to “Sunday normal,” a veteran pastor recently told me that he thought it would take one year for each month of lockdown/quarantine/ shelter-at-home for Mass attendance to return to where it was in February 2020. I said I hoped that people’s hunger for the Eucharist would bring them back more quickly, once they concluded that it was reasonably safe, for themselves and others, to do so. But whether “Sunday normal” returns this year or next year, the “Sunday normal” of February 2020 isn’t something for which we should easily settle. Because “Sunday normal” isn’t what it should be. This extended moment of Eucharistic fasting may be a providential moment to do something about that.

Why isn’t pre-pandemic “Sunday normal” the norm to which we should aspire? Because too few Catholics take the Sunday Eucharist seriously enough to participate in it weekly. And because too few Catholics understand just what the Eucharist is.

“Never let a good crisis go to waste” is a maxim that applies beyond politics. Applied to the Church, it suggests that this in-between time is a privileged time to re-catechize (or in some cases, catechize) the Church in the U.S. on the full, amazing, supernatural meaning of the Eucharist. If bishops and pastors turn their homiletic attention to that over the next weeks and months, re-enforcing with e-mailed catechetical materials what they say from the pulpit to those in church and those participating through live-streaming, crisis may be transformed into opportunity, such that the new “Sunday normal” is something better than the old.

A good way to jolt a diocese or a parish into paying attention on this subject is to cite a marvelous passage from a 1955 letter of Flannery O’Connor’s, describing a New York dinner party at which the aspiring young writer was introduced to the already-successful author Mary McCarthy:

I was once…taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater…She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say….Well, toward morning the conversation turned to the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of, but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.

How many Catholics today could make such a dramatic declaration that the Eucharist is what the Lord Jesus said it is: his very body and blood, through which we enter into communion with the Second Person of the Trinity? How many Catholics would be shaken by what an evangelical Protestant once said to a Catholic friend: “If I really believed, like you say you do, that Christ himself is in that tabernacle, I’d be crawling up the aisle on my hands and knees.” How many Catholics would be able to explain to that evangelical brother that, while the Eucharist is indeed what Christ said of it and to believe that is to be awe-struck, the Lord Jesus also invites us at Mass to a personal intimacy with him in which awe is transformed into love?

Modern Catholic theology has done important work on the meaning of symbols, which are not just signs conveying a message (“Stop that car here.”). Rather, symbols are more complex realities that, in various ways, embody what they communicate – like a wedding ring or a national flag. The dumbing down of the theology of symbols has, however, led to the unhappy situation in which perhaps a majority of Catholics do not believe that the Eucharist is what the Lord Jesus said he was giving us: himself, fully and unambiguously.

Believing that, Catholics would attend Sunday Mass in droves. Teaching the truth of the Eucharist is thus a task for this moment, turning plague time into a time of renewed faith in the wonder of what we are offered in holy communion.


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About George Weigel 296 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent book is The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), published by Ignatius Press.

8 Comments

  1. I have a solution for Catholics who do not believe the eucharist is the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Get Bishop Barron’s either DVD (preferred) or CD and listen to it! If after this wonderful experience, you can truthfully say you do NOT believe in the real presence, YOU ARE NOT PAYING ATTENTION! Try again, this time with prayer and attentiveness. You WILL believe, I guarantee it!

  2. “If I really believed, like you say you do, that Christ himself is in that tabernacle, I’d be crawling up the aisle on my hands and knees.”

    Why do we not, at a minimum, kneel to receive Our Lord? Perhaps the modern manner of receiving Our Lord (i.e., standing and in the hand) causes a decline in Eucharistic Faith?

  3. Watch the DVD, Science Tests Faith (Following the Blood Trail of the Blood of Christ). It’s amazing and very interesting!

  4. Flannery’s magnificent “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it” testament of faith [little of worth escapes G Weigel’s semi jaundiced critical eye] was repeated in varied form by converts on Marcus Grodi’s The Journey Home. Most confessed that reality was what convinced them, one an atheist then wandering Christian saying “I’ve got to have it!”. It’s a gift. I mean the faith that believes that many refuse. Who may question, Know that I am with you until the end of time are the words of Love itself? That the listener who can hear is beloved? That the Holy Eucharist is the living, risen Christ the heart and soul of belief and transformative remedy for moral leprosy is well documented, though buried in books, catechisms, inadequately preached by priests [Weigel’s timely point]. Christ’s flesh and blood [and entire human soul] formed the unity of Man and God. Mary’s flesh and blood enfleshing and nurturing with her blood and milk in containment as it were the Divine Second Person of the Trinity. He was born from her not in her, the latter a variation of Arianism. This supreme truth of our faith in the Real Presence was most eloquently defined by Saint Cyril of Alexandria at the Council of Ephesus 431 AD. Mary prefigured from all eternity as Mother of the Word made flesh was declared then and there Theotokos. Her pure flesh and blood assumed by her Son immaculate by necessity. Even our great Thomas Aquinas was unable to conceive God’s most beautiful creation was free from Original Sin. To be revealed centuries later. Although it could not even then be denied that she was Assumed into Heaven.

  5. Flannery had the gift of seeing things clearly and being able to communicate the truth that she saw.

    That’s why her words are always so startling. Truth is not amenable to convention and euphemism. It is frequently untidy. Even more frequently, it is unmannerly.

    Which is why truth — and why Flannery — makes us so uncomfortable.

  6. Have Catholics lost sight of the centrality of the Eucharistic presence of Christ to the faith? Under the Old Covenant God promised He would dwell among His people through the daily sacrifice forever. (Exodus 29:38-46) A couple of things have happened since then:

    1) God assumed human nature.

    2) The Old Covenant daily sacrifice was abolished.

    The daily sacrifice continues on though as God promised, its New Covenant fulfillment being the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, where God now dwells among His people in His humanity as well as in His divinity. Through the Old Covenant daily sacrifice the people would “know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them forth out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them.” (Exodus 29:46) Through the New Covenant daily sacrifice we know that the Lord our God has brought us forth from slavery to sin that He might dwell among us, within us – in His divinity AND in His humanity.

    Consider the words of St. Ignatius, who was a disciple of the Apostle John, in his epistle to the Smyrnaeans:

    … consider those who are of a different opinion with respect to the grace of Christ which has come unto us, how opposed they are to the will of God. They have no regard for love; no care for the widow, or the orphan, or the oppressed; of the bond, or of the free; of the hungry, or of the thirsty. They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again.

    This from one who had the chance to ask St. John what Christ meant when He said

    Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.
    – John 6:53-56

  7. Could it be that Catholics don’t understand, or if they do, fail to reflect upon what the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass makes present? Do they not understand that what is made present is to be taken personally?

    In the January 4th, 1945 entry in mystic Gabrielle Bossis’ spiritual diary, which can be read in a book entitled He and I, she records that during her Holy Hour, her mind was “filled with a hundred and one things.” Jesus said to her:

    Tell Me that all of it is for Me. I was for you at every moment of my life. I came for love; for love I saved you. I had you in mind in everything that went to make up my days. …

    Christ also had you and me in particular, and every child of God who would ever live on this planet in mind − individually − His entire life. In His divinity He could do that. He had you in mind one dark night in a garden when He

    … knelt down and prayed, “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground. And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping …
    – Luke 22:41-45

    In His divinity He knew everything, including the fact that He was going to be humiliated, mocked, scourged and subjected to the most brutal, horrific, agonizingly slow death the Romans knew how to inflict upon a criminal: crucifixion. In His humanity He prays to His Father, like any human would, to be delivered from this horror. We would have to doubt the humanity of Christ had He not done that. Yet in His divinity He knew what eternity would be like without you, the one He had in mind His entire life. The thought of losing you forever was more horrifying to Jesus than anything the Roman soldiers were going to do to Him. He resolved to do whatever it took to have you with Him forever.

    The resolve of a strong man is taken seriously, as when in a confrontation a man declares something like “Over my dead body.” The resolve of the God-Man was downright terrifying. This was demonstrated by the reaction of those who came to arrest Him when He declared “I am He.”

    Then Jesus, knowing all that was to befall him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When he said to them, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground.
    – John 18:4-6

    They drew back and fell to the ground. Christ’s demeanor and the tone of voice in which He had announced “I am He” revealed for an instant the divine “over my dead body” resolve, which sprang from His determination not to lose you. I think had He continued to reveal the divine determination to those who came to arrest Him they would have fled, and the Father’s will would not have been fulfilled. It seems He then hid it, but certainly it remained throughout the diabolical torture He endured. He chose to allow them to have what they wanted: His dead body. Jesus didn’t have to do that. Yet He knew that “over my dead body” was the only way to keep His precious you for Himself forever.

    At every Holy Mass Christ’s heroic act of love for you is made present. Does He find you, for all practical purposes, sleeping, like He found His disciples that night in garden? Are you just another member of the jostling crowd present at His crucifixion, oblivious to the significance of what is taking place in their midst? Or are you not there at all?

    Or are you there begging the angel that came to console Jesus in His agony in the garden to whisper in His ear that you are there, too, thanking Him and asking how you can repay Him? Do you take your place next to Mary at the foot of the cross, praying along with her, “Father, not my will, but thine, be done,” as a sword of sorrow pierces and slashes her immaculately innocent heart and soul? (Luke 2:35)

    Christ has loved you like no other can or will. He gave His life for you. He gives it to you again and again in His presence in the Eucharist, in His humanity and His divinity.

    Ingratitude is the ugliest of sins. Go to Mass and relieve the distress of His Heart at so much indifference to His love. Receive Him gratefully and lovingly in the Eucharist. Ask Him what you can do for Him.

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