19th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
To the great shame of every bishop, priest, deacon, and Catholic catechist in the nation, a recent survey revealed that fully 66% of Catholics either do not know what the Church teaches about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, or do not accept the teaching. There are varying degrees of disbelief described in the survey and a catalog of the various alternative beliefs about the RP – but it's all too embarrassing and painful to talk about from the pulpit. If you've ever wondered whether or not Catholic catechesis in the last five decades has been an unmitigated disaster, wonder no more. This survey reveals a level of ignorance and infidelity unmatched in modern Catholic history. If the survey had revealed that 66% of Catholic didn't understand the delicacies involved in obtaining an indulgence, I'd be OK with that. If we were talking about 66% of Catholics not quite grasping the details of Aquinas' argument that God is subsistent Being-Itself, I wouldn't be worried. But that 2/3 of American Catholics either do not know about or do not believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a scandal approaching the magnitude of the Protestant Revolution in the 16thc. Yes, I'm exaggerating. But not by much.
So, what is the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist? Simply put, the Church teaches that during the celebration of the Mass, specifically at the moment of consecration – this is my Body, this is my Blood – the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. The substance of the bread and wine – what they are – is transformed into the substance of Christ's Body and Blood. We call this change transubstantiation. The CCC (1374) teaches, “In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist 'the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.' This presence is called 'real' [. . .] because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present.” Therefore, the bread and wine are not merely symbols of Christ's body and blood; and the Eucharist is not merely a symbolic meal to be shared by a community. Since Christ is made substantially present on the altar, the Eucharist is to be understood as our means of participating in Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. In the Mass, we reach up into eternity and God reaches down into history, and we are pulled back to Golgotha to bear witness to the sacrifice that makes our salvation possible.
I will repeat: the Mass is not merely a symbolic meal where the community is reminded of Christ's sacrifice. The Mass is our immediate participation in his eternal sacrifice. The history of how we came to see the Mass as merely a symbolic meal is too involved for a Sunday sermon. Suffice it to say, that after VC2, there was a movement in the Church to de-emphasize the sacrificial character of the Mass in favor of a more Protestant view, the Mass as simply a memorial meal. The altar became a table. The chalice became a cup. The priest became a presider. And everyone was encouraged to receive communion. . .whether they were prepared to do so or not. The idea was: no one must be excluded; all must be welcomed! AND if all we're doing here tonight is acting out a memorial play, then why not invite everyone to eat and drink our symbols? That 66% of American Catholics do not believe in the RPC can be blamed on several factors: the rush to de-emphasize the sacrificial character of the Mass; a desire to be seen as welcoming; an embarrassment among Church leaders at the “medievalism” of the faith; and an ideological push to reshape the nature of the Catholic priesthood into something resembling Protestant ministry.
Regardless of what might have happened historically to the RPC, we must look to the future and understand why the RPC is necessary to the faith. First, the Church has always taught the RPC. From Christ himself in the Gospel of John to the earliest Church Fathers to the great medieval theologians right up to St. JPII, BXVI, and Francis. Second, if we are to be fed in the faith, we must be fed something of substance. If you were to eat an American flag, no one would say that you've eaten America. Symbols point to and denote; by definition, they are not the things they symbolize. We eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ so that we can become more and more like Christ. Eating and drinking a symbol is just eating and drinking a symbol. Third, St. Paul tells us that it is possible to “eat our own condemnation:” that is, to eat the Body and Blood unworthily is eat our own damnation. How can eating a mere symbol cause you to condemn yourself? Can you think of any symbol with that kind of power? No. But if the bread and wine really are the Body and Blood of Christ, then eating your own condemnation is real possibility. Lastly, Christ promises us in Scripture that he is with us always. When two or more are gathered. In the breaking of the bread. In prayer and fasting. In our joys and in our sorrows.
I'll end with a final exhortation: with the easy availability of on-line resources – the CCC, the USCCB website, dozens of Catholic Answers type sites, hundreds of forums to ask questions – there can be no excuse for ignorance of the faith. No one expects every Catholic to be an academically-trained theologian. I often find myself WAY of my depth when listening to the pros at the seminary debate some theological topic. We had a guest lecturer at NDS not too long ago. I was lost three minutes into the lecture, which proved pretty embarrassing for me the next day when the seminarians wanted me to explain his talk! I'm not saying that you must be able to carry on a detailed conservation about theological minutiae. I am saying that every adult Catholic should be able to answer basic questions about the fundamentals of the faith. Questions like: what does the Church mean by “the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist”? That's basic. At the very least, I would hope that you could say – w/o fudging – that you believe this truth. “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.”
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