Common Wisdom: Being There

With pride and pleasure my daughter invited her Evangelical friend to his first Mass. Her only request was that he should not receive Holy Communion, since he did not believe as Catholics do about the sacrament. When she returned to the pew, however, he was in line.

Obviously her plea made no impact. If my daughter’s entreaties failed to deter him, the lame explanation in our missalette does no better. Under “Guidelines for Receiving Holy Communion for Fellow Christians” comes this murky declaration: “Because Catholics believe that the celebration of the eucharist (sic) is a sign of the reality of the oneness of faith, life, and worship, members of those churches with whom we are not yet fully united are ordinarily not admitted to holy communion (sic).” This would have stopped him?(Or, for that matter, the president?)

The language in that formulation insults by grave omission. It dodges the salient fact. The text should read, “Catholics regard Holy Communion not only as a memorial of the Last Supper but as a sacrament instituted by Christ and whose words, quoted by the priest at the Consecration, transform the host into his real presence. Those not accepting this truth should not receive Holy Communion.”

The missalette’s lack of clarity loses an opportunity to introduce the concept of the eucharistic presence to non-Catholics. This is so egregious that I wrote to the publisher, urging a rewrite. I received a chilly reply, informing me that the U.S. Catholic Conference approved the statement. In no way does this alter its inadequacy. Instead of essential information we have a saccharine substitute of pretty sentiments.

There is something about transubstantiation that turns spiritual sinew to jelly. As a homily topic this most awe-some mystery is unremarked and unextolled. What is not mysterious is the correlation between that negligence and polls that reveal tremendous slippage in belief among Catholics about the eucharistic presence.

Belief in that presence divides and defines one Christian from another. I heard a Protestant minister tell his radio sidekick, in thinly veiled derision, that the apostles would have greeted any such literal interpretation of Christ’s words about bread becoming his body and blood as ridiculous. It would have shocked them, said the preacher. But that is exactly the point. It was outrageous, it was unimaginable. But it was what he said. Soon to depart from the apostles, Christ promised to remain with them, and by extension all who followed them, in a unique and precious way. This so, it is tragic to realize that many Catholics soldier on in their faith bereft of this consolation. In a material if crude analogy, they have won the lottery but fail to redeem the ticket.

I’m not sure why those who accept Christ reduced to a few cells in Mary’s uterus balk at believing in the Eucharist. As St. Ambrose said about this conversion, “Could not Christ’s word, which can make from nothing what did not exist, change existing things into what they were not before?”

But we engage in selective acceptance. It is the struggle of the finite mind determined to impose limitations on the infinite in order to facilitate credibility. So mystery A is possible, mystery B is not. It is human mentality at once arrogant, yet inferior.

If the eucharistic presence were referred to with some regularity from the pulpit, faith would be strengthened. When something is ignored the result is unfamiliarity, which breeds indifference.

Some priests know the remedy. One such is my pastor, who initiated perpetual adoration in our church. To the astonishment of skeptics, it grew from a few modest hours to twenty-four hour observance. Whereas other churches are dark and locked aside from Mass, ours is always lit and open. Parishioner sign-ups cover every hour. It is inspirational to visit and find people silent in individual prayer, or in communal recitation.

No one denies that God’s presence can be felt anywhere by those who are open to him. But there is a qualitative difference, an immediacy in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. A stark reminder of this distinction occurred during a Christmas concert I attended at Stanford University’s Memorial Church. All the elements were in place to facilitate nearness to the Lord: the impressive venue with its stained glass windows, its mosaics, its sanctuary steeped in red poinsettias. Yet something was missing. Absent was the flickering candle, the vigil light, signifying the reserved presence of the Blessed Sacrament. I felt as if I were in a beautiful house, but no one was home.

Long ago, Christ anticipated my distress. His resolution baffled the apostles, as it does me. But time and again intellectual difficulty is defeated by experience. What the mind fails to fathom, the heart knows to be true.


B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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