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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