A recent Pew Research Center study on What Americans Know About Religion revealed that only one-third of Catholics believe in transubstantiation, that the bread and wine are transformed into the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus in the Eucharist. Among the Catholic respondents, 69% said they believe that the bread and wine are symbols, not the Real Presence of Jesus Christ.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life, and that all other sacraments, ministries and apostolic works are bound up in it and oriented toward it. The reason for this is because it is Christ Himself, substantially present. So how is it that so few Catholics know this central teaching?
“I think what it really may point to is an impoverishment of language, of philosophy, and of theology,” Msgr. Swetland said. “First, in language, I think in the United States we are a little casual with the way we describe things. And we don’t always look for absolute precision in our language.”
Msgr. Swetland pointed out that when people hear that Jesus is present in the Eucharist, they are likely misunderstanding how real and substantial that presence is.
“The Church talks about presence, how Christ is present to us in many different ways,” he said. “And indeed, Christ is present to us in many different ways. Christ identifies and is present in some mysterious way in the poorest of the poor. Jesus taught us where two or three are gathered in His name that He is there in our midst. And He is there with us.”
“There are different ways we could talk about presence. But there is a uniquely different way that Christ is present in the Eucharistic species. It’s what we call a Real Presence. And the way the Council of Trent talked about it, I still think it’s a good place to start: the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. And therefore the whole of Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained in the Eucharistic species. So Christ is present in a real sense, in a bodily sense. That’s the kind of way we have to make these distinctions.”
And while many Catholics may be shocked and discouraged that so few recognize Jesus in the Eucharist, Msgr. Swetland explained that this misunderstanding of faith and tradition has been happening across religions for decades. This problem did not happen overnight, and it will likely take time to reverse this trend.
“We have had generational failures of catechesis,” Msgr. Swetland said. “And this isn’t just true of the Catholic religion. If you talk to Jewish rabbis or Protestant ministers they’ll say the same things about their own traditions. That as a culture we used to be fairly religiously literate. And actually, most people knew something about other traditions too, because we were around them, and they learned from their friends who were well-catechized in their own tradition.”
“But somewhere in the mid-20th century (and this is across every denomination) in the United States there became a huge failure to effectively educate and form young people in the faith. So the generation from the Baby Boomers on. And now they’re the ones who are supposed to teach and form their children. Well, if they’re poorly catechized you can’t hand on what you don’t have. So I think what we have to do in our parishes is a lot of adult formation and education to form their parents and grandparents again. And do it in an efficacious and attractive way. Then they can hand on the full truth to their children and grandchildren.”
So how can we discuss the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist with fellow Catholics? As the president of Donnelly College, Msgr. Swetland shared that when talking to college students he recognizes the need to find language that will speak to a scientifically literate age. On a basic level and from a scientific standpoint, what does it mean to have a substantial presence?
But the Eucharist is not just something to be known and studied. Christ instituted the Eucharist so that we could be in relationship with Him.
“I talk about it in terms of relationship, that God wants an intimate, personal, passionate relationship with us, Msgr. Swetland said. “And relationships for humans require at least two things: communication and presence. And, of course, the Lord communicates with us through revelation, through prayer, and in other ways, but He is present to us in the sacramental realities of our faith, and He is substantially present in the Eucharist. I think we need to do some radical work on explaining that better.”
Listen to the conversation below: