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Begin with Eucharist

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... frankly, I wonder why anyone who doesn't believe that the Eucharist is, in fact, the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ would come to Mass at all. Ever.

Jaymie Stuart

Catholics are up in arms -- again. This time, it's the recent Pew Research report that only one in three of us believe that the Eucharist is the Real Presence of Christ. One in three. In other words, for every Catholic who believes what the Church teaches about the Most Blessed Sacrament, there are two who don't.

There is, of course plenty of blame to go around. But before we start assigning it to the poor catechesis, bad preaching, liturgical minimalism, or the too-often uninspired (and uninspiring) pap that passes for liturgical music that sprung up like weeds in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, let's take a collective deep breath and admit that none of this "new data" should surprise us.

Attendance at Mass has been declining for a long time and it isn't merely because people have found something better to do on Sunday mornings; it's because they think they've found something better to do with their lives. That isn't just a crisis of faith; it's a tragedy. It is tragic that baptized Catholics do not come to Mass, or come only a few times a year. But frankly, I wonder why anyone who doesn't believe that the Eucharist is, in fact, the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ would come to Mass at all. Ever.

While we ought to expect adherents to Christian faith to be a minority in the world, it is shocking for us to realize that such people are a 2:1 minority within the Church. (And among those, missionary disciples are even fewer.) These are not the people who ought to be serving on parish pastoral councils, lectors, or extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, let alone ordained ministers. And while there is no data on how many of them do, it would seem probable that number might be even more disconcerting.

How does this happen? Is it just another instance of finally reporting something that has, largely, always been the case, or have people's beliefs really changed? There are two things to consider.

First, it's important to remember that what we believe has absolutely everything to do with who we believe. Scandals, especially the sexual abuse crisis, have seriously damaged the Church's credibility. But I think this apostasy -- let's call it what it is -- is the result of something more subtle than that. It seems to me that while we focused on how to be Church in the world, we allowed far too much of the world into the Church. There's nothing wrong with turning outward as St. John Paul II did. And as tempting as it may be, turning inward on ourselves is inconsistent with the Great Commission Christ gave us. Still, in turning outward to the world, far too many of us have forgotten how to turn upward. Enthusiasm is not a substitute for faithfulness. Our primary task as the Body of Christ in the world is to point to him -- to live in this world, but for the next. As a complete and total gift of self to God on the behalf of sinners, the Eucharistic Christ shows us how. Those who believe that Eucharist is merely a symbol, merely a ritual -- a "something" and not a someone -- miss the entire point of the Incarnation. God did not become human and enter the world to affirm it as it is, but to save it, and bring us into communion with him.

But there is another question: Why do people who do not believe what the Church teaches insist on continuing to identify themselves as Catholics? Perhaps, it's because the world we've let into the Church has increasingly distanced itself from not only Judeo-Christian values, but from the Christian worldview. Our world now tells us that we can identify ourselves as we desire, without necessarily meeting any objective criteria of what substantively constitutes that identity. To put it another way, if a biological man can identify himself as a woman, there is little if anything to keep someone who rejects the core of Catholic belief from identifying himself as Catholic. In this paradigm, I'm not a Catholic because I embrace the faith of the Church I was baptized in and do my very best to live according to Church teaching, but simply because I say I am. I don't have to change if I've convinced myself that I can simply tailor the faith of the Church to my own opinions and preferences the way I change the settings on my smartphone. Again, the Most Blessed Sacrament has something to teach us here. If I do not believe that the elements of bread and wine change substantially into the Body and Blood of Christ, everything can simply stay the way it is. Including me. But if the power of the Holy Spirit through priestly ministry transforms the bread and wine into the real and true Body and Blood of Christ, and that same Holy Spirit dwells in me, I can be transformed, too.

There is no magic bullet for addressing disbelief. Preaching and catechesis are necessary, but not sufficient. Adoration and public processions are beneficial, but not enough. More reverence is needed, but that will change everything. If the Church fires on all cylinders, though, perhaps the needle will move. I know that in my own life, it wasn't a religion class at a Catholic school or the words of a priest or nun that made the difference. It was witnessing the devotion of thousands of Joe and Mary Catholics enduring an icy and torrential October rain in order to receive what they believed was far more than a piece of bread. They knew something I didn't and behaved accordingly. Ultimately, our faith is not about a philosophy, a set of moral teachings, or even a long tradition of religious practices. Our faith is about Jesus Christ. He formed the Church around the gift of his Body and Blood. If we want to renew the faith of the Church today, we must begin and end where he did: with Holy Eucharist.

- Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a Catholic convert, wife, and mother of eight. Inspired by the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales, she is an author, speaker, and musician, and serves as a senior editor at Ave Maria Press. Find Jaymie on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @YouFeedThem.

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