At their annual meeting this past November, the Bishops of the United States approved a document on the Eucharist entitled: “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church.” As part of their follow-up efforts, it was reported that the bishops have begun planning for a Eucharistic Congress in 2024. The goal of this effort is to rekindle an understanding of and devotion to the Eucharist. The bishops plan to set up a nonprofit organization to handle logistics and raise $28 million over the next two years to cover the costs of the event and all the work leading up to it.
Part of me is very excited about this idea. The Eucharist is at the heart of my faith. As Catholics, we believe that Jesus Christ is really and truly present in the Eucharist. Not present just in memory, not present just symbolically, and not present just spiritually, but really and truly present. How this can be we don’t know. That it can be is our abiding belief. It is an act of faith. And faith, as we read in the Letter to the Hebrews, is “Confident assurance of what we hope for; conviction about things we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1) In the Eucharist we receive the body of Christ so we might be and bring the Body of Christ to the world.
Unfortunately, a recent poll by the Pew Research Center found most self-described Catholics don’t believe this core teaching on the Eucharist. In fact, just one-third of U.S. Catholics (31%) say they believe that “during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus.” This is very concerning. At a minimum it suggests we have our work cut out for us if we are to help people understand the beauty, the wonder, and the miracle of the Eucharist.
Now I have to admit candidly that a part of me questions whether one of the reasons for the lack of belief in our teaching in regard to the Eucharist is a lack of trust in those who proclaim and teach about the Eucharist. While I don’t think that a straight line can be drawn from the lack of belief in the Eucharist to a mistrust of priests and Bishops, I do think it is harder to believe the message, if you don’t trust the messenger.
Especially since the sexual abuse crisis, I think people have found it difficult to trust priests and Bishops in our church. Sexually abusive priests were routinely transferred from parish to parish at least until the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People which was initiated in 2002. Since then, while this practice has stopped, and while there has been a general acknowledgement of a failure on the part of church leadership, this came slowly and grudgingly. Also, and more importantly, personal apologies on the part of priests and Bishops have been nonexistent for the most part. I think this has led to a lack of trust in priests and Bishops, and in many instances a lack of trust in what they teach and proclaim. I don’t think this credibility problem is going away on its own.
Given the above, while I think we have much good and important work to do in helping people understand our teaching and belief in regard to the Eucharist, I believe that rather than a Eucharistic Congress, a better starting point might be an “apology” tour. By this I mean that dioceses across the United States should shut down their usual activities for 6 to 12 months, and priests and Bishops should visit every church, chapel and mission in their diocese and listen to people’s pain and sadness in regard to the way our church has handled the sexual abuse crisis. We should listen until we weep and our hearts break. Then we should apologize over and over again until people are ready to believe and accept our apologies. Perhaps if and when people start to trust us again and they see the love of Jesus in our words and actions, they might more readily believe that Jesus is really and truly present in the Eucharist.