Let’s face facts. We Catholics have never been truly faithful to Jesus. In the end, none of us have
followed those teachings that most characterize Jesus: we haven’t turned the other cheek, we haven’t forgiven our enemies, we haven’t seen God in the poor, and we haven’t kept our hearts free from the illusions of this world.
But we have been faithful to one very important thing: we have kept the Eucharist going. The last thing Jesus asked of his disciples before he died was to keep celebrating the Eucharist. And that we have done, even though we may not fully grasp what we are in fact doing. Transubstantiation – the change by which the bread and wine become Christ’s real presence is the very DNA of Catholicism. But a survey conducted in 2019 found that only one-third of U.S. Catholics say they believe in the real presence, with most seeing the Eucharist as symbolic. (Pew Research Center, August 5, 2019).
This makes the current public debate swirling around the U.S. Catholic bishops, President Joe Biden’s catholicity, and who is worthy to receive the Eucharist (a debate John Allen has coined as the “wafer wars”), all the more muddled.
Earlier this month, after much debate, the U.S. bishops voted 168 to 55 to develop a teaching document on the Eucharist, which will go to the full body of bishops for review and amendment in November. In the meantime, the Catholic world is abuzz with loud and combative opinions about what this document should and should not say.
Bishop Kevin C. Rhodes, who heads the bishops’ committee on doctrine, said that the goal of this teaching document will be to foster a renewal of Eucharistic devotion. But there are many people (including several bishops and much of the press) who believe the ultimate purpose of this document is to deny the Catholic president of the United States the Eucharist because of his support of U.S. abortion laws. Deep lines are being drawn in the sand between liberal Catholics and conservative Catholics - between, God help us, Republican Catholics, and Democratic Catholics. Whatever the final document says, it has a good shot at alienating half of the Catholic population.
I’m trying to stay hopeful that this teaching on the Eucharist will be just what Bishop Rhodes says it will be: a renewed look at the Eucharist itself. I’m hoping for an inspirational document that illuminates the Eucharist and its relevance to this post pandemic, racially challenged, politically polarized, and globally warmed country of ours. That’s a document the American church could use right now.
I’d like to suggest to the bishops that they take a page out of Fr. Ronald Rolheiser’s play book. He explains the Eucharist this way:
“For most of his ministry, [Jesus] used words. Through words, he tried to bring us God’s consolation, challenge, and strength. Indeed, his words stirred hearts, healed people, and affected conversions. But a time came when words, powerful though they were, became inadequate. Something more was needed. So, on the night before he died, having exhausted what he could do with words, Jesus went beyond them. He gave us the Eucharist, his physical embrace, his kiss, a ritual within which he holds us to his heart. To my mind, that is the best understanding there is of Eucharist.”