“This is my Body… This is my Blood.”
Catholics who attend Mass regularly are intimately familiar with these words of Jesus, spoken by the priest over the bread and wine in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
But how many of us actually understand what they mean?
The Church believes
The Catholic Church has believed from its earliest days that, at the moment of consecration during Mass, the bread and wine on the altar are changed into the body and blood, soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is known as the Real Presence.
This doctrine may be hard to grasp in our “scientific” age, where skeptics are quick to point out that nothing has happened because the bread and wine are completely unchanged in terms of taste, smell and texture.
But when one sees with the eyes of Faith, one knows that, on a deeper and invisible level, the “bread” has been replaced by Jesus Christ. This is called “transubstantiation”: the change of the bread’s deepest reality from one thing to another.
The Church teaches that the Eucharist is the “source and summit of Christian life”; for this is the way that Christ has chosen to dwell most intimately within Man, and so nourish him spiritually on his life’s journey.
Christ’s choice of bread and wine for His institution of the Eucharist suggests that He intended Man to be His “fellow labourer” in the vineyard of salvation. God creates the wheat and grape – but it is through Man’s labour that the crops are harvested and turned into bread and wine. Similarly, God provides Man with numerous gifts and graces, but Man must still use his own will and reason to co-operate with these graces and fit himself for Heaven.
US Survey Results
A February 2019 Pew Research Center survey of 1,835 self-identified Catholics in the US found that just 31 percent believed that “the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus”.
Not surprisingly, Catholics who attend Mass at least weekly were the most likely to believe in the True Presence. 63 percent of these Catholics did so, compared with just 13 percent of those who said that they seldom or never attend Mass.
However, it is not clear whether frequent Mass attendance leads to the belief that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, or vice versa.
Catechesis – or the lack thereof – might account for the difference. Of those who professed belief in the True Presence, virtually all reported knowing the Church’s teaching on the topic. Of the 69 percent who believed that the Eucharist was just a symbol, only one-third could identify the Church’s teaching correctly. The others believed that the Church taught it was just a symbol.
The Archdiocese of Singapore ran a similar poll on its social media channels in August 2019. Of the 2071 responses via Facebook, Instagram and Telegram, a whopping 93 percent replied that the bread and wine become the true body and blood of Christ at Mass.
It is important to note, however, that unlike the Pew report – which aimed for a statistically diverse sample of the population, including lapsed Catholics – the Archdiocese’s results were heavily skewed towards the more active and better catechised Catholics in Singapore, who are more likely to subscribe to the Church’s social media channels.
While it is good that 93 percent of the local respondents believe in transubstantiation, the Church cannot afford to be complacent. Twelve percent of Instagram respondents felt that the Eucharist was only a symbol, suggesting that the youth are less convinced – or less informed – of the Church’s teaching.
This pattern was reflected in the Pew study. While 38 percent of American Catholics over the age of 60 believed in the True Presence, only one-quarter of those under 40 felt the same way.
What Does This Mean To Us?
Two-thirds of all Singaporean Catholics do not attend Mass on a weekly basis. If a statistically representative survey (like Pew’s) was conducted in Singapore, what proportion of all Catholics do you think would say that they believed in the Real Presence?
When and how did you come to believe in the True Presence? Or are you still struggling?
How can we help our youths to appreciate that the Eucharist is not merely a “symbol” of Jesus, but the real thing?
How can we get parishioners to understand that receiving the Eucharist is not a mere ritual, but a conscious act of loving communion with a person – our God?
If we believe that Jesus is present in the Eucharist, does that change our lives? Should it?
Share your thoughts with us at the comment section below
Five ways to deepen faith in the Real Presence
- Before Mass, examine your conscience to see if you are fit to welcome Jesus into your body, and go to Confession if you are conscious of grave sin. During Mass, listen to the priest’s words of consecration attentively and prayerfully, rather than as a spectator watching a show.
- Genuflect or bow when you go past the tabernacle at church to show respect for Jesus in the Eucharist. Similarly, genuflect or bow when you present yourself for Holy Communion.
- Participate in activities which honour Jesus in the Eucharist, such as novenas and Eucharistic processions.
- Visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Many parishes have Adoration rooms which are open around the clock for personal prayer.
- If you find it hard to believe that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist, ask Him to help you. Pray the words of the demoniac’s father, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:23)
- Summary of the Pew Research Center survey on US Catholics
- Bishop Robert Barron’s teaching resources on the Eucharist
- Q&A on the Real Presence by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops
- Catholic Answers tract on the Real Presence
- Catholic Answers tract on the Church’s belief in the Real Presence
- Video on transubstantiation by “3 Minute Theology”