Some reports released recently state that only about half of Catholics surveyed believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. The report finds this “alarming, but not surprising.” I have to confess that I, too, was among the surprised at this finding, but for a different reason. I was surprised because this was the first time in many years I’ve seen a report that gave such a high figure to the number of people who do, in fact, believe in the Real Presence. In my experience working with youth and adults, as well as through reading other reports, I typically see a much lower number attributed to those who believe. I was fairly pleased to see the numbers coming back up to 1 in 2 people.
But, I get it. I really do understand why so many people struggle with the belief in the Real Presence. Some of my close friends are people who attend Mass, pray regularly, love God and sincerely seek to do his will, yet they nevertheless have a real difficulty in believing that a bit of bread and a little wine somehow transform into something else, into the person of Jesus Christ, just because the priest says some words and elevates it. My friends can accept that the Eucharist is a symbol. They understand it can be a reminder of the Last Supper, an image of Jesus’ sacrifice, or even point to a meal shared by the worshiping community today. But actual transubstantiation? Nope.
The real issue, I think, lies not in a problem of belief or even a problem of faith. Rather, it's a problem of the imagination, and specifically the lack of a Catholic Imagination. What do I mean by that? First, let’s distinguish the terms. The word “imagination” these days typically refers to any random image, idea or thought bubble that happens to pop into our minds, like pink and purple polka-dot rhinoceroses. I often think of a certain Spongebob episode, where Spongebob tells his buddy Patrick Star that if their imaginations are strong enough then anything they think of can become real. They spend the afternoon sitting in a cardboard box, pretending to be race car drivers. This is an example of the imagination of children, and it has a place when we are young. But it is just the beginning stage; it’s not a mature Catholic Imagination. The cardboard box is not, in fact, a race car and they are not actual race car drivers, no matter how much they pretend or would like to be.
The Catholic Imagination
The Catholic Imagination, on the other hand, looks at what already is and seeks to understand its fullest meaning by using reason and reflection. C.S. Lewis said “Imagination is the organ of meaning. Reason is the organ of truth.” The Catholic Imagination is about using our creative facilities as sub and co-creators with God, to recognize where, when and in what way the Kingdom of God is already present or in what way we should act (co-create) with God in order to bring the Kingdom into a certain place, situation, time, etc. In fact, this goal is at the heart of the Eucharistic Revival. It was for this reason that the 3 year Eucharistic Revival journey began across the U.S. in a very Catholic manner - with Eucharistic processions. These processions were a radical call to activate the Catholic Imagination. As people all over America followed Jesus through the streets, imagine how we must have looked to people outside of the Catholic worldview. Surely many people wondered “Why are a bunch of people walking, praying and singing together behind a bit of bread held up in a golden ornament, under a canopy? On a regular Saturday or Sunday in 2022? In this day and age? Don’t they know that Christianity is the stuff of nonsense and fairy tales, that we have all outgrown that childish silliness?”
It is this same lack of Catholic Imagination, this overemphasis on reducing everything down to a scientific explanation and removing all traces of mystery and meaning, that keeps many faithful Catholics from believing in the Real Presence, even those inside the church. That’s exactly why the Eucharistic Revival is so important - because it is the Eucharist itself that reveals and is the Kingdom of God. This belief was preached in the early Church, especially by St. Paul.
St. Paul and the Eucharist
St. Paul believed, as did the other apostles, in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. He taught that the Eucharist, that one little bit of ordinary bread and small amount of common wine, does truly become something else. Not only does the Eucharist remind us of Jesus’ abiding presence with us now, it also reveals the future that all creation is destined for: to be fully united in God. For Paul, “the merely mortal body will be replaced by one that will endure forever, a body permanently alive and energized by God’s spirit - immune to death, decay and disease, so that death can have no more victory over it.” Paul says that “flesh and blood, in its merely mortal state, cannot inherit God’s kingdom. Everyone must experience bodily change to enter that kingdom [because] the final form of life in the afterlife involves life right here on earth in resurrected bodies when the kingdom comes and God’s will is finally done in the new creation on earth, as it is in heaven. Then the perishable will be swallowed up by the imperishable and … the new Jerusalem will come on earth through a merger of heaven and earth.”*
The merger of heaven and earth takes place within every Mass, in every Eucharistic celebration. Our participation in the Word and Sacrifice of the Mass enables this process of transformation to begin within us. We are supposed to follow our teacher, Jesus Christ, through his teachings and example, into his death so that we may also participate in his resurrection. We become what we receive. We are enabled to be sacraments to others, as Jesus is Sacrament to us. We ourselves can change from being those ordinary bits of bread, sitting in the pew on a Sunday morning in 2022, into something else, just as that bread and wine on the altar changes into the Body and Blood of Jesus.
Does this sound like the stuff of fairy tales and myth to you? It should. To quote C.S. Lewis again “Christianity is both a myth AND a fact. It’s unique. It’s the true myth.” We not only have stories and symbols that tell us about our God, but we also know that these stories really took place in time, and that our symbols are more than just symbols.
Far from being a meaningless and random organization of atoms and cells, our world is actually overflowing with meaning communicated by God. Creation itself is God’s first and primary communication with us. After all, God spoke everything into existence, he didn’t just think it to himself, in a private and hidden way. In order to understand what God said “in the beginning,” and how he continued - and continues - to speak to us through time and history, we need to cultivate a robust Catholic Imagination, looking for the God who is with us and walks beside us, moving from a childish imagination of “What can I imagine?” to a mature Catholic Imagination of “What has God created and how can I co-create with God to build up his kingdom?” Let’s pray for an abundant response to the Eucharistic Revival, and especially for a flowering of the Catholic Imagination.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death, and pray for those who never pray to you, now and at the hour of their deaths. Amen
*Quoted from Ben Witherington III in Biblical Archaeology Review, Spring 2022