WASHINGTON — Toni Guagenti of Virginia Beach, Virginia, was raised in a traditional churchgoing Catholic family and educated in the teachings of the Church, yet as an adult she views the consecrated host as a symbol of Jesus and not the Real Presence of Christ.
It appears as though Guagenti’s understanding of the Eucharist is the same for a majority of U.S. Catholics, and Church leaders are trying to figure out what to do about that.
A 2019 Pew Research Center study showed that 69% of all self-identified U.S. Catholics said they believed the bread and wine used at Mass are not Jesus, but instead are “symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” The other 31% said they believed in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
Though that study has been criticized by several Catholic scholars, it got the attention of the U.S. bishops, who will be discussing what they consider a catechetical crisis at their upcoming fall general assembly in Baltimore in November.
Guagenti grew up one of eight children in a Lima, Ohio, household where her parents were actively involved in their parish and the religious education of their children.
Before receiving her First Communion, Guagenti said, she was provided with detailed instruction about Church teaching on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and said that education continued throughout the rest of her childhood.
That instruction would have included the Church doctrine of transubstantiation during which the bread and wine have changed their substance from what they fundamentally are — through the instrument of the ordained minister’s words of consecration — to the total and Real Presence of Jesus Christ, that is His Body and Blood.
Though Guagenti did believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist throughout her childhood and adolescence, her acceptance of transubstantiation changed in adulthood.
She explained, “It’s pretty impossible to me that millions of churches across the world have the actual Body of Christ. The bread is sanctified, it’s consecrated by those who are living the word, breathing the word, teaching the word of Christ. That’s good enough for me.”
This view of the Eucharist has alarmed many U.S. bishops because belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the consecrated host is a central Church teaching.
Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron of Los Angeles didn’t mince words about the Pew study.
“It’s hard to describe how angry I feel,” he said on his website just after the study was released, saying he blamed himself, his brother bishops, other priests, catechists and parents, really anyone else responsible for spreading the faith.
“This should be a wake-up call to all of us in the Church,” Bishop Barron said. “We need to pick up our game when it comes to communicating even the most basic doctrines.”
The study prompted the U.S. bishops to plan a three-year eucharistic revival to help address what they see as a catechetical crisis and perhaps one of many reasons why so many churches have fewer members in their congregations with each passing year.
It’s also one of the driving forces behind the U.S. bishops’ proposed document on the “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church,” even though some bishops would like the document to clearly say Catholic politicians who support abortion should be denied Communion.
Guagenti no longer attends Mass on a regular basis and said when she does attend a wedding or funeral, she doesn’t present herself for Communion.
“I think it’s just because I’m not putting in the time at church and I feel like that the Lord and God deserve that respect when you’re there,” she said. “So, I don’t want to belittle the sacrifices that He made for us.”
John Grabowski, an associate professor of moral theology and ethics at The Catholic University of America, found Guagenti’s reverence for the Eucharist striking, considering her lack of belief in the Real Presence.
“But it’s probably not isolated,” Grabowski said. “People who have grown up in Catholic families, in Catholic education, who have Catholic habits of mind and practice, even if they don’t have a strong, personal faith at a given point in their lives, those habits are still there at some level and still kind of directing the way they operate and navigate.”
He hopes the U.S. bishops’ three-year eucharistic revival takes hold in parishes and small groups of people throughout the country.
“I am hoping that we can move the needle in a significant way so that more than just one third of Catholics in the United States recognize the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist,” Grabowski said.
“I’m hoping we can kind of go all in as a Church and really take on this catechetical crisis and give people a deeper, better understanding of this mystery,” he said, “that is again supposed to be the very source and summit of our life as Christians and the very source and summit of the Church. Every crisis is an opportunity.”
Bishops must teach truth, but avoid partisan politics, Abp. Lori says
By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY — The incoming chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities hopes his brother bishops will approve a statement on the Eucharist that helps Catholics understand the gift that it is and that invites them back to active Church life.
“I think it would be a beautiful thing if, in November, we were to close ranks and say, ‘We are pastors. We love our people. We want to make this an inviting Church and we want to gather people around the altar of the Lord,’” Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore said.
In discussing and voting on a document on the Eucharist during their meeting Nov. 15-18, he said, the tone should be pastoral, “not compromising our teaching, not denying that it is possible to exclude oneself from the table of the Lord,” but laying the foundation for the bishops’ multiyear project of helping Catholics better understand, appreciate and celebrate the sacrament.
Some bishops want the statement to specifically address the question of Catholic politicians, such as President Joe Biden, who support legalized abortion or other laws at odds with Church teaching.
As for bishops who want the conference’s statement on the Eucharist to make a strong statement about politicians and worthiness to receive Communion, Archbishop Lori said among the U.S. bishops there will always be “voices on either side of an issue, and that’s fine. They contribute to the discussion. They sometimes call us to things we might be forgetting.”
But he hopes the document ends up being more focused on what the Eucharist is.
“We have to be discerning,” he said. “Sometimes you say, well to be in the middle is kind of the position of weakness. (But) these days the position of strength and courage is often in the middle.”
As pastors, the bishops must teach the truth and help all Catholics understand it, no matter what political office or position they may hold, he said.
At the same time, “the Church is called to be the great sacrament of salvation and the great sacrament of unity. And if ever there were a time we needed to live up to that deeply theological description of what the Church is, it’s right now in our polarized culture,” Archbishop Lori said. “And so we have to be careful of not allowing ourselves to go down no exit, partisan alleys where there is no life at the end of it, no evangelical life, no spiritual fruit.”