The “Symbol” of Holy Communion

eucharistonaltarAs a convert to Catholicism I don’t share many of the “growing up Catholic” memories of many of my friends. I wasn’t taught by nuns. I didn’t go to Catholic school. I didn’t grow up getting into trouble at Mass or choir practice. I didn’t get to wear the adorable little white dress and gloves for my first Holy Communion. I don’t miss those great old Latin hymns or women wearing chapel veils. Although I do LOVE the old Latin hymns and women wearing chapel veils. I came into the Church in 1977 at the height of guitar Masses and liturgical “experiments.”  The music and practices of “my” Catholic Church have kind of always been a hot mess. I even know all the words to “Lord of the Dance.”  Unfortunately. So when other Catholics reminisce about the “good old days” before Vatican II, I think: meh. I didn’t become Catholic because of the beautiful architecture or music or liturgy of bygone years, though I LOVE all these aspects of our worship. I became Catholic because of the Holy Eucharist. And throughout the decades of bad music, ugly vestments, school closings and scandal, the reason I remain Catholic is the Holy Eucharist.

The Church teaches us that the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith (Catechism, para. 1324). Jesus teaches us this same truth in the beautiful “Bread of Life” discourse in the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel. As our Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said: “Without the Eucharist, the Church simply does not exist.” Nothing could be truer. God gives us the most precious gift of His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity to nourish and sustain us on our earthly journey. The Eucharist is literally the beating heart of our Catholic faith and our loving Savior. Yet every Sunday only about 25% of Catholics attend Mass to meet Him there. And you want to know why? Because of what was found by a recent Pew Research Center poll (9/28/10) that questioned Catholics about their faith. It revealed that almost half of American Catholics believe that the bread and wine we receive in Holy Communion is a SYMBOL of Jesus’ Body and Blood. A symbol. Granted, I don’t know if the Catholics they questioned were practicing Catholics. But honestly, I wouldn’t  be at Mass myself if I thought the Eucharist was a mere remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. There’s a famous Flannery O’Connor anecdote that beautifully sums up my thoughts and feelings. At a New York dinner party where Miss O’Connor found herself the token Catholic, she sat quietly listening to the erudite conversation of the other guests. At one point a lady turned the conversation to the Catholic faith. Among the thoughts she shared was that the Eucharist was a “pretty good” symbol. This prompted Flannery to remark at once, “We’ll, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it!”  I couldn’t agree more, Miss O’Connor.

Why would anyone want to be Catholic if not for the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist?  It would be lots easier to be Episcopalian where you could enjoy beautiful music and liturgy without the “restrictions” of Catholic teaching on contraception, an all-male celibate priesthood, and same- sex marriage. Or how about one of those generic Christian mega-churches where the building is fitted out like an IMAX theater, the charismatic young pastor dresses like a rock star and you can enjoy a latte in your comfy theater chair while the music blasts to a hallelujah crescendo? No worries about going to confession or divorce and remarriage, just a free and easy Christian “lifestyle.”

Because of the Eucharist, the Catholic Church continues to exist in spite of every reason it shouldn’t still be around. And without the Eucharist, like Pope Benedict said, the Church would cease to be. And I’d be among the first out the door.  So it’s no wonder so many Catholics don’t attend Mass on Sundays or have left the Church altogether. They aren’t being taught the Truth of the Eucharist. If 45% of Catholics believe the Eucharist is just a symbol, they may as well sleep in on Sunday morning. I would. So no matter how you feel about your parish’s choir or vestments or pastor or youth programs or parish council, remember this: Jesus Christ waits for you at every Mass. In person. He longs to meet you intimately in Holy Communion and to share His eternal life with you. This is the greatest gift of our Catholic faith. We must hear this truth preached in our Sunday homilies and see reverence for the Blessed Sacrament shown by our priests and deacons. We need Adoration Hours in every parish and adult catechesis on this most central belief of our Church. We must be reminded that the God we worship is there on the altar before us, truly and wholly present in the Sacrament of Holy  Communion. People leave the Church when they believe the Eucharist is a “pretty good” symbol of Jesus. If they knew the Truth as Christ taught, we wouldn’t be able to build enough new churches and schools to keep up. Christ gave the keys to the Kingdom to St. Peter, our first Pope (Matthew 16:18) and that same key is in every tabernacle in every Catholic Church in the world—“Jesus, my Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

“Whoever eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood abides in Me and I in him.”
                          —John 6:57

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