I’m starting a book project on transubstantiation. I’m interested not only in the history of real presence and its context in systematic and sacramental theology, but in its understanding among lay Catholics and its place in Catholic eucharistic piety today. I have several smaller projects related to this book underway, but one of the most interesting is a study of Eucharistic piety and practice among young adult (millenial) Catholics. I was privileged to begin this study by hosting a Eucharistic Adoration workshop and consultation on May 7, 2012 at the Saint John’s Abbey Guesthouse with six students from the College of St Benedict. Audrey Seah and Julia Smucker, both finishing their master’s degrees at the Saint John’s School of Theology·Seminary, helped me with the discussion and the theological unpacking that followed. I am very much obliged to all eight students for their insights in what follows.
I contacted the students through the Eucharistic Adoration group at St John’s, which schedules 24 hours of perpetual adoration once a week. Six students came on the study day before finals, bringing a contagious enthusiasm and deeply developed spiritualities. We met at daily mass, where it was easy to pick them out in the small crowd, even though I did not know any of them before. We prayed together with a palpable joy, introduced ourselves and ate dinner at the Guesthouse.
After dinner, I brought out copies of the current Give Us This Day, gifts from Liturgical Press. The students flipped through them eagerly, offering pertinent comments on the readings for the day and the contributors. They looked at the upcoming feast days. I hated to interrupt this discussion for the Pange Lingua video I had brought as an icebreaker, but I did. After the Pange Lingua, I asked an introductory question, and the women fell upon the topic with such hunger that I did little but listen and learn for the rest of the evening, a very brief two hours and change!
One of the most interesting aspects of the conversation, to me, was how readily the women identified that the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist was not just a fact about reality, but also a discipline, an interpersonal communion that required their active recognition and full participation. Christ is everywhere, they acknowledged, but recognizing his presence everywhere, and his special presence in the Eucharist, is hard work. It takes commitment — which is sometimes seen among their peers as something that holds you back, especially with respect to marriage. Committing to a specific hour of adoration weekly, though, enables them to pay better attention during the eucharistic celebration and to receive communion more mindfully.
They have specific practices they use during adoration to develop these powers of recognition. They all use formulary prayers, especially the Divine Mercy chaplet and the rosary, but they spoke much more about self-expressive prayer practices. Journaling is a primary one, as is praying out loud. Some of them sing when alone in adoration. They use different postures to focus on different kinds of prayer. They might use the orans, for example, to open themselves up to God, or kneel or bow to express humility.
These postures are complemented by imaging practices that reinforce one’s faith in the real presence of Christ and also underscore the unity of Eucharistic adoration and celebration. These practices include remembering the Eucharistic celebration at which the host was consecrated, seeing the scriptures through the actions of the mass, imagining Jesus standing behind the host or sitting on the altar, reflecting on the crucifix behind the host and remembering that it also stands behind the altar at mass, speaking to Jesus in the host, and stopping by the chapel even when the host is not exposed to pray.
These women have been through periods of spiritual dryness, suffered with problems of self-image, experienced great joy, and read many books. Their spiritualities are diverse, but all generous and realistic, even practical. They go to adoration to enhance their discernment of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and to develop their intimate and personal relationship with Jesus. They eat and drink the flesh and blood of Christ at the celebration at least once a week to share the cup of the sorrows and joys of the world with the whole community, living and dead, and to prepare themselves to serve.
They are inspiring people, and I am grateful for their wisdom.
I intend to continue this project, and will post more thoughts as it progresses.