Eucharist, Polls, and Symbols

A recent Pew Research Center survey shows that less than a third of U.S. Catholics believe that in the Eucharist bread and wine “become the actual body and blood of Christ.” On the other hand, 69% say that the bread and wine “are symbols of the body and blood of Christ.” Roughly half of those surveyed identified official Church teaching as holding that the bread and wine actually become Christ’s body and blood, while the other half either thought the Church teaches the bread and wine are symbols (45%) or were unsure what the church teaches (5%).

Seven-in-ten U.S. Catholics believe bread, wine used in Communion are symbolic

Predictably, heads exploded in some quarters, and the reformed liturgy and practices such as communion in the hand were blamed. Those who have read this blog for a while may know that I am an ardent defender of the doctrine of transubstantiation, but my head did not explode upon reading this, because I think that it was a badly framed question. At the same time, I do not think these findings should simply be shrugged off.

The question is badly framed because both answers are correct. One might say that, if the choice is forced between “symbolic” and “actual,” then the latter is true simpliciter, while the former is true secundum quid. Catholic teaching is that the Eucharist is not a symbol of Christ’s body and blood in the way that a flag might symbolize a nation state; rather the bread and wine are truly Christ’s body and blood in a literal and non-metaphorical sense. But the rite of the Eucharist is a symbolic action, and within that action the bread and wine have a symbolic function (this is what the scholastics meant by speaking of the bread and wine, along with the eucharistic ritual, as the sacramentum tantum). So Catholics who go to Church and participate in ritual replete with symbolic actions might be forgiven for thinking that the answer with the word “symbol” in it is the correct answer. Likewise, if they think “actual” means “physical” or “material” then they might likewise be forgiven for thinking that the answer containing this word was wrong, since the bread and wine clearly do not undergo a physical change.

But, before we grow too calm about all this, the bread and wine are only symbols secundum quid (in a certain sense) and one would like to think that, when faced with a badly-posed question, more than a third would have been able to suss out which was the more correct answer. More disturbing is the fact that 22% identified Church teaching with the view that the bread and wine are actually Christ’s body and blood, but identified their own view with the “symbolic” view (and downright baffling are the 2% who think the church teaches the “symbolic” view but themselves take the “actual” view). Do these folks really understand what the Church teaches? Do they think that the Church teaches something absurd and unworthy of belief? Even if their understanding of the “actual” view is a distorted one, is it a problem that they dismiss what they at least understand to be the Church’s teaching on a central ritual of the Christian life?

There are other interesting findings:

  • Not too surprisingly, adherence to the “actual” view is more prevalent among weekly Mass-goers (63%), perhaps suggesting that exposure to the Church’s liturgy fosters correct Eucharistic belief (lex orandi, etc.), or perhaps confirming Flannery O’Connor’s sentiment (“If it’s a symbol then to hell with it.”).
  • Adherence to the “actual” view also increases with educational level (26% among those with a high school education or less; 37% percent among the college educated), suggesting perhaps that a more nuanced understanding of the Church’s teaching makes people more ready to accept the “actual” view.

Since this blog’s focus is liturgy, we could also ask ourselves how best to celebrate the Eucharist so as to embody and convey the true teaching of the Church: that Christ’s presence is both “symbolic” (i.e. sacramental) and actual. Are Eucharist-as-meal and Eucharist-as-real-presence-and-sacrifice a zero-sum game? Are practices like standing for communion or receiving in the hand part of the problem? Do “smells and bells” incline people away from simplistic symbolic understandings of the Eucharist, and, if so, do they do so at the cost of leading them to fall into simplistic magical understandings of the Eucharist?


  1. ” . . . I think that it was a badly framed question. At the same time, I do not think these findings should simply be shrugged off.”


  2. Fritz: care to say more why you are an ardent defender of the doctrine of transubstantiation? It’s often noted that most people probably believe in consubstantiation, but the question is rarely posed to people. Should we, could we, would we ever go from trans to con?

    1. I think if one is going to frame eucharistic presence in terms of substance, then transubstantiation is the only coherent position. If “substance” is a matter of something’s fundamental identity (Aristotle says that the category of substance answers the question “what is it?”) then something can have only one fundamental identity. To my mind, consubstantiation (in the sense that what is on the altar after the Eucharistic Prayer is both bread and Christ’s body) doesn’t really make sense within that framework.

      On a more pragmatic level, the term “transubstantiation” is sufficiently hallowed by use that I think changing it would not only hurt people’s faith, but it would give the mistaken impression that we actually understand Christ’s presence and that our terminology is something more than a least-inadequate-place-holder.

      1. Nicely put. As I’ve grown to expect from you.

        I would add, from your second point, that magical thinking can also be found in assumption that, if we unchained ourselves from transubstantiation, then the faithful (and maybe the not so faithful) would become a more [insert intensifying adverb/adjectives of choice here] Eucharistic Body of Christ and thus Church. The causality is hoped for, but evidence in the myriad denominations that unchained themselves over the past 500 years is not conclusive in favor of that hope. One could, however, look towards the Orthodox and Oriental Churches and their less specific but far more traditional liturgical mystical traditions, but cherry picking from them might also prove another case of magical thinking.

    2. In John 6, Jesus does not seem concerned with people taking His eucharistic teaching too literally. Yet, here we are concerned that people are taking the Lord’s Eucharistic teaching too literally. There should be some level of concern because I have seen polls with questions worded differently. Yet, with results in very similar statistical findings.

      I will admit that I am not the biggest fan of Thomistic attempts to explain the mystery of the Eucharist in a mechanistic manner. It is a mystery, but one that we can learn about and contemplate upon. However, I think to claim that transubstantiation is a bad term fails to acknowledge that transubstantiation essentially means that the Eucharistic species are no longer what they appear to be to our senses, which is true.

      Fr. Fritz, thank you for your thoughtful and insightful article. Perhaps the question was misunderstood.

  3. I also agree these findings should be taken seriously. What I think should be shrugged off is the notion that people can be “educated” into orthodoxy, as it were. These polls reaffirm to me that the best thing I can do is my small part in music ministry. That being: repertoire that emphasizes Jesus and his mission, the ministry’s artistic singing and playing, and an outward focus on people in the pews and the seekers who are sliding into them rather then performance of a privileged class. Advocacy for better visuals, acoustics, and other arts that deepen worship–like we were doing thirty years ago before getting bogged down by reform2 nonsense. Believers, even those who can parrot the CCC accurately, need to be inspired into faith. It’s not programming.

      1. I don’t follow. I could well imagine someone ‘parroting’ the CCC or any text in unhelpful ways.

  4. Magic over metaphor – says it all!!!!

    Thank you for your time in posting and your analysis. Suggest that it would be helpful to actually post some links to current eucharistic theology around symbol, sign, etc. Some theologians have done an excellent job of moving past *transubstantiation and Thomism* to explain how *symbol* captures your two part analysis.

    IMO, transubstantiation is not DOGMA – it is an outdated explanation.

    1. I remember being told circa 1985 (in grade school religion), I quote, “we used to believe…”

      That never left me. “We used to believe…”

      (The context was Eucharistic doctrine).

    2. “current eucharistic theology”

      May one assume that necessarily at least includes what the Church still currently teaches?

      1. Will ignore the *snarkiness* – a catechism definition barely scratches the surface in terms of what catholics experience and have faith in.
        jscott does a better job of responding – 40 years ago studied Karl Rahner’s Theology of Symbol – that would be considered *current* compared to an outdated and poorly articulated Neo-Thomistic catechism doctrine.
        Current theology expresses that what happens in eucharist is based on *faith* – not some attempt at a literal explanation (e.g. transubstantiation). Transubstantiation, like all doctrines, is time limited – it no longer expresses the faith; it fails to express faith with today’s cultures, philosophical/theological advances.
        Eucharist is an *action* – it does not focus on eucharist as object (suggest transubstationation fits that definition) and it expresses that it is a communal action – where does transubstatiation touch on the action of a community?
        From the church’s scripture this week-end:
        To quote: “Today’s three readings describe faith not as belief in something definitive, but radical openness to whatever God is bringing about. Faith is a verb that keeps us in movement. The Israelites at Passover girded their loins and skewered up their courage to take off in directions unknown. Abraham left his birthplace and prepared for the impossible child to be born to him and his aged, barren wife. Jesus led his disciples on the journey of dispossessing themselves of everything in order to receive the kingdom God wanted to give them. Faith kept all of them on the move.”

        Suggest that the church still currently teaches many things about eucharist, bread and wine, etc. Usually, any attempt to understand would be *both/and* rather than a narrow, culturally limited explanation that is *either/or*.

      2. Well, the snarkness actually included “includes”, not an either/or proposition. When I see an unmodified reference to “current eucharistic theology”, it naturally raises the question of what that actually means.

        And “no longer expresses” is mightily “either/or”, rather than “both/and”. It’s one thing to continue to develop our theology, but it’s the itchy assumption that the theology that precedes us is now irrelevant that ends up as snark.

        I am fully on board with the idea that a distillation and reduction of our Eucharistic theology to transubstantiation is not an end point, just to be clear. But I am far from sanguine about the likely fruitfulness of attempts to breeze past/over/beyond/under it as irrelevant or worse.

      3. My recollection is that we weren’t taught anything in particular in regards to the Eucharist. Perhaps it was touched upon once, but anyone who knows what it is like to teach children can tell you that you need to review things and provide meaningful experiences that reinforce what you want them to learn.

        The first time I learned anything in particular about Catholic Eucharistic theology – past, present, or whatever – was a college level European History Class. I’m actually shocked the numbers in the Pew Poll are as high as they are. What I and most of my peers received would be the equivalent of singing through the Alphabet Song once or twice with a group of five year olds and being surprised thirty years later to discover that most of them can’t read.

  5. Super Catholics will have a field day with this distorted data. So thit looks like the vast number of lapsed or non-practicing Catholics aren’t familiar enough with Aristotelian philosophy to affirm the distinction between substance and accidents in our Eucharistic theology. Meh! Much ado about nothing. I’m waiting for the data that reports people’s understanding of the purpose and effects of recieving the really present risen Christ. Won’t hold my breath.

  6. Rahner’s notion of the “Real symbol” (or perhaps the two terms are rendered ‘realsymbol’ in translation) is relevant here. If only I could understand it!

    He takes up the established idea that the Eucharist is a symbol that brings into effect that which it symbolizes. Any cause that can produce a true effect in the real world is actual–even if that cause is a symbol. It may be that Rahner uses ’cause’ as a category much like ‘substance’ to indicate symbolic reality or efficacy.

    I may have this wrong! Move on if so. I’m just throwing it out in the spirit of experiment and discussion.

  7. A question that might be usefully asked in this debate is ‘how do people actually behave in the presence of the Sacrament, as when passing the place of reservation or coming up to receive Holy Communion?’

    Questions as to what we mean by ‘substance’ and ‘identity’ – and what Saint Thomas meant too – are both abstruse and fundamental. However, ‘substance’ to most people means the physical constituency of something, its chemical or molecular content. If people are said no longer to believe in a change of ‘substance’ in the Eucharistic species, that would be hardly surprising. It means that people might actually be thinking orthodox thoughts ‘secundum quid.’

    ‘Simpliciter,’ I think that ‘magic’ in a non-technical sense gets it for me. The Sacrament is ‘magic’ in the sense of something absolutely absorbing and wonderful. But not ‘magic’ in the sense of some sort of alchemy. So I reverence the Eucharistic Gifts and am sceptical about stories of bleeding hosts.

    I think behaviour is a good guide to what people actually hold in faith. In my own place after mentioning the desirability of gestures of reverence at Communion over the last few years, often casually, I notice more people bowing their head before receiving, or even in rare cases genuflecting, than once was the case. The nice thing about that is that I have to give them time to do that, so Communion is not hurried. Maybe that’s why more people do it, I don ‘t know.


    1. Behavior is indeed essential, but more so outside of the liturgy. Jesus inspired the early Church to continue his mission (Matthew 28:19-20) and example (Isaiah 61:1-3). What goes on inside the head of the believer is not quite as vital as what goes on through the lived example of the disciple. Is the Good News preached by word, example, and accompaniment? That’s the crux of the Christian faith. The details of Thomas, Aristotle, and pollsters? That’s cocktail conversation.

  8. So in teaching Eucharistic Theology to high schoolers comes the question from a Catholic intelligent youth. “If we don’t believe in consubstantiation then why do we say we do at Mass?” The wisdom of 15 year olds…

    File this under ‘when big words get you in trouble.’

  9. Kudos to Mr. Flowerday – excellent.
    Actually, did not advocate for eliminating transubstantiation but did suggest that it has passed its *used by date*. That is what we mean by *both/and*!
    Why the *fear* or overly cautious reaction to the phrase *current theology*? For hundreds of years, church leadership and theologians worked hand in hand. In fact, O’Malley, SJ brilliantly shows that the Council of Trent discussed each theological or sacramental proposal by starting with a thorough education and explanation by a theologian. Why now do we see the backlash or reaction for almost 50 years?
    Liturgical development (per Jungmann) is a very good example of how pastoral theology develops and impacts/changes church teaching – it reflects time limited expressions that are part cultural, philosophical for that time, etc.
    Historically, Thomas Aquinas and his theology e.g. transubstantiation caused the archbishop of Paris to ban his publications, his discourses, and subject him to silence. Funny how things develop.
    The Church is always reforming – so why do some set up an either/or scenario using certain *cultic beliefs* – transubstantiation being an example.
    As Thomas stated, Faith Seeks Understanding and thus, faith always includes questions and doubts. Without doubts/questions, you simply have cultic belief. So, agree with some commentors that this survey and its question(s) were inadequate, poorly worded, and forced yes or no replies when faith is so much more complex. So, why *the sky is falling* reaction?
    As humans, the best we can do to express divine mystery is to use metaphor, symbols, signs – why isolate and highlight certain markers as beyond and different from that process? We do not read scripture literally – why would we do sacramental theology literally?
    Isn’t it way past time to subject certain church statements such as transubstantiation to the historical critical methods?
    Suggest that the eucharistic hymns of Thomas Aquinas more significantly capture and express our communal faith in the presence of Christ in bread and wine than any time limited philosophical statement such as transubstantiation.

  10. In a way this report on Catholics’ beliefs in the Eucharist makes sense to me, given the fundamental developments in cosmological understanding that humanity has experienced in the last century. We now know that everything in existence, including ourselves, is made up of atoms which come together to form molecules, etc. We know the mechanics of digestion, and how our bodies break the substances we consume into component molecules that provide both energy and the building blocks of the cells of our bodies. From the Higg’s boson to the search for the edge of an expanding, evolutionary universe, the very way humanity understands creation is radically different from what it was at the beginning of the 20th century. Of course this change in worldview is going to impact belief.

    That is why I don’t find the language of transubstantiation particularly helpful in the 21st century. Understanding it first requires an understanding of a worldview of form and substance, a worldview that is very different from atoms and molecules. I think it’s important to remember that for Aquinas, Aristotelian metaphysics wasn’t just a philosophical way of looking at reality, it was in essence the best scientific understanding of reality. To continue to use that language is to use a philosophical framework that is now divorced from the common way humanity conceives of reality. Reality is composed of the tiniest, irreducible particles arranged in increasing complexity, which is actually closer to Democritus than Aristotle. It seems to me that the purpose of transubstantiation was to describe Real Presence using the best understanding of reality humanity had at the time. That should always be the purpose of how we describe the Eucharist. Given the explosive and rapid growth in understanding of reality in a single century, that becomes both a more difficult and more necessary project. So how do we describe the reality that bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ in the language of the universe as we understand it?

  11. If there’s anyone looking for an explanation of what our Eucharist is that will be compelling to modern people in a way that St. Thomas’s Aristotelian philosophy is not, then I say turn to the Bible. Where has Bible based preaching gone in the Catholic Church?
    If I had to explain it to my children, I might say that God sent the miraculous food, manna, to the Israelites as they wandered. We need real food each day to live, and God gives us real food. When God came to us, in Jesus Christ, he wanted to heal us, teach us, lead us, and even be the food we need to reach the promised land. When God made covenant with human beings, the agreement was sealed by a sacrifice. Our new covenant with God is sealed by God himself, in Jesus Christ. Finally, what God says is, is. Jesus told us that his body is true food, and his blood is true drink, which means that we cannot hold our faith in reserve for doubt.

  12. I’ve encountered any number of Roman Catholics – including ordained clergy – who think that the substantial presence of Christ in the eucharist is a physical presence. In other words, they are thinking that what has been changed are the molecules and atoms of the eucharistic elements into the molecules and atoms of Christ. To try and communicate that “substance” is an immaterial reality is beyond difficult.

    I’ll continue to think that most survey questions in regard to eucharist are the RC sacramental equivalent of “Have you stopped beating your wife?”.

    1. +1, Alan! Most of the people who, in their minds, are orthodox, are in fact heterodox in my experience.

    2. I’ve heard people describe it as a physical presence, but none of them ever meant they think the atoms or molecules change. Do they actually say they believe that or is this an assumption on your part? It always seems clear they mean to say that Christ is really present in the form of an actual physical object that one can adore, touch, and consume.

      1. I don’t know how much of a minority view this is, but I remember an exchange with a prominent internet priest who was bothered deeply when I said the “accidents” of plant DNA remained. He insisted that human DNA would be present.

      2. I’m sure there are people who believe oddball things, I would just give the benefit of the doubt to anyone who merely said Christ is physically present when speaking about the Blessed Sacrament (especially if one is to give the benefit of the doubt to those who say they believe the Eucharist is a mere symbol).

      3. All the words in use are slippery and keep changing in meaning over the centuries – actual, physical, real, bodily, substantial, etc. – but to the extent we can suss out what people seem to mean, many people who think they are affirming Real Presence, and see themselves as orthodox and in a position to judge others, in fact have an understanding which is physical and literal and just plain wrong. They’ve perhaps never thought about whether atoms or molecules change, but when pressed they are uneasy admitting that there is no change at that level. When asked, they think that they can see the Body of Christ with their eyes, which is totally contrary to Aquinas. They think the priest can move the Body of Christ when he moves the host, which is also contrary. They think the transformation of bread and wine is more important than building up the church as Mystical Body, which completely inverts Aquinas’s understanding of res tantum and res et sacramentum.

        No, it’s not a case of “the more the better” concerning people affirming (they think) Real Presence. This physicalism and literalism has very real dangers of idolatry, fundamentalism, anti-ecumenism, and utter misunderstanding of what the Church believes about liturgy and taught about it at the last ecumenical council. There is a reason why the bishops decided that the old liturgy would be reformed out of existence and no longer celebrated: It doesn’t support Real Presence as well as the reformed liturgy, and it leads to distortions and misunderstandings at the popular level.

        It shouldn’t bother us (too much) that an ecumenical council introduced a course correction, as if that can’t happen. Aquinas introduced a massive course correction with “transubstantiation,” in which “substance” is real but spiritual rather than physical, as an improvement upon the physicalism dominant ever since the condemnation of Berengar.


      4. Fr. Ruff, what about the possibility of not taking Christ’s words seriously enough? Is there a danger in being more concerned about being seen as reasonable at the expense of emptying the Lord’s words of their power? To be clear, I am not advocating for thoughtless faith alone fundamentalism.
        But I find it more concerning when I talk to a much larger number of Mass going Catholics who state that they love the symbol of the Eucharist. I would hope they mean the same thing that many of the Church fathers meant by symbol namely that the symbol is that which it symbolizes. However, when I have asked what they mean by symbol they have never said that. Instead, they say something similar to “that when I receive communion I call to mind all he did for me.” Not really sure what they mean, I then ask if they believe Jesus is present in the Eucharist and they say one of two things (typically): 1. “Oh we don’t believe that anymore” or “Kind of, but not like literally. Communion is just a way for me to show I believe in Him.” That is not exactly a testament to the superiority of the reformed rite. Popular belief has instead just gone to the other extreme. We can have a discussion about whether we could do a better job of educating the faithful or whether it is better for someone to believe too strongly Christ’s presence in the Eucharist or be shaky whether it even has any spiritual effects within itself.

      5. A few things …

        The greater danger these days (and probably all through the Christian era) is believers not taking Matthew 25 seriously. The poor are not symbols.

        In many ways, the Eucharist is a symbol. Conservatives and traditionalists (and others too) accept it as a symbol of unity with Rome, or unity of belief. Surely, sacraments are not *only* symbols, but they do have symbolic content.

      6. I never denied the symbolic element of the Eucharist. I simply pointed out that the fathers of the Church had a much different understanding of symbol than what most people understand by symbolic. Again, the symbol is what it symbolizes that is the way symbol would have been understood by many of the Fathers. So I am all for the symbolic understanding of the Eucharist.

        Okay, I never said anything about neglecting that central aspect of our
        Faith. So I think that is a bit of a red herring. I try to help out the poor as best my weak and proud nature can and God has inspired me and given me the opportunity to comfort the dying and grieving. From the saints who have lived out Matthew 25 they all had a great devotion to the Eucharist and were strong advocates for the Real Presence of our Lord in the Eucharist (Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day (not a saint yet), John Bosco, Oscar Romero, and going further back Francis of Assissi’s writings on the Eucharist could be construed as too literal in understanding the Eucharist.) Strong Eucharistic devotion should orient us to love of neighbor not in on ourselves.

    3. I agree with Jack, I have never found someone who says they believe in a physical presence claim that the atoms and molecules change. If there are those who believe such a thing I would believe them to be in the minority of those who speak of Christ physical presence in the Eucharist.

      1. Fr Ruff,

        Did any of the council father’s actually say that they were “reforming the old liturgy out of existence”, and that the 1962 missal leads to misunderstandings concerning the real presence?
        These claims just seem wildly implausible

      2. Actually they did say that. Not in those words, but it’s implicitly and explicitly the precise meaning of the liturgy constitution taken as a whole.

        Look at it this way. Is there any indication whatsoever that the Council Fathers expected the temporary 1962 missal to remain in use? Is there any evidence whatsoever that they thought the Tridentine liturgy was untouchable and irreformable? None.

        Is there any evidence whatsoever that the Council fathers foresaw two forms of the Roman Rite in simultaneous existence, the unreformed 1962 one and the reformed one for which they laid out many general principles and also some specifics? None whatsoever.

        I wouldn’t claim that the Council fathers saw the understanding of Real Presence as distorted in the old Tridentine missals or in the temporary 1962 missal, nor would I claim that they thought the liturgical reform they mandated would fix the understanding of Real Presence. I don’t believe that all, or even most, of the Council fathers grasped the full implications of the deep reforms they mandated. But some of them probably did.

        The claim I would make is fully as comprehensive, though more nuanced and convoluted in arriving at it: The “re-reading of the Gospel” (a la Francis) that is Vatican II is a re-envisioning of the whole, and that includes Real Presence. (And many, many other individual doctrines one could name.) It is not a rejection of the past or a rupture with it, but a re-synthesizing of everything which is a unique type of continuity and development.

        To lay out how V2 in effect re-calibrated what Real Presence is would require a monograph! Here I can only sketch out in very general terms how the argument would shape up.


      3. Then I have to ask, Fr. Ruff, If you can admit that most of the council fathers didn’t understand the deep implications of what they were approving, then how is it that you can say that your interpretation reflects the intention of the council fathers and is backed up by the authority of the council?

      4. From the TEXTS, their inner logic, the letter and spirit of what the texts say.

      5. I’m afraid I’m still confused.
        You just stated that:

        ” I don’t believe that all, or even most, of the Council fathers grasped the full implications of the deep reforms they mandated. But some of them probably did”

        If that is true, then I don’t see how you can claim that these deep reforms reflect the intentions of the council fathers, and thus of the council itself.

      6. A loose analogy – and it is quite loose – is that it’s similar to how Isaiah said lots of very true things about Jesus Christ but did not realize he was referring to Christ, or the full implications of his own words, or the way in which they would become true at a later point in time.

        But I think there is real intention on the part of the Council fathers that goes beyond this loose analogy, and which I haven’t expressed fully yet in my comments to you.

        So here’s another analogy. I’m a drug addict who commits to a full reform of my life. I will do whatever it takes to get clean and sober. I know it’s not working now and I need a major change to get to a better place. But I think – at this point – that this will mean 30 days of treatment, and then not doing drugs and maybe loosing some druggie friends and changing my patterns of recreation. But I come to realize, once the process of increasing self-awareness sets in, and once I get a sponsor and work my 12-step program, that much more will change than I initially realized. I come to experience better and deeper friendships and relationships, and I break up with my fiancee. My spiritual awakenings lead me to seek out a church, and I start spending much time in volunteer work at church. I’m in the wrong line of work and I start training for a different career. And so forth.

        Did I agree to all these specifics? No. But I did commit to do whatever it takes to get clean. And it takes all those things, I gradually realize.

        I’m still the same person, and people tell me I still have the same quirks and foibles and idiosyncratic political views and the same talents and gifts. People also tell me – and here the analogy to ressourcement is very good – that my old self is coming back, and qualities I used to have 10 or 20 years earlier are returning. At times I feel moments of carefree happiness that I can vaguely recall last feeling at age 5.

        The Council fathers committed to a major reform of the church. Not a rupture in the sense of throwing everything out and starting over, but continuity-in-reform in the sense of re-organizing and re-conceiving and re-weighting all the various parts of the church’s tradition. There is no way the Council fathers could know what all that would look like in its specifics, but they committed to the general principles and directions, and to a process that the church would undergo after the Council.


      7. That makes a little more sense. I’m sorry for all the questions, but i’m genuinely interested in understanding your position. I hope it’s not too forward but your explanation raises the following two points for me:

        1. Why weren’t the deep reforms spelled out for the Council Fathers , that is, why aren’t they in the surface of the text?
        I mean, it’s not like someone says “The Council of Nicea doesn’t outright declare the Son to be of one substance with the Father but it’s there in the deep structure of its creed, its inner logic, its spirit.” Rather, it’s right there in the surface structure of the text.

        2. Concerning your analogy with the drug addict. If I say “I want to get clean and am willing to do what it takes” and my sponsor arranges to permanently move me to a hermitage in Antarctica, I can still say “that’s one way of getting clean but that’s not what I meant!” he can’t say “yes it is what you meant, because you said you’re willing to do what it takes.” There’s still some important sense in which the sponsor is wrong to say that.

      8. Fr. Ruff, to continue a long list of queries. I like what you are saying with the council fathers wanting to make effective changes for the renewal of the Church. Would it be possible for a younger generation that no longer exists in the same period of upheaval (’60’s-’70’s) but yet still exists within a period of different upheaval to turn to a retrieval of different aspects of the tradition (a resourcement if you will) with no intended malice or detriment to the council documents? For the purpose of trying to ground them in a less transient reality (I understand that tradition changes in ways but usually only over a number generations does it become more set.) Whereas many in the immediate post-conciliar years still had familial ties, institutional ties, and geographical ties (all of this was starting to fray of course) but now many of the more recent generations exist within a world where families have been cast to the four winds, communities tend to be transient, and active membership in a religious institution or even civic institution is less common. These institutions would have provided an individual with a sense that they belong to something bigger and something that extends far beyond their own lifetime. Thus, I do not see the desire for some (myself included) to return to aspects of the Catholic tradition that speaks to our desire for something more historical and rooted over the transient culture in which we exist. Wasn’t the reform meant to meet the needs of our time? The world has changed since the council and I love the council documents (I do have a hard time understanding GeS but I assume that is because I am a ’90’s child and I need to come to a better understanding of the context.) Thus, I would ask what is wrong with reading these documents with a more ‘traditional’ lens? Certainly, some dioceses implemented the post-conciliar changes with a more traditional bent and the 1965 interim Missal seems to attest that there was at least some interpreting the council with more of an eye toward the tradition and not away from it.

      9. Thanks for your question. Briefly:

        The 1965 interim missal was never meant to be a full implementation of Vatican II, it was only intended to be interim.

        Of course the developments put into motion at Vatican II continue, and the whole church under the hierarchy has a role in discerning how to develop further. That could be in a more “traditional” direction on particular points, and I would be open, to name a few examples, to more Latin chant, ad orientem (maybe in 50 years when it’s not a battle weapon), or any number of things.

        But it’s not just about ‘current needs’ and what a current generation (thinks it) wants. Not every misunderstanding of Catholicism, no matter how widespread or fervently held or ubiquitous on the internet, counts as the way forward. As we see in the whole discussion on Real Presence, here and elsewhere, some of the people wanting “traditional” things (Communion on tongue, kneeling, more genuflections, etc.) don’t always have a full understanding of Real Presence or transubstantiation or Thomas or sacramental theology or Vatican II or liturgy, nor are they committed to the Catholic Church’s understanding of ecumenism. Any proposal to go in a more “traditional” direction is on the table, but it must be held to rigorous scrutiny and must show that it doesn’t tend toward pre-Vatican II more than post-Vatican II understandings in areas where there is a difference of emphasis or development.

        I’m not optimistic, to be honest, about the state of discussion in the U.S. Catholic Church. For complex cultural and historical and psychological reasons, we’re plagued with some theological misunderstandings and religious fundamentalism. I am hopeful, however, about the global Catholic Church longer term. The seismic shift which is Vatican II will win out and develop further, I am convinced. The controversies and ongoing discussions will help the truth to arise – that Vatican II did really happen and it really does mean all the things it means and it really isn’t going to be revoked. The alternative views on offer just don’t hold up to scrutiny. The tragedy is that many of our young people are being led astray, and too many of them will waste too much of their lives on paths that are less than life-giving.


      10. Thank you.

        Yes, I understand that the ’65 Missal was interim but I think it shows more continuity with the past in the implementation of the Council than both extremes like to admit.

        What do you mean by young people being led astray and choosing paths less than life-giving? Are you talking about the culture at large in the U.S. or the Church? Both have truth in them but given the context of the discussion, I assume you are talking about more traditional leaning Millenials. Is that correct? If so, what makes you say this in such a fatalistic way? Obviously the young can be rash and arrogant but the young always are in every age. It doesn’t mean their concerns are not valid and paths they take are completely off the mark, it just means they are young. I see many young people with a more traditional leaning that seem to be part of something teeming with life, even if it is not perfect.

      11. “I think (the ’65 Missal) shows more continuity with the past in the implementation of the Council than both extremes like to admit.”

        Even if I’m an extremist, I’ll admit it. But I also admit that continuity is not a prime virtue, for post-conciliar reforms of any kind, nor is it congruent to the human experience of conversion, or what God asks of us. In fact, I’ll suggest further that areas in which the Church clung to continuity (ranging form clericalism and its culture of secrecy to the milquetoast reforms of the Hours or Penance) is where we find the Church failing most grievously. Change for the sake of change isn’t its own virtue, certainly. But a lack of courage and vision has certainly been to our detriment the past half-century.

      12. AWR, I think if you have genuine concerns about the rise of traditional liturgy amongst younger people, you would spend more time asking questions, creating dialogue, and listening. The tendency here is to be dismissive and to look for how people’s experiences fit pre-conceived notions (which you and others have done in this very discussion). The question at PrayTell always seems to be “what is wrong with those who are attracted to traditional worship and devotions?” with predictable ready-made answers. The real questions should be: “What is it about the reformed liturgy that is failing these people? What is it about the traditional rites that attracts them?” with it being assumed that those attracted to the old Mass are fundamentally good people who might actually be trying to live the Gospel. Those are difficult questions that might have challenging answers, but they would probably be more fruitful.

        Granted, I fundamentally disagree with you about the place of the old rites in the Church today. I have read this blog for years and have found the arguments against them to be generally quite poor. However, it would be nice to see the subject treated seriously if PrayTell is going to devote so much time and effort to it

      13. Todd,
        I don’t have that much knowledge of penance and the liturgy of the hours before the council. Except that penance would have probably been in Latin except for the confession of sins and the priest’s counsel and in the case of the hours it would have been in Latin and the hours themselves were much more extensive and time-consuming to pray.

        I lay some of the faults for clericalism and the culture of cover-up on LG grandiose vision of the bishop. While the church has always been hierarchical and placed high-value on obedience to the bishop before the council there were things like permanent pastors and certain rights given to religious orders that permitted in both cases someone that could speak out against the bishop without having to worry that it might mean a loss of status or even orders. The 1982 Code of Canon Law took its cue from the council’s document, doing away with permanent pastors and stripping religious orders of the rights they would have previously enjoyed in a diocese basically made the bishop untouchable except by an intervention from Rome.

        To be clear, I am not saying that I disagree with VII on its teaching about the theology of the episcopacy but I do think in order to understand properly what was actually said one must read the “Nota Praevia” that Paul VI said was to be always attached to the publication of LG but that directive has been ignored.

        I have never understood why continuity isn’t a priority to some. Could you explain this to me? I just see that in Acts 2:42 the teachings of the apostles was something that the early Church this was something they committed themselves to and then throughout the fathers of the Church and even all the way through Newman and resourcement movement there was a desire for continuity with the tradition. I have always found this convincing. I am not trying to start a fight, I am just curious if you could explain your position to me. Thanks!

        Also, “milquetoast.” Great word choice!

      14. Pete,

        This is getting a bit off topic, but my sense is that the essence of conversion to Christ through both the sacraments and the spiritual life involves a rejection of continuity. The Bible is full of characters who rejected the continuation of their old lives, from the patriarchs (Abram), through those enslaved in Egypt and led by Moses, and especially the prophets. Jesus called particular people to discontinuity, from fisherman and persecutor to Rock and apostle. Then you have twenty centuries of saints. Their conversion stories involved a total break from their old lives.

        Then you have the sacramental experience. When a people are married for example, they may have a gradual process of acclimating to a life of self-sacrificing love. But once vows are taken, it is a rupture from many aspects of life. Newly married people do not cling to the continuity of flirting with people, trolling singles bars, or going on blind dates.

        It is often discerned that rupture is part of God’s call to us. People who have made commitments don’t see recovery as getting drunk only one or two nights a week, or having casual sex only when one’s spouse is working. And if we’re talking about liturgical reform, the principle of continuity is mentioned but once in SC.

      15. Todd,

        Thank you. I appreciate your metaphor it helped me to better understand your position. I might disagree with your assessment over what practices/disciplines before the council were harmful/unfaithful and what was good/wholesome with a need of deepening and renewal. But I do see that is valuable to continue this conversation (not us, but the Church as a whole, I will stop getting us off-topic on this thread.)

        Yes, continuity is not a word used often in SC. (though, p. 23 states: “there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them, and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.” However, neither is rupture a term used SC instead both terms became ways for different ends of the ecclesial spectrum to describe the way in which they interpreted the Council. I admit that the Church did call for changes in the Council and justifiably so but I would debate what those changes should be and to what extent the changes should go. But that is a conversation for another day.

        Again, I am grateful for your response, it did help me better understand your position. A little understanding can go a long way. Peace.

  13. I should note that the survey never used the word “substance”–the term “transubstantiation” only gets introduced in the reporting of the findings. The choices given in the survey were “actually” or “symbolically.” Like I said, these are bad choices. But I do think that practicing Catholics should have had at least a moments hesitation before denying that Christ is actually present.

  14. And for “symbolically’ most people would have thought “metaphorically” was intended, I would guess. Yes, it’s a really poorly thought out survey.

  15. Can we admit that the majority of regular pew inhabitants, when push comes to shove, would not be able to tell you what transubstantiation means and would start defaulting to a Lutheran understanding? At least that is where the majority of people I speak with will say. (Yup, I can pretty much clear a party out with just a few words when this gets talked about…) Agreed, our language, scientific understanding of change, and the place where our mind lives, do not readily equip the faithful to understand that mystery. Quite possibly that has always been the case.

    Until the philosophical understanding of what happens with bread and wine becomes a realistic concept, Catholics will have to be reminded what it is they are receiving so they will become what they receive.

  16. Ed – found this recent summary from NCR to do a good job of summarizing some key points about the survey, folks’ faith understanding, etc.

    High points:

    “The church does teach that Eucharist is a sign or symbol. All the sacraments are “outward sign[s] instituted by Christ to give grace,” as those who memorized the Baltimore Catechism may recall.

    Although today’s common use of the word “symbol” implies something “less real,” Catholic theology has distinguished between such “figurative” symbols (that only refer to something) and those that are actually bring about or create what they represent — what theologian Karl Rahner called “actualizing” or “real symbols.”

    Theologians often use the example of a kiss, which is not only a symbol of love but something that enacts or deepens love. “Likewise, but on a grander scale, the sacramental celebrations of the church express and deepen what it means to be church,” Brunk said.”

    Suggest that any survey needs to distinguish between what we have faith in versus how we explain that mystery.

    “Subtle differences in wording aside, most Catholics likely “take Jesus at his word” when he said the bread and wine were his body and blood at the Last Supper, said Xavier Montecel, a doctoral fellow studying sacramental theology and Christian ethics at Boston College.

    This is what is meant by the teaching on the Real Presence — not to be confused with transubstantiation, which is an explanation about how the bread and wine become Jesus’ body and blood.

    “They’re not equivalent,” said Anne McGowan, assistant professor at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. “You don’t need transubstantiation to have belief in the Real Presence.”

    For example, Eastern Christians believe in the Real Presence but do not have the doctrine of transubstantiation to explain it, she noted.”

    If Catholics leave Mass “charged with charity, compassion and justice,” he said , then “they’re getting it, even if they are not drawing the distinctions of Aristotelian substance and accident.”

    That some Catholics mistakenly believe in a physical change during transubstantiation may indicate the necessity of more in-depth and nuanced explanations of the teaching, said Montecel. “There is a need for the kind of teaching that meets people where they are and treats them like grownups in their faith,” he said.

    While Vatican II called Eucharist the “source and summit” (or “font and apex”) of the Christian life (Lumen Gentium), it also affirmed Christ’s presence in other parts of the liturgy: in the Word proclaimed and preached, in the presider and in the assembly (Sacrosanctum Concilium).

    “Ultimately you’re explaining a mystery,” said McGowan, who suggests “appropriate humility” in trying to understand “how Christ becomes present not only in the Eucharist but in other areas of our lives.”

    As important as understanding transubstantiation is, Catholics should remember that Eucharist is in service of a larger change in the people, said McGowan. “We are supposed to become the body and blood of Christ, broken and poured out for the life of the world,” she said. “That’s the real change that ultimately matters.”

    We become what we eat – a community of service – period. Why argue about how many angels are on a pin head?

  17. I’ve also liked the following quote from Pope Paul VI credo of the people of God (1968) on transubstantiation. I think it expresses the doctrine in an especially clear and nuanced manner:


    25. Christ cannot be thus present in this sacrament except by the change into His body of the reality itself of the bread and the change into His blood of the reality itself of the wine, leaving unchanged only the properties of the bread and wine which our senses perceive. This mysterious change is very appropriately called by the Church transubstantiation. Every theological explanation which seeks some understanding of this mystery must, in order to be in accord with Catholic faith, maintain that in the reality itself, independently of our mind, the bread and wine have ceased to exist after the Consecration, so that it is the adorable body and blood of the Lord Jesus that from then on are really before us under the sacramental species of bread and wine,(36) as the Lord willed it, in order to give Himself to us as food and to associate us with the unity of His Mystical Body.(37)

    26. The unique and indivisible existence of the Lord glorious in heaven is not multiplied, but is rendered present by the sacrament in the many places on earth where Mass is celebrated. And this existence remains present, after the sacrifice, in the Blessed Sacrament which is, in the tabernacle, the living heart of each of our churches. And it is our very sweet duty to honor and adore in the blessed Host which our eyes see, the Incarnate Word whom they cannot see, and who, without leaving heaven, is made present before us.

    1. I hope it’s clear to all parties that no one is denying what Paul VI says.

      But that is hardly to say that this one quotation from one document is the best or most complete articulation of the truth of the Real Presence. Everything said by Pope St. Paul VI is true and nothing in it is false. But it doesn’t treat the larger and more important issues of res tantum, the meaning of the liturgical act, the role of the congregation in the sacrificial action in the reformed liturgy, and so forth.


      1. I never claimed that this is a complete description of the Real Presence only a statement as to what is entailed by the term “transubstantiation” when employed today, even in that text Pope Paul says more about the Eucharist than this.

        It is telling though that this is what St. Paul VI chose to emphasize about the Real Presence on the eve of promulgating the reformed Roman Missal.

  18. Thank you for the article from NCReporter. The level headedness of Fr. Ruff and the last two entries goes very much against the clarion call to better catechesis by Bishop Barron talking about the “massive failure on the part of Catholic educators and catechists, evangelists and teachers” when commenting on the original survey.

    Maybe those who were massively failed, when hearing the concerns of those (whose heads exploded…thank you Fritz) correcting their wrong answers on their belief in the Eucharist, will say “but that’s not what you asked!”

    1. I am not really sure what you are saying. I think Bishop Barron is dead right when he says that we have had a massive failure in catechesis. Look at the empty pews in your typical parish. Kids who think religion is silly because they were never taught that the faith had any content except for finger painting and be nice. Which parishes are succeeding? One’s that focus on catechesis, prayer, and to undertake the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Not just talking about how the Eucharist is a symbol for the poor and the community but actually do something to minister to the poor.

      1. Data?

        I began 1st grade in 1969, which was perhaps the peak of religious ed “fun and games” and not much doctrine. Beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, the US bishops took on a greater role in approval of catechetical materials. Already in the late 80s, when I graduated from college and took a full-time parish position as music director, I was pleasantly shocked to see how much substance was in the grade school religion books.

        Please note: Catholics of my age and generation are church attenders at a HIGHER rate than the cohorts following us. Those who have grown up with comparatively more solid content in their religious education are massively non-church-going.

        The correlation (NOT causation!) here is that as substance and doctrine have increased, church attendance has decreased. Sorry, but them’s the facts.

        Secularization and disengagement from organized religion are very complex phenomena that have a variety of causes (cultural, historical, political, economical, psychological, etc.) and have been underway for over a hundred years.

        To pin the declines on bad catechesis since Vatican II is pure ideology and lots of wishful thinking, disconnected from reality or serious analysis.


      2. Critique of catechesis, and the notion that people can be “smarted” into faith has a ring of Pelagianism about it, especially the suggestion that people catechized in the right way from the right sources are somehow saved.

        Bishop Barron is incorrect about the quality of catechesis, or at least catechetical materials. It has been consistently high since Vatican II, at least from the late 1970s onward.

        As for “successful” (better to be fruitful) parishes, these are communities of various kinds that are *intentional* in the Christian life. Intentionality can take many forms, but the essence of it is to take inspiration from the mission of Jesus, not just the adoration of him.

      3. Apparently, my own personal experience and the experience of others in my age group is not valid?

        A Catholic high school at which I student taught at had religion textbooks that were published in the ’90s and in one of those textbooks, it actually said we could not know whether the historical Jesus actually existed! It had ecclesial approval! So while I am glad to hear your textbooks were solid, I had a much different experience.

        And also, the fact that you ignore that I did not focus solely on catechesis but noted that prayer outside of just bringing one’s body to the pew is part of a healthy and thriving parish. We should be teaching people to pray and more than just at Mass and saying please, but actually communing with the Lord. Then I also mentioned putting the works of mercy into practice. There are more things like beautiful liturgy which contributes to the three things I mention. But I see those three as a common element of transgenerational parishes that are thriving despite demographics and social factors.

        I am hurt that a priest would so misrepresent my position.

      4. Sorry to offend. I suppose there are places where resources were not put into catechesis. Like Fr Ruff, I’d like to see the actual passage. I was a catechist in the 80s. I’ve been connected to Catholic schools and faith formation ministries for over 30 years. Maybe VBSs have a bit of fluff, but the content–even the non-Catholic ones–look sound to me.

        Speaking of history, in the modern sense it is not the complete listing of everything that has ever happened. My baptism, for example, is a matter of ecclesiastical record. But my conversion is not a fact of history. Likewise my marriage to my wife. There is a marriage license and a notation in a sacramental record. But my love for her is not a “fact” of history.

        I don’t know what your cited textbook said about Jesus and history, but I suspect there was a confluence between tradition and history that didn’t quite match. That Jesus rose from the dead is not a matter of history. But it is a matter of truth, faith, and tradition. I know this is a bother for people who live in a world that lists, details, quantifies, and such. Recognizing the Lord in the Breaking of the Bread is not history. It is an experience of grace that isn’t listed in the census, history books, or even sacramental registers. But it is no less true than Marie Curie discovering radium or Gregor Mendel cultivating pea plants.

      5. Todd,
        I never meant to suggest that people could be smarted into faith. Again catechesis is only a part of the issue but I encounter a lot resistance to the suggestion that we should revamp our catechetical methods. I do not think we should go back to a pre-VII, that world no longer exists. I think that your claim that catechesis is amazing clashes with the experience of religious education for a lot of men and women in my age cohort that are intentionally living out their faith and the one’s who do not (aka my peers.) I don’t think good catechesis=good disciple, I think bad catechesis gives someone the wrong idea about what their Faith is, which gives them a bad witness of the faith which only reinforces what they will hear from many people making their disaffection from faith a slide more than a struggle. In the latter situation, they would be more likely to seek advice and knowledge from people of faith instead of writing them off. They may still leave and are free to do so but at least we gave them an accurate view of the faith and not caricature of secular propaganda. Bad catechesis can involve a lot of things; overly emotive focus in our relationship with God (emotions are part of who we are but not all), a purely intellectual relationship with the idea of God (again part but not all), pure fluff, or reinforcing a version of God that portrays God as a vengeful autocrat. Etc.

        Adoring Jesus was part of His mission. Before he ascended “they worshiped Him” (Matthew 28:17), The entire Book of Revelation is about worshipping the Lamb (aka Jesus), Hebrews also has a lot to say about the worship of Jesus. I am not exactly sure how someone can intentionally carry out Jesus’ mission without adoring Him. It just doesn’t fit with the Biblical model. “Without me [Jesus] you can do nothing.” (John 15: 5)

        And you are right I should not have used the term “succeeding”, it is a too worldly term and I would substitute it with fruitful given the chance. Thanks, for checking me on that. Words matter.

      6. Todd,
        Sorry, I keep missing your previous post before I post. I would agree that certain aspects of Jesus life would be considered a matter of faith. Though, I do find Simon Greenleaf’s work on the event of the Resurrection to suggest there no historical argument for the truth of the Resurrection is just not intellectually honest. (That is different than saying that it is a historical certainty.) But to suggest that Jesus was not a historical figure is just ludicrous. Just that he existed, not concerning every single detail of the gospel, just that Jesus was a real person. The amount of ink spilled over the first centuries of Christianity concerning Christ and even a mention by Josephus, it just seems like you would have to believe in a conspiracy theory more elaborate than a faked moon landing to buy something like Jesus never really existing. Again, not every tale from a gnostic gospel, just that there was Jesus of Nazareth. It wasn’t just an example of bad theology it was academically suspect.

  19. As noted above, Flannery O’Connor felt if the Eucharist were a symbol, “to hell with it.” Tolkien felt it was “the one great thing to love on earth.” What Mozart believed is expressed in the link below. I think they were on to something:

    1. Flannery O’Connor is a great author whom I love reading, but not the best theologian. Her famous and oft-quoted line is actually not helpful.

      Let’s have some serious theological discussion, please. It IS a symbol, and that is no denial of Real Presence or transubstantiation – are there people who still haven’t gotten this memo??


      1. Oh, probably most people. Way most people.

        Precisely because “symbol” is one of those fun Janus-like equivocal terms, such as “sanction”. So using it without sufficient context (and more context is needed for folks who aren’t theology jockies) probably is more likely to assure (1) people can talk past each other, and (2) not move genuine communication forward. So, when the term is used, the user should not be surprised by an ensuing conversation. It’s a justifiable rhetorical choice, but it comes with foreseeable consequences.

        Understanding O’Connor’s recounting of the story in a letter to a longtime correspondent with an, um, interesting history, as an incident between two writers of very different characters helps illuminate that usage. O’Connor was no person of the theology-never-develops school; if anything, her enthusiasm for Chardin’s writings would make her suspect to many latter day restorationists.

      2. Yeah, I’ve got to go with KLS on this: in the context in which it was uttered, O’Connor’s “to hell with it” was right on the nose. But for a fuller presentation of her Eucharistic theology, people should read her story “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.”

      3. Father,
        If they were asked the question posed by this poll, do you seriously doubt that O’Connor, Tolkien, and Mozart would have chosen the answer more closely corresponding to their art, namely that after the consecration the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ? That, after all, is the point of “Ave Verum Corpus, ” and O’Connor ‘s riposte, and Tolkien’s quote. Indeed, in another letter, Tolkien expressed his delight at hearing trumpet fanfares at the consecration in Italy.

        A vision of the Eucharist grounded in the belief that it is no longer bread and wine but the very body and blood of Jesus Christ inspired these great Catholic artists, and great Catholic art, and the great mass of ordinary Catholics, for centuries.

        A vision of the Eucharist that sees traditional piety as tending toward idolatry, fundamentalism, and anti-ecumenism has inspired no great artists, no great art, and very little else.

  20. There’s an Internet misquotation of O’Connor, similar to the Internet chestnut that James Joyce wrote that “Catholicism means ‘here comes everybody'” or — editors of critical editions note — “The Catholic Church is ‘here comes everybody'”. As far as I can tell, he never wrote this; I’d be happy to be corrected.

    The O’Connor misquote is that she said, “If it’s just a symbol, to hell with it”; I hope that most Catholics would agree with this.

    The context for her comment was a dinner at which the several intellectuals and writers, including Robert Lowell and Mary McCarthy, were holding forth, in which O’Connor was unable to get a word in from the 8 p.m. start of the dinner until 1 a.m. Finally, McCarthy

    “said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one.

    I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”

    So in that context, I can agree with both Anthony and Fritz. It seems clear that O’Connor was responding to an implication that the Eucharist is nothing more than a symbol. It’s also clear to me, especially from the story Fritz references, that she would equally have challenged an assertion that the Eucharist is not a symbol.

    1. Yes. Some further color: this is a 1955 letter to Elizabeth Hester (formerly known by code in the original edition of the letters as “A”), with whom O’Connor engaged a long and complicated correspondence. It’s also preceded with the following:

      “I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. . . . She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. The people who took me were Robert Lowell and his now wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them. Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend.”

      Understand who Mary McCarthy was already at the time of this exchange, in this company of folks and who they had meant and now meant to O’Connor, and how O’Connor was drawing in her correspondent, and the coloration of the statement becomes richer. McCarthy was not using “symbol” in the Patristic sense, and O’Connor wanted to prevent a prolongation of misery by living down to her reputation for brutal statement (something for which McCarthy was of course likewise notorious in her rather different way – this was a form of mirroring).

      One might even be tempted in the name of recursive irony to characterize this bon mot as a . . . “condensed symbol”.

      In this regard, it somewhat reminds me of her fierce self-portrait (which, were she ever beatified or canonized, should definitely be used for the tapestry displayed over the balcony of St Peter’s):

  21. Why don’t we make an effort to relate what it means for Jesus being truly, really, and actually present in the midst of a church that gives thanks and praise to God using the gospel accounts? You can’t beat stories for relating mysterious truths as Jesus did.

    1. Jesus taught that even a few loaves of bread, Blessed and broken and provided by his disciples can satisfy the many.
    2. He described himself as the true bread come down from heaven when he told his disciples and “the many” that his flesh was true food and his blood real drink. He asserted that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood have within them the fullness of God’s Life and they would live forever. (Fact check. Does anyone believe that Jesus was offering anyone portions of his physical flesh and blood?)
    3. While celebrating a meal in which the participants believed by remembering events of centuries past they could experience the saving power of God, he took bread and wine and directed them to take and eat, take and drink so that they might perpetually benefit from the bloody sacrifice he was to offer by remembering his saving death and resurrection until he returns in glory. This is THE MYSTERY OF FAITH.
    4. On that first Easter Day two of his disciples were fleeing in fear from Jerusalem to their home in Emmaus. They met up with Jesus though they thought him a stranger. After discovering their ignorance of his mission he breaks opens to them the meaning of the scriptures to the point of their hearts burning. Thus prepared they realized they were in the presence of the Risen One in the breaking of the bread.

    Story gives rise to faith but neither demands it nor requires philosophical explanations. If we are ready to become eligible for heavenly realities of every kind, we need to become trusting and teachable like little children who, after all, only need to have some sense that the Eucharistic Bread is somehow different from that they eat at home. Every Catholic to whom I offer Communion has at least that much faith in Christ and more.

    1. “Fact check. Does anyone believe that Jesus was offering anyone portions of his physical flesh and blood?”

      Ummm….the Israelites listening to Jesus clearly did and Jesus dug in on the issue when the Israelites grumbled about it.
      “The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us [his] flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats* my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” John 6:52-54 Now, He is not suggesting that the people chew on him zombie style but he apparently thought his point was worth driving home about His presence in the new Manna.

      Jesus meant what he said. Now that does not mean we can fully grasp how Christ is really/actually/truly present in the Eucharist..probably not. But “Truth himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.” Throughout the Gospels Jesus is worshiped and St. Paul writings, the Letter to the Hebrews, and the Book of Revelation all detail the importance of adoring Christ. Why does that have to be juxtaposed with service to the poor? Do we imagine Christians of the past said “who cares about the poor, I am going to pray!” No, they saw a clear connection between the call to love of God and love of neighbor.

    2. You are right that stories are powerful. I remember reading thin books with short tales of different saints as a child in the 1980s. Many of them I no longer remember; however, I do remember reading the story told of St. Tarcisius. I did not know the term transubstantiation and could not have described substances or accidents or any other philosophical terms. (In fact, as a regular person in the pews and not a theologian, philosopher, or liturgist, my ability to use philosophical terms is still close to zero.) However, based on that story and other things I was taught by my parents, I specifically remember thinking as a child at Mass one day that there is a miracle that occurs at every Mass even though we can’t see it. Even though I couldn’t (and still can’t) explain exactly how it happens, the bread and wine become Christ in a way that nothing else in the universe does. And it is so real, it is worth dying for.

      This was at a parish where everyone (that I remember) received communion in the hand and where Vatican II was very well-received. One of my favorite communion hymns was “Gift of Finest Wheat,” and I remember loving it when we got to the verse that went “The mystery of your presence, Lord, no mortal tongue can tell….Whom all the world cannot contain comes in our hearts to dwell….” So, I guess music is powerful, too.

  22. Tell that to my bishop who I have heard preach that we come to Mass to adore Jesus in the tabernacle, and who ostentatiously prays on the sanctuary before Mass and then rushes through the Eucharist, cuttng off the peoples responses and the final chord of every bit of singing.

  23. Pete W said: “I see many young people with a more traditional leaning that seem to be part of something teeming with life, even if it is not perfect.” I think this was very well put and I appreciated the humble qualifying clause at the end.. Thank you. And, yes, I see it too. The Mystery of the Real Presence is a mystery and “transubstantiation” is as good a term as any as to what “happens”. And yes Aristotelian “essentialism” has nothing to do with a purely physical transformation. I don’t care much about the poll. But I do care that the Mystery of the Real Presence produce “something teaming with life”. Pete W and his confreres are not a “threat” but the very medicine we need.

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