The Catechism in Motion

Lack of belief in the Real Presence is a liturgical problem



A recent Pew Research Center survey shows that nearly seven out of 10 Catholics don’t believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  They see the Eucharist as “a symbol.”  Alarming numbers, perhaps, but not at all surprising.  Anyone who attends Mass even semi-regularly would likely come to similar conclusions based upon what he observes.  Lex orandi, lex credendi—“the law of worship is the law of belief.”  How we act in worshipping God not only reveals what we believe but forms it.  The liturgy is a Catechism in motion and, quite frankly, in most parishes we learn that all we are encountering in Holy Communion is a symbol.

The catechetical dimension of liturgy is very important.  All of the liturgical trappings surrounding any of the Church’s sacraments are meant to clearly reveal what is happening in front of us.  This applies supremely to the Eucharistic liturgy.  The prayers, the music, and the participation of the faithful are not meant to be forms of self-expression but sacramentals that allow those present to know what is happening and to enter into the Sacred Mysteries.  A beautiful liturgy is one that has what St. Thomas calls claritas.  It radiates intelligibility, revealing the inner logic of what is happening and impressing this knowledge upon our minds.  A beautiful liturgy must be intelligible to modern man so that he can gain connatural knowledge of what is going on.  This, and not a liturgical fidgetiness, is at the heart of “active participation” at Mass.  Mind you, this is no battle over the Tridentine Mass and the Novus Ordo, but a battle over claritas.

A thing is considered to be ugly insofar as it lacks claritas (or one of the other two aspects of beauty: integrity and proportion).  Returning to the subject of the Eucharist, we must examine claritas in the distribution of Communion.  We should expect that what is actually happening is made crystal clear.  Jesus, the Eternal Son of God, the Word Who gave His flesh for the life of the world, is actually giving Himself to us individually.  All the liturgical action regarding distribution of the Eucharist ought to reflect that.  There are two particular practices that actually send a different message: the abuse of Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist and Communion in the hand.  These two practices have contributed greatly to the crisis in faith in the Real Presence.

This might seem like an exaggeration until we realize that Pope Paul VI had a serious concern that these practices could lead to “a lessening of reverence toward the noble Sacrament of the altar, its profanation, or the adulteration of correct doctrine” (Memoriale Domini, Instruction on the Manner of Administering Holy Communion).  The pope saw that a loss of faith in the Real Presence was a danger anytime “a new manner of administering Holy Communion” was introduced.  His caution has proved prophetic.

Receiving the Eucharist in the hand rather than according to the “ancient and venerable tradition” of receiving it on the tongue is no mere logistical shift.  Instead, it sends a message to the faithful: No longer do you receive the great gift of the Bread of Life, but you take it and feed yourself.  It is eaten the same way that any other food is eaten.  When it is received directly on the tongue, not only is the “giftedness” of the Eucharist clarified but the fact that it is no ordinary food is also clear.  No other food is eaten that way, and in the rare instance of someone being fed, it is always an intimate action.  The act of receiving the Eucharist on the tongue also signals a desire that not a “fragment be wasted” because Christ is truly present in even the smallest particle.  As Paul VI put it, Communion on the tongue ensures “that the diligent care which the Church has always commended for the very fragments of the consecrated bread will be maintained.”  Lex receptio, lex credendi.

The sacramental meaning of who we receive from is just as important as how we receive.  The (ab)use of “Eucharistic Ministers” has greatly contributed to the loss of faith as well.  Once referred to as “Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion,” these were deputized to serve in, as the name suggests, extraordinary situations.  The extraordinary is now the ordinary.  But their proliferation has obscured the important truth that it is always Christ Who gives Himself to us.  Bishops, priests, and deacons are sacramentally conformed to Christ the High Priest and thus should be the only ones to distribute Holy Communion.  This is not just an opinion; this is laid out by the USCCB in their 2001 document Norms for the Distribution and Reception of Holy Communion Under Both Kinds in the Dioceses of the United States of America: “In practice, the need to avoid obscuring the role of the priest and the deacon as the ordinary ministers of Holy Communion by an excessive use of extraordinary ministers might in some circumstances constitute a reason either for limiting the distribution of Holy Communion under both species or for using intinction instead of distributing the Precious Blood from the chalice.”

In order to fully grasp the nature of the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ, we receive under both kinds.  But this preference should never give way to obscuring the sign by having lay ministers distribute Communion.  Intinction is a good alternative.  Intinction, wherein the host is dipped into the Precious Blood and is given on the tongue, kills two birds with one stone.  It also offers clarity to the communicant about the nature of both the sacrifice they have just witnessed and Christ’s current state in which His Body and Blood have been reunited in the Resurrection.

The results of the Pew survey have been painted as a catechetical problem. This is true.  But a lack of belief in the Real Presence is also a liturgical problem.


Rob holds an MA in Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary, with a concentration in moral theology. He has a passion for spreading the joy of the Catholic Faith through teaching and writing.

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