When you go to Communion, what do you believe you will receive? If you said “the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus,” you know the Catholic Church teaching. If you said, “bread and wine” or “a symbol of Christ’s body and blood,” you aren’t alone. Many Catholics are confused.
The church has realized for some time now that many Catholics don’t understand, or even believe in, transubstantiation.
In February, the Pew Research Center asked 1,835 U.S. Catholics: “What do you personally believe about the bread and wine used for Communion?” They offered three choices and 69% of respondents chose “symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” The correct answer, based on church teaching, is “actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” (Thirty-one percent chose that.)
Transubstantiation is a core belief of Catholicism. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting the Council of Trent (1545-63), notes: “Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the church of God … that … there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation” (n. 1376).
Yes, the bread and wine still look like bread and wine, but they are not. That’s why we genuflect to a tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament. Would you genuflect to bread and wine? That honor is God’s alone.
Transubstantiation is hard to absorb. Even Jesus’ followers had trouble. When Jesus told them, “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (Jn 6:55), a lot left him. So how do we explain this teaching to fellow Catholics?
Using the right sources makes a difference. When The Compass posted this survey on Facebook, some actually cited non-Catholic sources to explain this Catholic teaching. Learning church teachings should come from Catholic sources, such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the Catechism and the teachings of popes such as St. Paul VI (Mysterium fidei).
The Pew Center found interesting statistics that emphasize this need to go to the sources. For example, 45% of survey respondents either believed the church teaches that consecrated bread and wine “are symbols” or “don’t know what the church teaches.” (Five percent.)
Weekly Mass likewise seems important. More than 60% of those surveyed who attended Sunday Mass each week believed in transubstantiation. Only a quarter of those who went to Mass once a month or less held the same belief.
Education also matters. One might think that those who have attended college or beyond might be a more skeptical in their beliefs. That may be so, but not in the way you’d think. Of those surveyed who believed in transubstantiation, many were college graduates. Thirty-seven percent of college graduates believed in transubstantiation; however, the number drops to 27% of those with a high school diploma or less. Why this is so would need more research. However, part of it could be that, the more schooling you have, the better your research skills have become. And that could include researching church teachings.
Age also seems to matter. The older those surveyed were, the more likely it was that they believed in transubstantiation. Thirty-eight percent of those over 60 did, compared to only 26% of those under 40. Also a bit surprising was that more white Catholics than Hispanics believed in transubstantiation: 34% to 23%.
Mass attendance, education, church teachings and age all seem to matter when it comes to belief in the body and blood of Christ. Hopefully, these various avenues are things parishes, homilists and teachers in Catholic schools and adult formation can explore.
And don’t forget to pray for the gift of faith. It is a gift from God and freely given.