Nearly 70% of US Catholics do not believe that the bread and wine they receive at Communion has, during Mass, become the actual Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. That statistic is among the findings reported in a recent Pew Research Center study, and it should concern every one of us.
Transubstantiation, the action by which bread and wine become the Real Presence of Christ within the Holy Eucharist, is a concept and teaching central to the fact of that Presence, and it is understood or believed in by only 31% of those surveyed.
A constant refrain in the Word on Fire movement is “Don’t dumb down the faith,” because when we do, bad things happen, and they show up in Pew studies, and in the emptying of our pews, and in a troubled society wide with scorn and narrow in solace.
So we’ve got a lot of work to do in our homes, in the classroom, from our pulpits, online, and wherever else that we live, and move, and have our being. We have to help “smarten up” our fellow Catholics about their faith, and then help them to apply it to the culture all around. Because as with any knowledge, left unapplied it becomes sterile and empty.
There are two aspects of American culture that have greatly impacted our understanding of and devotion to the Eucharist that I think have been flying under the radar. The first is our flawed understanding of the role food plays in the life of a human being, and the second is the effect of technology on our lives—specifically that of the cell phone.
Believe it or not, the two are related.
Human beings are the only animals who share a meal. All other animals eat, they all take nourishment, but only human beings cook, set a table, read recipes, mix ingredients, pour wine, use utensils, add spices, wear napkins on their laps, and enjoy dessert. As philosopher Leon Kass notes in his classic work The Hungry Soul, on important occasions we humans dine, and on the most important occasions we feast.
For human beings, meals are not simply about nourishment; they’re about engaging in conversation—speaking, listening, inquiring, being truly present to one another and thus building community.
When I was part of the admissions team at our college seminary, I would ask the young man I was interviewing how often his family eats a meal together. Since meals are one of the few times during the day where people are intentionally present to each other, they serve as a good indicator of one’s family dynamic. People live busy lives, but most of our guys were eating meals with their families at least a few times a week, which is good. Eating a meal with your family usually means that you are present to your family and that your family is present to you. It means that you know you matter to your family and that your family matters to you.
And that matters to the world. It’s an important part of being both human and Catholic. Think how often Jesus ate with people in the Gospels, and how often he fed people. He dined with sinners and tax collectors, with Pharisees and friends, with the rich and the poor, and did some of his finest ministry around a table. In fact, the night before he died, he gathered his disciples and celebrated the first Eucharist, making the bread and wine into his Body and Blood, and he told them to eat it and drink it. It was a meal, yes, though one forever connected to a distinct sacrifice, which is the Mass.
But we live in a culture that does not promote or encourage families and friends to make time to share meals together. We often choose to “fuel up” or “have a quick bite.” We regularly eat alone in our cars or at our desks, rather than around a table with others. We may get more done by replacing a meal with a shake or by snacking throughout the day, but human beings flourish when we are present to each other at meals.
Sharing meals allows us to experience the real presence of one another. When we choose to eat alone or on the run, or we simply decide to “take nourishment,” we are training ourselves to live with absence. A culture that promotes eating alone or on the run is a culture that promotes real absence. It’s a culture that values calories more than community, and efficiency over being. It’s not a good place to be, but unfortunately, it’s where many of us are.
Now, the cell phone (especially when it shows up during a meal) renders us absent to each other in a profound way. When your phone is sitting next to your fork or above your plate at a meal, it’s telling the people around you that the phone is more important than they are, that the phone is more interesting, that it has a priority even at the feast.
How often do we place our phones on the table while eating, or take a phone call, or answer a text, or even check social media while dining with family or friends? We may think doing so is insignificant, but we are fooling ourselves. Bringing our phones to the table encourages us to put what is present to us on hold in order to be absent to each other.
Our phones distract us from one another, and at meals in particular, they work against our humanity and train us to be a society in absentia.
If we do not know how to come together and be present to each other at a simple meal, how can we ever become a formed community of faith?
So do we need more and better catechesis, especially regarding Christ in the Holy Eucharist and how we understand and relate to him there? Absolutely.
But we also need to take a closer look at the way our culture has formed our understanding of presence and absence, specifically in how we eat, and how we use our cell phones at the table. Because the way we conduct ourselves outside of Mass prepares us—for better or for worse—for how we experience what happens within the metaphysical realities of the Mass, and how we then take it forward to a society that desperately needs Christ.