By Elizabeth Scalia
Editor-at-Large for Word On Fire
A recent conversation with a friend I know to be a faithful Catholic left me feeling disturbed. This fellow participates at Mass regularly, volunteers to help out both in his parish and within his community, and receives Holy Communion with reverence and hope.
Unlike 70% of Catholics, he understands the teaching about transubstantiation and believes that the Eucharistic Host is the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ.
By any measure, my friend is authentically Catholic, and probably a better one than I.
If he sees this piece, though, he will probably snort after the second paragraph. Not because it is untrue—he knows what the Holy Eucharist is—but because he dislikes the spelling-out of it. The “Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity” specifics he sees as a sort of “dog-whistle,” a means by which “John Paul II Catholics” identify each other among themselves. For him, it is the “language of conservative Catholicism,” which he equates with conservative politics and an agenda he dislikes.
Such thinking goes both ways, of course. I know Catholics who call themselves “progressive” whose ideas run along similar lines as my friend’s, and I know Catholics who consider themselves “conservative” and likewise equate any reluctance to “spell out” the Reality of the Eucharist to a more progressive political stance. Distrustful of each other, parties from either side will lament that political ideologies have infected “those” Catholics, while asserting that their own commingling of faith and politics is alright, because it “aligns with Church teaching.”
As Kurt Vonnegut might write, “So it goes . . .” This ironic distrust in perspectives might be something unavoidable in a supernatural Church that yet encourages human reason (and has a tradition of strenuously thinking through social and economic questions) and will therefore frequently recognize “both/and” complexities rather than go for simple absolutes. This is a good thing. A Church able to see the “both/and” of situations is a Church that will keep thinking while it prays for further wisdom. But, yes, it can sometimes make for real disagreements between Catholics out here in the world, even as we hope to someday come together, finally, as Catholics before we are anything else.
And if we faithful, practicing, participating Catholics cannot stand together under the teaching and understanding of the Holy Eucharist, how will we ever unite over anything?
And this includes the promotion of public Eucharistic processions and frequent time spent in Adoration, something else upon which my friend and I disagreed. The idea of Eucharistic Processions outside of Holy Thursday (“and then to be kept strictly on church grounds where it will be respected . . .”) was appalling to my friend, who sees them as “triumphalist actions” and insensitive to surrounding neighbors.
Eucharistic Adoration he dismissed as well, calling it a leftover from medieval times, when reception at Mass was deeply limited, and Adoration and “Spiritual Communions” were the best most Catholics could hope for. He declared the modern-day practice of Adoration to be both irrelevant and unnecessary, and added that Jesus “doesn’t need it.”
I somewhat understood his feelings, particularly his sense that a Eucharistic procession might invite scorn from non-Catholic people, especially in an era where identity politics and hourly offense-taking seem epidemic. I still argue for public processions, but I recognized that he is equally concerned about respect for nonbelievers and for the Eucharist itself.
On the issue of Adoration, however, we fell into strong disagreement and, for me, it was personal.
I’ve happily testified about how my fraying life outside the Church had snapped back into focus during a chance encounter with Eucharistic Adoration. I’d been driving down a street with the windows open and heard the noontime bells ring as I passed a church. Obeying an impulse I decided to stop in and maybe light a candle.
When I entered the church I saw the altar, alive with candles, and the gleaming monstrance holding the Blessed Sacrament. “Oh, they do Adoration here,” I thought, with something like joy bubbling up inside me. I fell to my knees before the Presence and simply, quietly adored for what I thought was five minutes. When I rose and looked at the clock, an hour had passed, and I was a Catholic once more, looking forward to making my confession and participating in the life of the Church.
Jesus may not have needed my adoration, but I sure needed the consolation and instruction inherent in his Presence, and his Light, that day and almost every week since then.
My friend’s argument against the need for Eucharistic Adoration seemed very earthbound to me, grounded in a worldly considerations of history and utilitarianism—“Christ doesn’t need it.”
Well, maybe not, but he asked for it—“Could you not keep watch with me one hour?” (Matt 26:40)—which suggests that on some level he wants our quiet companionship.
Beyond that, if one is willing to assert that that Christ Jesus is fully Present in the Eucharist, then how can spending time within his physical Presence—talking with Christ, listening to Christ, resting with Christ, “watching one hour” with Christ—be without real value? All of our modern popes have recommended making regular visitations to the Holy Eucharist, particularly in formal Adoration. In 2016, Pope Francis—who also makes a point of publicly going to confession in order to encourage the faithful in this practice—identified Eucharistic Adoration as one of three ways to better know Christ:
One cannot know the Lord without the habit of adoring, of adoring in silence. I believe—if I am not mistaken—that this prayer of adoration is the least known among us; it is the one we engage in the least. To waste time—if I may say it—before the Lord, before the mystery of Jesus Christ. To adore, there in the silence, in the silence of adoration. He is the Lord and I adore Him.
To my way of thinking, when only 30% of our co-religionists understand the Reality of the Eucharist, then spelling it out in specific ways is not a bad thing. Perhaps someone will hear “Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity” (or notice the capitalization) and then seek to understand what Jesus meant in his Eucharistic discourse in chapter six of John’s Gospel, or what it means for Christ to be “with them to the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20), both materially—in every corner of the earth, through every time zone—and spiritually, until time is no more.
If the faithful members of the Church cannot come together on how urgently this Reality needs to be embraced and internalized, for the good of humanity and all Creation, then the very centering pole that upholds the structure of civilization—the Christian hopefulness founded upon Christ’s great Light—may become shaky indeed. We cannot afford its collapse.