Jesus shocked his followers about 2,000 years ago saying that he was the “Bread of Life” and statistically, it’s a belief that some Catholics still struggle with today.
In August 2019, Pew Research Center sent another shockwave through the faith community when their study revealed 69 percent of Catholics did not believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Father Erik Pohlmeier, pastor of Christ the King Church in Little Rock, diocesan faith formation director and theological consultant for Arkansas Catholic, pointed to the Bread of Life Discourse in John Chapter 6, when Jesus first told his followers this truth.
“They reacted as we would react: That’s crazy. Then he doubles down … to the point that many of his disciples that day left him and he let them go,” Father Pohlmeier said.
That “doubling down” is one of the greatest references to the Real Presence: “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.’” (John 6:53)
But the lesson for all Catholics about believing in the Real Presence with the eyes of faith is in the response of the 12 disciples: “Simon Peter answered him, ‘Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’” (John 6:68)
“They don’t say, ‘That makes sense to us.’ They make a statement of faith, not a statement of understanding,” Father Pohlmeier said.
Catholic teaching is the belief that the host and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, while still retaining the physical properties of bread and wine. This happens each Mass as the priest prays the words of consecration, derived from Jesus at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:26-29). Different from some Protestant denominations that view Communion as a symbolic gesture of remembrance or even from those who believe Jesus is spiritually present in the host, Catholics believe after consecration, his presence remains beyond the Mass, alive in us, in all consecrated hosts, but also throughout the sanctuary. Consecrated hosts are therefore placed securely in the tabernacle and treated with respect, a light always next to the tabernacle.
“Once Christ has made that his own, it doesn’t revert back. It’s a persevering presence; that’s why we have tabernacles and take Communion to the sick outside of active worship,” Father Pohlmeier said.
It is why respect and reverence are required when entering and leaving the sanctuary, as well as in the Communion line.
The belief also signifies the importance of the Mass experience, whether a person is able to receive Jesus in Communion or not, they are a part of the Eucharist. This also translates to live-streamed Masses, but with limitations, since the “act of being fed can’t happen virtually.”
“When we say Eucharist, it can mean the act of receiving Communion,” Father Pohlmeier said, but added that “the Eucharist in the larger sense is the entire act of worship … Even in a virtual sacrifice, that sacrifice is being offered while I’m not present, but the priest is … we’re coming into contact with a God who is so much greater and can’t be pinned down.”
There could be a variety of reasons a person does not believe in the Real Presence, from a lack of catechesis to a lack of faith in the spiritual — heaven may still be the end goal and belief, but the presence of miracles, angels and the divine here on earth is hard to fathom. Tragedy can also cloud a person’s belief in the Real Presence, either relying on God’s presence through suffering or questioning how a loving God could allow something to happen.
“We’re flesh and blood, concrete human beings that live in a scientific age,” where many things in life are provable, Father Pohlmeier said. However, we also have a mixed life of abstract concepts. “Everybody really loves somebody and that can’t be measurable in any scientific sense.”
Understanding the mystery of the Real Presence through eyes of faith hits each Catholic differently. For Father Pohlmeier, it was when Sister Emmaline Mostosky, OSB, from St. Scholastica Monastery, who taught at St. Joseph School in Paris, pulled him down firmly (though not violently) when he got up to cross the aisle during the consecration, explaining “we don’t move around at this part.”
“‘Oh I must be missing something here. Clearly this is something more important than I realize.’ I look back on that now, I don't remember many things from my earliest days of school but I remember that very clearly,” he said. In his priestly ministry, it was the foundation of his call to help others.
“The thing that helps people the most is the Eucharist. I remember it being a very clear moment of ‘I do believe that: The greatest possible help for somebody is the Eucharist,’” Father Pohlmeier said.
While living in Brazil as a missionary for the Freewill Baptist Church with his wife Laura and young son Samuel in the early 1990s, the now-Father Norman McFall’s heart began racing. He was nervous as he felt compelled to enter one of the local Catholic churches. He had been inside Catholic churches before, viewing them more as a “tourist attraction.” The couple had bought into all the “anti-Catholic teaching,” which led them to Brazil in the first place, hoping to convert people in the predominently Catholic country.
But on that day, something was different.
“When I walked in, I didn’t understand it, but I felt like I was being led in there. So I went in there and the first thing I noticed, it was sort of a basilica-style nave, and I just remembered looking at the little red light, next to the little house or hut” the tabernacle, Father McFall said.
The Body of Christ was present, though he didn’t understand it at the time. “It drew me there ... ‘Norman just come in here and look.’ I’m telling you I felt as nervous as I felt asking a girl out on a date.”
The family returned to the states after six and a half years and pastored a church in Pine Bluff. Even as a minister, he’d visit St. Joseph Church when it was empty.
“I just remember wandering around in there awed by everything. I can’t say I was drawn to the tabernacle at that time, but there was something drawing me in there and it was Christ,” he said.
The family converted to Catholicism in 1999 and he was ordained a priest in 2016, one of just three married priests in the Diocese of Little Rock. Father McFall said the Real Presence is “my life.”
“Often when I celebrate Mass and I lift the Body of Christ up to show to the people I always pray ‘Jesus I love you, I trust you, I believe.’ I don’t believe I have ever scratched the surface of it. I feel like there’s so much more there that I want to get,” he said of understanding the mystery of the Real Presence.
To help, on most days, he pulls up a chair in front of the tabernacle to sit in silence, just being open to the Lord’s presence.
“It’s like going out into the sun and just sitting there and feeling the warmth of the sun. Even if I'm not paying attention to the warmth, those rays affect me. If I sit out there long enough it will burn the top of my bald head,” said Father McFall, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Charleston. The comparison, minus the burns, is clear. “Just sitting there, he does something to me. It has brought me a sense of poise and peace.”
Though it's easy to get distracted adoring Jesus, Father McFall likened the busy mind to a stampede of horses, but there are ways to let the stampede of thoughts pass by. For him, if he gets distracted, he uses an “anchor word,” Jesus. One of his go-to images is also a memory from Brazil, when his young son, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, would crawl in his lap in the early morning, watching the hummingbirds from his office window.
“There are no words for it. We were just together,” he said. “I think of that image often when I sit before the Blessed Sacrament. It’s like crawling up in my dad's lap and sitting.”
For those who might struggle with that belief, Father McFall said it’s all about being open.
“It seems like a very difficult thing to believe but it is what the Church has taught for 2,000 years and what Scripture teaches,” he said of the Eucharist. “Sit here and look up at the tabernacle. To the best of your ability just say to Jesus, ‘I love you and I trust you, help me,’ and just sit there. We believe Jesus is there and looking at you and smiling at you and loves you and isn’t bound by that metal of the tabernacle.”
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