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Real Presence: Jesus Is Really Present in the Eucharist. Am I?

 The following is an excerpt of a journal article by the same title authored by Sr. Kieran Sawyer SSND for Youth Ministry Access.  Subscribers can access the entire article here.

The headlines were alarming: "Only 30% of Catholics believe in the Real Presence." A report on a recent survey from the Pew Research Center seemed to indicate that few Catholics accepted this basic doctrine. Many of those who responded to the report pointed accusatory fingers at us, the catechizing church. Bishop Robert Barron said that the survey represented "a massive failure on the part of Catholic educators, evangelists, and teachers."

Other respondents, however, pointed out the weakness of the survey itself. It isn't possible, they said, for even faithful Catholics to explain their nuanced understandings of this profound mystery, certainly not in a multiple choice test question. Nonetheless, I think the survey does call us to look again at how we teach our children to understand what Catholics mean when we say that Jesus is really present in the Eucharist. And even more important: how we, as catechists, can make this profound mystery more meaningful in the daily lives of our students.

As a person who has been trying for many decades to teach children and teens about the mystery of Eucharist, I have found it helpful to point out the difference between two kinds of presence: spatial presence and personal presence.

I write the word PRESENCE on the board, then pick up a small box into which I have placed my keys and ask: What does it mean to say that my keys are present in this box? Then I discuss with the class what the word presence means in each of these other exhibits:
  • a family picture: the parents are present in each child, even the adopted child
  • a love letter: his wife is present in the letter this marine is reading
  • a baby sitter: your parents are present in you when you are babysitting
  • a simple gift: this little boy is present in the dandelions he is giving to his mom
  • a handshake: I am present in the friendly handshake I am offering you

The students easily grasp the difference between the spatial presence represented by the keys in the box, and the various kinds of personal presence indicated by each of the other examples.

I then pull out the documents of Vatican II (I use my yellowed, dog-eared copy for emphasis) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church and distribute a copy of SC 7 and CCC 1373. I help the class to find the phrases in these official documents that describe the many ways Jesus is present in the Eucharist: in the gathered community, in the liturgical celebration, in the words of scripture, in the specially chosen minister, in each individual person who is part of the celebration, and "most especially" in the bread and wine, which the documents call the "Eucharistic species".

They catch the parallels between the Catholic understanding of Eucharistic Presence and the kind of presence represented by my exhibits. Each exhibit tells them something about how the event we call the Holy Eucharist helps us Catholics to understand that Jesus continues to be present in our midst. I remember one sophomore boy telling me that even the keys-in-the-box helped him to understand that mystery. "I can't see the keys, Sister," he explained, "but I believe they are there because I believe in you."

What I want the students to understand is that the Mass is not some magic trick by which bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ. Rather, the entire Eucharistic liturgy is meant to be a celebration of the many ways Jesus chooses to be present to us, the people who love and follow him.
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