There are occasions in the mad rush of life when responsible, caring people go considerably out of their way to make themselves present to a spouse or a child, a parent, friend or even stranger.
A father or mother hurriedly leaves work quite late, intent on getting to a child’s middle-school basketball or lacrosse game at least by halftime. Someone whose schedule is overcrowded to the breaking point carves out time to visit a friend in another city who recently suffered a painful loss.
What prompts people to do what it takes to be there for someone in a manner more real than the latest electronic device provides?
Indeed, people go to extremes to be present to those they love, but many feel hard-pressed afterward to tell exactly why their presence mattered so much.
Perhaps the child acknowledged the parent’s presence at the school game with only a nod. Perhaps the friend, consumed by his loss, did not remember to ask about his visitor’s well-being or his family.
Nonetheless, we humans take the matter of being really present to others very seriously. We hope our presence makes a silent statement that “speaks” loudly.
For Christians, making an effort to be present to others is Christ-like.
“The Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence, which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy,” Pope Francis wrote in “The Joy of the Gospel” (No. 88).
This is precisely the risk that the Christian community believes Christ takes in making himself personally present to the complicated people of our times.
We, in making ourselves present to others, signal our belief in them and our hopes for them.
But do Christ’s reasons for wanting to be present to us resemble our reasons for wanting to be present to others? If grace builds on nature, as theologians say, our intentions in becoming present to others should cast at least modest light on the mystery of Christ’s presence to us.
Christ is present in many ways. People readily speak of recognizing Christ’s face in the sick and poor or family members and friends, even the difficult ones.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church points out that Christ speaks when the word of God or Scripture is proclaimed. He is present in the sacraments, “of which he is the author,” and in “the person of the minister.” Moreover, he is present wherever “two or three are gathered” in his name (No. 1373).
Christ’s eucharistic presence under the appearances of bread and wine, called his “real presence,” uniquely commands the church’s attention. Speaking of this, the catechism explains:
“This presence is called ‘real’ — by which is not intended to exclude the other types of presence as if they could not be ‘real’ too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense. … It is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present” (No. 1374).
I wanted to quote that passage, since recent research suggests that while nearly two-thirds of U.S. Catholics say they believe in the real presence, another one-third — called “unknowing unbelievers” — neither profess this as a belief nor know that it represents a church teaching. Some 17 percent of Catholics who acknowledge the real presence say they also did not realize it is a church teaching.
These are among the findings of “American Catholics in Transition,” a 2013 book by William V. D’Antonio, Michelle Dillon and Mary L. Gautier.
Mark M. Gray, director of Catholic polls at the Washington-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, derived some reassurance from the findings. They imply, Gray concluded, that “lack of belief in the real presence is more a problem of religious education than of doubt.”
For, statistically speaking, few Catholics who know of the church’s teaching on real presence “say that they do not believe the doctrine.”
Gray wondered if Catholics who do not believe this teaching might “come to believe it if they knew and understood it better.”
When real presence is discussed among Catholics, the accent frequently falls on the word “real.” Believers naturally want to know more about how Christ can be really present in this way.
That does not mean, however, that the other word, “presence,” is undeserving of attention. “It is highly fitting that Christ should have wanted to remain present to his church in this unique way,” the catechism states. It adds:
“In his eucharistic presence he remains mysteriously in our midst as the one who loved us and gave himself up for us, and he remains under signs that express and communicate this love” (No. 1380).
Christ’s real presence is a sacramental presence. Pope Francis addressed this in a Sept. 24, 2013, homily. “A sacrament is not a magical rite, it is an encounter with Jesus Christ,” he stressed.
In a sacrament, he insisted, “we encounter the Lord, and he is by our side and accompanies us” as “a traveling companion.”
Gibson served on Catholic News Service’s editorial staff for 37 years.