I was 12 years old when my family took our first trip to Italy. We spent a good portion of time visiting my father’s cousins in Abruzzo. On a walk one afternoon through the town of Lanciano, a group of us were casually making our way down some old narrow streets. One of the cousins said something quickly while gesturing toward the facade of a church.
My grandmother translated: “That’s where the eucharistic miracle resides.” The Italians continued walking, as if this sort of thing was commonplace. Thankfully, my parents and a few others asked to stop and take a quick look.
I was transfixed by what I saw inside. Tradition has it that in the 8th century, a monk who had doubts about the Real Presence was saying Mass, and at the time of the consecration, the bread and wine turned to flesh and blood.
I approached the altar and saw something inside the monstrance that looked like bloody skin. It turns out that this was pretty much what I was looking at: cardiac tissue, complete with Type AB blood, the type that matches the blood on the Shroud of Turin.
Inside the chalice were five globules of blood that looked like dark pellets. Scientists have confirmed that though the blood is in the form of a solid, it shares the chemical properties of blood that has been freshly shed.
I was thinking of this experience when I read the recent Pew Research Center study that revealed that only one-third of U.S. Catholics believe that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ.
The statistical breakdown was even more revealing: 43% of Catholics believe that the bread and wine are symbolic and believe that this is what the church teaches. One in five Catholics reject the idea of transubstantiation. And only six in 10 Catholics who attend Mass weekly believe in the Real Presence.
Catholic theologians and commentators quickly got to work analyzing the data: Some linked the findings to poor catechesis, others on a failure to connect the Eucharist to the poor and still others on the phrasing of the questions by the researchers.
I think there’s a bit of truth in each of these perspectives, as well as the idea that reintroducing devotions like processions and adoration could help to foster love and reverence for the Eucharist. Even spreading awareness about eucharistic miracles like the one I saw could be helpful.
But in addition to practical considerations, Catholics could stand to develop a strategy against a larger, more pervasive cultural ethos at work to ensure that future generations come to know and believe in the Real Presence.
In his Aug. 4 letter to priests, Pope Francis wrote that God “is rescuing us from hypocrisy, from the spirituality of appearances.” I find that phrase to be striking. Could there be a better description of our age than a privileging of the superficial over the real? Of image over substance?
Ours is a world of fake news, highly edited “reality” TV, the rise of dual Instagram accounts where adolescents post the curated version of themselves on one and the more authentic version of their experience on another, overscheduled and overworked parents, and digital connections divorced from human connection. In just about every aspect of our lives, we’re starved for attention and intimacy, in search of the “real thing.”
It’s little wonder that people have trouble believing in a God who desires to know them intimately, to reveal himself fully, and who is humble enough to reside in every tabernacle around the world, when they so infrequently encounter people and experiences that confirm that Love does all of these things.
As the body of Christ, we are supposed to manifest what we receive at the altar. So it stands to reason that embracing opportunities to be real with, present to and vulnerable with our neighbors and those in our care will only help this cause.
Maybe then, in the not-too-distant future, more people will walk by Catholic churches and say with both with familiarity and confidence, “That’s where the eucharistic miracle resides.”
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Elise Italiano Ureneck, associate director of the Center for the Church in the 21st Century at Boston College, writes the “Finding God in All Things” column for Catholic News Service.