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Visiting Jerusalem reminds us faith can be strengthened by envisioning the physical presence of Jesus: John Garvey

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Western Wall and Dome of the Rock atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Israel. (Getty Images)

Any Christian who goes to Jerusalem will come away inspired by the experience of visiting a city where Jesus walked.

Of course, as with all tourist sites, there is a certain amount of invention. Much of what you see is old, to be sure, but the connection to the Gospels and the life of Our Lord can be, not to put too fine a point on it, attenuated.

Take the cenacle where the apostles were gathered at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on them and the church was born. Tourists can see an upper room of a two-story building south of the Zion Gate.

It is certainly old, and it doesn’t require much imagination to picture Peter and the other disciples cowering there. But it has Gothic arches, an architectural detail we don’t see before the 12th century in other parts of the world.

There is one spot, though, that I hold sacred in my memory.

The excavations along the southern wall of the Temple have exposed the steps that common people would have ascended, the ritual baths where they would have purified themselves, and the doors that Jesus, Mary and Joseph would have entered.

The Zion Gate in the walls of the old city of Jerusalem, Israel. (Getty Images)

I have a picture of my wife and me standing in one of those doorways. It is excavated down to bedrock.

We know that Jesus walked over the very stone we are standing on. It’s probably worn down a bit from what it was 2,000 years ago, but when the picture was taken, I found myself wanting to get on my knees and kiss the stone that may have felt the imprint of our Savior’s feet.

It required no imagination at all to picture Jesus walking through that door. He actually did. And with a little effort I could see myself standing there as he walked by. He might even have looked my way; he would certainly have known my thoughts.

We sometimes forget that this is exactly what happens in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Jesus is actually there, not in Jerusalem but in St. Vincent’s Chapel or St. Matthew’s Cathedral or Little Flower Church. The Mass is not an exercise in imaginary reconstruction. We receive him, body and blood, soul and divinity.

I found myself thinking about this recently when the Barna Group released a report saying that church attendance was down 30% to 50% from 2019.

When COVID-19 arrived, bishops excused their flocks from their Sunday obligation. People went online instead, and often found better preaching there. Now that most are vaccinated, many still opt to attend Mass on their computers or have gotten out of the habit altogether.

To one who believes what the church professes, this makes no sense. A good sermon is an inspiring thing, even online, but it is not God present in our midst. No believing Catholic would trade the sacrament of the Eucharist for a video. So what explains the drop in attendance?

A Pew Research Center report released in 2019 indicated that 69% of Catholics believe that the bread and wine used at Mass are only “symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”

If we really believed that Jesus was physically present at Mass, the way I imagined him to be at the Hulda Gate, attendance would approach 100%. Maybe that’s a bit high. The apostles who lived with him had their doubts too. But it would be way up there, even at daily Mass.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has its annual meeting this week, and one of the items on its agenda is a renewal of our belief in the sacrament of the Eucharist. I can’t think of a more pressing concern. If we don’t have that, our faith isn’t as good as a trip to Jerusalem. It’s not much better than a YouTube video.

Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @CatholicPres. Catholic University’s website is www.cua.edu.