As the youth of our Catholic faith become adults in this world the failures of their faith learning become more abundantly apparent. Lest one criticize me for being punishingly hard on the cradle Catholic faithful, let me point out a couple of poll numbers that have recently surfaced:
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s recent U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey has unearthed evidence of an identity crisis among American Catholics. “More than four-in-ten Catholics in the United States (45%) do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ” (Pew, p. 8).
45% have no idea what they’re doing when they partake of Communion. Large numbers of them have a Protestant belief that it is merely symbols of Christ.
This is a mind boggling concept to me that so many Catholics have no idea what their own church teaches about one of the most essential elements of our Church. The Eucharist is the crux and crescendo of our faith and our Mass! For those who don’t know, this is exactly what the Church teaches about what Catholic’s are partaking of in the Sacrament of Communion:
1333 At the heart of the Eucharistic celebration are the bread and wine that, by the words of Christ and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, become Christ’s Body and Blood… The signs of bread and wine become, in a way surpassing understanding, the Body and Blood of Christ…
1374 The mode of Christ’s presence under the Eucharistic species is unique… In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist “the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.“202 “This presence is called ‘real’ – … because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present.”203
1375 It is by the conversion of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood that Christ becomes present in this sacrament. The Church Fathers strongly affirmed the faith of the Church in the efficacy of the Word of Christ and of the action of the Holy Spirit to bring about this conversion.
1376 The Council of Trent summarizes the Catholic faith by declaring: “Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.”206 (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1333;1374-76)
This position is unique to Catholicism, even though it is the the oldest belief held about the Eucharist as delivered from the Apostles. No other Christian church holds this belief on this Sacrament. Lutheran’s come close teaching a belief of what is known as “Consubstantiation” which is that both Christ and the bread and wine are present on the altar. In other words, Christ is truly there along with the bread and wine. The Catholic and ancient church teaching is that of “Transubstantiation” which is that Christ is wholly and completely present and Christ alone. The ‘element’ remains, but the ‘substance’ is changed. That’s quite a heady element of this topic, but if you’d like to read more about it, may I suggest looking here or here.
For all other Christians the bread and wine is merely a symbol of Christ. It does not contain Christ and is merely a memorial of his offering for us.
As Catholics we have such a beautiful privilege that is uniquely exclusive to our faith by the Sacrament of Holy Orders which, in turn, gives us the Sacrament of the Eucharist in the form the Church has taught. We have the exclusive privilege to truly take the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ and unite ourselves to Him in a real, true, and tangible way by partaking of the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
Another error which is creeping into Catholic mentality is the vernacular usage of distinguishing themselves from Christianity. So very often I have heard it told that when asked, “Are you a Christian?” Catholics will respond, “Well, I’m a Catholic.” or worse still, “No, I’m Catholic.”
Folks… Catholics ARE Christians.
In fact, we are the first Christians. It cannot be denied by anyone who studies Christian history that the theological beliefs and teachings from the earliest writings of the Christian Fathers is undeniably, absolutely Catholic. History bears out the truth of this repeatedly from the 1st century of Christianity down to the present. So the next time someone asks you if you’re a Christian and you also happen to be Catholic, please respond correctly and say, “Yes, I’m a Catholic.”
Also, as an additional point, just remember, we’re also not a denomination or sect of Christianity. Denominations and sects are Protestant. We are Catholic, plain and simply. We aren’t a sect of Christianity as, by its very definition, it doesn’t describe us but Protestants. American Heritage Dictionary defines sect as such:
- A group of people forming a distinct unit within a larger group by virtue of certain refinements or distinctions of belief or practice.
- A religious body, especially one that has separated from a larger denomination.
- A faction united by common interests or beliefs.
The Catholic Church, by its very nature is not a unit of a larger group, hasn’t separated from a larger denomination, nor is it a faction. Denominations and sects are splinter groups from the original. Therefore, when describing the Catholic Church one has to keep in mind as well to refrain from referring to her as a denomination or sect within Christianity.
“They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousnesss, raised from the dead. And so denying the gift of God, these men perish in their disputes. ” – Ignatius of Antioch (a disciple of John the Apostle) Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1 [written in 110 A.D.]
“Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God. Thus, whatever is done will be safe and valid.” – Ignatius of Antioch Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8 [110 AD]