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Last week’s blog title was Why Some of Us Stay: A Struggle of Faith and I could not believe the number of wonderful responses I received in my email account. Most people agreed that they stay because of community generated by belonging to a caring group. Others liked the idea that faith is “larger than any church,” and thus we can work with the shortcomings of church leaders. Still others felt that the call to discipleship means we sometimes need to stand up to our memberships and challenge where weakness may exist in responding to justice and welcoming the marginalized. As I read the responses, it dawned on me that I had overlooked a very important reason to stay with one’s faith and that is a firm belief in the core teaching or fundamental reason for the existence of that faith. For instance, if you are a Baptist, you make the Bible the center of your faith. If you are Jewish, the Torah is your fundamental center. If you are Buddhist, you believe in actualizing your faith through meditation and suffering which lead to enlightenment. If you are Islamic, your core belief centers on prayer, fasting, charity, and pilgrimage.
But the fundamental difference within Catholicism that sets it apart from other Christian faiths is the doctrine of the Real Presence. If you are Catholic, you believe in the Eucharist which is the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion at Catholic liturgies. You believe that Christ is truly present in the bread you receive in communion and in the tabernacle where He is kept in your church’s sanctuary. But you wonder, is He really there? How can He be in the host I receive at Mass?
For starters, priests are not magicians! They do not call on Christ to come down and enter the host they raise during Mass. No matter how long they hold up the host, it is not this power that brings Christ among us. Christ enters the ritual as He is called on by all of us in the assembly and the priest shows the host as the complete demonstration that He is here. We made it so. We, the community, not the priest. The priest offered it to us. He performed the rite that would make the presence happen. We come to communion to take in Jesus’ presence so we can walk out of the assembly more invigorated in our faith and thus more motivated to serve everyone, believers and not, marginalized and not.
In the story of Emmaus when Jesus meets two sorrowing followers of His after His crucifixion, he settles with them in an unknown house and has a dinner consisting of bread and wine. It is important to notice that the two travelers do not know this person is Jesus who had been just crucified. They partake of the simple meal and Jesus consecrates the bread and wine. The two pilgrims begin to wonder. After Jesus shares this meal, this first post-resurrection Eucharist, He disappears from the setting. Gone. Poof! What could this mean to the two disciples no doubt overcome with grief and mystery? Jesus leaves as the two friends look at the bread and wine Jesus has just consecrated. He is gone in the flesh but stays in the bread and wine. He is to be consumed so that the two might go on and preach and serve and evangelize all they meet. “They had come to know him in the breaking of the bread,” says Luke (Lk 24:35).
And so, there on the table of an old dwelling was the Real Presence of Jesus Christ before the eyes of two now emboldened ordinary disciples. It is this Real Presence which throws a sliver of light in the darkened corners of every Catholic church, the beam of warmth that invites us into the sanctuary to talk with Him. He is reserved in the tabernacle and a sanctuary lamp indicates He is there, the Real Presence. It is this gift which Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton found compelling enough to become a convert to Catholicism and to remain devoted to throughout her remarkable life, eventually becoming America’s first canonized saint.
This is the main reason why I stay. From scripture and theology and even personal experience, I know the Real Presence. I have seen it welcomed on death beds, held in feeble hands, taken on the tongue in sublime humility even in the hovels of poverty. And in each of these moments, I have witnessed a serenity and respect I see nowhere else. Karl Rahner noted that even when the priest is a distracted and self-engrossed minister, “morosely impelled by objective duty,” and we in the assembly “come with barren hearts” to receive, we need to remember, “He comes to us even if He does not find in our eyes radiant joy at His presence.” He simply wants to come to us.
I hope each of you, all my readers and the Anonymous Angles who write notes to me, will reflect this week on what it is that makes your faith real to you. It does not matter what faith you practice; it only matters that you live a belief beyond your own sense of values and morals. It matters that you ask guidance beyond your own instincts and that you give to a Higher Power, whoever God is in your life, the praise and love that will remind you that this God loves you more than you can imagine.
Determine what is the real center and core of why you stay in your faith and resolve to integrate that reason in the deepest part of your soul. Take time to reflect and pray over this because it might lead you to deeper convictions and even action regarding your faith.
If you are Catholic, carefully read the story of Emmaus (Lk 24:35) and see what it says to you about your own commitment to the Real Presence.
Assume a quiet place and spend time in reflective prayer for guidance in living your faith more fully. Most of all, listen. Just listen.Quotes from Karl Rahner, SJ, taken from The Content of Faith, p. 551.