Recently, my friend Bishop Robert Barron let his righteous anger fly on his blog concerning the new Pew Research Poll showing that only one third of Catholics believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  He and I were in seminary together, and he certainly deserves the title of Best Catholic Apologist.   He was right to be angry about the incredible aridity of Catholic Eucharistic belief, but he and other commentators have become incensed over this fact as if it were a new thing.  It is not.  Catholic belief in the Real Presence in America has not changed in 27 years.  Back in 1992, when Gallup took a poll on this very subject, the same percentages were discovered.  One third of Catholics believed in the Real  Presence and nearly 70% had a heretical view of the Eucharist.  I remember that poll clearly as I was working on a Eucharistic talk at the time.  I, too, was appalled–decades ago.  So this is nothing new.

The Church Has Failed In Recent Efforts To Emphasize The Eucharist

That fact  shouldn’t lessen our anger, but it should put it in context.  Despite everything we Catholic educators, pastoral leaders, and catechists have attempted, even with the introduction and implementation of the Catechism and a new translation of the Mass prayers–Catholics haven’t changed.  Most of those who profess the faith are as heretical as Berengar of Tours (who arguably caused all this mess a thousand years ago, deciding that the how of the Real Presence was more important than the fact that there truly was one), the Albigensians, and the Protestant reformers.

Nothing has happened in the last quarter of a century to lessen Catholic belief in the Eucharist.  This fight was lost in the decades of the ’60’s and ’70’s.  What’s amazing is that a third of Catholics actually still believe what the Church has always taught about the Eucharist.  That must be because God is in his heaven holding them in the palm of his hand, because it is not due to anything the Catholic leaders of the Church have done.  We are going to have to look back over sixty years to discover what really happened.  Catholics today are no less religious than a generation ago. If anger must be expressed, it should not be expressed at them.  Most have never possessed the faith they are seemingly accused of rejecting.

Why Eucharistic Doctrine Is Rejected

I’m just one priest with a theological degree and a lot of pastoral experience.  I guess that qualifies me to offer an intelligent opinion but what follows is just that–an opinion.  What do you think?

Here’s my take on why the majority of Catholics reject the Eucharistic doctrine of the Church:

Ignorance Of Spiritual Experience

First, no recognition of individual spiritual experience.  Most Catholics have difficulty articulating an experience of God in their lives.  Many think they have never had such an experience, even if they receive the Eucharist regularly.  I maintain they have had such an experience; they just don’t know how to label it.  The Church has done a poor job pointing out how to have a relationship with the Divine.  Put another way, a lot of modern Catholics would walk right by the Burning Bush, convinced God’s voice was just the whisper of the wind.

No Connection Between Christ In the Eucharist And Christ In The Life Of A Person

Second, the decline in Mass attendance demonstrates most clearly that there is little connection between the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the presence of Christ in a person’s heart.  Our Catholic people are not evil.  It is inconceivable to me that the many Catholics who prefer soccer, football,sleeping and shopping to Mass are deliberately ignoring God.  Why?  Who would pass up a chance to have a heart to heart with Jesus?  Most Catholics just don’t believe that the Eucharist gives any special connection with God.

All Religions Considered The Same

Third, there has been an equivalency promoted both by those in the Church and without, that all religions are basically the same.  Want to kill the knowledge of Eucharistic Real Presence?  Then promote this idea.  The fact is, there is no other religion on earth that proposes a more intimate contact with the Divine than the Catholic Church with its doctrine of the Eucharist.  You have to love what St. Augustine proclaimed when he said that ordinary food becomes part of us but when we eat and drink the Body and Blood of our Lord, we become divinized–we are made godly.  Like I said, no other religion makes this claim.  In fact, so outrageous is our belief that the proponents of Islam would kill us for blasphemy because of our contention that we can be this close to God.

Focus Only On The “How” Of Christ’s Eucharistic Presence Takes Away Awe

Fourth, by over-intellectualizing the “how” of Eucharistic Real Presence, we have taken all the awe out of it.  Transubstantiation is and remains the best explanation of how the bread and wine become Christ, but such an explanation without application to human experience is deadly to the soul.  In the first millennium of Christianity, the Church didn’t need to explain how the Eucharist happened; the faithful simply experienced its reality.  We need the teaching of transubstantiation to anchor our belief in faith, but we also must recognize and emphasize the experience of God we receive to anchor this teaching in our hearts.

Church Music “Sucks”

Fifth, Church music sucks.  Forgive the vulgarism but it boldly declares the truth.  Most priests, bishops and theologians will tell you that nearly every heresy known to humanity has been incarnated in a song written in the past sixty years by a Church musician.  Never forget that seventeen hundred years ago, Arius, a priest from Egypt’s Alexandria, used music as propaganda to promote his belief that Jesus wasn’t God.  His very popular tune–number one on the Holy 100–was titled “There Was A Then When He Was Not”.  Many Christians humming that ditty apostasized, proclaiming that Jesus was just a superman, not the pre-existent Son of God.  If we want people to believe in the Real Presence, we are going to have to sing about it.

Emphasis On Restoration Of Traditional Latin Mass Wrong

Sixth, reverence and gesture are essential, but the Traditional Mass is not in order to restore Eucharist fidelity.  Instead of finding ways of reaching the majority of the people with sacramental truth, some hold on to the notion that if we just abandoned Mass in the vernacular, our sacramental problems would be solved.  No doubt the Latin language helped instill a sense of mystery in the faithful, but it will not become the majority’s preference.  For a small minority of Catholics, there is a place for the Traditional Latin Mass, but the Novus Ordo, (Mass in the Vernacular), is here to stay for most.  So are bells, genuflections, incense, candles, vestments, the elevation at the consecration, Eucharistic adoration, Benediction and Eucharistic processions.  There are many ways to emphasize reverence toward the Blessed Sacrament that everyone can embrace without reimposing a Mass that only existed for 400 years of the Church’s 2000 year existence.

Re-establishing Eucharistic Doctrine:  Preach A Transcendent Church Focused On Personal Relationship With Christ

Ultimately, what is needed is a radical re-orientation of our faith community towards a transcendent Church.  That’s a Church based on the experience of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, its belief system explained in orthodox doctrine, but its emphasis based on a relationship with the living God in this world, in our time.  I hope to flesh this out in blogs to come.

These are just a few thoughts.  Others can add to them.  But we cannot let our anger or our disappointment discourage us. If our people cannot point to an experience of God, if they do not long to meet him in a special way at least once a week, if we lose the uniqueness of our faith, then we truly will lose the fight for orthodox belief in the Real Presence of Christ.  We are not the Church without Eucharistic Presence of our Lord. It’s how we experience him and the salvation he won for us.  I long for the day when we all say again:  “I believe, Lord.  Help my unbelief.”



Monsignor Barr is a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Rockford, Illinois. In his 35 years of priesthood, he has been pastor, principal, teacher, Vicar for Clergy and Vicar General. He is a former associate editor of a newspaper and a novelist. He speaks on Celtic Theology and Current Catholic Issues. You can read more about the author here.
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  • Andy

    I think, not to disparage any priest, that priests become to “trapped” by the day-to-day operations of the parish, including business decisions and are not able to meet with the parishioners to teach. The laity are to, not to disparage the laity as I am part of that “crowd”, are to trapped by life – working – the average number of hours worked us between 44-50 per week, not counting commuter time, paying bills, this group or that group, worrying about the future and so on. We have, as a nation replaced God with mammon, and that limits/destroys interest in learning and understanding our faith.

  • brian martin

    I am going to engage in a little conjecture. We live in a nation that is very Protestant in it’s outlook. As a convert from a very fundmentalist protestant sect, I can emphatically state that the Catholic Church in the US seems to grasp on to protestant ideas and ways of doing things. We have “Parish Missions” that at times are blatant rip off’s of fundamentalist revivals, complete with faux altar calls. There is just Catholic Verbiage thrown in. Often youth ministry is also copies of protestant/evangelical youth ministry. A good share of Catholic education, RE and RCIA has an emphasis on rote belief, not understanding Catholic spirituality (and there is a very rich tapestry of tradition in the Catholic Church of vibrant spirituality) in an engaging, personal way. Combine that with presentation of prayer that is either rote repetition or a superstitious “if you say this prayer so many times, this will happen” or “to be a Good Catholic, you have to say this prayer x times per day, etc etc” which results in a very dry, under developed spiritual life. It is not then surprising that people do not have a full understanding of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Not to mention our scientific education – if it tastes like a wafer it looks like a wafer it is a wafer. Perhaps symbolism is easier to understand at that point. That isn’t even bring in the fact that there exists a clerical culture in some places where the actual spiritual lives of mere laity is not important, what is important is doing the “do’s” and not doing the “don’t” and holding the correct posture and according the priest (or Bishop) the respect of their “rank” – which does not lead to active discerning of what the Holy Spirit is calling the individual to.


    “No doubt the Latin language helped instill a sense of mystery in the
    faithful, but it will not become the majority’s preference.”

    It’s the accent on “preference” that is key to this sentence. And the error it proposes.

    Sorry, but human beings are human. They require outward signs and gestures. And much like a marriage/relationship may stale for the lack (i.e. He/she doesn’t love me anymore. Something’s missing.) so too will devotion. While it’s true outward gestures do not manufacture devotion, it is also true that a continued laxity toward the Blessed Sacrament will have the effect of lessening people’s acceptance of Our Lord being truly present. How many times have you heard a wife complain that her husband treats her like wall paper? Get real with yourself. How frequently have you heard husbands say they feel as if they’re taken for granted. (You likely do, too, hence this column and the dig a the TLM.) Yeah, sure, you “know” you’re needed. Appreciated in so much as you’re useful, but it becomes an intellectual accounting, not an experience.

    Human beings NEED outward gestures. Christ worked miracles for this very reason. We’re not angels.

    So, please, don’t assume that those who adhere to the TLM do so because they’re seeking a magic bullet or attempting to foist their “preference” on you. You’re the one asking where the love has gone. “You don’t bring me flowers… anymore.” Let that sink in. You may be married to the Church, but you get my meaning. And consider your own words. “No doubt the Latin language helped instill a sense of mystery in the faithful,” before blowing that killer observation out the window with a shallow disclaimer that has absolutely no bearing on the subject at hand. Save to say it endorses people tossing away belief and doctrine for what they prefer.

    Bring some flowers maybe. Open the door. Pull back the chair. Say hello in the morning and good night before you go to sleep. Stay quiet and listen to your spouse, really listen and just glory that someone is there taking the time to speak with you about their day. That’s what married folk do when the love light dims. And it often does over the course of 30/40 years. It never was just about the Latin. It’s the whole package.

    And, fyi, “a little sense of mystery,” ups the ante in any love relationship. Just sayin’.

  • Monsignor Eric Barr, STL

    I think you are spot on with your comment that humans need gestures, etc. But you seem to think that because I believe the TLM is not for the majority that I am opposed to reverence and gestures. Not so. I am opposed to recreating a time that is past and foisting a language upon a people who cannot understand it. Just as the TLM gestures and language were created to fit the post Tridentine era, so we should do a similar thing now.

  • Monsignor Eric Barr, STL

    Your comments are really thought provoking. Thanks for taking the time to articulate them.

  • Charlie

    I appreciate the sincerity of the author, but the emphasis on “experience” and the refusal to countenance that post-V2 innovations like the new Mass and Communion in the hand might be a problem will result in merely perpetuating the problem.
    We have done the third way JP2 and B16 conservative Catholicism to death now. It failed. We either go back to orthodoxy or submit to modernism. Semi-modernism has been tried and found wanting. It’s dead.

  • mrteachersir

    Experiential preference was condemned by Pius X as the principle aspect of Modernism. All spiritual manuals before the 1950s preached that “feelings” and “experiences” are illusory, and can not be trusted. You can’t control your feelings during “experiences”, but you can control you actions and thoughts.

  • Capreolus

    I, too, appreciate the reverend gentleman’s sincere thoughts on this troubling topic. I’m doubtful that “experience” is the most useful way to approach a solution: that term has been heavily abused by the authors of the Eucharistic errors (or heresies) of the 20th century. However, “experience” in the sense of a sincere commitment to mental prayer and to mortification is absolutely essential, as is sound, concrete preaching and instruction on the dogmas concerning the Holy Eucharist. The will follows the intellect, after all; there must be something sound in the mind (true Catholic doctrine) for the will even to have a chance of having a right intention.

    I think that characterizing the traditional Mass as “only existing for 400 years” is a little tendentious. That would be analogous to saying that the Vulgate as it existed in 1960 had only been around for 300 odd years (i.e., in the Clementine edition). Both are true secundum quid but not in the simple, plain sense. It’s important to consider as well that certain things were incorporated into the “old Mass” precisely to refute and dispel Eucharistic heresies, namely the elevations, the genuflections, certain texts, etc. These were greatly reduced or discarded in the “new Mass.”

    Like the author, I’m only a priest with a degree (S.T.D.) and about 25 years of experience, but this is a sincerely held opinion. Everything I’ve ever done that has actually increased reverence at Mass (the Novus Ordo) has been drawn from the practices or customs of the old Latin Mass.

  • Peter_the_Less

    The statement that the pre-Vatican II rite was only around for 400 years is wildly misleading, as if the Mass codified in 1570 was created new out of whole cloth. The “Tridentine” Mass was not a new product radically departing from what came before the way the Novus Ordo of 1969 truly was an innovation and a departure. It is open question whether the New Mass can really be “fixed”, but in any case articles like this will never fix the problem as long as they do not take sufficiently into account the way the liturgy does in fact reflect and shape our belief. Yes, the article mentions bells and incense, but ignores the liturgical elephants in the room: communion in the hand and distribution of holy communion by lay people. If the author doesn’t thinks it’s practical to switch back wholesale to the old Mass, at the very least he should understand that these two abuses need to be removed from the New Mass if there is to be any hope of helping Catholics to understand what the Eucharist really is. Of course, the new watered down fasting rules also do not help.

  • Andrew

    “Sixth, reverence and gesture are essential, but the Traditional Mass is not in order to restore Eucharist fidelity.” This is an interesting position (and one which I don’t agree with) for at least a couple of reasons:

    1) Regardless of how small of a statistical basis it is starting with, the old Mass parishes and chapels are producing vocations at a much higher rate than the novus ordo parishes. The members of these parishes are high-commitment Catholics who believe essentially everything the Church teaches and, and DO what the Church teaches by having lots of children who are accustomed to things like daily family Rosaries and other devotions. Not to say this doesn’t happen among high-commitment novus ordo Catholics (referred to as the pigeon-holing “conservatives”), but it’s much more common among the old Mass parishes.

    2) And also regardless of how reverently the new Mass is offered, it was and will always remain a Mass fabricated for the purpose of draining nearly all of its sacrificial character out, so that it is understood as a community gathering for a meal. Even if the priest faces liturgical east, there were no EMHCs and girl altar boys, there would still be left the handshaking and backslapping of the “kiss of peace” in the moments following the consecration of the body and blood of Our Lord on the altar. Though the new Mass may result in the presence of Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist, it is ontologically a different category of thing from the old Mass, and it communicates this radically different nature to its participants through EVERYTHING; from the cheap, shabby aesthetics, the dramatic elevation of the individual priest’s personality into game show host realm complete with bad jokes, the incessant doing of stuff by the lay lectors, the squad of Purell-squeezing EMHCs, the sing-songy responsorial psalms, the clapping for a good performance at the end of Mass, to the already mentioned put-er-there handshakes and backslaps during the kiss of peace following the consecration.

    If all of the Reform-of-the-Reform improvements to the New Mass tend toward taking it back to the older form of the (Holy Sacrifice of the) Mass…….why not just restore the old Mass??

    The answer might be that the Bishops want growth – just not THAT growth – and vocations – just not THOSE vocations.

  • Monsignor Eric Barr, STL

    Andrew, with all due respect, your comment that the Novus Ordo is ontologically different and somehow less than the TLM is a heretical view and it was one of the reasons St. John Paul the Great excommunicated LeFebvre. Your comment on vocations is wrong as well. The number of TLM parishes is infinitesimal compared with all Catholic parishes. And if the ordinandi from those parishes think as you do they put themselves into opposition with Pope Benedict’s original reason for allowing the greater use of the TLM.

  • Jack McConnochie

    I returned to Catholicism 6 weeks ago, aged 69, after 36 years worshipping with my wife in various “other” denominations, during which my relationship with God deepened considerably. What drew me back was a profound desire for participating in the Eucharist and since returning I have indeed found it a humbling and meaningful experience. Yes, the Mass seems a bit different from what I remember but not to the extent it has lost meaning. I suspect the author of this article is absolutely correct that it’s the failure to find ways of helping people develop their personal and intimate relationship with God that leads to a failure in understanding and appreciating the “real presence” within the Eucharist. I think it would help if we encouraged people to meet together regularly in small groups to pray and discuss our faith, and also encourage people to practice private prayer, bible reading, and private reflection and, if inclined, journaling. ( personally I haven’t done that last much but I’ve seen the positive effect in many others)

  • Monsignor Eric Barr, STL

    You are incorrect to think that the Tridentine Mass was simply codifying what had always been done before. Please do the research. The Medieval and Renaissance periods had a vast variety of liturgies and corruptions thereof. It took till the middle of the nineteenth century for all of Europe to accept the Tridentine. I’m not a particular fan of communion in the hand but it is ancient and it happens to be the teaching of the Church so stop making your personal preferences dogma. It might interest you to know that one of the Cyril’s mentioned that after receiving the Blood of Christ a Christian is supposed to touch his lips and sign himself on the forehead with the Precious Blood. Now go take a chill pill because that knowledge ought to cause you great anxiety. Give the Church some credit that it knows what it is doing. Obedience is a worthy virtue.

  • Monsignor Eric Barr, STL

    Thanks for the response and the addition of some important points, but grant me a little leeway in not doing a dissertation on experience but rather just raising issues in a modest blog post.

  • Monsignor Eric Barr, STL

    Oh would you stop! And stop putting words in my mouth. You know very well that I am not talking about some antinomian feel good experience. Read what I wrote. I talked about experience with orthodoxy. It has nothing to do with feel good religion. And if you think you can have Jesus without experiencing him you are misguided. Your response is Jansenistic in the extreme, and St. Teresa Of Avila would be ashamed of you. Read her to get educated on appropriate feelings and experiences. And go take a look at Bernini’s statue, St. Teresa in ecstasy, and then tell me I’m wrong.

  • Monsignor Eric Barr, STL

    O my gosh, Charlie, read what you just wrote. JPIi and Benedict are the Church’s teaching. You are making up your own magisterium.

  • Joanna Konczal

    Saints point us to the solution. Loving God in the Eucharist. The recent Saints ( St. John Paul II, St. Teresa of Calcutta) talk about their love of Jesus, their thirst, etc., Nowhere have I seen, read, or heard that either of these Saints complained about the type of Mass. The solution is simple, but the road difficult. Follow the sample of the Saints, period. Don’t overthink this. It’s time to stop playing the blame game and start with our own wretched heart.

  • Joris Heise

    It seems to me that this thoughtful article reflects a Gospel position–a need to return not to the externals (Latin Mass, kiss of peace, communion in the hand, worship with this or that “sign” of the Real presence. At 82, my understanding of the Real Presence have shifted, and while I do not want to call the words of Consecration, a “magic incantation,” the way it appers to so many–I believe in faith–I believe in the Person–I believe in the Presence right here of the Resurrected Lord–but not limited to the Consecrated Bread. Having learned that Jesus Himself could not have said “This is my body,” as the Aramaic that He spoke had no word for a living body–only for a corpse, a dead body–I have come to understand the broader sense that He certainly meant-THIS IS MY PERSON, here I Am.” And the Gospels especially John emphasizing the breaking-and-sharing–and the Verb has come to be crucial to me–that it is in the brokenness and sharing of this bread that a sign emerges of the Body of Christ that Paul refers to–seeing the Community sharing the broken bread as sharing the Person of Jesus in his stigmata and risen self–and embodying that, then, in our lives as we leave. Faith–not in a “magical incantation” of metamorphic mystery–but in the Change of Ourselves into the Jesus we Accept and Welcome.
    I do not think this mystery–the Gospel’s emphasis on Person of Jesus–in the SHARING is what our teachers and bishops and priests are CONVEYING. I fear that the “real presence” has come to be a static thing, a word with little sense of faith involved.
    And I believe–having lived through the horrendous fifties–that the church allowed ourselves to think of ourselves as righteous, right and superior–as tthough the catechism had all the answers to the meaning of life, whereas faith is at least half composed of a willingness to accept two layers–the surface and the ever-deepening mystery of god.

  • Cheryl Williams

    I’m just a convert, but, I’m always
    amazed at how casually most churches treat our Lord. It may not need to be in Latin but Mass does need more reverence, especially during communion. The excessive use of lay ministers, receiving in the hand, the general let’s get this over with attitude, does not help lead people to acknowledge Christ’s presence. I go out of my way to attend a Parrish that performs the new mass but also actually uses their communion rail, has beautiful ethereal music and Gregorian Chant, Cantor and Altar Servers wear nice robes. It’s an entirely different “experience “ and the church is always full. If the Priest doesn’t treat the host as if it’s the real presence, why on earth would you expect the congregation to believe it.