From east to west in the Catholic Church, the uniquely sacramental life of the Catholic Church defines us. The sacraments take us from the symbolic or representational to the actual experience of God present in our lives. To borrow from the trades, it is the difference between surveying a blueprint and walking through the finished home. To borrow from sports and entertainment, it is the difference between studying game film and playing in the championship game; listening to music and playing in a band before a packed house; playing “Wii golf” and teeing off at Edgewood Tahoe; watching Warren Miller’s ski film, Children of Winter, and plunging through three feet of fresh powder; the difference between flipping through Surfer Magazine and paddling out into smooth rolling lefts at Ventura County line.
I published an article a while back in the hopes of generating discussion on a topic I felt compelled to confront personally, and one I felt essential that my fellow Catholics confront as well: the singularly defining doctrine of the Transubstantiation—the premise of the article being that while we claim this belief as the very heart of our faith, vast numbers of the “faithful” do not in fact embrace this doctrine as the Church defines it.
Then this Spring, in an unexpected confluence, Fr. Benedict DeLeon, our Pastor at St. Theresa Church and School in South Lake Tahoe, addressed this very issue with my son’s graduating class at their Confirmation rehearsal: he called them to account for their response to the Eucharist, and specifically to the unique belief of our Faith in the Transubstantiation. Clearly he considered this issue vital to their choice to be confirmed, as well he should, and he earned my appreciation and respect for doing so.
But how often does that happen—that a priest confronts the faithful over whether they truly believe and have faith in this central doctrine? How much more often do our clergy simply “turn a blind eye,” knowing in their hearts that a significant portion of their congregation does not truly embrace this central and defining Catholic doctrine?
As mentioned, I published the article and moved on, grateful that Fr. Ben at least addressed the topic with my son, but not otherwise preoccupied with it . . . until another conversation happened.
Recently we were at dinner with friends—a Catholic schoolteacher and her husband. Conversation turned to the verbiage of the “new” mass, and then eventually to the sacrament of the Eucharist. As we tossed around our personal feelings about receiving both species rather than the host only, the teacher’s husband, uttering one of those remarks intended to authoritatively conclude the discussion, exclaimed, “well, it’s all symbolic anyway!” Now, I must admit that this man was not raised Catholic, but converted to share in his wife’s faith; on the other hand, he is the spouse of a Catholic schoolteacher. Rarely have I winced so openly. I was floored . . . and momentarily speechless. But as that moment passed, I realized that I was strangely at the same time not so shocked . . . due in part to that earlier article I wrote.
My wife and I chimed in response, “No—it’s actually not,” which probably did little to affect him, but I did concede that many, if not most Catholics, probably think as he does, even while practicing the sacrament and attending mass year in and year out. And I stand by my opinion: “most” means the majority, and I believe that includes a significant number who even convince themselves that they believe in the actual, present Body and Blood of Christ—those who are confident that they share the doctrinal view—but in reality do not. Let’s face it: we are not a culture concerned with detail and nuance any longer, and the line between transubstantiation and what amounts to consubstantiation for many Catholics blurs into a meaningless distinction. Even the fact that most perceive this difference as one of “nuance,” when it is in fact the difference between being Catholic and not being Catholic, serves to illustrate the dire condition of the faithful.
I would bet that if you passed out copies of the Daily Missal to a group of Catholics and asked them to locate the moment at which the transubstantiation occurs, even prompting with “the consecration,” you would find something less like informed consistency and more like hesitant guessing and uncertainty.
Now, I’m not suggesting we go around trying to trip our Catholic friends up as if they’re game show contestants, but it does invite another series of questions: why do we no longer call attention to the moment as in the past with the ringing of the bells? Why not make it clearer in the missal for that matter—so we Catholics can see for ourselves, so we can show our children, and so we can show those not of our faith exactly what we believe and where it occurs with confidence? Why not label the moment “The Consecration” at least? Too literal? Too crass? — Is ignorance preferable?
Jump to the pragmatic and practical concerns of the Church today: times are tough in every sense of the phrase. The Church has found itself in the position of not wanting to risk further alienating Catholics and non-Catholics alike, while maintaining the strength and authority of its guidance here and throughout the world. Understandably, challenging believers’ devotion to a doctrine—even such a central and defining one—is hardly atop the Catholic Church’s “to do” list; but at the same time, can the Church—can we its Body—afford not to challenge one another and ourselves over this tenet? Can our Faith survive if it is based on a flawed premise? For that matter, can the Church itself survive if it indulges its faithful in a comfortable and convenient illusion? To do so is to invite a climate of relativism, and at a time we can least afford it: in short, one either believes that the Body and Blood ARE Christ present, or that they merely represent or symbolize Christ present.
The difference that defines such relativism is akin to a photo of a wave rolling meekly ashore versus an actual wave one finds himself paddling into on a surfboard—scratching desperately after its unrelenting momentum, feeling its inexorable pull, popping up to one’s feet just as the board noses down and into the suction of the wave face, joining its force, entering its consuming and cresting arch where symbiosis and fluidity unite; and even after that initial soaring, when the close-out comes—tumbling helplessly but with full commitment into the powerful wash and thunderous roll toward the shore, rendering surfer utterly dependent on the force of the wave (after all, it didn’t come those thousands of miles for nothing) before breaking at last into that gasping for air and light, granted only as the wave is spent . . . but now both are one and are changed by the experience.
Perhaps today, at such a moment in the history of our Catholic Church, such allowances and indulgences of Sacramental interpretation may seem small—as minute amounts of moisture to a concrete foundation . . . but in the end, that moisture freezes—contracting and expanding, inviting mildew, and eventually erosion, crumbling and disintegrating under the weight of the structure it supports, which topples to the ground, rots and decays, disappears into the eternity of soil.
Mike Filce lives in South Lake Tahoe, attends St. Theresa Church and teaches English at South Tahoe High School. His wife, Anne, is a teaching-principal at St. Theresa Catholic School; his daughter, Cara, attended St. Theresa School since kindergarten and is now a 10th grader at South Tahoe High School; his son, Charlie, is entering the eighth grade at St. Theresa.