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How the Real Presence Became Real for a Convert

Mark Shea on His Evolving Belief in the Eucharist

SEATTLE, Washington, OCT. 13, 2004 (Zenit) - After years of unbelief, a conversion to evangelical Christianity and then Catholicism, Mark Shea has worked through a progression of belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Now, Shea is a senior content editor for Catholic Exchange, a speaker for Catholic Answers and author of many books, including "This Is My Body: An Evangelical Discovers the Real Presence" (Christendom Press).

Shea shared with us how the Lord's presence in the Eucharist keeps the faith incarnate and prevents it from becoming a mere concept or simply a family meal.

Q: How did you as a former evangelical discover and come to believe in the Real Presence in the Eucharist?

Shea: I was a convert from no religious background at all. Once I became a believer, I felt it my duty to learn from the people whom God had placed in my life to teach me.

But the group of Christians I happened to fall in with after I became a believer celebrated no sacraments at all, not even baptism or the Lord's Supper. They were charismatics of a nondenominational flavor and had picked up on a sort of hyper-spiritualism that tended to emphasize the spiritual -- read: "disembodied" -- at the expense of the physical, the human and the liturgical.

The idea I was taught as a new convert was that "True baptism is baptism in the Holy Spirit; true communion is when the Christ in me communes with the Christ in you," etc. Physical rituals such as Communion were regarded as part of the dead letter, rather than the Living Spirit. Liturgy was seen as mere rote repetition of meaningless prayers.

True prayer was always and only to be spontaneous, unstructured and unpredictable, as the Spirit blows where he will. And, of course, supremely, the notion of the Real Presence was regarded as a classic piece of medieval hocus-pocus that had drifted into the Church of the Dark Ages.

Our standard text on the rare occasion that Communion came up was John 6:63: "The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life." By this, we took it as obvious that true Communion was communion with the Holy Spirit and that physical Communion was fleshly and unnecessary.

It may have been helpful to the spiritually weak in ages past. But now God was doing a new thing on the earth and those who were attuned to his Spirit no longer needed such audiovisual aids as a crutch.

My difficulties with this view of Eucharist, which grew over time, grew quite reluctantly. For I felt, and still feel, that I owe these first brethren in Christ a debt of gratitude that I shall never be able to repay. It was they who first showed me the love of Christ, taught me to pray and to read my Bible. They showed me by example how to live out a life of faithful discipleship.

But various problems began to pile up, in more or less haphazard order that took me a long time to sort out.

If the physical is unimportant, why did the Word become flesh? If we are saved by the shed blood of Jesus Christ, then what is so silly about the idea of receiving that blood -- and not just a symbol of it -- in Communion? If ritual is always bad, then why have we practiced the ritual of daily Bible study?

If Catholics are "re-sacrificing Jesus," then how come the Catholic Church condemned the idea that you can re-sacrifice Jesus? If you can appropriate the sacrifice of Jesus verbally -- by asking Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior and by "pleading the blood of Christ" -- why can't Catholics do it sacramentally? If it's just a symbol, then how come nobody got that memo for the first thousand years of the Church?

These and many other questions forced me to examine Catholic teaching, which I'd always assumed was something like a huge mass of barnacles that had encrusted itself on to the once-pristine hull of the Bible.

I discovered, to my surprise, that Catholic teaching was, in fact, simply the fully grown mustard plant and the biblical teaching was the compact mustard seed.

In a word, as I examined the various Protestant critiques of the doctrine of the Real Presence I found them to be less biblical than the Church's simple and straightforward understanding of the words "This is my Body."

Q: What is the least understood thing about the Blessed Sacrament -- for laity and for non-Catholics?

Shea: I'm not an expert on that question, but if the occasional survey and my own experience as a non-Catholic -- which was pretty typical -- is any indication, I think it is precisely the Real Presence that is the least understood.

For non-Catholics, this should be expected and explained with patience and not a thin ...

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