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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 skin. After all, the doctrine does look, at first blush, to be an almost picture perfect example of some sort of odd superstition. The idea of a God who becomes incarnate so that his worshippers can eat him and gain his virtues seems like something out of pre-Abrahamic savagery to both the secular and even many Christian minds.

Yet, C.S. Lewis has aptly described Christianity as a curious combination of "thick" and "thin" religion. Thin religion is like consommé. It consists of ethics, maxims, reason, wise saws and modern instances. Unitarianism is an example of a thin religion.

Thick religion is full of mysterious rites, blood, sacrifice, wonder and terror. Its adherents are commanded to do things and it's not altogether clear why, only that it is crucial to obey. Old Testament Judaism had many thick elements, as did many a pagan mystery cult.

The Catholic faith combines thin and thick religion. You are bound to an enlightened ethical code, but you are also commanded to participate in a ritual blood feast. Many moderns simply recoil at this and want to de-nature it into a mere symbol.

Even many Catholics want to escape this seemingly barbarous connection with blood and sacrifice and turn the Eucharist into nothing more than a family meal where the main purpose is for the members of the congregation to affirm each other in their "OK-ness" -- a very thin religion thing to do.

But Jesus won't let us. Right into the middle of all that comfy suburban glad-handing he keeps thrusting the words "This is my body. This is my blood."

The stench of the Sacrifice -- and the incredible mystery of the Resurrection -- keeps us from forgetting what our sins cost him and what he has won for us. He will not let the faith drift off into being a mere concept. He insists on keeping it incarnate.

Q: What does the controversy of pro-abortion politicians receiving Communion say about respect for the Blessed Sacrament?

Shea: I think it reflects pretty clearly the confusion within the Church about the real presence in the Eucharist.

If Communion is simply and solely the family meal in which we all affirm the bonds of togetherness in this beautiful symbol of sharing and caring, then naturally, if you believe this, you are going to think it churlish to turn somebody away from the table over politics.

But if the meal is also the body and blood of Jesus Christ, sacramentally present as the sacrifice for sin, then the question of our discipleship before God is also at stake.

Suddenly, Paul's stark warning that the one who eats and drinks unworthily is guilty of the body and blood of the Lord comes into focus. It becomes a real issue as to whether you can simultaneously ask for life for yourself while actively laboring to deny life to others.

So it becomes all the more vital to educate people about what the Eucharist is, if we hope to get them to think clearly about what the Eucharist means and how the Eucharist must be respected by living lives of real discipleship and not mere room-temperature togetherness.

Q: How have the writings and pontificate of John Paul II contributed to a greater understanding and love of the Eucharist?

Shea: I think, more than anything, the Holy Father has contributed to my understanding and love of the Eucharist by living and, paradoxically, dying in union with it.

People have wondered why he doesn't resign and give the burden of the papacy to somebody else, what with his ill health. But he is showing us, as a living sacrifice, what it means to give all.

He is showing us that we are human beings, not human doings, and that the worth of a person is not diminished by the weakness of his or her body.

In that, I see the peculiar hidden quality of the Eucharist, where Jesus disguises himself as a rather uninteresting piece of bread and sip of garden-variety wine -- yet the central glory and mystery of the universe is right there.

Q: What is the significance of the Holy Father choosing this year as the Year of the Eucharist?

Shea: For me, the significance is the way it stands in stark contrast to the way the world is going at the present time. Everybody is screaming that the solution to life is through power and conflict: class conflict, race conflict, gender conflict, religious conflict. The goal is thoroughly Darwinian: survival of the strong.

In the Eucharist, a pattern for life from another world is shown us -- a world in which love and humility, not power and domination, will finally be rewarded by our God.

Q: What are your hopes for the Church's growth in knowledge of and reverence for the Eucharist this year?

Shea: I'm hopeful that God will continue to do for us all what he's been doing for me: revealing his amazing and beautiful act of love in the Sacrifice of the Mass.

The paradox of the real presence is, of course, the paradox revealed by Jesus: Seek first his kingdom and everything else will be added to you as well.

The Eucharist is indeed a family meal around the table. When we are baptized we become part of God's family. But if we try to reduce the Eucharist to just a symbol or just a moment of being family, we get nothing in the long run.

But if we allow the Eucharist to be what it, in fact, is -- the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus the Christ -- and live our lives in discipleship to the full meaning and implication of that fact, we will find that we have become members of the family without even trying to do so.

I pray and hope that this year, God will increase his family in love and gratitude for the immensity of the sacrifice who is Really Present in the Eucharist.


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