Summary: A priest was once kneeling as a congregant at Mass and noticed a little five-year-old child in the pew behind. . .
It’s pretty well known among Catholics that Flannery O’Connor, one of the 20th century’s greatest authors, once was invited to dinner when she was young and unknown by a more famous writer at the time, Mary McCarthy. The conversation was a bit stilted due to O’Connor’s fabled shyness, so McCarthy tried to draw her out. She told O’Connor that she considered herself an ex-Catholic, but she believed the Eucharist was a “very powerful symbol.” O’Connor responded, “well, if it’s [just] a symbol, I say ‘to hell with it.’” To O’Connor, and to millions of Catholics for two thousand years, the Blessed Eucharist is all three–a sign, a symbol and a sacrament. And that means the Eucharist “effects what it signifies,” the true presence of the Resurrected Jesus Christ, whole and entire, under the symbols of bread and wine.
As Bishop Barron tells us, symbols can call to mind other realities. A stovepipe hat can “stand for” President Lincoln. Less obviously, a reel-to-reel tape can “stand for” President Nixon. But neither of these, as much as they call to mind another reality, can become another reality. From the earliest times, certainly at least from the time of St. Paul, Christians have believed that in some way what they consumed at Mass was indeed the Real Jesus Christ.
Now, for one reason or another, we know that as the recent Pew study shows, among Catholics who attend Mass weekly, only 63% believe that what is received in Communion is more than just a symbol, is in fact the whole Christ. The rest hold that the Host is only symbolic of Christ. This helps us understand that among Catholics as a whole, fewer than a third believe what the Church teaches.
Now I have been a scientist of some ability ever since I took my first chemistry course as a high school student, almost sixty years ago. I know that what we call the properties of bread before the Consecration of the Mass are identical to the properties of the Real Jesus Christ after the Consecration. Theologians use the word “accident” to refer to the size, shape, taste, color and other properties of the Host. But I believe that the power of the Holy Spirit effects a real transformation of the matter of the sacrament into the Reality of Christ, just as I believe that the same Holy Spirit is working to change me into an image of Jesus Christ, as little as I appear to be doing so.
I’d like to recall here an idea advanced by the Canadian communications expert, Marshall McLuhan, himself a fervent Catholic, when I was a young man. “McLuhan coined the expression ‘the medium is the message’ and the term global village, and predicted the World Wide Web almost 30 years before it was invented.” He taught that there is a property of all communication which I like to call “warmth.” As there is more and more information in a message or a medium, it is hotter and hotter. I recall two examples: radio is a fairly “hot” medium, because it conveys a lot of the information directly that you receive from it. You might imagine how the announcer or singer looks, but you don’t have to imagine much about the message.
The old-fashioned cathode ray television tube, however, is a cool medium, because well over half of the information you receive is not sprayed electronically onto the screen. You have to work to fill in the holes in the picture. That’s one of the reasons you are more easily distracted by a television show than by a radio program.
Now the reason I bring this up is to invite you to consider the “warmth” of the Holy Eucharist. Of itself, its properties suggest it’s just a white or off-white wafer that, when consumed, tastes like bread of a particularly brand variety. Our faith, itself a gift of God, enables us to translate the sign and symbol and “see” the Reality. We have to work through faith to “fill in the holes in the picture.” That’s part of the transformation we pray for as we receive.
A priest was once kneeling as a congregant at Mass and noticed a little five-year-old child in the pew behind. What he remembers most is that after the Consecration, at the Elevation of the Host by the celebrating priest, the child looked up at the Host and exclaimed “Cool!” That’s exactly right in so many ways. “My Flesh is real food and my Blood is real drink.” Cool!