Many of you by now have seen the results of a recent Pew Research Center survey of Catholics regarding their belief in the Holy Eucharist. The results are, in my mind, alarming and very disturbing. Before getting into the survey results themselves, it would be worthwhile to explain clearly what the Church has always believed about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1374) states that “in the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist ‘the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained. The presence is called “real”…because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present.’”

After the consecration at Mass (“This is my Body”/“This is my Blood”), only the appearance of bread and wine remain, while the substance of bread and wine has been wholly changed into the substance of the Body and Blood of Christ our Lord. After the consecration, there is no more bread and wine present, but only the presence of Christ himself.

The Pew survey results shockingly revealed that only 31% of the Catholics polled believe what the Church teaches about the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. 69% of those polled said they believe the Eucharist was only a “symbol” of Christ’s body and blood. This has to worry all of us. The Second Vatican Council forcefully taught us that the Holy Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.” (“Lumen Gentium,” 11). If we do not get the Holy Eucharist right, nothing else will be right.

It is fair to say that the overall Pew survey results included Catholics of varying degrees of participation in the sacramental life of the Church, from weekly Mass attendees to those who seldom or never go. But when we drill down into the details of the survey, the data is not comforting. It would be expected that those who seldom or never participate in Mass would have a lower level of correct belief in the Holy Eucharist, and this is the case (only 13% of these believe in the Real Presence).

But even among weekly Mass participants, only 63% believe in the Real Presence, while 37% believe the Holy Eucharist is only a symbol. What is even more disturbing is that 14 of that 37% actually know what the Church teaches about the Holy Eucharist and still don’t believe. The others in that 37% don’t know what the Church actually teaches. Another, not surprising, finding is that the younger a person is, the less likely he or she is to believe in the teaching on the Real Presence.

These results have to be a real wake up call for all of us. To simply shrug our shoulders at such disturbing news and move on with business as usual is simply not an option. We must do everything in our power to reverse this trend. People will more easily grow lax in the practice of their faith, or drop out altogether, if they don’t understand and believe the mystery we celebrate in the Holy Eucharist and how that drives everything else we do in the ministry of the Church.

This is a problem of both catechesis and sacramental practice. We are reaping the fruits of decades of inadequate and even erroneous catechesis in the Church. We must face the fact that we (the Church) have done a poor job in adequately catechizing about the faith, especially when it comes to the sacraments. I have been a member of the USCCB Subcommittee on the Catechism for more than seven years, and I can tell you that this is a constant pastoral concern.

I challenge all of us, including our Catholic schools, our parish religious education programs, and our adult faith formation programs to get ever more serious about what we are teaching. We must be presenting the true faith of the Church in all its beauty and splendor. This is for all areas of belief (including Catholic moral teaching), but in this context, especially regarding the sacraments. Obviously, special emphasis needs to be given to the teaching of the Church regarding the Mass and the Holy Eucharist.

But this is also a problem of liturgical practice. To put it bluntly, we have lost much of the reverence, awe and respect for the Holy Eucharist that we once had in the Church. How we celebrate the Holy Mass and treat the Blessed Sacrament are at the heart of this. The soon to be beatified Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen once said, “If you don’t behave as you believe, you will end by believing as you behave.”

I remember when I was a young altar boy, the thought of touching the Holy Eucharist with one’s hands was unthinkable. It was Jesus Christ, and we gave him the greatest reverence! Only a priest’s consecrated hands could touch the Blessed Sacrament. We received the Holy Eucharist in those days on our knees.

We have come a long way from those days, and far too many of us approach the Holy Eucharist with a casual and sometimes irreverent demeanor. I call for an examination of conscience in this regard. We often hear extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion (and even sometimes priests and deacons!) say, “I’ll give the bread today” or “I’ll give the wine.” There is no more bread and wine. It is Jesus Christ — Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. What we say expresses and influences our belief.

To restore reverence, awe and beauty to the sacred liturgy has been a passion and concern of mine ever since I was ordained a priest 29 years ago. For those who do not understand my efforts, or who question their importance, please read the Pew study for yourself.