A seminarian prays before the Eucharist this fall at Mount Angel Seminary. (Courtesy Mount Angel Seminary)
A seminarian prays before the Eucharist this fall at Mount Angel Seminary. (Courtesy Mount Angel Seminary)
ST. BENEDICT — Theological and pastoral minds at Mount Angel Seminary say an August Pew poll on what Catholics believe about the Eucharist conjured up a false dichotomy.

Shawn Keough, director of intellectual formation at the seminary, and Deacon Dominic Sternhagen, student body president, note that Pew asked Catholics to choose between two options: whether the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus, or if they are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus. The men say that imposing such a choice utterly missed Catholic nuance, which often is characterized by true answers that are “both-and” rather than “either-or.” For Catholics, the two explain, the Eucharist is both.

So, when 69% of respondents chose “symbol of the body and blood of Jesus” and 31% chose “actually become the body and blood of Jesus,” they were forced to choose between false alternatives.

Was Jesus human or divine? Are we for pope or country? Are we for unborn babies or immigrants? For Catholics, the answer almost always is “Yes,” with distinctions and explanations as part of the package.

“We say the Eucharist is both,” says Deacon Sternhagen, who is studying for the Diocese of Salt Lake City and serving at St. Rose of Lima Parish in Northeast Portland.

Keough explains that the Council of Trent in the 16th century clearly referred to the Eucharist as a symbol or sign. That was not to deny the Real Presence, but because that is what sacraments are — outward signs of deeper realities.

“A sacrament is a sign,” Keough says. “It points to something else. But it’s not just a sign; it’s a sign that contains the thing it points toward. And the Lord is really, truly present in this sign.”

Keough notes that the poll question not only confused the central idea of sacramentality but left out the words Real Presence and transubstantiation, the first clue that the survey had been fatally oversimplified.

“There was no way to give a good answer. You couldn’t explain,” Keough says.

For Deacon Sternhagen, the challenge is not only for him to understand, but to explain Real Presence to people in the pews. He uses something Abbot Jeremy Driscoll of Mount Angel Abbey often says: The point of Eucharist is not intellectual understanding but experiencing and living Eucharist.

In the early church no one explained the theology of Eucharist to new Christians until they had first experienced it. Keough says that custom began to change in the medieval church, which was faced with controversies over the Eucharist. Explanation became important. The unintended consequence, Keough says, was that Eucharist became less a mystery to contemplate and more a miracle to which Christians were asked to give assent.

The current Real Presence controversy may in part be fueled by the arrogance of modernity, a perennial condition in which people think generations of the past were stupid. Disputing the notion that modern science somehow torpedoed the Real Presence, Keough tells his students that ancient and medieval Christians realized that the bread and wine became the Lord but retained the appearance of bread and wine. Scholastic theologians described two realities. “Substance” names the deep essential identity of a thing that cannot be detected by a close look. “Accident” refers to all the properties of a thing which humans can detect. “Transubstantiation” is the church’s way of describing how the bread and wine become Christ in their substance but retain the accidental qualities of bread and wine.

“When we speak about Real Presence, we are not talking about it in the way Pew did, separating symbol and presence,” Keough says. “We are receiving our Lord in a real true substantial way.”

That is the same idea Deacon Sternhagen uses when speaking with parishioners.

“You can give reasons for the hope that we have. You can use words to signify the mystery,” he says. “I will say, ‘This truly is the presence of Christ but it still looks and tastes like bread and wine.’”

The discussion is vital at Mount Angel Seminary. There, the entire course of study and formation centers on the Eucharist. Students are asked to see theology and ministry through the lens of the Mass and all it means.

“That’s an answer to ‘How does this all fit together?’” Abbot Jeremy told an international group of vocations directors gathered in Vancouver, Washington, this summer.

Ecclesiology, the study of the nature of the church, opens up when one sees that it is the eucharistic celebration that brings the assembly into being, Abbot Jeremy said. Scripture study unfolds when seminarians realize that the Bible and sacraments are in an energetic relationship, with God speaking and the church responding.

“There is a dynamic in Scripture that is driving toward sacrament,” Abbot Jeremy explained. He told the vocation directors that Christology, another major theological enterprise, makes sense only in the context of the Paschal Mystery, which becomes real at Mass.

It’s also via the Eucharist that seminarians grasp the great Christian mystery, the Trinity, the abbot explained. Liturgy shows the movement of God toward the world and the world toward God. The Son comes from the Father, with the Spirit involved, and the church at each Mass offers the Son back, again with the Spirit involved. “In two directions, we see Father, Son, Spirit,” he said.

There is deep devotion to the Eucharist on the hilltop. Each afternoon, the Eucharist is exposed for an hour of adoration. Deacon Sternhagen appreciates that many parishes are doing something similar. The hope is that adoration will draw more people to Mass and help them have a deeper experience of Eucharist at all times.

“Christ is just there,” Deacon Sternhagen says. “No one is talking about doctrine. Anyone can just come in and be. Adoration helps you understand just how approachable Christ makes himself.”