Once upon a time, when I was presenting a series of lectures on the Catholic Faith at a large suburban parish in the Midwest, during the Q&A session, a sixty-five-ish man raised a question I had never heard before. He prefaced his question by mentioning that he was a lifelong Catholic who assisted at his parish’s daily Mass as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion. He was clearly devout and serious about his faith, though his question evinced a curious lacuna in his knowledge of Catholic teaching.
“What would you say,” he asked into the microphone, “to those Catholics who, when they go up to receive Holy Communion, receive the host, but then bypass the chalice and return to their pews? They don’t even realize that they’re not getting all of Jesus!” The note of exasperation in his voice suggested that perhaps he might typically be the one holding the chalice during Communion.
A slight gasp rippled through the audience at the words, “They don’t even realize that they’re not getting all of Jesus!” That gasp was a good sign, for it indicated to me that at least some of the Catholics in the audience realized the flaw in his question.
He remained at the microphone anticipating, I think, a response from me about how “some Catholics,” for whatever reason, prefer not to receive the Precious Blood, or how “some Catholics” are a bit too traditional, or how poorly catechized “some Catholics” are, or something along those lines.
When I proceeded to explain, as gently as I could, that it was actually he who was mistaken about this issue, I saw his eyes widen with surprise.
“You see,” I said, invoking the time-honored Catholic formula used to describe the Real Presence of Christ, “Jesus is entirely present in the Holy Eucharist, body, blood, soul, and divinity. He is not partly present in the host and partly in the Precious Blood. He is truly, substantially, sacramentally, and entirely present in each.”
At this, the man at the microphone tilted his head slightly, furrowed his brow slightly, and pressed his point saying, “But if you receive only the body of Christ but not the Precious Blood of Christ, you don’t receive everything.”
“Not really, no,” I responded. “Again, Christ is entirely present in each element, the host and the chalice. The Catholic Church has always taught this. If you were to receive even just the tiniest fragment of the Communion host you would receive all of Jesus. And if you received only the smallest sip of the Precious Blood you would receive all of Jesus, not, say, only a percentage of him.”
Thanking me, but still with that quizzical, not-quite-convinced look on his face, he turned from the microphone and walked back to his seat. It was clear he was really thinking about this issue, perhaps remembering a long-ago catechism class in which he once learned, but somewhere along the line had forgotten, this important truth about the Eucharist.
So, before the next questioner went to a different topic, I spoke a little more on the issue of the Real Presence, realizing that the man who asked that question was surely a faithful Catholic who loved the Lord but for whom some of the teachings of the Church he had received when he was young had become a little fuzzy and needed to be clarified and reiterated. Others in the audience realized his mistaken idea, but as I spent a few more minutes elaborating aspects of Catholic teaching on the Eucharist, I could see that more than a few in the crowd were having some of their own haziness cleared up, which is always a good thing, no matter how long one has been Catholic. We’re busy and preoccupied with many cares, so it’s not all that remarkable that, over time, we might tend to get a little “rusty” when it comes to remembering everything we were taught about the Faith.
Which brings me to a theory I’ve developed over the last nearly thirty years of speaking on Catholic themes to audiences across the country: It seems that most church-going Catholics these days who are serious about God and the things of God (i.e., those who go to Mass every Sunday, say their prayers, and strive to live out the teachings of Jesus Christ and his Church) have about an eighth-grade level of knowledge of the teachings of the Church. Not because there’s something wrong with them, but because most Catholics—like that man at the microphone—ceased any kind of formal, systematic study of the teachings of the Church when they received the sacrament of confirmation, often at around the eighth grade. And once you get go off to college, get a job, get married, start raising a family, and so on, it becomes increasingly difficult to devote time to resuming a systematic study of the Faith.
This is why all of us would do well to spend a little time each day or each week (more is better, but even a little is good) refreshing our memories, minds, and hearts with a review of Catholic teaching. Reading just one chapter a day from the Gospels (start in Matthew 1 and work your way forward) and two or three paragraphs from the Catechism of the Catholic Church will do wonders for every Catholic.
Even though it’s impossible to receive anything less than “all of Jesus” in Holy Communion, it is entirely possible you could miss out on (or simply forget about) key aspects of Jesus’ teaching, over time or through neglect and inattention. As that well-meaning man at the microphone demonstrated—it happens.