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Only 26% of US Catholics under 40 Believe in the Real Presence, and That’s No Accident

New research from Pew published this month indicates that only 26% of US Catholics under the age of 40 believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.

In his book, Index of Leading Catholic Indicators, Kenneth C. Jones cites a 1994 poll conducted by the New York Times/CBS that placed the number of Catholics in the 18–44 demographic who believe that the Eucharist is “merely a symbol” at 70%. (Jones, p. 80)

So, not taking into account variances between the two polls, that’s roughly a drop of 4% in belief over a span of 25 years. Not a dramatic decline, but not certainly an improvement, either. And this continuing downward trend has occurred despite a younger generation of priests who have embraced the “reform of the reform.”

I believe, though I do not have the data to prove it, that this embarrassingly low figure is a direct result of the desacralizing nature of the Novus Ordo Paradigm.

I believe this because I experienced my own crisis of faith in the Real Presence as a teen in the 1990s, and it was directly related to my liturgical experiences.

In a draft chapter of a never-finished book I began writing over a decade ago about my discovery of Catholic tradition, I described how I wound up at a point where I literally asked Jesus how I could believe He was present in the Eucharist:

I grew up in the liturgical landscape of the Novus Ordo Missae. My young parents, who grew more conservative in their expression of the Catholic Faith as time wore on, were also detached from the previous liturgical tradition. Born in 1952 and 1958 respectively, both were fairly young when the liturgy was changed officially, and younger still when the experimentation began. My father, who had fallen away from the Church as a teen, had the benefit of longer experience with the pre-Vatican II Church, but his drift from belief had cost him much during that time, and his reversion was trying to find footing in an intellectual understanding of Catholicism he had never before possessed. In large part, he had left for being told not to ask questions. When he came back, the answers were in large part different than they would have been before.

The first parish I remember was St. Edward’s in Stafford Springs, Connecticut. We lived just a few blocks away, and we would walk to Mass as a family, my little brown shoes scuffing the sidewalks as my parents dragged my younger siblings and I along. It was an attractive church, with a stone exterior, and an architecture that spoke of the old days. The tabernacle was off in a separate area to the left of the sanctuary, and I remember that we always sat on that side, and I was careful to direct my intention to Jesus, whom my mother had informed me was there. I seem to recall that it felt out of place that the most important person in the room – the one we had come to see – was off in the corner, but perhaps hindsight colors the memory. Whatever the case, it was at St. Edwards’ that I received my First Holy Communion. The priest, the kindly Fr. Smith, was a no-nonsense man whom my parents liked for his willingness to say it like it was. Nevertheless, he taught our class to receive communion in the hand, something which I accepted in the same way I accepted all things taught to me by a priest. I recall that as we practiced for the big day, however, the polyester-clad nun who directed our class was forcing us to learn the words of City of God, which was to be played during our special hour. She kept playing the damnable song over and over on a portable tape recorder, and I mouthed the words without singing because I couldn’t bring myself to put voice to such an ugly piece of music. At the age of seven, the symptoms of my later condition were already showing.

As time wore on, those symptoms began to develop. Soon, I was making the walk to St. Edward’s on my own for the early Mass on Sunday, to hear the priest preach fire and brimstone from the pulpit and to skip all the music. (This also meant I would have a glorious hour at home by myself to watch cartoons while the rest of my family was at church.) When we moved from Connecticut to New York, I became an altar boy at our little parish just across the border in Pennsylvania. I befriended the priest there, and would take my lunches with him during my summer job at the local hardware store. I became a lector, too, then a CCD teacher with my dad. I started a youth group, and even wrote the manual for the program I hoped would continue in my absence. I was, in the glorious spirit of Vatican II, a participant in the life of the parish.

But something was missing.

In my teenage years, I discovered, through one of the Church’s new movements, liturgical and sacramental orthodoxy. It had come not a moment too soon, because the lack of seriousness with which I felt so many of the external trappings of the liturgy were contaminated had begun to threaten my faith. I remember kneeling there on the blue shag carpeting, in front of the hideous tabernacle (this time, off to the right of the sanctuary) and asking God that if He was truly present in the Eucharist, why didn’t we act like it? All the strumming guitars and torch songs and people dressed like they were going to the beach and ugly décor and nonchalance with which we approached the sacrament seemed to indicate a far less serious situation than one in which God became present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, right there on that altar that more closely resembled a really nice dining room table than a sacred space for sacrifice.

I came this close to giving up on the Church, and it was only through the grace of exposure to some elements of the “reform of the reform”; a late introduction to the practices of adoration, benediction, and Gregorian chant; and an awakening to the fight for the soul of the Church (rooted in my experiences at World Youth Day in Denver) that I was able to keep my eyes on the prize.

I can’t imagine I was alone in asking these soul-searching questions. How many other young people of my generation, with no connection to tradition whatsoever, and not even the option of attending the ancient Mass, were asking the same things? How many other young people didn’t find the answers I did and decided that it must not have been real after all?

For me, these considerations on how we treated the Eucharistic Christ as a reference point for faith — what I’d later come to learn fell under the maxim “lex orandi, lex credendi” — became a constant recurring theme. I revisited these ideas time and again as I made my way, stumbling and nearly blind, on my totally unexpected journey toward a tradition I had never heard of and knew nothing about.

And asking those questions didn’t always make me very popular.

During my senior year of college, with the common liturgical abuses that were a regular theme at Steubenville campus Masses fixed firmly in my mind, I used my usually frivolous column in the student newspaper to push this same theme. The Eucharist, I wrote (PDF), “is free to us, undeserved. It is the physical, palpable communion with the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ our God and redeemer. He is that stone the builders rejected that became the cornerstone — but he is being rejected again. Not simply by secularism or atheistic humanism, but by Christians who are placing our humanity above his divinity, shoving him further from the altar as we become more visible there.”

I talked about the loss of Eucharistic reverence within the liturgy, the emphasis on charismatic preaching over respect for the sacrament, the needless use of an army of lay Eucharistic ministers, the problem with non-sacred worship music, the non-central placement of tabernacles, and the general issue of non-sacred liturgical architecture. “I understand that many of these things occur with the best intentions,” I said, hoping to strike a conciliatory note. “On the whole, there is no conscious, malicious force under way to destroy the Catholic Experience. But regardless of intention, this IS happening.”

(Remember, I was still years away from discovering Catholic tradition at this point, and the truth of the malice behind much of what was done was not yet something I’d come to accept.)

All of these things, I argued, pointed our attention away from Our Lord, where it should be, rather than echoing the words of St. Thomas Aquinas: “Jesus my Lord, my God, my All — How can I love thee as I ought?”

I thought I’d written a good piece, and it was well received by many of my peers. But then I was blindsided by a letter to the editor (PDF) written by the campus chaplain in the final issue of the paper, to which I was given no opportunity of response.

The chaplain wrote, in part, as regards my piece:

I must say that I was shocked, not only by the confused and mistaken theology expressed, but mostly by the judgmental dogmatism of the author. He stated many things well, but then abrogated them by carrying them to erroneous conclusions. Above all, it was a very subjective article, devoid of sound specifics and filled with generalities and purely personal opinions.

In retrospect, I was probably more general in my criticism than I should have been. I was trying to avoid naming names, but I had the faces of certain priests in mind when I wrote. I was also only 23, and an inexperienced writer at the time. On the other hand, I think the chaplain was heavy-handed in his response. Imagine being a Catholic priest at an educational institution that prided itself on a reputation for “dynamic orthodoxy” and trying to shame a student who was asking for more Eucharistic reverence.

I graduated the week his response came out, very much feeling the sting of having my concerns so harshly rejected by the very university that had helped me to develop them.

But these were the two competing ideas of Catholicism that dominated my youth: the one that I came to, gradually over time, out of a desire to treat the Eucharist as though Jesus was truly present there, and the realization that everything we did in the liturgy either magnified or distracted from that fact; and on the other hand, the aggressive, unforgiving refrain that the post-conciliar changes were a good thing, and anyone who questioned them was guilty of “judgmental dogmatism.”

Those words, written 18 years ago, could just as well have been written today. My concerns at age 23 were very similar to those of the young men and women at last year’s youth synod, who felt ignored when they overwhelmingly asked for better, more reverent liturgy.

But the answer to this disturbing decline in fundamental Catholic belief appears simple to me: if you want people to believe in the Real Presence, treat the Eucharist as though it is God, and make sure you back that up with sound catechesis emphasizing the same. Do not distract from the central importance of the Eucharist by means of any human presence, practice, or device. Do all in your power to reflect the noble majesty of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar through word, deed, and gesture. Build churches that are redolent of this mystery. Compose music that draws the listener into it.

It’s literally that simple.

If, on the other hand, you don’t want people to believe that Jesus is truly present…well, just keep doing what you’re doing.

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