BELIEVING A MYSTERY Fr. Cristobal Subosa gives First Communion to a young student at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Ontario. Catechists use a variety of methods to educate children on the mystery of the Eucharist, but say that ongoing faith formation throughout their teenage and adult years is necessary to sustain their belief in the Real Presence.
By John Andrews
Every year when she begins a new class with a group of children preparing to receive their First Holy Communion, catechist Diana Perez takes a deep breath, calls on the Holy Spirit to guide her teaching, and delights at the prospect that she, too, will do some learning.
“It’s special to see their questions, their curiosity, their wonder and even sometimes their doubts,” said Perez, who ministers at Our Lady of Soledad Parish in Coachella. “It’s learning and growing with them.”
During the spring and summer months this year more than 4,000 children, teens and adults in the Diocese of San Bernardino will receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist, a joyful and touching moment in the faith journey of any Catholic. Yet the Church faces current realities that are challenging the primacy of the Eucharist in the lives of the faithful.
The COVID-19 pandemic closed or limited Mass gatherings for a time, making the Eucharist less available. Some have grown used to watching Mass on livestreams and not returned to church to begin receiving communion again. In 2021 the Eucharist entered the divisive arena of American politics when the U.S. Bishops openly debated the idea of denying communion to Catholic politicians, including President Joseph R. Biden, who supported laws and policies that conflicted with Catholic teaching, namely on the issue of abortion.
Even before the pandemic, reverence for the Eucharist as the real presence of Christ had waned among rank-and-file Catholics. A 2019 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that only 31 percent of Catholics believe in the real presence.
In response, the U.S. Church is launching an intentional effort this month to revive devotion to the Eucharist. Beginning on June 19, Corpus Christi Sunday, a three-year campaign begins, culminating with a National Eucharistic Congress in 2024, the first of its kind in nearly 50 years.
The Eucharistic revival initiative will include the development of new teaching materials, training for diocesan and parish leaders, the launch of a dedicated revival website and the deployment of a special team of 50 priests who will travel the country to preach about the Eucharist.
Many catechists in the Diocese acknowledge that introducing concepts like “transubstantiation” and “consecration” to elementary school aged children can be tricky.
“For a child of seven, eight, nine years old, it’s a little over their head,” admitted Dominic Sermeno, a catechist at St. Paul the Apostle in Chino Hills. “They might ask challenging questions like, ‘I don’t see Jesus’s body in there?’
“My approach is very conversational. I want to make the children feel comfortable, that they can ask questions and speak their mind.”
Crystal Ramos, a catechist at Holy Family parish in Hesperia, said “discussion and repetition” are two keys to teaching children about the real presence. She also shares her personal reflections about the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist during Adoration.
Susanna Soto, a catechist at Queen of Angels Parish in Riverside who is teaching middle school aged youth about the Eucharist via Zoom, begins by reciting the words “transubstantiation” and “consecration.” The typical first response, she said, is that “everybody’s just staring back at me.” She then types the words on the screen and began to explain. “Jesus wants to know you, to be so present to you that He offers Himself in the Eucharist.”
Perez follows a similar tact, explaining to her elementary school aged First Communicants that just as regular food nourishes the body for important tasks like soccer games and school, the Eucharist strengthens our spiritual life and connection with Jesus. She holds up a communion wafer (unconsecrated) and an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to make the connection. “In Mass this becomes the living heart of Jesus,” she imparts. “When we eat it, He becomes part of us.”
Perez does not emphasize the word “consecration” to her younger students; rather, she shows images and videos of the act of consecration and says, “when [the priest] puts his hands out I want you to imagine Jesus’ spirit coming down.”
To solidify faith and belief in the real presence among his students, Sermeno focuses on a word that is more understood: the “amen” that is recited when you receive communion.
“When you say ‘amen’ you are saying ‘I believe what I have been taught, what I am taking in at this moment.’ ”
Many catechists who work with First Communicants believe that they are successful in introducing the idea of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, reflected in the reverence that the children show when they receive their First Holy Communion. But unless those lessons are reinforced through regular participation in Mass, continuing faith formation classes, and in the sharing of faith in the family home, skepticism about the Eucharist can begin to creep in as they move into teenage years and early adulthood. In a typical class of 20 middle school aged students, only about two or three attend Mass regularly, said Perez, so for the rest the idea of the real presence “is mind boggling for them.”
Soto said the idea of Eucharist being a catalyst for a relationship with Jesus does not take hold in many who drift away from the faith of their childhood.
“A lot of young adults leave the faith because they’ve never felt a connection,” she said. “No one has ever told them that Jesus wants to be their friend.”
Blessed Carlo Acutis, the Italian young adult who used his computer skills to share online content about Eucharistic miracles, will be the patron of the national eucharist revival’s first year. Perez has used some of Acutis’ videos to teach her older students about the Eucharistic miracles. Soto said that while many of her students were unfamiliar with the Eucharistic miracles, they have become a persuasive tool for her in teaching the real presence. “They need more exposure to the mysticism of our faith,” she said.
Many local catechists agree that the early lessons about the Eucharist are not enough to sustain belief and connection for a lifetime.
“It’s not just for the Sacrament,” Sermeno said of the classes he teaches. “When kids don’t continue the education, they lose sight of the mission of the Church.”
Catholics must continue to feed their faith through formation and ministry as adults, Perez said, going beyond family tradition and childhood feelings of obligation. Both Perez and Ramos count their own faith journeys as a prime example.
“I actually didn’t know the teachings of the Church when I was young, it was me having to do that journey alone as an adult woman,” said Ramos. “So, I tell my students, ‘Please keep coming to classes here at the parish so you don’t forget the importance of what is actually happening at Mass.’ ”
Added Perez, “I came back to Christ when I was about 25. I had a retreat experience that helped me to make a relationship with Him.” Soon after, she heard the call to become a catechist.
“I want others to know what I have found.”