A Case for Eucharistic Piety

It is a scene we are all familiar with. Do you remember the long lunch line from back in high school? You grabbed your tray and slugged through the line. As you reached the lunch lady, you peered back at her and she reached out with her ladle to slop a big pile of something on your plate which she assured you was a sloppy joe. For my generation, it was chicken nugget day. In the big health food craze that has hit the country in the past few years, we learned that it wasn’t actually chicken they were serving, nor are we sure what was in the mystery meat in your sloppy joe. This is a humorous exchange that has been played out in countless high school based movies and television shows. While this may be funny to observe, have we ever considered if we have experienced this feeling elsewhere?

For me this was my experience of the communion line for most of my life. At some point in the Mass, we all stood up and walked through a line where, at the end, we received a piece of mystery bread from a glorified lunch lady. The lunch lady assured me this was Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. But that was of little confidence for me, especially when so many other people told me it was just a symbol of community and solidarity. The way we approached this mystery bread seemed to me to confirm the latter as well.

This past Thursday was the Feast of Corpus Christi (The Body of Christ) the celebration of which was transferred to Sunday. A feast in which we celebrate the Real Presence of Christ; Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Blessed Sacrament. If you were unable to attend Mass at Sacred Heart I highly encourage you to listen to Fr. Pat’s homily below.

Click here for: Solemnity of Corpus Christi 2017- Fr. Pat Sullivan’s Homily

Examination of Belief

Although slightly outdated, a Pew Research study done in 2010 showed that roughly 45 percent of Catholics in the United States are not aware of what the Church means or are even aware of the doctrine of Real Presence. A newer study in 2013 pegs this number at closer to 50 percent. To read more about those studies click HERE. In addition a 2014 poll of U.S. Catholics showed as many as 60 percent do not believe in the doctrine of the Real Presence. See more HERE. These numbers may not come as a surprise to some of us, but this is a big issue. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this about the Eucharist:

“The Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.” “The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch.”

-Paragraph 1324

The Eucharist, according the Catechism, is the source and summit of our Christian life. It is foundational to our faith and everything else that the Church believes and does. This position of source and summit is not just applied to the Eucharist, but also the entirety of the Eucharistic celebration, that is to say the Mass. The Mass is the highest form of prayer that the Church can offer up to God. Within the confines of the Mass, the resurrected Lord joins us and heaven and earth come together.

For clarity’s sake it is worth noting what the Church teaches about the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. We believe that through the process of transubstantiation the substance of the bread becomes Christ. Trans meaning across and substantiation meaning the nature or substance. It’s a bit technical to follow, but the components of any given object are philosophically described by their accidents and substance. Substance is the easiest to explain and constitutes the nature of being of the object. Accidents are the physical properties associated with an object. In transubstantiation the substance of bread becomes the substance of Christ. The accidents; however, remain the same. That is to say the substantial presence of Christ appears to us with the accidents of bread; a small, round, soft, wheat based wafer. Despite its observable properties, the nature of the Eucharist is that of Jesus in His resurrected glory.

With the seeming majority of Catholics in the U.S. either rejecting the Church’s teaching or being unaware of the reality of the Eucharist, what is something we can do to help on a practical level? Perhaps a change in religious education is advisable, but we have little control over that.

A Call on Tradition

In recent times, the words piety and pious have become four letter words in common vocabulary. They are often seen as synonymous with a “holier than thou” attitude. While there is a certain danger in empty pious works, they should not be avoided because of the actions of a few bad examples. In his masterpiece three-part book series Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI, when writing of the Beatitudes says this;

“First of all, we have the much debated saying about “poor in spirit.” This term figures in the Qumran scrolls as the self-designation of the pious. They also call themselves “the poor of grace, “the poor of thy redemption,” or simply “the poor”… Now Israel recognizes that its poverty is exactly what brings it close to God; it recognizes that the poor, in their humility, are the ones closest to God’s heart, whereas the opposite is true of the arrogant pride of the rich who rely on themselves.”

Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration. Page 74-75

Pious acts are outward expressions of an internal poverty, humility and need for God done from a genuine heart. It is also true that if done from a sense of internal pride, these actions find themselves in self-contradiction and take on a sort of sacrilegious nature in themselves. Still these actions are vital to our growth as spiritual children of God. Promulgated by Blessed Pope Paul VI in 1965, the document Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World) has this to say,

Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity. Through his very bodily condition he sums up in himself the elements of the material world. Through him they are thus brought to their highest perfection and can raise their voice in praise freely given to the Creator. For this reason man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honor since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day.

-Paragraph 14 S.1

As Catholics we do not see the soul and body as two separate entities. Our body is just as unmistakably part of our immortal identity as our soul. It is also capable of worshiping God as is our interior life. To believe otherwise is to doubt the Resurrection. Our bodies make physically present the reality of our internal life. These actions, when done from a genuine disposition, are an actual expression of our humility to God.

Eucharistic Piety

As we have seen above, piety is an outward expression of our internal disposition when done from a genuine heart. As Catholics, we kneel for the consecration. When we enter the Adoration Chapel it is proper to prostrate oneself in the true presence of Christ. Yet when we approach Him in the context of Communion we stand before Him, reach out and take Him from the priest.

So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.

Philippians 2:10

Since roughly the 10th century, Catholics have kneeled for communion. Kneeling is a sign of submission and places oneself at the mercy of the one they are kneeling for. What other way should we place ourselves before Jesus, especially in this most intimate of moments? Receiving the Eucharist on the tongue is also the normative form within the Church. By having the priest place Jesus on our tongue, we acknowledge that in terms of our salvation, there is not a thing we can do and only He acts for our salvation. We can only receive. In recent years it has been argued that communion in the hand was common in the ancient Church. The evidence for such a practice is actually very scarce and of questionable authenticity. Indeed communion in the hand was not seen widespread until following the reformation and was isolated to the areas affected by it. Prior to 1970 communion in the hand was not permitted anywhere in the world. Before traveling to a foreign country you may check what is currently allowed where you are going. In many countries around the world communion in the hand is not allowed.  For more information on the Church’s history surrounding the reverence of reception during communion click HERE. 

Currently the United States College of Catholic Bishop allows for communion in either the hand or on the tongue. In addition, per a letter from the Congregation of Divine Worship dated February 2003 as the current authority, communicants of Holy Communion are permitted to present themselves for the reception of the Eucharist while kneeling without fear of being accused of disobedience, though it is not the preferred norm. Furthermore, pious actions are no guarantee of a proper internal disposition. If you had to choose one, Saint Paul tells us that the internal disposition is more important.

Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.

-1 Corinthians 11: 28-29

On a personal level, since December of 2014, I have received communion on tongue. I had the privilege of attending Mass on Christmas Eve in St. Peter’s square where communion in the hand is forbidden. Likewise, I have kneeled for communion since January of 2016. For me it has been transformative for my relationship with the Lord. At first it was uncomfortable. These positions not only put one in a place of extreme vulnerability, but can also draw the uncomfortable attention of other parishioners. I came to realize though, that this is exactly what I needed. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable with another is a prerequisite to intimacy. I also see in these pieties the call of the Lord to not be ashamed of Him. My relationship with Jesus has grown ever stronger since I decided to make such a public expression during communion. I am a sinner in need of God’s love, so I submit myself to his mercy in the most intimate of way.

With all this in mind, I’d like to pose a humble, but serious question: to  a new Catholic, a visitor or a young child would they conclude that you believe in the Real Presence? In this moment where you cannot speak words to them do your actions communicate, to an unsuspected observer, the beliefs in your heart? Piety should never be adopted to directly influence another’s opinions. Indeed the Gospel tells us to go to our inner room to pray. Yet, it is still appropriate for a father or another role model to do these actions in hopes of reinforcing their children or other hopeful disciples. We are all called to be “these little ones” and be children of God. We are also called to witness to one another and to build each other up for the glory of the Lord’s Kingdom. I understand that not every reader feels drawn to these practices for any number of reasons, if so I ask you to pray and contemplate their meaning. To the reader that is considering taking them upon themselves, do not be afraid. You are joining Catholics not just today, but Catholics from all ages of the Church back to the apostles themselves. Do not be afraid of falling to your knees before the Lord.

Closing Words

I would like to leave you with some words recently shared by Cardinal Sarah, the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, during a lecture in Milan on this very subject and its relationship to two of the most prominently know Saints of our times.

“Today I would expressly recommend the reflection on and promotion of the beauty, propriety, and the pastoral value of a practice developed during the long life and tradition of the Church, that is the act of receiving Holy Communion on the tongue while kneeling. If St. Paul teaches us that, “at the name of Jesus every knee must bend in the heavens, on earth, and under the earth” (Philippians 2:10), how much more must we bend our knees when we receive the Lord in the sublime and intimate act of Holy Communion!… John Paul II never sat in the presence of the Eucharist. He always forced himself to kneel. He needed the help of others to bend the knee and then rise up. Until his last days. He wanted to give us a great witness of reverence for the Most Holy Sacrament…(Mother Theresa) surely touched daily the body of Christ present in the ruined bodies of the most poor. However, with wonder and respectful veneration, she decided not to touch the Body of the transubstantiated Christ. Instead, she adored. She contemplated it silently. She knelt and she prostrated herself before Jesus in the Eucharist. And she received it like a little child humbly being fed by her God. Seeing Christians who receive Holy Communion in their hands filled her with sadness and pain. She herself said: “when I enter into the world, the thing that saddens me the most is to see people receive communion in their hands.’”


Pax tecum,


One Reply to “A Case for Eucharistic Piety”

Comments are closed.