Joanna and I became friends in college, when I was a junior and she was a freshman. Her family had converted to Catholicism when she was a teenager and she struggled to embrace their new beliefs. I was a theology major who loved my Catholic faith and a good discussion. Joanna would often knock on my door, offer me a pudding snack, and spend hours grilling me about the Church.
Not Just a Symbol
Joanna's biggest issue with the Catholic Church was the Eucharist. Having been raised Episcopalian, she had celebrated the Lord's Supper as a “symbol” since her childhood. The bread and wine they had shared at her church on Sunday had been just that – bread and wine.
In the Eucharist, Christ left the Catholic Church not a symbol of Himself but His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. We believe the promise of Christ, that, 'I am the bread of life . . . I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world' (John 6:48-51).
When Christ said this, many of his followers left, saying this idea of eating his flesh was too hard to accept (John 6:66). Had Christ intended for the Eucharist to be a symbol, he would have clarified. Yet he allowed them to leave. 2000 years later, we continue to live the words of Christ, believing what He taught and the Council of Trent clarified: 'that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood' (CCC #1376). We call this transubstantiation: the substance changes while the appearance remains the same.
Everything My Heart Wanted
This was the explanation I constantly offered Joanna, yet she couldn't wrap her mind around this idea of the Eucharist. It was 'too out there . . . something we had convinced ourselves of.' Holy Thursday, I returned from classes to find her at my door. I felt defeated, that after a year Joanna still struggled to understand. Exasperated, I invited her to come to Mass with me that evening. Well, not so much invited as said, 'We're going to Mass. If God wants you to believe this, it's His turn to show you. I'm done!'
I really was done. My explanations of the Church, Christ, and the Eucharist had failed to make Joanna believe. However, what I had forgotten was that belief didn't come from me, but from the Holy Spirit. For Joanna, that moment happened at Mass that night. She explained, 'The incarnation, the cross, the Eucharist . . . everything my heart wanted all in one place. I had known for a while but it came down to a choice. The choice to say yes, I do believe.' I thought it was my explanations that would change Joanna's heart, but that moment of belief came from grace. Not me.
Go, Ask, Recieve
This week, we do things differently from our non-Catholic friends. We celebrate the institution of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday. We remember Christ's death on Good Friday. Catechumens will be initiated and we will remember our baptisms at the Easter Vigil. If you wonder why, find explanations. If you struggle to believe, realize that while explanations can offer clarity it is grace that aids belief. By going to Mass that night, Joanna put herself in a place to receive graces before she fully understood. Don't be afraid to go to Mass. Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, even if you don’t fully understand or believe.