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Stumbling Over the Body of Christ – My Journey

May 24, 2011

In the past, I’ve talked a bit about the six years I spent away from the Catholic church; six years in which I completed my college and post-graduate education while working as a “licensed” Baptist minister. I have not written much, however, about the why of my journey that took me from the Church. This week’s entry on This Pilgrim’s Progress is dedicated to that journey and, in particular, my personal wrestling with the doctrine of transubstantiation – the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

I didn’t leave the Catholic Church because of some theological objection. I did not rail on the church because of its position on natural family planning, the ordination of women, its stance on homosexuality or any of the other popular reasons I so often hear people cite when listing their objections to Catholicism.

Simply put, I left the church because, in my eyes, it was old, stale and, yes, in the folly of my youth, I might have even called it “irrelevant.” The truth is, I didn’t even know what it meant to be a Catholic. I just knew that it seemed awfully boring.

When it comes to central Catholic beliefs, the belief of the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist is absolutely essential. I read recently that a survey of people of various faiths showed that 45% of American Catholics don’t believe that the bread and wine of the Catholic Mass are, substantially speaking, the body and blood of Christ. Roughly half of the people who fill the pews on any given Sunday morning believe that the bread and wine are nothing other than a symbol of the body and blood. For faithful Catholics, this percentage is nothing short of staggering. And yet, I used to be a part of that 45%.

Despite the fact that I had grown up in the Catholic Church and received the sacraments of the Baptism, Reconciliation, the Eucharist and Confirmation, I never “got” that the miracle of transubstantiation was taking place in the consecration of bread and wine in the Mass. I simply don’t remember hearing or ever absorbing that rather important fact. I can’t say for sure where the teaching fell through the cracks, if it was a failure of those who did the teaching or if it was my own foolish mind that never received the message. All I can share is where I was when the gravity of the Church’s teaching on this issue finally became clear to me.

For my sophomore year in college, I transferred from Auburn University to Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, TX. Soon after I arrived at TCU, I met the woman who I would, one day, call my wife. One evening, Michelle and I sat with one or two other friends, sipping on chai tea lattes in The Noble Bean, our favorite local coffee shop. I knew that Michelle was Catholic and although I was, by this time, a staunch Southern Baptist, we seemed to get along well enough.

Our small group sat, trying to get to know each other and, naturally, turned to the faithful Catholic “oddity” that was Michelle. They asked question after question, all of which she was able to tactfully answer after years of inquisitions in the bible-belt town of Lubbock, Texas. She explained some of the nuances of the faith and dispelled some common misconceptions, before the question of the Eucharist came up. It was then that she laid out the belief in the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the body and blood.

“Did you know that’s what they believe?,” my friends asked, turning to me in disbelief.

“Oh yeah,” I replied confidently.

On the inside I was thinking “what?!,” but, I was a “former” Catholic and a first year Religion major so there was no way my pride was going to let me admit that I didn’t know that. When I got back to my apartment, I began doing research on this “crazy” theological belief, looking in to what various protestant denominations believed.

Over the next several years, the transubstantiation of the Eucharist became just one of many theological ideas that existed in the world of ideas that I explored more intellectually than devotionally. I never doubted that God could perform the miracle of transubstantiation; I just wondered why He would. Why on earth would Jesus say, “Eat my body,” and mean it in a real way? Did Jesus actually even say that, or was he speaking in a metaphor like he did in so many other ways throughout scripture?” In a time when my primary purpose was to explain and dissect articles of faith, I just couldn’t get my mind around it.

And yet, the body of Christ in the Eucharist haunted me. In the Baptist church we only celebrated “The Lord’s Supper” once a quarter, coinciding with the Sunday on which the church business meetings were held. The Lord’s Supper celebrations usually included a reading of an account of the last supper, in which Jesus instituted the breaking of bread in Eucharistic communion. As the passage was read, the congregation passed around a plate full of chiclet-sized pieces of unleavened bread and tiny plastic cups of grape juice. I remember, on several Sundays, sitting in the pew rubbing the bread in my hand thinking, “Would you, God, be reduced to such a form as this?” My heart leaned towards yes, but my mind was scandalized by the notion. I just couldn’t believe it.

In response to my personal crisis, I did what any good Protestant would do, I sought out a biblical justification for my unbelief.

In the days of the early Church, there was a debate as to whether Christian believers could eat meat that was sacrificed to other Gods. Some believed that, since the Christian God was the only real God, then Christians could eat whatever they wanted, because meat sacrificed to a god that didn’t exist didn’t really mean anything. Others thought they should abstain from eating these foods. In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul addressed this controversy, saying,

“Welcome anyone who is weak in faith, but not for disputes over opinions. One person believes that one may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. The one who eats must not despise the one who abstains, and the one who abstains must not pass judgment on the one who eats; for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on someone else’s servant?”
Romans 14: 1-4, NAB

I saw the issue of the Eucharist in the same light. Some people had faith enough to believe that Christ was in it. Some people didn’t. But, what did that say about me? Was I okay being the person who is “weak in faith?”

This question plagued me because, when it comes right down to it, belief in Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is a point of faith. Catholics can’t prove that the substance of the bread and wine changes. Protestants can’t prove that it doesn’t. You either believe it, receiving the Eucharist, or you don’t. As with all miracles or mysteries of God, you can think and argue about it all you want, but you’ll never be able to logically prove that it is one way or the other.

By the time all of this played out, Michelle and I had been married for a few years. We were married in the Catholic Church but I, of course, did not receive the sacrament of the Eucharist. I was still a part of the “weak faith” contingency.” I was still working as a Baptist youth minister and, at that point, playing through this issue in my mind every day, trying to find some chink in the armor of defense on either side. Meanwhile, it’s like the words of Jesus were taunting me from the pages of the Gospel of Matthew, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (18:3, NAB).

One afternoon, Michelle and I were driving back to the Fort Worth area from seeing family in Austin. As was often the case when I had enough time to think about it, this whole debate raged in my head. Over the debate and sound of tires moving along I-35 at 70 miles an hour, the call of Christ came clearer and clear…

“Unless you turn and become like children,”… “Chris, you’re not going to understand it.”
“Unless you turn and become like children,”…”my mysteries are too big for your mind.”
“Unless you turn and become like children,”…”I’m far bigger than the degrees on your wall.”

I turned to Michelle and, in leap of faith, confided, “I’m ready to come back in to the Church.”

Later this year marks five years since my “reversion” to the Church. I’m certainly not perfect but, in the presence of Christ, I’ve found the perfect place to be.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Ryan permalink
    May 25, 2011 12:33 pm

    Great post, Chris – thanks for sharing it. My
    Conversion to Cathlocism was much the same. Great to be in the true church (or back in the church, in your case), isn’t it?

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