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CARA study shows positive signs of Catholic belief in Eucharist

Two-thirds of Catholics believe Jesus is present in the Eucharist, but only 17 percent attend Mass weekly, according to survey
Father Fabrice Langefeld celebrates the Eucharist during a mass in memory of four of the eleven victims from the APEI Val de l'Orne association in Amneville at Saint-Joseph church of Amneville, eastern France, on Aug. 13..

Father Fabrice Langefeld celebrates the Eucharist during a mass in memory of four of the eleven victims from the APEI Val de l'Orne association in Amneville at Saint-Joseph church of Amneville, eastern France, on Aug. 13.. (Photo: AFP)

Published: September 28, 2023 05:44 AM GMT
Updated: September 28, 2023 05:50 AM GMT

Almost two-thirds of Catholics believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, but only 17% of adult Catholics physically attend Mass at least once per week, according to a newly published survey from Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. The survey also revealed a high correlation between belief in the Eucharist and weekly or even monthly Mass attendance.

The 2022 survey of self-identified Catholics published Sept. 26 and titled "Eucharist Beliefs: A National Survey of Adult Catholics" found 64% of respondents provided responses that indicate they believe in the Real Presence, that the Lord Jesus Christ is truly present under the appearance of bread and wine in the Eucharist.

That conclusion was drawn from both open-ended and closed-ended questions respondents were asked about their understanding of church teaching about the Eucharist and additional questions to clarify their beliefs.

According to the CARA study, 49% of respondents correctly identified that the church teaches that "Jesus Christ is truly present under the appearance of bread and wine." The other 51% incorrectly identified the church's teaching as "Bread and wine are symbols of Jesus' actions at the Last Supper, meaning that Jesus is only symbolically present in the consecrated bread and wine."

"Results of this question indicate that there is substantial confusion about what the church teaches about the Eucharist with slightly more adult Catholics not knowing this correctly than those correctly identifying the teachings," the report stated.

The survey report noted the data from the responses to the questions indicated that "most who do not believe in the Real Presence are not rejecting the teaching, as they do not know this is what the church teaches."

The survey aimed to test or clarify the findings of a 2019 Pew Research Center survey that found one-third of U.S. Catholics agree with the church that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ. According to Pew's analysis published in August 2019, "nearly seven-in-ten Catholics (69%) say they personally believe that during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine used in Communion 'are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.' Just one-third of U.S. Catholics (31%) say they believe that 'during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus.'"

The 2019 Pew survey was part of the impetus for the National Eucharistic Revival that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops launched last year, and which will include a National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis in July. The initiative aims "to inspire a movement of Catholics across the United States who are healed, converted, formed, and unified by an encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist -- and who are then sent out on mission 'for the life of the world,'" its website states.

In a review of previous surveys asking Catholics about their belief in the Real Presence beginning with a 2008 American National Election Study, CARA indicated that the Pew Research Center's phrasing for its question on the topic may have been confusing to respondents. CARA aimed to be as clear as possible with its survey's approach, which is why it opened with an "unaided and open-ended question": "In your own words, what do you believe happens to the gifts of bread and wine after Consecration during Mass?"

The new CARA study, while showing more Catholics believe in the Real Presence than in the Pew study, still underscores the need for the Eucharistic Revival, said Bishop Andrew H. Cozzens of Crookston, Minnesota, chairman of the USCCB's Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, which is supporting the revival.

"It's still not good news," Bishop Cozzens, who also serves as board chairman of the National Eucharistic Congress nonprofit formed in 2022 to plan the national event, told OSV News. "What it reveals is that there's ... people who say they believe in the Eucharist, but they don't go to Mass. In that sense, they obviously haven't had a real encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist."

"This is what we're about with the Eucharistic Revival, this encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist that lets me realize he's a living person and that changes the way I live," he continued. "That's what we really need."

The survey, however, "might actually show us we have more low-hanging fruit than we thought we did," he said. "In other words, there are people who say they believe in the Eucharist, but they don't go to Mass every week. ... How do we invite them into an encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist so that their lives can be changed?"

The survey found that knowledge of the church's teaching on the Eucharist and belief that teaching is true is highest among Catholics who attend Mass at least once per week, at 95%. Among Catholics who attend less than weekly but at least once per month, it was 80%.

It also found that weekly Mass attendance has dropped seven percentage points during the COVID-19 pandemic from 24% in 2019 to 17% in 2022 -- around 5% watch Mass on television or online due to the pandemic. An additional 18% attend less than weekly but at least once per month. Twenty-six percent attend Mass a few times per year and 35% rarely or never attend Mass.

"What we need is not just good catechesis -- we do need that -- but we also need to invite people to a relationship," Bishop Cozzens said. "Helping people understand that it (lack of belief in the Real Presence) is not just an intellectual problem, it's a problem of the heart in that sense of relationship with Jesus. What we're really seeking is inviting people to an encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist, because that's what will have the biggest impact."

The national study was commissioned by the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, "to better understand what the current Catholic population (self-identified) believes about the Catholic Church's teaching on the Eucharist," the report stated. The survey included 1,031 respondents ages 18 or older with a margin of error of 4.45 percentage points. It was offered in both English and Spanish, and administered through an online form or via telephone with a live interviewer from July 11 to Aug. 2, 2022.

The McGrath Institute commissioned the CARA study because of its collaboration with the National Eucharistic Revival and the importance of having clearer data on Catholics' beliefs regarding the Real Presence, Bishop Cozzens said.

Affiliated with Georgetown University in Washington, CARA is a national, nonprofit, research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church.

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