Crash of Symbols

My reporting for the June 25, 2022 issue of The Tablet, Brooklyn’s Catholic diocesan newspaper, reminded me that only one-third of U.S. Catholics say they believe in the “real presence” of Jesus Christ in the bread and wine consecrated at every Mass. A Pew Research Center study in 2019 found that 69 percent of self-identified Catholics understand the Eucharist to be only a “symbol,” not the substance, of Christ’s body and blood.

This sad finding has helped to prompt the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to initiate this year a National Eucharistic Revival, with a major campaign planned to teach people what the Church believes and why. I am fully on-board with this effort, which could bring people back to church, rekindle a desire for intimate relationships with Jesus, and boost our outreach to a materialistic society, highlighting a sense of mystery, awe, and the community/communion of love.

While hopeful, I must acknowledge that the three aforementioned goals are clues to the huge obstacles this Revival faces. I fear that, to some unknown degree, confusion about the core of the Catholic liturgy is rooted less in poor catechetics and more in a meta-problem stunting our culture and today’s frame of mind.

The problem I posit, speaking partly as a devil’s advocate, is this: Today, everything is treated as a symbol. Think back to the landmark “Queen” song, Bohemian Rhapsody, which we discussed in Substack (June 13). The band sings: “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” and “Nothing really matters.”

I fear we are so accustomed to symbolic messages, behaviors, policies, and promises, much of our awareness of reality has been “caught in a landslide.” Advocates for various positions use dramatic scripts and simplified impressions to argue their cases; before conversations dig too deeply into facts and genuine interaction, many are inclined to shut down debate through cancellations and demonization.

The clouding of shared understanding and common ground is symbolized—there’s that word again—by the statement, “This is my truth.” In an age of virtual participation, manipulated media, and artificial reality, people satisfy themselves too often with taking the “right” stand, presenting images of a happy or meaningful life, and “going through the motions” to “get by.”

For people who have chosen this attitude, or adapted to it, symbols and truth are essentially the same thing. Symbolic gestures become shortcuts to power in the political-emotional arena.

Our “utility belts,” our handy tools for expressing ourselves effectively in everyday life, include: words and phrases with pre-defined meanings, as well as cleverly crafted slogans and talking points; emojis and memes; images, photos, faces, dramatic scenes; ten-second videos that go viral; and much more. These things can seem awfully real and influential, but they are only representations—often, unreliable and unsatisfying representations—of truths where enduring power and meaning reside.

Even our colleges, families, and personal development efforts have failed to push us toward a more profound sense of hope or a purposeful vision of ultimate fulfillment.

Some Catholics may even assume that an entirely symbolic view of the Mass is as close to “the truth” as human beings can get. They cannot imagine the rewards of aiming higher, taking leaps of faith. They may be well-intentioned, but we need to help them “see” what they are missing: the option to participate in the Kingdom of God as pilgrims and, then, as saints in heaven.

In a Church and world where too many leaders and followers have proclaimed one paradigm and lived another, we may take too lightly our allegiance to clear-cut ideals like the Ten Commandments and the transubstantiation-symbolism distinction. Discerning and living out these ideals seems much too difficult as we go with the flow of information tsunamis, swimming past salvation.

Our politicians and other influencers have modeled for us a spirit of hypocrisy and doublethink that takes the name of “leadership,” “getting things done,”  “success,” or “keeping their promises.”

This is at least one part of the challenge Catholics will face during the three years of America’s Eucharistic Revival. It is a remarkable irony that a religion often condemned as fictitious, two-faced, or disempowering is committed to the mission of reviving culture at its core. We must struggle on behalf of the way, the truth, and the life: the authentically substantial, the community-building power of shared truth and trust, leading to love and justice on earth and eternal salvation beyond. Every time we worship the Lord at the altar, we can help to satisfy the soul’s need for liberation from the “false presence” of mere symbols.

Image from collection of Creative Commons designs.

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About Bill Schmitt is the home for Bill Schmitt's blog and biographical information. This blog, initiated during Bill's nearly 14 years as a communications professional at Notre Dame, expresses Bill's opinions alone. Go to "About Bill Schmitt" and "I Link, Therefore I Am" to see samples of multimedia content I'm producing now and have produced during my journalism career and my marketing communications career. Like me at, follow me on Twitter @wschmitt, and meet "bill schmitt" on LinkedIn.
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