Do you ever wonder about deep things? We have a 200 foot well... but, joking aside, I was reflecting on a couple of serious subjects recently. At the Shenandoah County fair in August, I met a Protestant in the exhibit hall who used to be a Lutheran and now ministers to an independent church. He began to proselytize when I told him I was a Catholic. I suspect we agree on more matters than he imagined, but his intense zeal gave me the feeling he wanted to save me from the whore of Babylon. He began quoting the bible at me. He told me we’re saved by grace and not by works (I agree) and a church can’t save us, etc. I replied that the Catholic Church is the only place where I can receive the “daily bread” of Christ in the Eucharist. At that point, my husband, daughter and grandchildren were moving on, so I cut the conversation short to catch up with them. Then at Mass a few days later I recalled another conversation with a Protestant who accused Catholics of being cannibals because of our Eucharistic beliefs. I suppose that explains why so many left Jesus during the bread of life discourse narrated in John 6 saying, “Who can accept this?”
Both these experiences got me reflecting on the Eucharist and the best way to converse with Protestants to help them understand what we believe and why. I’ll start with the cannibal comment. First, cannibals don’t eat up the food chain; they eat their own species. But it’s interesting to consider that cannibals often eat the hearts of their enemies to obtain their virtues. It isn’t so much eating for “food” but to consume the spirit. The Iroquois, for example, ate the heart of St. Jean de Brebeuf who showed such amazing courage during his torture and martyrdom. They saw his warrior’s spirit and wanted it. So, ironically, there is an element of Eucharistic belief even in evil, pagan practices.
Although pagans can’t “eat” the courage of their victims, God gives us a direct share in His life in the Eucharist. Worthily received, holy Communion helps us to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We grow in grace when God physically unites us to Himself. But how can we explain that to Protestants?
I once read an article about a mother trapped with her little daughter during an earthquake. Buried under the rubble, they had nothing to eat but a jar of jam. As she prayed for rescue, the mother fed the jam to her child. Then when the little one cried out in thirst, she broke the jar, cut her fingers and let her daughter suck on them. She literally gave her lifeblood to save her child. Ultimately, rescuers found both mother and daughter alive, but the mother’s sacrificial suffering probably saved her daughter’s life. That is Eucharistic love!
So what’s the best way to converse about the Eucharist or any other doctrine, for that matter? Begin with asking questions and really listening. That minister knows the Bible and can quote chapter and verse. Most Catholics can’t. Many Protestants (and Jehovahs Witnesses and Mormons) are much more zealous in evangelizing than we are I’m ashamed to say. The sola scriptura adherents claim that the Bible is everything and the only thing. So study John chapter 6, the bread of life discourse and ask how they understand it. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood you have no life in you?” That’s the Real Presence, but most Protestants see it only as a symbol. Sadly, so do most Catholics.
Suppose we discuss that passage back and forth. If Jesus didn’t mean what He said, why didn’t He call back all those people who were leaving? “Hey guys, I’m just talking symbolically. I didn’t mean it.” But Jesus repeats the Eucharistic doctrine over and over from verse 25 until verse 66 when many of the disciples leave unable to accept His teaching. And then He asks Peter, “Do you want to leave me too?” And Peter, in what is probably the greatest act of faith in his life, replies, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
He was probably as confused as the others, but He trusted Jesus. Do we have that kind of trust? Do we trust Jesus enough to engage with people around us, being ready to explain “the hope which is within” us? Of course, that means we have to study the Bible and the catechism.
Another good question for Protestants is, “Where did the Bible come from?” In the 4th century, St. Athanasius played a major role in assembling the books that would ultimately be approved as the Bible we know. Later, around 400 A.D. St. Jerome translated the books into the Latin Vulgate which would become the approved text.
A last suggestion is to question their authority. What does a Protestant do if he and his “brother” disagree about the meaning of a passage? How do they resolve their disagreement? Can the Bible be in conflict with itself? Can two mutually exclusive interpretations both be true? Of course, Catholics turn to the Church for authority. Protestants often claim a direct line to God, but that only works when all the brethren agree. So asking a Protestant where he gets his authority is a good question. “Why should I listen to you? Where do you get your authority?”
The last time two Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on my door, two women, I invited them in and got my Bible. They were both fallen away Catholics and expressed astonishment when I said that made me sad. I told them I couldn’t live without the Eucharist, and that they must not have understood what they were leaving. They seemed baffled and never returned. I pray for them still and all the non-Catholics to whom I speak. I want all our separated brethren to join us at the table of the Lord and be filled to the brim with Christ’s truth. Don’t you?