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Colum Kenny: Is the Church a club with rules you accept or leave?

THIS week Irish Catholic bishops are hosting the 50th International Eucharistic Congress. It is a busy and colourful event. Yet most Irish Catholics do not share their Church's official teaching on the nature of the Eucharist (Holy Communion).

So are the effort and expense involved in mounting what its episcopal organisers describe as "a Spiritual Olympics" at the RDS and Croke Park more about show than substance?

Last week, an opinion poll for the Irish Times revealed that three-quarters of Irish Catholics do not believe that when a Catholic priest blesses bread and wine at Mass it "transforms into the body and blood of Christ". Two out of three opted instead to tick the box that said that it "only represents the body and blood of Christ".

The inclusion of the word "only" was misleading. Taking Communion can still be a spiritual experience when people believe that the bread and wine represent Jesus. Many Christians find that the representation itself sparks an experience of real presence in the hearts of those who share Communion in Christ's name. It is much more than simply a sign.

Richard Dawkins, Oxford professor and celebrity atheist visiting Dublin, called last week for Irish Catholics to be "honest" and to admit that they are no longer Catholics because they do not accept their Church's fundamental teaching. He and some bishops and their most loyal followers want people in or out. They think of the Church as a club, where you accept the rules or leave.

But the teachings of Jesus cannot be reduced to a neat set of club rules or medieval doctrines. How their truth is articulated is through the hearts and lives of Christians.

The Eucharist is at the very heart of how Christians understand their faith and their church and themselves.

Generations of Irish people have found consolation and meaning in the act of Communion, while not understanding or not fully accepting convoluted medieval theories about it. Such Christians have been as much a part of the Church as is any bishop.

The Eucharist consists of the consecrated bread and wine that are central to the Mass, which is itself a Christian re-enactment of the last supper of Jesus. The gospels tell us that Jesus referred to such consecrated bread and wine as his body and blood; he bid his followers to do as he had done and to eat and drink in memory of him.

But did he mean that Christians who did so would literally be eating his body and blood? Such an idea of "transubstantiation" seems barbaric to some people, with its echoes of human sacrifice and cannibalism, and simply unnecessary to others.

Even the medieval church authorities recognised the problem of arguing that a literal transformation occurred.

One of the principal exponents of the doctrine of transubstantiation, Lanfranc, was the archbishop of Canterbury 1,000 years ago. He explained that the bread and wine are somehow converted into "the essence of the Lord's body" but that "the qualities of the earthly substances ... are preserved, so that those who see it may not be horrified at the sight of flesh and blood".

So it changes but it looks, tastes and feels the same! This is a physical distinction that defies physics. And it is baffling to modern Christians. Does Lanfranc not sound here like one of those Irish Catholics who told pollsters last week that the bread and wine "only represent" the body and blood of Jesus?

Transubstantiation never made much sense to many believers. It makes even less sense today unless it can be reinterpreted and integrated into our scientific knowledge of physics and psychology.

Following the Reformation, transubstantiation became an ideological weapon that allowed Rome to claim that it still had a direct line to God not just through the pope but also through the Eucharist.

Generations of Irish Catholics at school heard clergy parrot Church dogma on transubstantiation. Instead of developing a gentle doctrine of real presence that drew on Christ's promise that wherever two or three gather in his name then he is also there, crude assertions that Catholics were eating his body and blood in a way that not even Lanfranc asserted became part of a pathology of religion that blighted spiritual lives and withered the Church. It is no wonder that atheistic philosophers such as Dawkins get so impatient with Catholics who clearly reject medieval dogma.

It is the job of Church leaders to reimagine forms of faith, andarticulate an understanding of real presence that is compatible with our scientific understanding of the nature of the universe. Instead, Rome seems to think that truth is best served by a repetition of old dogmas.

There are more than the alternatives of "body and blood" on one side and "only represents" on the other that the Irish Times poll offered. When we open the door of our heart, and use signs and liturgy to help to generate a spiritual communion with other people and across time with wisdom teachers, then what happens is not simply "symbolic" in an abstract way. It can be genuinely transformative. Or dare one say "transubstantial"?

Given an opportunity to do so by the pollsters, many Irish Catholics would have ticked an alternative box to say that they believe that the blessing and taking of bread and wine somehow makes God really present in them when they gather with other people of good will and share it humbly in the name of Jesus.

Learning how people experience the Eucharist is vital for the future of Christianity in Ireland and it poses a question for those who have organised the Catholic "Spring Show" in the RDS and Croke Park: do they care more about loyalty to dogma than they do about what Christians who still bother to walk into a church to share the Eucharist actually experience and believe?

Sunday Independent