Bishop Olmsted explains why the Real Presence needs to be the foundation of faith for Catholics

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Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix celebrates Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Avondale, Ariz., March 29, 2021. (CNS photo/Billy Hardiman, Catholic Sun)

St. John Vianney, the Cure of Ars, didn’t attain any scholastic honors, but his deep love of the Eucharist influenced countless others to encounter Christ’s Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament.

“In the very first paragraph, I tried to talk about the fact that the Eucharist is not something that’s beyond us. The simplest person can appreciate the Eucharist,” Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix said in a recent interview regarding his new apostolic exhortation, “Veneremur Cernui — Down in Adoration Falling.”

Bishop Olmsted told Our Sunday Visitor that he wrote his third apostolic exhortation — released on Holy Thursday, when Christ instituted the Eucharist — to remind the faithful that the “greatest anchor” Christians have in the midst of modern turmoil is “Christ himself, found in the holy Eucharist.”

To read Bishop Olmstead’s apostolic exhortation “Veneremur Cernui — Down in Adoration Falling,” visit the website of the Diocese of Phoenix here.

“The second sentence of the Catechism — Chapter 1, Verse 1 — says ‘every time in every place the Lord draws near to each person,'” Bishop Olmsted said. “He does, and he’s doing that through COVID. He’s doing that in the present time. And how does he become more present to us than in the Eucharist?”

Our Sunday Visitor: Why did you decide to write this exhortation on the Eucharist now?

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted: The Eucharist is the central part of our life. And I think at the present time, there are a lot of doubts, uncertainties and anxieties. There’s a crisis of faith that our people are struggling with. And there’s an assault on truth in a culture of relativism. We see often there has been a watering down of the Gospel message, ambiguous teaching rather than clear teaching, about the most important way that God is with us in history through the Eucharist.

Our Sunday Visitor: Is that watering down or ambiguity happening within the Church?

Bishop Olmsted: It’s a mix of forces from the outside and not getting really good catechesis from within and ongoing evangelization. If the polls are correct, only a very small percentage of Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Christ.

Our Sunday Visitor: Do you think the Real Presence is not being taught well enough at the parish level?

Bishop Olmsted: I think we need good teaching, but we also need to foster it through things we can see, hear and touch. Fostering Eucharistic adoration in our parishes makes a great difference. I think Eucharistic processions can also make people aware that this is not a private sort of thing. It’s a sacrament that touches on the salvation of the whole world.

Our Sunday Visitor: How long did it take you to write this exhortation?

Bishop Olmsted: In a certain way, it took a long time. I’ve had the practice of doing an hour of adoration every day since my first year as a priest. That means 48 years of daily Eucharistic Holy Hour. We talk about practicing Catholics, but there were many things that made it really difficult during COVID for many to practice Eucharistic participation. There’s a danger that even people of really good will who would watch (Mass) livestreamed could maybe lose sight of the fact that you can never make up for being there, participating in the Eucharist itself.

Then I would say toward the end of 2020 and beginning of 2021, I really began to feel like I really needed to write something about this, to take some real time to write. I aimed it precisely for the people of the Diocese of Phoenix, because they are the ones I’m called to serve and have been privileged to serve here for 18 years.

Our Sunday Visitor: Have Catholics become too familiar with the Eucharist that we have essentially forgotten what it is?

Bishop Olmsted: That’s a real danger, especially if we don’t take time preparing for Mass, staying afterwards if we don’t do any adoration — we can begin to just go through the habits. If you really love someone, you want to be with them. When you spend quality time with them, your love grows. We need to do that with the Eucharist as well.

Our Sunday Visitor: In the exhortation, how did you make the connection between Christ’s sufferings on the cross and the crushing processes that wheat and grapes undergo to become bread and wine? Was that an original insight?

Bishop Olmsted: I think we’ve needed to emphasize the Eucharist both as sacrifice and as communion. I wanted to delve in, pretty early on in the document, with talking about the notion of sacrifice. Something one of our priests often says is, “Show me, don’t just tell me.” So try to speak in such a way, or write in such a way, that you’re using images people can be mindful of.

The Greek language that St. John uses in Chapter 6 of his Gospel gets more graphic as he makes it even clearer that we are to “feed on” Christ’s body and blood. I tried to use things that come from Scripture but also come from my own imagination, I suppose.

One of the reasons why I named the exhortation “Veneremur Cenui — Down in Adoration Falling” is because something happens if we do that, if we fall down in adoration before Christ. Our use of our body is very important for adoration and for surrender.

Our Sunday Visitor: Seeing how often you quote St. Thomas Aquinas in the document, is it fair to say you have a devotion to the Angelic Doctor?

Bishop Olmsted: I think the first book about a saint I read was called, “The Dumb Ox,” about St. Thomas Aquinas. I think I was 6 or 7 when I read it. When the great Eucharistic miracle happened that led to Corpus Christi Sunday, that happened just north of Rome. Thomas Aquinas was in the same city there where the pope was living. The pope asked him to write hymns that would help people appreciate the great mystery of the Eucharist. We use those hymns all the time to this day for adoration. I find so much in St. Thomas Aquinas that’s expressed beautifully in terms of poetry, but it’s also been put into music that helps the poetry come alive.

Our Sunday Visitor: For people who have lost sight of what the Eucharist is, how can we spark the faith needed for them to see it as the body and blood of Christ?

Bishop Olmsted: Toward the end of the document, I start to talk about the evangelizing nature of the Eucharist. I think to invite someone to come to Mass is not very helpful for many people if they’re not practicing their faith or if they’re not Catholic. They don’t know what they’re doing. They feel uncomfortable. But with adoration, you can tell someone, “Would you like to come with me? You seem to be struggling with something right now. I go often to be with Jesus, and please come along with me.” I think we need that even more than we need clear teaching, or at least beginning ways of opening people up to the mystery.

“The Eucharist is the central part of our life. And I think at the present time, there are a lot of doubts, uncertainties and anxieties. There’s a crisis of faith that our people are struggling with.”

— Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted

I think it was Edith Stein who, when she went into the cathedral in Frankfurt, said she went in as an agnostic having fallen away from her Jewish faith. She went with a friend to see the beauty of the cathedral, but as they were doing that, this woman comes in with her shopping cart and just kneels down, totally absorbed in prayer. And (Stein) wrote later, “I said to myself, ‘Could I not hope that I would have that kind of absorption in the mystery of God?'” That image sticks with me. It’s what I’m hoping our people can invite others to do.

Our Sunday Visitor: In discussions of Church reform, synods, the reorganization of the Roman Curia, etc., do we risk losing sight of the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the Church?

Bishop Olmsted: There are many different contributions to the Church. We need to think about governance and all of that. But the sacraments — this is how Christ speaks to us, touches us, draws us closer to his sacred heart. The sacraments have to be primary, always. “Unless you eat my body and drink my blood, you have no life in you.” Jesus repeats those words over and over. We can never lose sight of the very deepest things that unite us with Jesus.

Our Sunday Visitor: In recent months, the Eucharist has been tied in with debates about pro-choice politicians receiving Communion. Can we talk about those issues without coming across as partisan?

Bishop Olmsted: I try to write in a way that’s pastoral, not political. It seems to me that even with politicians, we have a pastoral responsibility on our part toward them. But this is really needed by all of us. There are far more non-politicians than there are politicians who are coming to church and may not stop and think about what they’re going to be receiving and whether they are in a state in which they should walk up and receive Communion.

In the document, I try to talk about how we should be amazed by the Eucharist and drawn into the wonder of the gift of Christ, and therefore see the need to constantly strive to be worthy to receive Communion. And then think of the great gift of baptism and confession; both cleanse us of sins and prepare us to be one with Christ in the Eucharist. My emphasis was there, but because there’s a lot of talk about public officials and others, I just felt it was important to at least mention that fact because it applies to everyone.

Our Sunday Visitor: Post-pandemic, is there a potential for Catholics — those who are practicing and who have been away from church for one reason or another — to appreciate the Eucharist on a deeper level?

Bishop Olmsted: Yes, I think that’s true. The Lord brings good out of evil. He brings good out of everything. If he allows us to suffer through a really difficult time, he’s not absent during that time. I think he inevitably is going to bring an even greater good out of all the losses, pain, suffering and deaths that have happened from COVID. I really trust in that fact. At the same time, I think that we need intentional disciples. My sense is that those who are coming back now — and the numbers here have really been increasing here a lot during Lent, and especially during Holy Week — I think as that’s happening, it’s a good time to appreciate even more the gift of the Eucharist. I’m hopeful about that. There have been so many tears from people who come back the first time, because they’ve been away. We’ve also had an uptick in the number of confessions of people who were away for a long time here in the Diocese of Phoenix. Those are good signs of God’s grace at work, to help us appreciate the sacraments, especially confession and the Eucharist.

Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.

Brian Fraga

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.