John garvey

Any Christian who travels to Jerusalem will leave inspired by the experience of visiting a city where Jesus walked.

Of course, as with all tourist sites, there is a certain amount of invention. Much of what you see is old, of course, but the connection with the Gospels and the life of Our Lord can be, not to stress too much, weakened.

Take the upper room where the apostles were gathered at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on them and the church was born. Tourists can see an upper chamber of a two-story building south of the Zion Gate.

It’s certainly old, and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to imagine Peter and the other disciples huddled up there. But it has Gothic arches, an architectural detail that we don’t see until the 12th century in other parts of the world.

There is one place, however, that I hold sacred in my memory.

Excavations along the southern wall of the Temple have uncovered the steps that the common people would have climbed, the ritual baths where they would have purified themselves and the doors through which Jesus, Mary and Joseph would have entered.

I have a picture of my wife and I standing in one of these doors. It is excavated down to bedrock.

We know that Jesus walked on the very stone we are standing on. It’s probably a bit worn from what it was 2,000 years ago, but when the picture was taken I felt like getting down on my knees and kissing the stone that might have smelled of it. imprint of the feet of our Savior.

It took no imagination to imagine Jesus walking through that door. He did it. And with a little effort, I saw myself standing as he passed. He may have even looked in my direction; he would certainly have known my thoughts.

We sometimes forget that this is exactly what happens in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Jesus is in fact there, not in Jerusalem but in the Saint-Vincent chapel or the Saint-Matthew cathedral or the Church of the Little Flower. Mass is not an exercise in imaginary reconstruction. We receive it body and blood, soul and divinity.

I found myself thinking about this recently when the Barna Group released a report saying church attendance was down 30-50% from 2019.

When COVID-19 arrived, the bishops relieved their flocks from their Sunday obligation. People went online instead, and often found better preaching. Now that most are vaccinated, many still choose to attend Mass on their computers or have given up the habit altogether.

To anyone who believes what the church professes, it doesn’t make sense. A good sermon is inspiring, even online, but it is not God present among us. No believing Catholic would trade the sacrament of the Eucharist for a video. So what explains the drop in attendance?

A Pew Research Center report published in 2019 indicated that 69% of Catholics believe that the bread and wine used at Mass are only “symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”

If we truly believed that Jesus was physically present at Mass, as I imagined at the Hulda Gate, attendance would approach 100%. It might be a bit high. The apostles who lived with him also had doubts. But it would be up there, even at daily mass.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has its annual meeting this week, and one of the items on its agenda is a renewal of our faith in the sacrament of the Eucharist. I cannot think of a more pressing concern. If we don’t have this, our faith is not as good as a trip to Jerusalem. It’s not much better than a YouTube video.


Garvey is president of the Catholic University of America in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @CatholicPres. The Catholic University website is