Learning and Loving the Eucharist

Catholic school principals, teachers and students are taking lessons in the real presence to heart

By Christina Gray

Sharon McCarthy Allen remembers a time when adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was “what everyone did” in the Catholic grammar school, high school and university she attended.

“Now, it isn’t a very frequent practice,” said the St. Stephen School principal, an educator in the Archdiocese of San Francisco for more than 40 years. McCarthy Allen is among the Catholic educators in the Archdiocese of San Francisco who, in the second year of the three-year National Eucharistic Revival, are committed to changing that.

A core Catholic belief in peril

A 2023 study published by Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate and commissioned by the University of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life found that a large percentage of Catholics don’t believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes as the “source and summit” of the faith.

What this means is that a large percentage of Catholics don’t believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation in which the bread and wine offered at Mass is turned into the actual substance of the body and blood of Jesus following the words of consecration.

Poor catechesis on the Eucharist was, in part, the impetus for the National Eucharistic Revival launched last year by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

A critical opportunity for Catholic educators

Can today’s Catholic educators help shape new generations of Catholics who embrace the real presence and its centrality to the faith? Pamela Lyons, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, believes they can.

Lyons convened elementary school teachers and principals in all three counties of the Archdiocese early in the school year for immersive instruction on the Eucharist. Catholic educators then returned to their school communities to strategize on how to lead students of all ages into a deeper encounter with the Eucharist and the practice of Eucharistic adoration.

Catholic San Francisco talked to several Catholic school administrators across the Archdiocese about how they are recultivating a “Eucharistic culture” in their schools — one shared by administrators, faculty and students alike.

Re-catechesis of faculty and staff

Prior to the start of the 2023/2024 school year this past fall, McCarthy Allen organized a one-day retreat at St. Stephen School for every member of her faculty and staff. The interactive retreat was designed and led by Susana Lapeyrade-Drummond, associate superintendent for academic excellence and leadership for the Department of Catholic Schools.

“My goal was to re-catechize our teachers and staff, in a sense, and to further their relationship with the Lord in the Eucharist so that they could share that interest and love with their students,” McCarthy Allen said.

While her faculty and staff are nearly all Catholic, the longtime principal of St. Stephen felt training with specific focus on the Eucharist and Eucharistic adoration was important. Each participant received a copy of “Beautiful Eucharist,” a self-published book by Catholic author Matthew Kelly.

“For all of us, does it ever hurt to get a refresher course on something?” asked McCarthy Allen, especially something as central as the Eucharist. “Sometimes we have to dust off the cobwebs and revisit what we know and believe before we decide where to go with it.”

The St. Stephen School retreat started with an overview of the National Eucharistic Revival movement, a three-year period of education, encounter and grassroots response on diocesan, parish and individual levels.

Participants spent time reflecting on their own personal understanding of and devotion to Jesus in the Eucharist. One exercise included reflections by 25 different saints who made memorable quotes about the Eucharist.

McCarthy Allen said she hoped her staff would leave the retreat with a renewed love for the Eucharist and Eucharistic adoration, as well as plans, resources and strategies for sharing Eucharistic devotion with students.

The afternoon was focused on the topic of Eucharistic adoration. It included a video from Father Josh Johnson, host of “Ask Father Josh” (Your Catholic Question & Answer Podcast) on “What to do in adoration.” A page from the website guidedchildrensadoration.com was discussed as a resource for teachers when introducing their students to adoration. Participants then worked together on an art project making paper monstrances and hosts with the idea that it, or other similar projects, could be duplicated in the classroom.

Like any subject you want a student to master, “You just can’t hear it enough,” said McCarthy Allen. “If it’s important, we can’t just talk about it once with students and forget it,” she said. “You have to keep bringing it back. If you are teaching nouns, you don’t quit teaching nouns because the students already learned about them in the first grade.”

At Our Lady of Loretto School in Novato, religious education coordinator and kindergarten teacher Kendra Antonio reported that faculty and staff also entered a period of personal reflection and re-catechesis on the Eucharist last fall. They used “Becoming Eucharistic People,” by theologian Timothy P. O’Malley, as a guide.

Nearly all the OLL teachers are Catholic and most attended Catholic schools, said Antonio.

“It was something that was ingrained in us, that the bread and wine becomes Jesus’ actual body and blood,” she said. “But our mindset needs to change to put the Eucharist at the center of all we do.”

Parish and school collaboration

Laura Elmore, spokesperson for Our Lady of Angels Parish in Burlingame, said a close collaborative effort between pastor Father Michael Mahoney and the parish school’s principal has increased Mass attendance and celebration of the Eucharist among school families.

“The OLA Sunday Mass for grade school students was created for the Eucharistic Revival to encourage massive student participation,” she said.

Elmore said all teachers sign up at the start of the year to sponsor a 10 a.m. Mass on a second or fourth Sunday.

“When it’s their turn, they are responsible for rounding up all of their students to sign up for a role at the Mass, either as greeters, readers, gift bearers (one family), ushers, altar servers or bulletin bearers,” she said.

“It is wonderful to see the joy on the faces of parents as they witness their children participating in the celebration of the Eucharist and gathering afterward in our garden to share that Eucharist with each other,” Father Mahoney said.

According to McCarthy Allen, St. Stephen Parish pastor Father Michael Liliedahl is very involved with St. Stephen School students.

He offers religion lessons on Mondays and makes Mass an interactive learning experience for the youth. He often uses Greek and Latin vocabulary words and asks students in the pews if they remember the meaning.

“The hands shoot up,” said McCarthy Allen. “It encourages children to be involved in the Mass and to pay attention.”

Eucharistic Adoration: “quiet time” with Jesus

Tom White, principal of St. Anne of the Sunset School, said the teachers and St. Anne pastor Father Daniel Nascimento have started inviting students into the quiet church sanctuary once a month for Eucharistic adoration.

“Quiet” is something that is sorely missing in the lives of our children today, according to White. “As adults, we did not have such a bombardment of outside stimulus growing up.”

He said the parish and school are offering students the “gift of quiet prayer” in Eucharistic adoration, one day a month for a two-hour period after Mass.

The students sit far apart from each other in silence before the Blessed Sacrament for anywhere from 10 minutes to 20 minutes, during which Father Nascimento will have exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.

“We hope that we can help students experience the opportunity to sit and pray in silence and at the same time, have the opportunity to listen to God speaking to each of them,” said White.

Sarah Currier, principal of Notre Dame de Victoires School in San Francisco, said she and her director of faith formation started offering First Friday Eucharistic adoration last year to her students as part of Eucharistic Revival.

“The benefits are peace and calm and recognizing how much the students need that time to be quiet and present with Christ,” she said. “We definitely plan to continue this.”

Father Andrew Ginter, chaplain at Marin Catholic High School in Kentfield, said Eucharistic adoration is now offered to students every Monday along with the sacrament of reconciliation in the school chapel.

“While I am in the confessional, there is an opportunity every week for students to be able to spend time before the Blessed Sacrament,” he said. One nice side benefit he’s noticed is the number of faculty and staff availing themselves of the opportunity as well.

Father Ginter said Eucharistic adoration centers the school community in prayer during difficult times.

“In the days after the Israel-Gaza conflict began on Oct. 7, we had all-day adoration,” he said. “We can’t really do anything in those situations, but our prayers can be efficacious.”

Eucharistic role models

Marin Catholic theology teacher Peggy Semling was in Eucharistic adoration at the tomb of Servant of God Carlo Acutis in Assisi, Italy, last summer when she felt “really compelled” to bring young Carlo’s spirit back to her high school students somehow as part of the Eucharistic Revival.

Carlo Acutis was a young Italian Catholic boy known for his devotion to the Eucharist. He documented both Eucharistic miracles and approved Marian apparitions around the world and cataloged them in a website which he created before his death from leukemia in 2006 at age 15. He was named a Servant of God by the Catholic Church 12 years after his death and was beatified in 2020.

“Carlo Acutis was all about the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist,” Semling said. “That was his whole message for the world. He’s such a good role model for our kids.”

She revealed her desire to share Carlo Acutis with high school students in the Archdiocese of San Francisco with a priest at the tomb.

“Have you read my book?” asked Msgr. Anthony Figueiredo.

The paperback volume, “Blessed Carlo Acutis: Five Steps to Being a Saint,” details five simple practices that led Carlo to a life of intimacy with Jesus Christ and a love for neighbor. They include the Mass, Eucharistic adoration, confession and spiritual guidance, befriending the Blessed Mother and the saints, and charity.

“I knew Carlo was somehow going to be attached to the Eucharistic Revival but I didn’t know how,” said Semling, who brought home two copies of the book. With Marin Catholic president Tim Navone’s support, 500 copies of the book were purchased and distributed to Marin Catholic and St. Raphael Parish youth.

Semling started reading the book with her students, one chapter at a time, during Monday adoration in the campus chapel.

Acutis had a burning desire for people to understand that Jesus is present in the Eucharist, said Semling, and her students really “grabbed on” to his words.

“Most of our students didn’t know what Eucharistic adoration is yet, but they do now,” Semling said.

Approaching faith through science

Emergency room physician Dr. Scott French was invited by Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone to speak about “21st-Century Eucharistic Miracles” at the Archdiocese of San Francisco’s Eucharistic Congress last summer at St. Mary’s Cathedral.

Since then, French has been sharing his presentation with students at Marin Catholic to help “turn the rising tide of unbelief in our culture” through rational, science-based evidence for God, Jesus, the soul and Church teachings.

The 21st-century miracles occurred in different parts of the world, but all involved consecrated hosts showing visible signs of blood. During his 40-minute talk, French presented amazing and inexplicable scientific analysis that identifies human tissue and blood from a living person in the Eucharistic host. His presentation will eventually be seen by the entire school community.

Semling said it was “refreshing” for a doctor to speak to theology students.

“It’s not just me getting up there telling them about these miracles,” she said. French’s credibility as a doctor and the scientists he is quoting carry “great weight” with her students.

“The students are intrigued by Eucharistic miracles,” Semling said. “It’s still a new idea to them, so it’s taking a little while for it to settle in to it, but it’s a new way of seeing our faith.” 

Christina Gray is the lead writer for Catholic San Francisco.