Help my unbelief: The lesson of Peter of Prague


This Sunday, we celebrate the feast of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, or Corpus Christi.  As I wrote last year, the feast was established to strengthen belief in the Real Presence, to encourage people to draw close to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, and to make reparation for sacrilege committed against the Eucharist.  While we remember and celebrate the institution of the Eucharist on the great feast of Holy Thursday, that feast falls during the Triduum, which is a more somber time in the Church calendar.  The solemnity of Corpus Christi was founded as a feast to celebrate the Eucharist with all the pomp and festivity and thankfulness we can muster.

Part of the history of the establishment of the feast includes a Eucharistic miracle in the hands of a priest, Peter of Prague. At the time of the miracle, he had been praying to strengthen his belief in the Eucharist. This part of the story has always struck me. Historical accounts indicate that Peter was a holy priest but was experiencing doubts about the Real Presence of Christ. He was on a pilgrimage to Rome when the miracle occurred during Mass in the nearby town of Bolsena.

First, this reminds us that even holy people can struggle with Church teaching. The doctrine of the Real Presence can be disconcerting. A priest once told me he could get a majority of high school kids to deny the doctrine if he pressed them for a few minutes. Do we really believe that host is actually the body and blood of Jesus Christ?  Really and truly? Substantially? Depending on how well the student has been formed, they might waver.

Do we know what the Church teaches? And, importantly, do we pray for faith to believe it, even when it’s hard?

That is the lesson Peter of Prague teaches me every time I think of his story. Some people make a distinction between doubts and difficulties. John Henry Newman famously said, “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” If we make a distinction between someone who is struggling with belief and someone is okay remaining in doubt, I think we would have to say Peter of Prague fell in the first category. He had difficulties, but strove to do something about them.

How often do I pray for an increase in faith? Regardless of how well we know Church teaching, and regardless of how strong we think our faith might be, we all need an increase of the virtue. Peter of Prague may have doubted, but he was not content. He acted in the midst of his doubt. He went on pilgrimage and prayed for an increase of faith. God answered that prayer in an incredible way.

Faith is a gift from God and is impossible without him. But it is also a human act. Faith is a free gift, but one we can lose. There are many things in the world today that can sway our confidence, assault our trust, and cause us to question our beliefs. When we come across the “hard sayings” of Church teaching, are we more like the crowd of John 6 who left Jesus after his hard sayings, or are we more like Peter who shows his trust: “Lord, to whom shall we go?” Peter probably didn’t understand the words of Christ any better than the crowds did! But because he knew who Christ was, he was willing to believe even if he didn’t understand. He doesn’t tell Jesus, “Oh, I’m sticking around because I understand completely what you were talking about over there.” Rather, his only explanation for staying is a statement of faith in who Christ is: “You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (cf. John 6:60-69). That is faith. Faith is not simply believing something, but is submitting our mind and will to God.

This feast of Corpus Christi, pray for an increase of faith. Maybe we don’t always give the Eucharist the reverence we should. Perhaps it’s easy to forget Who is really on that altar, under the appearance of bread and wine. Perhaps you don’t struggle with doubt in the Real Presence, but may struggle with another teaching of the Church. Take it to Christ and ask for his help. Pray the prayer of the father in Mark 9:24: “I believe; help my unbelief!”


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About the Author

Joannie Watson

Joan Watson was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana, but college and graduate school took her to Virginia, Ohio, and Rome. After graduating from Christendom College with a B.A. in History and Franciscan University with a M.A. in Theology, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee to be part of the explosion of Catholic culture in the middle of the Bible Belt.

She has been blessed to work for Dr. Scott Hahn at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia at Aquinas College. She is presently the Director of Adult Formation for the Diocese of Nashville. When she’s not testing the culinary exploits of new restaurants or catching up on the latest BBC miniseries, she’s FaceTiming with her eight nephews and nieces and enjoying her role as coolest aunt. She likes gelato, bourbon, and the color orange.

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