The following is adapted from Deacon Dennis Lambert’s book, For Real? Christ’s Presence in the Eucharist (Liguori Publications 2022).
A Good Beginning
I was a cradle Catholic whose cradle was well insulated with love and devotion to the faith. My family went to Mass every Sunday and on every holy day of obligation. Like many Catholics, then and today, the Lamberts had a preferred pew. Ours was in the center section, second pew from the altar. I can still recall my dad’s tendency to lean forward and back every three seconds. I am convinced he was unaware of this habit, or of me mimicking it.
I loved and looked up to both of my parents, especially to their unwavering sense of service, evident in their willingness to help others. They were both very involved in the parish and would often invite the sisters who ran the church’s school, along with the priests, to our home whenever we had a significant gathering. It was in that grade school and church, St Joseph’s, in Round Lake, Illinois, that my siblings and I received our grammar school education and celebrated the sacraments. A generation later, my own two children followed suit, attending the same grade school, and receiving their sacraments within the same parish church.
My Catholic education continued at Carmel High School in Mundelein, Illinois. It was here that two life-changing events occurred during my junior year. The first was meeting my wife, Debbie. The second involved me taking an initial, yet deep, interest in my faith. I would like to say that this interest sprang forth from an inward Christ-like awakening, but in reality, about 90 percent of my motivation was fueled by intellectual curiosity inspired by the teaching of a Carmelite priest named Father Tom Drolet. I found his religion classes fascinating and couldn’t get enough. His method of teaching Scripture and theology was both rational and relatable. Who wrote what gospel, and when? Who was the audience for each gospel? How does Judaism connect with Christianity?
From those classes on, I became hooked on the academics of Christianity. To this day, I can fondly recall Fr. Tom’s enthusiasm in explaining what “brood of vipers” meant in the context of Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees. Imagine my excitement when I learned that Fr. Tom would also be teaching religion my senior year.
Learning from My Mistakes
I lived at home during my initial college years so that I could save money and keep the job I had. But more importantly, I remained local so that I could stay close to Debbie. It was during either my freshman or sophomore year that I began to develop many questions about Catholic teachings, which led to all sorts of problems, including internal conflict regarding my Catholic faith. These issues became so numerous and contentious that I began to wonder why I still professed to be a Catholic, and it was at this crossroads that I made a crucial error.
During this time, I began taking bass guitar lessons from Bill, a guy who was a few years older than me. At some point, Bill invited me to play softball on his Nondenominational Evangelical church team. I accepted. As I got to know more of the guys on the team, I saw in them a particular goodness. And, unlike most Catholics I had known, they had a real willingness to talk about faith and the Bible, both of which I found appealing.
So rather than going to a Catholic spiritual director with my mounting questions of faith, I went to these men and their families, to their Bible studies, and to individual meetings with their pastor. Of course, they had answers to my questions. I found this small Evangelical community to be staunchly anti-Catholic and eager to have a chance to save me from the clutches of what they perceived to be an evil institution. Even more impressive to me at the time was how they used Scripture to back up all of their answers.
As the parable of the sower of seeds, initially, I sprang up like the heartiest of plants. I had seemingly not only found answers to my questions, but also real, authentic faith! Thankfully, in this instance, I was like the seed thrown on rocky ground, and those Evangelical roots began to wither. After two years, I came to discover numerous ambiguities and flaws in their answers and assertions.
Two years after my subtle schism from the Church, I scheduled a meeting with a priest at my parish to discuss my long-held questions and “problems” with the Church. As grace would have it, the priest I was scheduled to meet with was a new associate pastor for my parish. His name was… Fr. Tom Drolet!
I walked out of that meeting feeling like a giant. Having received the grace of the sacrament of Confession certainly played a big part in that feeling, but having my questions answered with such depth, logic, and love undoubtedly contributed, as well. A lesson for all Catholics: if you have questions about your faith, be sure to go first to a Catholic source to discuss them.
Returning to the Eucharist
I remember my first Mass after two years of separation. It was a Sunday. As I passed through the nave of St. Joseph’s Church, there, second row center, sat my parents. The walk down the aisle was surreal. I was home. But there was one more emotional, familial pardon that I needed to receive to solidify my return. I quietly entered the pew behind my parents, leaned over, placed a hand on my dad’s shoulder and whispered in his ear, “I’m back.” He turned slowly, put his hand on mine, and said, “I was just praying, at this very moment, for you to return to the Church.” (Insert tears of joy here!)
Approximately two years after that meeting, it was, once again, Fr. Tom Drolet who witnessed Debbie and me celebrate the Sacrament of Matrimony.
As I look back, I understand that my Evangelical friends had the best of intentions. They taught me things that are still important to my faith today, namely love for the Bible and the importance of having a personal relationship with Christ. Suffice it to say that my two-year detour has ultimately served me well, especially when I have occasion to interact with, or minister to, any of our Protestant brothers and sisters.
Still, the experience outside the Church had residual negative effects on me that lasted several years. Even though I was — with great excitement — back in the Church, I found many of the hardline anti-Catholic Evangelical positions I had gathered during my absence difficult to shed. The importance and reverence due to Our Lady was one of them; it’s something I continually ask her forgiveness for. The other was clinging to the Protestant view of the symbolic nature of the Eucharist. In fact, the thing that, more than anything, impelled me to write the book of my story was the discovery of my children’s communion banners.
As mentioned, my children attended the same Catholic grade school I did. Being three years apart in age, they shared pretty much the same practices in preparing to celebrate their first Communion. Part of the catechesis involved parental participation to create a first Communion banner. The content was determined by the family, with the only stipulation being that it relate to the Sacrament of Holy Communion. These banners were placed on the outside of the pew during the First Communion Mass, reserving that pew for the new communicant’s family.
It was presumed that the parents would have a conversation with their child about the meaning and purpose of the sacrament. While my wife took the lead on the actual artwork of the banner, I oversaw the language, as well as the subsequent sacramental conversation with our kids. Both of my children’s banners contained the same two words, my creation: “I Remember.”
While, on the surface, there isn’t anything wrong with remembering the Passion of Our Lord, beginning with the Last Supper. However, those words — my words — were intentional; they focused on the memory, because at the time, that was the extent of my belief regarding the Eucharist. There had been zero thought given to putting in childlike terms anything about Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, according to our doctrine. I purposely held back from my sweet, beautiful, innocent children that, when they receive their first holy Communion, and every time thereafter, they receive a physical part of our saving Lord. Absent as well was any explanation of the profound grace they would be receiving. For me, at that time, it was a symbol of a greater reality, but not a greater reality unto itself.
I stumbled on those banners, about a year ago, in a dresser drawer. I remember clutching those two banners in my hands — one navy blue, the other teal — and crying. I could not believe what I had done. With much thanks, and by God’s grace, somewhere during my spiritual journey, I began reading the likes of Catholic apologist Scott Hahn. These writings instilled within me a herculean desire to understand more fully the mystery of the Eucharist as more than a mere remembrance. And thanks be to God, my understanding of the Eucharist has indeed changed. To say that I fully understand and accept all the teaching of the Church regarding it would be an understatement. Like a redeemed Thomas, I kneel before his Eucharistic Presence and declare, “My Lord and my God.”
Recently, the Church called us to enter into a Eucharistic Revival — the very thing that happened in my own life. I had walked away from the Catholic Church and spent my early adulthood believing the Eucharist to be a mere symbol. I know many cradle Catholics have, sadly, done the same. My hope, my prayer, and my mission, is that my personal story serve as an encouragement to them. I pray in earnest that non-believers in the Real Presence would take the opportunity to look at the Eucharist with new eyes, as I did, and be open to having God transform them through their encounter with him in the Blessed Sacrament.
Coming back to the Eucharist has changed my life in ways I could never imagine. This is the power of his love and the reality of the Eucharist. If you are away from this truth, come back… our Lord awaits you with untold love and abounding grace.