Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
The Real Presence
Jesus' Gift to the Church
Ask Catholics about the real presence of Jesus in
the Eucharist and you're likely to hear a variety of personal experiences.
Once I was in a faith-sharing group with a man who was known as
one of the "pillars of the parish." He was always available for
parish committees, helped with the festival, occasionally led the
rosary during prayer services and was very devoted to his family.
He told our group about his feeling the real presence of
Christ during quiet moments of prayer one Sunday after he had gone
On that Sunday, he had visualized the body and blood
of Jesus, consumed in the form of bread and wine, breaking down
into smaller and smaller pieces, all the way down to the tiniest
element, being carried to every part of his own body by his beating
heart. He felt literally "nourished by Jesus" throughout.
He also felt deeply connected to those around him,
he said. He felt the Eucharist, the presence of Jesus, at the very
center of his being and at that point, he felt connected to that
same central point in everyone else who had just received Communion.
He experienced, in a mysterious way, the real presence of Jesus,
an experience of both transcendence with God and of communion with
the the Body of Christ, the Church, indeed the whole world. His
experience points to an authentically Catholic understanding of
Recent years have seen a growing concern about Catholics'
understanding of the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Some
surveys show that a number of practicing Catholics are not clear
about the doctrine of real presence. Some think of consecrated bread
and wine as only symbols of Jesus' presence rather than a genuine
change of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, the
long-standing Catholic understanding. In 1999 a large group of U.S.
bishops petitioned their fellow bishops to join them in addressing
the problem. They termed confusion about the real presence to be
a "grave" situation.
The first result of the bishops' efforts is a 2001
pastoral statement, The Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the
Sacrament of the Eucharist: Basic Questions and Answers, published
by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. That document, which
was introduced to the bishops' conference as a resource for pastors
and religious educators, presented 15 questions and answers, some
of which are, by the bishops' own admission, a bit technical. There
was nothing new in the document; it was merely a presentation of
existing Catholic teaching. There was a plea from some of the bishops
for easy-to-understand resources that would explain real presence
for everyone. In this Update we'll take a look at the principal
themes of the bishops' questions and answers, including some of
the renewed insights about real presence expressed at Vatican II.
Why do we even need the Eucharist?
The Eucharist is, for Catholics, both a meal and a
sacrifice. The Lord gave us the Eucharist at the Last Supper because
he wanted us to share in the life of the Trinity, the loving communion
of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We become united to
God at our Baptism, and receive a further outpouring of the Holy
Spirit at our Confirmation. In the Eucharist we are nourished spiritually,
brought closer to God, again and again: "By eating the Body and
drinking the Blood of Christ in the Eucharist we become united to
the person of Christ through his humanity," write the bishops. They
remind us of the words of Jesus in John's Gospel: "Whoever eats
my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him" (Jn 6:56).
This meal of fellowship and unity, though, also is
understood as a sacrifice. Why is that? Because Jesus died for our
sins. Human sin was so great that we could never share fully in
the life of God. Jesus came to reunite us. The bishops write, "Through
his death and resurrection, he conquered sin and death and reconciled
us to God. The Eucharist is the memorial of this sacrifice. The
Church gathers to remember and to re-present the sacrifice of Christ
in which we share through the action of the priest and the power
of the Holy Spirit. Through the celebration of the Eucharist, we
are joined to Christ's sacrifice and receive its inexhaustible benefits."
At the Eucharist, we re-present the outpouring of
Christ's life so that our life can be restored. This gift of life
is happening in eternity, always. We remember this in a special
way when we sing the Holy, Holy, Holy at Mass, recalling the words
of Isaiah 6:3, the hymn of the angels before God. We sing our praise
before the "lamb of God," slain to take away the sin of the world,
all that separates us from God (see Jn 1:29).
Why does Communion still look like bread and wine?
This perhaps is the greatest stumbling block for belief
in the real presence. We are not the first generation of Christians
to ask the question. Each generation has found the answer through
the eyes of faith.
The Church teaches that the transformation into the
Body and Blood of Christ is taking place "below the surface"that
is, in the "substance" of the bread and wine. What can be seen,
tasted, touched and smelled is indeed the same as the bread and
wine. But there has been a real change that requires faith to accept.
Medieval theologians, following the inspired genius
St. Thomas Aquinas, talked of this transformation using the word
transubstantiation, a technical theological term of that era.
The recent Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses this
term in Section 1376. In brief, we Catholics believe that, at their
deepest reality, but not in physical characteristics, the bread
and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ when they are consecrated
at Eucharist. After consecration, they are no longer bread and wine:
They are the Body and Blood of Jesus. "As St. Thomas Aquinas observed,
Christ is not quoted as saying, 'This bread is my body,'
but 'This is my body.'"
Once the bread and wine become the Body and Blood
of Christ, they remain so "as long as the appearances of bread and
wine remain" (see also the Catechism, #1377). They never
revert back to bread and wine, because a real and permanent change
has taken place. That is why we reserve the Blessed Sacrament, as
we will see below.
Christ is fully present in every fragment of the consecrated
host and fully present in every drop of consecrated Precious Blood.
So a person receiving only the consecrated bread or wine receives
Christ fully. Yet it is preferable, a more complete sign of the
heavenly banquet, to receive the sacrament under both forms rather
than only under one.
If it's real presence, why symbols?
It is particularly fitting that Christ should come
to us in the Eucharist, write the bishops, for "Jesus Christ gives
himself to us in a form that employs the symbolism inherent in eating
bread and drinking wine. Furthermore, being present under the appearances
of bread and wine, Christ gives himself to us in a form that is
appropriate for human eating and drinking. Also, this kind of presence
corresponds to the virtue of faith, for the presence of the Body
and Blood of Christ cannot be detected or discerned by any way other
The bishops here are reminding us that, even though
realnot merely symbolicchange has taken place, there
is still tremendous symbolism at work. All sacraments use symbols,
because symbols help us to understand the deepest connections between
things. Here are two of my favorite examples: Just as food nourishes
us, God nourishes us. Or again, just as grain of wheat must die
to become bread, so too must we. The symbolism of the Eucharist
is a deep and nearly inexhaustible topic. It in no way diminishes
the fact that a real, substantial change has taken place. In the
bishops' words, "God uses—the symbolism inherent in the eating of
bread and the drinking of wine at the natural level to illuminate
the meaning of what is being accomplished in the Eucharist through
Why the tabernacle?
As we saw above, the Body and Blood of Christ, once
consecrated, do not revert back to bread and wine. Although it all
could be consumed at Eucharist, the Church, from early times, has
found good reason to preserve that which was not consumed during
the community's celebration of Eucharist. First of all, the Blessed
Sacrament is reserved to be administered as "food for the journey"
(Viaticum) for the dying. It is also used for the sick of the community
and for those who were, for some good reason, unable to be present
for the community celebration.
Another pastoral practice arose as the faithful, centuries
ago, began to see the value of being in the presence of the sacramental
Body and Blood. Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament allows an opportunity
to adore God, whether in eucharistic exposition or benediction,
or in eucharistic processions. The Body of Christ in the form of
bread in the tabernacle provides an excellent opportunity for private
prayer. "Many holy people well known to American Catholics, such
as St. John Neumann, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Katharine Drexel,
and Blessed Damien of Molokai, practiced great personal devotion
to Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament," write the bishops.
The presence of the Blessed Sacrament is cause for
the greatest reverence, write the bishops, both during and after
the celebration of the Eucharist. Canon Law states that the tabernacle
in Church is to be in a place "distinguished, conspicuous, beautifully
decorated, and suitable for prayer."
"According to the tradition of the Latin Church, one
should genuflect in the presence of the tabernacle containing the
reserved sacrament," write the bishops. They also instruct that
greetings and conversations are best reserved for the vestibule,
not the main portion of the church: "It is not appropriate to speak
in loud or boisterous tones in the body of the church (that is,
the nave) because of the presence of Christ in the tabernacle."
Fasting before receiving Communion, in accordance
with Church law, is another form of reverence for the sacrament.
What if someone receives who doesn't believe?
Even though the Body and Blood of Christ are really
present in the Eucharist, faith plays a strong role in how we respond
to (or accept) that presence. It is commonly asked whether or not
a nonbeliever has received the Body and Blood of Christ if he or
she receives Communion. The answer is yes, in the sense that what
the nonbeliever has consumed is really Christ. But a lack of belief
prevents someone from receiving the spiritual benefit of the Eucharist,
"communion with Christ."
A related question arises about a person receiving
Communion while in a state of mortal sin. Once again, the disposition
of the recipient cannot change the fact that Jesus is truly present
in the elements of the Eucharist. "The question here is thus not
primarily about the nature of the Real Presence, but about how sin
affects the relationship between an individual and the Lord," write
the bishops. "Before one steps forward to receive the Body and Blood
of Christ in Holy Communion, one needs to be in a right relationship
with the Lord and his Mystical Body, the Churchthat is, in
a state of grace, free of all mortal sin. While sin damages, and
can even destroy, that relationship, the sacrament of Penance can
How else is Jesus really present to us?
The Church teaches that Christ is present to us in
other ways at the Eucharist besides in the Blessed Sacrament. He
is present in the priest, the assembly gathered to worship, in the
holy Scriptures (see box below).
It is indeed a mystery that God became flesh in Jesus,
and that Jesus becomes present to us in sacrament and Scripture.
Mystery, our bishops remind us, refers not to a puzzling reality,
but rather, to "aspects of God's plan of salvation for humanity,
which has already begun but will be completed only with the end
"St. Paul explained that the mysteries of God may
challenge our human understanding or may even seem to be foolishness,
but their meaning is revealed to the People of God through Jesus
Christ and the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 1:18-25, 2:6-10; Rom 16:25-27;
Rev 10:7). The Eucharist is a mystery because it participates in
the mystery of Jesus Christ and God's plan to save humanity through