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Sunday 25 August 2013

The Real Presence of Christ is the Eucharist

At an Anglican Use wedding in Toronto recently, one which included a beautiful Byrd Sung Mass and traditional Anglican hymns, I had a conversation with a member of the Anglican Church of Canada who attended. He had sung for years in Anglo-Catholic parish choirs and is an observant Christian who has considered entering into full communion with the Catholic Church through the Ordinariate.


One of the stumbling blocks for him is the Catholic understanding of the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), Part 2, Article 5. His Anglican view is that Christ is present but in a symbolic way. He is troubled with the teaching that the bread and wine of the eucharist truly and really become the body and blood of our Lord.

This is a difficulty that even many high church Anglicans, Lutherans and others share. The language of transubstantiation as laid out by the medieval scholastics and St. Thomas Aquinas is difficult to interpret in a secular and scientific age. The Catholic teaching that the substance of bread and wine truly become the body, blood, soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ (CCC 1373-81) seems to stretch credibility as much as these people believe that Christ is present "spiritually". 

This idea of a symbolic sacrament seems to be related to the often expressed notion that you can be "spiritual" without being religious. It is the  vague notion that spirituality is what I feel at the moment and God is sort of around but not in any way that impinges on the "real" (read material) world.

The Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence is tied to a number of crucial teachings about the Church as the Body of Christ in the real world. I will list some of these crucial areas that the teaching of the Real Presence touches upon and will try to connect these essentials to what Anglicans and others believe.


Jesus, as recorded in the Gospel according to St. John, specifically, emphatically and, for Jewish believers, scandalously, said: "Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you." (John 6:53)

Such a statement, particularly in light of the traditional Jewish teaching re. the sacredness of the human body and blood, is shocking and radical. The Jews of Jesus time on earth believed, as do many today, that to touch blood or a dead body makes one ritually unclean and there are  many practices established to maintain respect for the body. 

Any notion or even a reference to consuming any part of the body was anathema. Yet, St. John picks up and emphasizes the radical nature of Jesus' unique offering of himself and the sacramental reality that Jesus provides for those who will share in his life by means of physically and sacramentally consuming the substance of his life - his very body - in a dramatically real way.

The substance of Christ is offered in the Eucharistic sacrifice which, though made once for all on Calvary, is re-presented in all its spiritual reality in each Mass. Each Mass is the sacrifice of Christ made present once again for us. The substance of the sacrifice, Jesus himself, is present and by his own command is to be consumed so that we may be part of Him as He is of us. (CCC 1384-90)

The Catholic Church always hastens to add that the sacrifice of the Mass is an unbloody sacrifice because the "accidents", that is to say, the appearance, texture and the physical aspects of the bread and wine remain unchanged. However, the 'substance' is changed i.e. the category of medieval philosophy: 'substance' is used to identify the reality that the Eucharistic action is the presentation of the real body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ at the altar under the forms of bread and wine. 

When theologians defined transubstantiation it was accepted by many philosophers and society at large that reality was that which participated most closely in the divine. This classical idealism placed less emphasis on the physical world - the accidents of shape, size, colour, etc. As with Plato, the real world is the world of ideas or forms - that is where the substance of things is defined, regardless of physical appearances. In recent centuries this view has been critiqued by many, but the Church has continued to hold that the Real Presence of Christ in the sacrament is a substantial presence according to these categories. 

This is not to deny that there are other perspectives on the Real Presence. Theologians of the Eastern Churches do not, typically, use scholastic categories. For example, they speak of the Real Presence in terms of the eucharistic "Holy Mysteries" which cannot be fully comprehended or defined by the human mind. However, for all that different language and theology is employed, the presence of Christ is no less real in the Mass.

The Creator of the universe who brought us, our world and the cosmos into being from nothing is the same God whose power is effected through the ministry of a Catholic priest to change the substance of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of his Son, Jesus the Christ (Messiah) at the Mass.

Is it any harder to believe in transubstantiation than it is to believe that God created us and the universe from nothing? Is the re-creation of fallen humanity through the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ any more difficult to believe than God's creation of the universe? 

The Catholic faith in the real presence of Christ can be traced back to the earliest Church Fathers who interpreted St. John as meaning to convey what Jesus said: Eat my flesh, drink my blood, not symbolically but really and truly.

This transformation of bread and wine at the Mass into the reality of Christ is given by God in order that we can be really and truly re-made and incorporated into the real body of Christ. Our bodies and souls are nurtured by consuming with others, at Jesus' own command, not a symbol or some token of remembrance of his body but his actual, real and truly present body.

Blessed John Paul, offers Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament


The ecclesiological meaning i.e. the understanding of what the Church is and how it grows organically is sustained and strengthened by the sacraments and is intimately tied to the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Every Catholic is obligated, as part of the body of Christ, to join with the community of faith at Mass every Sunday and holy day of obligation.

Just as our bodies cannot be sustained without real food and drink, so the Catholic Christian cannot be sustained without the real body and blood of Christ. No pictures or symbols of food will sustain a hungry person and neither can some remembrance or symbolic representation maintain the body and soul of the Christian believer.

Is it any wonder that attendance at mainline Protestant churches in Canada is dwindling where the commitment to an obligation to be at the Eucharist is notional at best?  Catholics have much work to do in the instruction of the faithful and building faith intellectually and morally but there is still a strong adherence to the obligation to celebrate Mass and to respect the real presence of Christ in the celebration and in the sacrament reserved for devotion and adoration.

One only needs to go into a downtown Catholic Church to see hundreds of people daily attending Mass, praying before the Blessed Sacrament or involved in devotions in the respectful silence which is rarely seen in Protestant buildings. In fact, there is a tangible sense of the real presence amongst those who are spiritually sensitive. This reality has often been remarked upon even by unbaptized or uncatechized people -- some of whom are drawn to become part of the Body of Christ by virtue of the silence and reverence found before the real presence of Christ in Catholic churches around the world.

The Blessed Sacrament is truly the Body of Christ presented under the form of Bread 


The presence in Catholic churches of the altar and the tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament is kept with a light nearby is found around the world. In churches, chapels and cathedrals we find the same devotion to the Body of Christ, another factor in our understanding of the meaning of the real presence for Catholics and indeed for all people.

The structure of the Mass is so universal and well known by the faithful that we find people from all nationalities attending Mass in churches far from their own communities of origin. "Here comes everybody" is the description of the Catholic Church attributed to the famous Irish novelist James Joyce. This universality can be seen particularly in urban churches in every country where people of every race and nation are seen daily at Mass and devotion before the Blessed Sacrament. This is in stark contrast to the national, regional or ethnic divisions in most Protestant sects.

Jesus intended there to be one universal Church, the Body of Christ for the world. Divisions are not part of his will and prayer "that they all may be one" (John 17:21).  The Blessed Sacrament of the one body of Christ not only symbolizes but makes present the reality of the Body of Christ on every continent and island around the world.

These are just three salient points to be made about the teaching and effects of the real presence of Christ for the Church and the world. Of course, the best way to contemplate and enter into this reality is to attend Mass and spend time before the transformative real presence of Jesus Christ. Every city has churches where one can find a quiet place to contemplate the greatest gift of all, the presence of the one true and living God in the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ -- truly and substantially present to you.