Pondering mystery of faith — Christ in the Eucharist

Our poor human gifts of bread and wine become the priceless gift of God’s beloved Son

Q. I have heard dismal statistics about the percentage of Catholics who truly believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I see people falling away from the church, going either nowhere or to some other denomination, or increasingly to a nondenominational church. I think this is tragic, and if more people believed in the Real Presence, far fewer people would leave the Catholic Church.

Can you please write something to help Catholics gain a greater appreciation for the presence of Jesus Christ in holy Communion and for this key mystery of our faith? Thank you.

A. In “Jesus Our Delight,” a lovely translation of the 12th-century hymn, “Jesu Dulcis Memoria,” poet Gerard Manley Hopkins celebrates the joy of those who savor the eucharistic presence of Christ: “To speak of that no tongue will do / Nor letters suit to spell it true; / But they can guess who have tasted of / What Jesus is and what is love.”

Our human letters and words and sentences also fail us when we try to explain the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s 2010 U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey discovered that more than four in 10 U.S. Catholics (45 percent) do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used at Mass do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ. Other recent surveys indicate that six in 10 to three-quarters of Catholics believe in the Real Presence. This is most likely among those who participate in the Mass frequently.

Our Catholic faith teaches that the consecrated bread and wine are more than a visual aid to remember the passion and death of Jesus. Today’s Catholics need a strong belief in Christ’s eucharistic presence and some understanding of the “whys” of that presence, even if they can’t explain all the “hows.” That puts them in good company because generations of saintly theologians have labored long and hard to explain those “hows.” If these teachers and preachers often disagreed about the “hows,” they didn’t believe any less in Christ’s real presence as they tried to express the “whys.”

For centuries the Roman Catholic Church has used the term “transubstantiation” to explain the change of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Outwardly, nothing is changed by the Lord’s words of institution, “This is my body,” “This is my blood.” Inwardly, however, everything is changed. This inner change — the complete transformation of the bread and wine into the food of eternal life — is perceived only by the eye of faith. Our poor human gifts of bread and wine become the priceless gift of God’s beloved Son.

Transubstantiation remains one traditional and authoritative explanation of how Christ becomes present in the Eucharist under the forms of bread and wine. The “hows” of Christ’s presence are mysterious, but the “whys” of his presence are less so. Perhaps as we seek words to describe some “hows” and “whys” of Christ’s “real presence” in the Eucharist, we might use the letters of the “p-r-e-s-e-n-c-e” itself.

Real presence

Our spelling out of the basics of Real Presence begins with:

P for “personal.” The Eucharist presence of Christ is a “personal” presence. God has rooted and grounded the church in the person of Jesus Christ, truly human and truly divine, not in any merely human system or institution or ideology. Thus, our faith in the real presence of Christ must be rooted and grounded in the person of Christ, the one who shares himself completely with us in the sacrament of his body and blood. Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist is based on Christ’s promise to be with us always, both in his body and blood and in the assembly that shares them in his memory.

Pope John Paul II wrote in his apostolic letter, “Mane Nobiscum Domine:” “Faith demands that we approach the Eucharist fully aware that we are approaching Christ himself” (no. 16). And he explained: “The Eucharist is a mystery of presence, the perfect fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to remain with us until the end of the world” (no. 16).

R for “relational.” Because Christ’s presence is a personal presence, it creates a personal relationship between him and us. In the fourth century, Cyril of Jerusalem explained to the newly baptized that Christ’s “body has been bestowed on you in the form of bread, and his blood in the form of wine, so that by partaking Christ’s body and blood you may share with him the same body and blood.” We eat of the one bread and we become one in Christ. We drink of the one cup and share in the wine that gladdens human hearts. In this eating and drinking we become the living and joyful members of the body of Christ, one in the love we receive. The real presence of Christ is the whole Christ, head and members made one.

E for “eventful,” that is, filled with the saving events of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. The relationship with Christ that is ours through the Eucharist is based on a past event: the death of Jesus on the cross, into which we were baptized (Romans 6:3). His self-giving unto death and his rising from the tomb is a unique event that can never be repeated. But in the Eucharist, that once-for-all event is liturgically commemorated. Through the liturgy’s words and actions, the whole of God’s saving work in Christ is remembered, contained and presented to us in his body and blood. That work becomes a present and living reality every time we celebrate the Eucharist.

Holy Communion

The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes it this way: “The Eucharist is the memorial of Christ’s Passover, that is, of the work of salvation accomplished by the life, death and resurrection of Christ, a work made present by the liturgical action” (no. 1409). We don’t get into a time machine and go back to the time of Jesus; God brings Christ’s saving deeds into our time, our present, as we celebrate the Eucharist and receive holy Communion.

S for “sacramental.” Jesus lived and died and rose to life again as a human being, in the midst of human beings like ourselves. At the Last Supper, Jesus was physically present. His disciples could see him and hear him and touch him in a way that is impossible for us after his ascension into heaven. Yet, we shouldn’t feel cheated. Today, in the Eucharist, Jesus is present under the sacramental signs of bread and wine. In this way, we are able to meet the living Christ now just as truly, though differently, as if we had walked with him on the roads in Galilee or the streets of Jerusalem. His sacramental presence in the Eucharist is no less a real presence than his physical presence was.

E for “especially.” In the eucharistic liturgy, Christ is “especially” present under the forms of bread and wine. So declared Pope Paul VI in his encyclical letter, “Mysterium Fidei” (1965). The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (1963) stated the same thing (no. 7). But both the pope and the council also identified other ways and places in which Christ is present: in the praying and singing assembly, in the ministry of the priest at the Eucharist, in the word of God proclaimed, in the sacraments. Christ’s presence “especially” in his body and blood does not mean “exclusively,” for indeed “Christ is always present in this Church” (“Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” no. 7).

N for “nourishing” for our life in God. “Nourishing your faithful by this sacred mystery, you make them holy, so that the human race, bounded by one world, may be enlightened by one faith and united by one bond of charity” (Preface II of the Most Holy Eucharist). The spiritual nourishment of the Eucharist is infinite if we are prepared to receive it. Like the hearth cake that the prophet Elijah ate in the wilderness (1 Kings 19:4-9), the Eucharist strengthens us for our lifelong journey to God’s presence in heaven. The Eucharist is nourishment for body, mind, heart and soul — nourishment for our whole being, strength for our life of faith, for our mission of love. We Catholics cannot live without the Eucharist because in it and through it we are filled with all the life of God.

C for “community-building.” In one way or another, this “why” of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is reflected in many of the Mass prayers in the missal: for example, “As this reception of your Holy Communion, O Lord, foreshadows the union of the faithful in you, so may it bring about unity in your Church” (11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Prayer after Communion); “Celebrating the memorial of our salvation, we humbly beseech your mercy, O Lord, that this Sacrament of your loving kindness may be for us the sign of unity and the bond of charity” (Votive Mass of the Most Holy Eucharist, Prayer over the Offerings). Such prayers testify that God’s gift of love in the Eucharist becomes our obligation to share that love with others outside it, especially the poor.

E for “enduring.” We Roman Catholics believe that the presence of Christ in the eucharistic bread and wine is not limited to the time when Communion is shared but that it endures even after. Thus, the community-building, which is effected by the Eucharist, also takes place among the sick and homebound to whom Communion is brought. In this way they are able to experience the saving presence of Christ just as the worshipping assembly does. And the effects of receiving the body and blood of Christ endure even to the day of eternity: “How holy this feast in which Christ is our food; his passion is recalled; grace fills our hearts; and we receive a pledge of the glory to come, alleluia” (antiphon “O Sacrum Convivium”). The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is the foretaste of his presence with us for all eternity.

Such are the letters that make up this primer of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, mere hints as to what his presence can be for us and in us. Such is our limited understanding of that presence in this life; in the life to come, our understanding will be turned into praise.

Benedictine Father Michael Kwateraa monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, serves as the abbey’s director of liturgy. Please send your questions on liturgy to him at mkwatera@csbsju.edu or at St. John’s Abbey, P.O. Box 2015, Collegeville, MN 56321-2015. Father Michael enjoys giving workshops and presentations on liturgical topics to parish groups.