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Eucharist as Presence-Sacrament

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

…The Mass and Holy Communion derive all their meaning from the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament .

…We shall draw on the irreversible teaching of the Council of Trent about the Real Presence. The original doctrine is worded in the form of anathemas. What follows is a summary list of these dogmas expressed in positive terms.

  1. The Body and Blood of Christ together with the soul and divinity of Christ and therefore the whole Christ, is truly, really, and substantially contained in the sacrament of the most Holy Eucharist.

  2. By that wonderful and extraordinary change, called transubstantiation, the whole substance of the bread is changed into Christ's Body, and the whole substance of the wine is changed into His Blood, so that only the species' properties of bread and wine remain.

  3. In the venerable sacrament of the Eucharist, the whole Christ is contained under each species, and under each and every portion of either species when it is divided up.

  4. After the consecration, the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ are present in the marvelous sacrament of the Eucharist. They are present not only in the use of the sacrament while it is being received, but also before and after. Consequently, the true Body and Blood of the Lord remain in the consecrated hosts or particles that are kept or left over after Communion.

  5. Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, is to be adored in the holy sacrament of the Eucharist with the worship due to God and including external worship. The Blessed Sacrament is therefore to be honored with extraordinary festive celebrations, solemnly carried from place to place in processions, and is to be publicly exposed for the people's adoration.

  6. The Holy Eucharist is to be kept in a sacred place (Council of Trent, October 11, 1551).

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the foregoing definition of the Catholic Church on the Real Presence. No doubt, their doctrinal substance had been part of the Church's faith since the time of Christ. But the clear and simple expression of this faith in the sixteenth century marked a turning point in Catholic devotions to Jesus Christ, now present on earth no less than He was visibly present in first-century Palestine.

Transubstantiation. To identify what takes place in the consecration at Mass, the Church has come to employ the term "transubstantiation" (trans = change, Substantiation = of substance). Because of its importance for understanding the Real Presence, this term deserves some explanation.

There are two kinds of changes which, things can naturally undergo. They are called accidental and substantial changes. In an accidental change, something remains substantially the same, but its accidental or non-essential properties are transformed. Thus when a block of marble is carved into a statue, the marble remains marble, but its shape and form are changed.

In a substantial change, the former substance ceases to exist and becomes something else. Thus, when food is eaten, its substance is changed; it becomes part of the organism which consumes the food.

In transubstantiation there is a unique substantial change. The essence or substance of bread and wine ceases to exist, while the accidents or sensibly perceptible properties of bread and wine remain. This kind of change has no counterpart in nature; it belongs to the supernatural order.

What actually occurs? The substance of what was bread and wine is replaced by the living Christ. Although the external qualities of bread and wine remain, their substance is no longer on the altar. It is now the whole Christ, divinity and humanity, soul and body, and all the bodily qualities that make Christ, Christ.

In his historic encyclical The Mystery of Faith, Paul VI goes into great detail to show that transubstantiation produces a unique presence of Jesus Christ on earth. The pope analyzes six ways in which the Savior is present and active in the world of human beings, but they are not the Real Presence. The Real Presence is unique because "it contains Christ Himself." Moreover, this presence is called Real because it is the presence "by which Christ, the God-Man is wholly and entirely present" (Mysterium Fidel, September 3, 1965).

Worship of the Holy Eucharist. There has been a remarkable development of doctrine on the Real Presence. Already in the infant Church, the faithful did not doubt that by the words of consecration by the priest, what had been bread is now the living Christ. However, as certain theories began to emerge that called the Real Presence into question, two things happened. The Church's magisterium began to express her Eucharistic faith in even sharper and clearer terms; and the Church's saints began to foster devotion to the living Christ who is present in our midst in the Blessed Sacrament.

The classic expression of faith in the Real Presence was drafted by Pope Gregory VII in a Eucharistic Creed that leaves no room for compromise.

I believe in my heart and openly profess that the bread and wine placed upon the altar are, by the mystery of the sacred prayer and the words of the Redeemer, substantially changed into the true and life-giving flesh and blood of Jesus Christ our Lord, and that after the consecration there is present the true body of Christ which was born of the Virgin and offered up for the salvation of the world, being hung on the cross and now sits at the right hand of the Father, and there is present the true blood of Christ which flowed from His side. They are present not only by means of a sign and of the efficacy of the sacrament, but also in the very reality and truth of their nature and substance (Council of Rome, February 11,1079)

Long before this famous profession of faith, the Holy Eucharist had been worshipped by the faithful. But the adoration of the Real Presence for prolonged periods of time did not become widespread until about the beginning of the thirteenth century. The immediate occasion for this practice was the great devotion to the Blessed Sacrament of the Belgian Augustinian nun, St. Juliana of Mont Cornillon (1193-1258).

St. Juliana urged the bishop of Liege to institute a feast in honor of the Real Presence. The bishop ordered such a feast for his diocese in 1246. On September 8, 1264, the Belgian Pope, Urban IV, established the feast of Corpus Christi and ordered St. Thomas Aquinas to compose its Divine Office. Three of our best known Eucharistic hymns are part of this Divine Office, namely Pange Lingua, which closes with the two verses of Tantum Ergo; Sacris Solemniis, which closes with the two verses of PanisAngelicus; and Verbum Supernum, which closes with the two verses of O Salutaris Hostia.

No less than eleven canons of the new Code of Canon Law deal with "the Reservation and Veneration of the Most Holy Eucharist." They cover every significant aspect of Catholic veneration of the Holy Eucharist.

  • The Sacrament is to be reserved in every cathedral, parish church and church or oratory of a religious institute or society of apostolic life (Canon 934).

  • The church should be open to the faithful, "at least some hours each day so that they are able to spend some time in prayer before the Most Blessed Sacrament" (Canon 937).

  • The tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved should be situated in a distinguished place in the church or oratory, a place which is conspicuous, suitably adorned, and conducive to prayer" (Canon 938).

In one country after another, adoration of the Holy Eucharist has developed beyond anything seen in previous generations. Groups have been formed among the laity for this purpose. Some are local organizations associated with a single parish church or public oratory. Others reach out across the nation and even to other countries. Their common denominator is an intense desire to profess one's faith in Christ's Real Presence in the Eucharist, and to pray for the desperate help that people need in today's convulsive society.

Modern popes have not only supported this renewed devotion to the Eucharist, but have done all they could to set the example for bishops to follow. Thus Pope John Paul II established the daily exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in St. Peter's Basilica. Every day, Monday through Friday, the Blessed Sacrament has been exposed all day, from Latin Mass in the morning until Italian Vespers in the evening. Two Sisters are in adoration in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in St. Peter's. Pilgrims to Rome join in their prayers before the Holy Eucharist.

When the Perpetual Eucharistic Exposition opened, Pope John Paul II composed a prayer of which the following are significant quotations.

Lord, "stay with us."
These words were spoken for the first time by the disciples at Emmaus. In the course of the centuries, they have been spoken infinite times, by the lips of so many of your disciples and confessors, O Christ.
As Bishop of Rome and first servant of this temple, which stands on the place of St. Peter's martyrdom, I speak the same words today.
Stay! That we may meet you in prayer of adoration and thanksgiving, in prayer of expiation and petition, to which all those who visit this basilica are invited.
Stay! You who are at one and the same time veiled in the Eucharistic mystery of faith, and also revealed under the species of bread and wine, which you have assumed in this Sacrament.
The Eucharist is at the same time a constant announcement of your second coming and the sign of the final Advent, and also of the expectation of the whole Church.
Every day and every hour we wish to adore you, veiled under the species of bread and wine, to renew hope of the "call to glory" which you began with your glorified body "at the Father's right hand."
May the unworthy successor of Peter in the Roman See - and all those who take part in the adoration of your Eucharistic Presence - attest with every visit of theirs, and make ring out again the truth contained in the apostle's words: "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Amen.
In one diocese after another, bishops have encouraged the adoration of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament by the faithful. In a world that is groping in darkness, the Church is telling people that Christ, "the light of the world" and "the power of salvation" is on earth to teach us and strengthen us on the road to heaven. All we need is to believe that He is here and ready to provide us with what we need.

Pages 159 - 166

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