Somewhere near the center of the theological controversy about which the Pope warned us is precisely the question that no Catholic should raise, namely, "Is the Holy Eucharist Presence or Reality, or is it, as the Church teaches us, Presence and Reality?"
There is more at stake here than meets the eye.
My purpose will be to defend the following thesis: that the Holy Eucharist is Jesus Christ, who is in the Blessed Sacrament both as Reality and as Presence. He is in the Eucharist as Reality because the Eucharist is Jesus Christ. He is in the Eucharist as Presence because through the Eucharist He affects us and we are in contact with Him - depending on our faith and devotion to the Savior living really in our midst.
There have been before modern times two major crises of faith in the Real Presence in Catholic history.
The first crisis occurred in the early Middle Ages when theological speculators, mainly in France, raised doubts about the reality of the Blessed Sacrament. The first crisis reached a peak in the person of one Berengarius of Tours who died in 1088 A.D.
Berengarius denied the possibility of substantial change in the elements of bread and wine and refused to admit that the body of Christ exists corporeally on the altar. His argument was that Christ cannot be brought down from heaven before the Last Judgment. He held that Christ's body, which exists only in heaven, is effective for humanity through its sacramental counterpart or type and that Christ therefore is not really in the Eucharist except, as he said, ideally.
Pope Gregory VII ordered Berengarius to subscribe to a profession of faith that has become the cornerstone of Catholic Eucharistic piety. It was the Church's first definitive statement of what had always been believed but not always so clearly understood. It is a declaration of faith in the Eucharist as unquestionable and objective and unqualified Reality.
"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, hung on the cross and now sits at the right hand of the Father, and that 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."
Words could not be clearer. If reality means actuality, and if actuality means objectivity, then the Catholic faith believes that the Christ who is in the Eucharist is the Christ of history, the one who was conceived at Nazareth, born at Bethlehem, died and rose from the dead at Jerusalem, and is now seated at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty. It is the Christ who will call us when we pass out of time into eternity. It is the Christ who will appear at the end of the world to judge the living and the dead. It is the Christ who is the Omega of the universe and the goal of human destiny.
Five centuries after Berengarius arose the second crisis of faith in the Eucharist at the time of the Protestant Reformation. Again, much the same objections were raised and theories disseminated as in the Berengarian controversy. And once again the Church countered at the Council of Trent to revindicate the Reality of the Christ who is in the Blessed Sacrament.
The Trindentine proposition of faith is not unlike that required of Berengarius a half millennium before. "The holy council teaches," declared Trent, "and openly and straightforwardly professes that in the Blessed Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist after the consecration of the bread and wine, our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is truly, really and substantially contained under the perceptible species of bread and wine." But then Trent added, with characteristic vigor, that this is the plain meaning of Christ's words when at the Last Supper He said, "This is My body. This is the chalice of My blood." Consequently the faithful were told "it is an infamy that contentious evil men should distort these words into fanciful, imaginary figures of speech that deny the truth about the body and blood of Christ, contrary to the universal understanding of the Church."
The Reality of Christ in the Eucharist therefore is no figure of speech. It is no fanciful rhetoric. It is, in the clearest words that can be expressed, the Incarnation extended into space and time. It is literally the Emmanuel made flesh - the God-man who is here and now living in our midst.
Palpable evidence of such a crisis is seen in the practical disappearance in not a few dioceses of the Forty Hours Devotion; the corresponding disappearance of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament; the complete revision of constitutions of once flourishing contemplative institutes that specialized in worship of the Blessed Sacrament exposed on the altar, the widespread neglect of showing any of the customary signs of reverence to Christ's Real Presence in the tabernacle; the removal of the tabernacle in churches to some obscure and unobtrusive place where the Real Presence is isolated from even possible devotion by the faithful; the mounting literature in still nominally Catholic circles that seldom touches on the Real Presence or that explains it in a way congenial to Protestants who do not believe in Christ's corporeal presence in the Eucharist, but totally incompatible with the historic faith of Catholicism; the dissemination of religious education textbooks, teacher's manuals, and study guides that may make an apologetic mention of the physical presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament but leave a distinct impression that this presence is peripheral to Catholic faith and practice and is certainly not a cardinal mystery of the Church founded by Jesus Christ.
Although seldom adverted to, part of the same crisis about the Real Presence is the contemporary desacramentalization of the Catholic priesthood. Priests are said to be essentially preachers of the word or ministers of the Gospel or organizers of Christian communities, or spokesmen of the poor or defenders of the oppressed or social leaders or political catalysts or academic scholars or theological appraisers of the faith of believers.
So they are. But is that all? And is that the primary purpose of the Catholic priesthood? No. The primary meaning of the priesthood is its relationship to the Eucharist - as Reality, as Sacrament and Sacrifice. And among these three primarily as Reality, made possible by priestly consecration.
Once again as in previous ages the Church's magisterium has reaffirmed the Real Presence but in accents and with nuances that were not called for in previous times.
Pope Paul VI in Mysterium Fidei was concerned about those who in spoken and written word "spread abroad opinions which disturb the faithful and fill their minds with no little confusion about matters of faith."
Among these opinions was and is the theory that so redefines the meaning of the Eucharistic Presence as to obscure, if not deny, the fact of the Eucharistic Reality. It is as though someone said "I believe in the Eucharistic Presence but not as Reality, or as Reality which is only presence and not objective actuality."
The moment we hear the word "Presence" we think of a personal relationship between two or more people. We are present to someone or someone is present to us when we are aware of them and they of us; when we have them on our minds and hearts, as they think of us and sense a kinship and affection for us.
We are not exactly present to stones and trees nor they to us. So that presence implies rational beings.
Presence, as such, also transcends space and time. St. Paul or St. Augustine may be present to me although they are long since dead and although they are not physically where I am physically. They can be present to me mentally, volitionally, or as we say spiritually.
She can be in New York and he in San Francisco. Yet as soon (and as often) as he thinks of her with love, she is present to him. And whenever she does the same he is present to her, reaching over the distance of miles and irrespective of the fact that neither of them is where the other is in body. No matter - they are with each other in spirit.
Presence therefore does not deny physical reality, because two people can be both near to each other in body and intimately united in spirit. But neither does presence require nearness in body. It rather stresses intimacy of mind and heart.
Herein lies at once the dignity and danger of some current theories about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. There are those who laudably emphasize the subjective aspect of Christ's presence but at the expense of the objective reality.
Let me not be misunderstood. There is great need, even crucial need, to talk about and act upon the awareness of Christ in the Eucharist and to raise our sentiments of love toward Him. But this cannot be at the expense of ignoring or transmitting the prior fact that Christ is actually in the Eucharist, that in the words of the Church's solemn teaching He is "contained under the perceptible species of bread and wine." What was bread and wine after the words of consecration is no longer bread and wine but a living, physical, bodily - in a word, the real - Jesus Christ.
We might then say that the Eucharistic Presence of Christ is at once a reality and a relationship. It is a reality because Christ really is in the Eucharist. So that the Real Presence of Christ postulates on faith the real absence of bread and wine. He is now where before the consecration were bread and wine. They are gone and He is there. What before was real bread and wine is now only the external properties of bread and wine. He is here in the Eucharist truly present. They are no longer present but only their species or, as we say, appearances.
Transubstantiation is a fact of faith and all the twisted criticism of the Church's doctrine as being Hellenistic or Aristotelian is learned naiveté. For the soul that believes, this is no Hellenism or philosophical terminology. It is the expression of truth. In Greek equivalents the words of institution institute a meta-ousiosis. The ousia or being of bread and wine become the ousia or being of what constitutes Jesus Christ - body, blood, soul and divinity. In a word, in the Eucharist is present the totus Christus just as truly as He was present on earth in Palestine and as He is now in heaven. It is the total Christ in the fullness of what makes Christ Christ with no objective difference between who He was then (in the first century on earth) and who He is now (in the twentieth century on earth). Jesus Christ is [in New York] as He is also everywhere where a duly ordained priest has changed bread and wine into the body and blood of the Savior.
So, too, with the Eucharist. Too many Catholics including priests had taken the Real Presence for granted. They complacently assumed that Christ is in the Eucharist and they proceeded to leave Him there. Empty churches, empty chapels, seldom a worshiper before the tabernacle and seldom a Eucharistic thought among millions of believers who would be offended if told they were ignoring the greatest Reality in the universe right in their midst.
These are not the words of mysticism or of poetry. They are the language of faith.
What to do? What we need today, in the present crisis regarding the Eucharist, is another Francis of Assisi raised by God to remind the world of his day of what a priest is and what his words of consecration can produce in this valley of tears.
Francis, as we know, was never ordained to the priesthood. But he had an extraordinary reverence for priests because he saw them as the divinely enabled consecrators of the Holy Eucharist.
In his last will and testament, Francis wrote what we today in our sophisticated age of agnosticism need to hear and listen to.
"God inspires me," he said, "with such great faith in priests who live according to the laws of the holy Church of Rome, because of their dignity, that if they persecuted me, I should still be ready to turn to them for aid. I do this because in this world I cannot see the most high Son of God with my own eyes, except for His most holy Body and Blood which they alone administer to others."
Francis concluded on a superlative tone that was not customary with him.
"Above everything else" - that is, more important than anything else he could urge upon his followers - "above everything else, I want this most holy Sacrament to be honored and venerated and reserved in places that are richly ornamented."
This is the simple Poverello whose name has become synonymous with total poverty, even to destitution in imitation of his poor Master. But it is also the mystic seer who saw more clearly than most of his contemporaries who it was who dwells among us in the Blessed Sacrament. It is, in Francis's words, "the most high Son of God" in human form who is always here in Reality, but He is not always present to us in spirit. We do not always honor and venerate Him reserved in the Eucharist in places which are richly ornamented, not so-much in silver and gold as ornamented in the acts of faith, hope and love that reach out to Jesus who is constantly reaching out to us. That is why He is here; that we might also be where He is, united with Him in spirit as He has united Himself to us in body - as a prelude to that union where the Eucharist will be unveiled and where vision will replace what faith now tells us is true, because truth became incarnate to teach us how much God loves the sons and daughters of the human family.
Copyright © 2002 Inter Mirifica
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