I’ve always been a believer in the Eucharist, but was unable to make sense of the Real Presence in a discussion with a skeptical friend recently. Can you explain what we mean when we say that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ?
What you were discussing with your friend was nothing less than the Mystery of Faith, so it is not surprising that you found yourself in deep waters! Who else would be any different? The Eucharist is something far beyond the reach of all eloquence, intelligence or learning. Don't be surprised if you haven't an answer on the tip of your tongue for every objection that comes up.
Proclamation of Faith
The Church teaches that the Risen Lord Jesus is really present in the Eucharist. This statement, known as a dogma of the faith, is simple and succinct; explaining it is anything but that. Indeed, to understand fully all that is involved is not possible this side of the grave. The dogmas of the Church proclaim the faith; they do not explain it. The effort of explanation is another day's work. It is for theologians to try, as best they can, to explain the meaning of the dogmas.
Ever since the night of the Last Supper, the Church has been thinking and praying about the gesture of Jesus involving bread and wine and the extraordinary words that accompanied it: This is my body... This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, poured out for many' (Mk.14:22-24).
The Church has always believed that Jesus meant literally what he said on that occasion. Different theories have been proposed through the centuries to show that, although above and beyond human reason, what he said was not therefore irrational or against reason.
One of the most important theories, and one that the Church has regarded more highly than all others, is that of transubstantiation, as taught by St. Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century Dominican philosopher and theologian. Since some extraordinary change has to take place if what looks, smells, handles and tastes like bread is the Body of Christ, then the first notion to be dealt with is the very common one we are all familiar with: change.
Change is something so commonplace that it is happening around us all the time. But what is it? Thomas, like many other thinkers since the fourth century BC, looked to the great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, when trying to make sense of change.
Aristotle came up with the theory of substance and accidents, a way of explaining how something can change and yet remain what it already was. He applied to acorns and oaks, seeds and wheat, babies and adults. When child grows into an adult, the length of his legs and arms for example, change. There is something however that remains. Little Johnny may become Big Johnny; but he is still substantially the same Johnny. What remains in this case is the 'substance' of a human being; what changes are the 'accidents' of being human.
In the light of this philosophy St. Thomas envisaged another possibility as an explanation for the change in the Eucharist. In this exceptional case, we are confronted with a change in the substance rather than in the accidents. The appearance or 'accidents' of bread remain, although the substance of bread has ceased to exist.
Once the words of consecration are spoken it is no longer the substance of bread and wine that is present in the Eucharist, but the substance of the Risen Christ himself. St. Thomas argues that, if God
can create a new substance out of nothing, he can just as easily end the existence of one substance by changing it into another. This, he taught, is what happens at Mass. As a result of this change, Jesus Christ is really and truly present.
Of course, St. Thomas knew that the presence of the true body and blood of Christ in this sacrament cannot be discovered by sense or intellect, but only by faith that is based on divine authority. This is a gift to be received and cherished with all humility.
Presence is a rich concept. It is much more than proximity or togetherness. Two logs may be placed beside one another, but you would hardly credit them with being present to one another. True presence requires attentive awareness, a quality of the heart. A friendly little dog may be wagging his tail contentedly beside you but his presence is not comparable to that of your best friend seated in a chair across the room from you.
Again it is possible to be effectively present to someone thousands of miles away by telephone. Sadly, it is also possible to be miles away from someone sitting at the same table with you. With only a slight stretch of language, we could say that the pair on the phone are as 'really present' to one another as the pair at the table are 'really absent'.
From reading the gospels, we know that Jesus is present to us in many ways. 'Where two or three meet in my name, I am there among them' (Mt.18:20). He assures us that he is present at the receiving end of our actions for good or for ill, especially when they concern the disadvantaged: 'In so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me' (Mt.25:40).
Jesus is present in all seven sacraments. In a marriage this is true, not just during the ceremony on the wedding day, but continuously right until the day when 'death does them part'. In confession it is in his name and in his presence that the priest says, 'I absolve you'.
The late John Paul II said that these forms of presence can properly be called 'real presence', but he considered the presence in the consecrated host and cup as the 'supreme form of presence'. In this context he quoted his predecessor, Pope Paul VI:
The Eucharistic presence is called 'real', not as a way of excluding all other types of presence, as if they were 'not real', but because it is a presence in the fullest sense: a substantial presence whereby Christ the God-Man is wholly and entirely present.