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Real Presence

A few days ago, the Pew Research Center, which studies trends in faith and religious behavior, published a disturbing statistic regarding American Catholics. It found that 69 percent of those surveyed believe that the Eucharist is only a symbol. In other words it would seem that two-thirds of American Catholics do not believe in the “real presence.” Such a conclusion is devastating for the Church.

Certain other researchers have contested this conclusion pointing out that the wording of the question probably led to such a response. As one who taught research methods and administered several surveys, I can certainly state that the way a question is formulated can elicit certain responses. One thing is, however, clear. Not all Catholics are knowledgeable about the meaning of the Eucharist and certainly a significant number seem to look on the Eucharist merely as a symbol.

Some people will immediately lay the blame on the liturgical reforms of Vatican II for this lack of faith. With the loss of Latin, these individuals claim that there came the loss of the sense of mystery and awe. Others point out that since Mass involves a dialog between the priest and the people, some priests tend to dominate the liturgy instead of allowing the rite to submerge the celebrant. As a result, people have a tendency to view the Eucharist more as a fellowship meal rather than the real presence of the Lord. Whatever factors might have contributed to the present lack of faith in the real presence, the fact remains that all Catholics do not seem to embrace this truth. In this column I would like to state clearly the official teaching of the Church in this regard.

The three Synoptic gospels recount the institution of the Eucharist in great detail and they are consistent in their report. The earliest record of the institution is found in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians which pre-dates the gospels. It is obvious that the Eucharist has been central to our faith. John, who does not give us the institution, dedicates an entire chapter (chapter 6) to Jesus’ discourse on the Bread of Life. Obviously John is interpreting the mind of the Lord Whom he presents as being categorical in declaring that the Eucharist is really His flesh and blood. Some disciples no longer walk with Jesus because they question “how they can eat His flesh and drink His blood.” Addressing the remaining followers, Jesus does not change His teaching. Instead, He asks them whether they too would walk away. In other words, Jesus categorically taught that the Eucharist is not merely bread and wine but His flesh and blood. This is what the Church has held to be true down the ages.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states this truth in crystal clear terms:

The mode of Christ’s presence under the Eucharistic species is unique. It raises the Eucharist above all the sacraments as “the perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all the sacraments tend.” In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist “the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.” “This presence is called ‘real’ – by which is not intended to exclude the other types of presence as if they could not be ‘real’ too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present.” (#1374)

It is this belief in the real presence that has given birth to our total approach towards this sacrament. It is because we believe that Jesus is really present, Catholics are obliged to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days under pain of mortal sin. Someone who misses a Mass needs to go to confession before receiving Holy Communion. It is because of our faith in the real presence that we adore the Eucharistic species. We do not adore the bread and wine, but the Lord Himself. Our faith in the real presence also obliges us to fast from food and beverages for at least an hour. We receive Communion only when we are in the state of grace, without any serious sin on our soul. The Eucharist is not a symbol, a metaphor or a mere fellowship meal. The Lord Jesus Christ is fully present inviting us to dine with Him.

In all the other sacraments we receive grace; in the Eucharist we receive the Author of grace. The Eucharist has nourished saints and sinners alike. Men and women have given their lives to be able to participate in the Mass when governments forbade priests from celebrating the Eucharist. Martyrs have found strength in Communion while virgins derived grace for their renunciation. The Fathers of the Church went so far as to say: “The Church makes the Eucharist and the Eucharist makes the Church.” The Eucharist is the summit of the life of the Church and font from which her entire life flows.

If only all Catholics firmly believed in the real presence, our Sunday Masses will be filled to overflowing. We would hesitate to miss Sunday Mass even when we are on vacation. We would rush into the adoration chapel in all our needs and troubles because the Lord is waiting for us there to comfort us, console us and hold us close. If Catholics truly believed in the Eucharist, they would never abandon their Catholic faith.

Let me leave you with the words of the angelic doctor, St Thomas Aquinas, who is the theologian of the Eucharist par excellence. In his deeply theological hymn on the Eucharist (Pange Lingua) he pens these profound lines:

By his word the Word almighty makes of bread his flesh indeed;

Wine becomes his very life-blood: Faith God’s living Word must heed!

Faith alone may safely guide us where the senses cannot lead!

My fervent prayer is that each and every member of our parish will fully grasp the height and depth, the length and breadth of God’s love Whose Son gave us Himself in the form of bread of wine.

Mission Statement: As children of God, living in a Catholic community of faith, we are united by the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. Aware that all we have is gift and grace from our Heavenly Father, we strive to give of our time, talent and treasure to build His kingdom on earth. We live this mission, challenged by the Word, nurtured by the Sacraments, and enlivened by the Spirit, to serve our brothers and sisters in peace, justice and dignity. All are welcome on this journey.

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St. Paul of the Cross

320 South Washington Street
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Sunday

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