It’s the climax of every Mass, the most revered and solemn moment in the liturgy, the manifestation of the core belief of the Catholic faith. It is a reality that forms the bedrock of worship for hundreds of millions of Catholics worldwide, a profound mystery that had its beginnings over a simple meal in an obscure room in Jerusalem.
The Church calls it the Real Presence—the actual presence of Christ in the Eucharist under the appearances of bread and wine. It is the central reality of the faith and a key doctrine that sets Catholics apart from most other Christians, but this belief can be a source of confusion to more than a few Catholics. The latest in a series of landmark studies conducted every six years by Catholic University sociologist William D’Antonio and his team, titled “Catholics in America,” found in 2011 that “half of adult Catholics know the Church’s teaching regarding the Real Presence and half do not.” The survey also revealed that “two-thirds of adult Catholics believe that ‘at the consecration during a Catholic Mass, the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.’ Therefore, more adult Catholics believe the statement than understand its source.”
So, what is that source, and what is the Church’s teaching?
The first Eucharist, of course, was the Last Supper, and the table talk—specifically Jesus’ words—is crucial to the understanding of the Real Presence.
“Our tradition when we talk about the real presence is to talk about the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus as fully present,” says Father Gerald M. Horan, OSM, the Episcopal Vicar for Faith Formation for the Diocese of Orange. “Jesus is fully and totally present and gives himself to us in the Eucharist. That’s what we say Eucharist is all about.”
At the Last Supper—the first Eucharist—Jesus was clear and emphatic in his language when he offered the bread and wine to the apostles at the table: “This is my body” and “This is my blood.” He did not mean the bread and wine to be an approximation or a kind of stand-in for his actual physical presence, says Father Jerry.
“It’s not just play acting and it’s not simply symbol,” he says. “Jesus makes himself present in the other sacraments as well—all of the sacraments in some sense make Christ present—but the sacrament that is the source and summit of our life as Church, as the Vatican documents say, is the Eucharist, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.”
The Committee on Doctrine of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops puts it succinctly: “The whole Christ is truly present, body, blood, soul and divinity, under the appearances of bread and wine—the glorified Christ who rose from the dead after dying for our sins. This is what the Church means when she speaks of the “Real Presence” of Christ in the Eucharist.”
Though the bishops call the Real Presence “an inexhaustible mystery that the Church can never fully explain in words,” they offer answers to common questions raised by the faithful:
When the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, why do they still look and taste like bread and wine?
Two terms are key: substance and accident. “In the Church’s traditional theological language, in the act of consecration during the Eucharist the ‘substance’ of the bread and wine is changed by the power of the Holy Spirit into the ‘substance’ of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ,” according to the bishops. “At the same time, the ‘accidents,’ or appearances of bread and wine, remain. ‘Substance’ and ‘accident’ are here used as philosophical terms that have been adapted by great medieval theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas in their efforts to understand and explain the faith. Such terms are used to convey the fact that what appears to be bread and wine in every way (at the level of ‘accidents’ or physical attributes—that is, what can be seen, touched, tasted or measured) in fact is now the Body and Blood of Christ (at the level of ‘substance’ or deepest reality).”
This change is known as transubstantiation. “The Real Presence,” says Father Jerry, “is what happens. Transubstantiation is how it happens.”
Are the consecrated bread and wine “merely symbols?”
Saint Thomas Aquinas pointed out that Christ did not say “This bread is my body,” but rather “This is my body.” The bishops explain that “it is important to recognize that the Body and Blood of Christ come to us in the Eucharist in a sacramental form. In other words, Christ is present under the appearances of bread and wine, not in his own proper form…
“God uses…the symbolism inherent in the eating of bread and the drinking of wine at the natural level to illuminate the meaning of what is being accomplished in the Eucharist through Jesus Christ… For example, just as natural food gives nourishment tot the body, so the Eucharistic food gives spiritual nourishment. Furthermore, the sharing of an ordinary meal establishes a certain communion among the people who share it; in the Eucharist the People of God share a meal that brings them into communion not only with each other but with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
Ultimately, the Real Presence is a gift and a profound act of friendship. In his work “Summa Theologiae,” Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote that “It is the law of friendship that friends should live together… Christ has not left us without his bodily presence in this our pilgrimage, but he joins us to himself in this sacrament in the reality of his Body and Blood.”
Magicians have been using the words “hocus pocus” for generations. The words didn’t evolve from show business, however, but from the Latin words of consecration at Mass: Hoc est enim corpus meum (This is my Body).
“It really was a variant of that,” says Father Jerry Horan. “Those were the words that made the consecration happen. It was because people in ancient times saw it as a kind of magic that hocus pocus came about. Today we see it not in terms of magic, but in terms of ministry.”