January 21, 2016

The Real Presence: A Defense of the Eucharist

The Mass

Most non-Catholics see the Catholic Church’s teaching on the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist as something of a nonessential liturgical oddity. Today, unfortunately, many self-described Catholics share this view. The Church solemnly professes that the Eucharist, as the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ, is the source and summit of the faith. Because of this, some accuse the Church of idolatry – i.e., worshiping something which is not God with the adoration due to Him alone. That the Real Presence is not reverenced, but misunderstood and even maligned, is a scandal of the greatest magnitude.

For the first 1,500 years of Christendom, the Real Presence was universal and unquestioned. With the Reformation, that unanimity was broken. In the five centuries since, various erroneous interpretations have emerged.

There are four views predominate among Christians concerning the Eucharist. The first three are those advanced by various denominations of our separated brethren, hereafter referred to as Protestants.

Consubstantiation

Also called "sacramental union," this understanding of the Eucharist holds that the substance of Jesus Christ exists alongside the substance of the bread and wine. While the Eucharist is referred to as the real presence, the bread and wine remain. Subscribers of this view believe that communicants receive both bread and wine and the body and blood of Our Lord. While similar in some respects to the Church’s teaching – consubstantiation is incorrect.

The main points about consubstantiation are:

It is thought to be the body and blood of Christ and bread and wine
Jesus Christ is understood to be really physically present
The substance of bread and wine remain

Spiritual Presence

Certain Protestant denominations hold that Jesus Christ is only spiritually present in the bread and wine. Thus, Jesus is not present physically and the bread and wine remain unchanged. Adherents to this view refer to the host [falsely] as the "real presence”, even though it is diametrically opposite to the Church’s understanding as taught by Christ and Sacred Tradition.

The important points to note about spiritual presence are:

The bread and wine remain unaltered
Jesus Christ is thought to be only spiritually present

Symbolic

A majority of Protestant denominations hold that communion is symbolic. The bread and wine are just food to be shared communally in a meal that expresses the unity of the faith community. It is no more significant than a meal outside of Church, albeit some Protestants ascribe to it greater significance due to its occurrence as part of prayer and worship. Hence rarely is it referred to as the "Eucharist" or "Real Presence".

This symbolic aspect of the Eucharist is true for all Christians. However, Our Lord makes clear several times in the Gospels that the Eucharist is His Body and His Blood, and He calls us to believe in and partake of His Real Presence as His disciples.

Transubstantiation

This understand of the Eucharist is the correct one. It is based upon Christ’s own words as found in Sacred Scripture and in the writings of the Church Fathers. It is held by the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches.

Transubstantiation refers to the bread changing into Christ’s Body at the moment of consecration. While the bread and wine look, feel and taste the same [Aquinas called these "accidents"] they are really the body and blood of Jesus. In short, the whole substance of the bread and wine become the whole substance of Christ’s Body.

This is, indeed, the only possible interpretation given Christ’s words in Scripture and the testimony of Sacred Tradition on the matter.

The main points about transubstantiation are:

The Eucharist is the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ
Jesus Christ is really present in a physical way [body and blood, soul      and divinity]
The substance of bread and wine are no longer present

See EWTN's "Questions about The Holy Eucharist" from the Baltimore Catechism, lesson 26, for more.

Part 2 will discuss why Christ's words concerning the Eucharist are definitive and final.

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