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The Divine Attributes Retreat

The Attributes of God

The Real Presence

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

We have been considering the ways in which God, who made the world out of nothing, continues to remain in the world that he created: his universal natural presence, called omnipresence; his supernatural presence in the sense that we are in his friendship, the Holy Trinity dwelling in the souls of the just; and now the Real Presence. Notice we are reflecting on how the God who made the world, not only couldn't possibly be passively remaining in the world, but rather on how this God, whose very name Catholic theology gives as Pure Activity, how he is active in the world in order to bring the world to that perfection and destiny for which he made it. Our purpose, therefore, is on the Real Presence.

Before we start looking real closely at this profound mystery, there are a certain number of presuppositions, assumptions we make as we approach this vast subject. They are especially these: There would be no Real Presence on earth except for the Incarnation. Even with the Incarnation, there would have been no Real Presence if Christ had not instituted the Holy Eucharist. Even with the institution of the Eucharist, there would not now be the Real Presence unless Christ had also instituted the sacrament of Holy Orders or the Priesthood. So the Incarnation, Eucharist and Priesthood are the indispensable suppositions for what we call the Real Presence. Given however these three facts: Incarnation, Eucharist and Priesthood, God is now present on earth in an absolutely unique way.

My purpose in this meditation is first to look at the revealed foundations for our faith in the Real Presence; next, what do we mean by what we believe; and then, somewhat summarily, applications.

The revealed foundations for the Real Presence are found in the New Testament and specifically in the four Gospels and in St. Paul. St. John, writing his gospel towards the end of the first century, did not, unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke, give us the narrative of the institution of the Holy Eucharist. What John however gives at great length - the whole sixth chapter of John's gospel is in a preliminary way and then very explicitedly, describing how Christ had first of all worked a miracle, appropriately of multiplying food for those who had followed him for days without eating. Imagine! No wonder the Scribes and Pharisees didn't like Christ; they envied him his popularity. The people who followed the Master grew hungry; Christ multiplied loaves and fishes; they ate; and then came the promise of the Eucharist. That's John.

The three Synoptics, as we call them, Matthew, Mark and Luke along with St. Paul give us in precise detail the separate consecration of the bread and the separate consecration of the wine. Incidentally, the most elaborate narrative of the institution of the Holy Eucharist is in St. Paul, which is most important to remember because he tells us that by the time of St. Paul, which was after Christ's ascension and Pentecost, the early Christians had taken Christ literally and even those many, we are told by John, many of Christ's disciples, who couldn't understand what he was telling them and walked away. The literal meaning - and that's the key - the literal meaning of Christ's saying "this is my body" and meaning it just in that sense, "my blood," meaning just in that sense was so understood by the early Church and is so understood by Catholic believers today.

For the first thousand years of the Church's history there had been all kinds of heresies denying you name it what in Christian revelation; but for the first millennium there was no serious challenge of the doctrine of the Real Presence. No less than the devastating heresy of Pelagianism denying the necessity of grace that was begun an unfaithful monk, Pelagius, so it was an unfaithful priest who began what became the most devastating denial of the Real Presence. In 1079 he was condemned. The profession of faith Berengarius was required to make by the then reigning pontiff, Gregory VII, remains to this day the sharpest, most uncompromising profession of faith in the Real Presence in the Catholic Church.

Here is a statement to which Berengarius was required to agree. In 1965, nine hundred years later, when again as it was an unfaithful priest who initiated the first massive heresy against the Real Presence, so this time Pope Paul VI in 1965 published an encyclical that every believing Catholic should read: "Mysterium Fidei" - "Mystery of Faith," all from beginning to end on the Real Presence. Never in the history of the Church has a Pope done what Paul VI did. He published this elaborate document defending the Real Presence because of the wild ideas and opinions circulating in nominally Catholic circles; he published it during the Second Vatican Council. And the centerpiece of that document is this profession of faith that his predecessor, Gregory VII, had required the unbelieving priest to profess.

Let's read what our faith tells us we believe in when we believe in the Real Presence. "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." (Feb. 11, 1079) The Catholic Church will survive only if this faith remains.

The Real Presence therefore means just what it says. The adjective 'real' from the Latin 'realis' comes from the noun 'res' which means 'thing'. After the words of consecration are pronounced, we believe that what had been bread and wine, whatever it is that makes bread and wine are gone. There are of course present on the altar the physical properties or qualities of what had been bread and had been wine. But I never tire telling my students the verb that the Council of Trent used in the sixteenth century, when the so-called protestant reformers picked up, lock, stock and barrel, what Berengarius had been condemned for denying. There would be no Protestantism in the world today if Luther, Calvin, Cramner, Zwingli and the other originators of Protestantism had continued believing in the Real Presence. This is THE test of the Catholic faith.

What then do we believe? - we are on the level now of meaning. What do we mean when we say the Christ is really present on the altar? We mean that whatever it is that makes Christ is just as truly, with mathematical, metaphysical identity, the same historical Jesus, identical, who walked the streets of Palestine, was crucified, buried, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven; the same Jesus who rose from the dead and went to heaven is now on earth.

Having taught priests for some twenty-five years, I never tired repeating, and I found out, sadly, sometimes I hadn't repeated often enough, or insisted strongly enough: you are priests first and mainly to keep the living Jesus Christ on earth.

The Church uses the verb, "under the species" - the physical properties of bread and wine, "is contained" -"continetur;" like water is contained in this glass; outside the glass there is no water. So, once the words of transubstantiation have been pronounced, what inside those physical properties had in one case been bread and in the other case wine - the container remains; and I repeat, the official, infallible verb used by the Council of Trent is "continetur - contained." Inside of the physical properties of what looks like bread and tastes like wine is contained the whole Christ. The two words that I have been telling my students for years to keep in mind regarding the Real Presence are "contained - continetur"; just as inside of this glass is water, so inside the circumference of the host is Jesus Christ, inside what looks and tastes like wine, inside is Jesus Christ; and the second term, both infallibly defined by the Church, is the expression "totus Christus" - the whole Christ. Everything which Mary had in her arms on Christmas morning is in the Eucharist; everything that rose from the dead on Easter Sunday is in the Eucharist; everything that sits at the right hand of his heavenly Father in heaven is in the Eucharist; everything in the One who will judge us the moment we close our eyes on time and open the eyes of our souls in eternity is in the Eucharist. That's our Catholic faith.

It is impossible for me, impossible, to describe the hurricane that is blowing through many sections of the Catholic Church today and leaving behind it such havoc as has not been seen, I believe, ever in the history of Catholicism. And the power of that tornado is there are those, often in positions of great influence, questioning, confusing, openly denying the Real Presence.

Now the implications. Because we believe in the Real Presence, we believe it is the same Jesus Christ, identically, who is in heaven, who is now on earth.

In the Eucharist Christ's Real Presence is now the channel by which he communicates or confers the graces he had won for us on Calvary. The world needed to be redeemed. God in his infinite wisdom decided that the Father would send the Son to become Man. He did become Man. By his bodily death on Calvary he merited, won, gained - the three principal verbs we can use - the graces the world needs to be saved. The graces were won on Calvary; the graces are mainly communicated through the Eucharist.

The Eucharist we believe is a sacrament. But It is a sacrament three times over. If the Eucharist as a sacrament is on trial as the Sacrifice of the Mass, if It's on trial as the sacrament of Communion, It is especially on trial as a sacrament of the Real Presence.

We wish to emphasize that the Eucharist as Real Presence is a sacrament. In other words the Real Presence confers grace just because of the Real Presence. The Eucharist as the Real Presence confers grace on the whole human race. The Real Presence just by being present confers grace according to the dispositions of a person on earth. It confers grace in the measure both of a person's faith and the degree of a person's union with God. What are we saying? The Holy Eucharist in common with the other sacraments confers grace just by being used according to the will of Christ and with the proper dispositions. But the Real Presence does not even require being used. The Real Presence confers grace just by being there.

During his stay on earth, did Christ, who is God become Man, did he teach astounding doctrine? Sure. Did Christ during his stay on earth perform outstanding miracles? Sure. "Lord, make my words clear." We assume, with almost no second thought, that Christ during his visible stay on earth taught astounding truths and performed unspeakable miracles. Christ called out to a sealed tomb, "Lazarus, come forth!" And he came forth. That's our faith. If I can get this clear, this will have been a very successful retreat. What would we expect of God praying, walking, talking on earth as Man? There would be no limit to what we would expect this God present on earth as Man to accomplish or achieve. He's God. That's the key.

Christ is God. Our whole focus during the retreat is "Who is God?" We believe that God became Man and then as Man lived on earth, ate our food, breathed our air, spoke a human language, to be touched, seen, and heard. But that is God! God speaking, God acting. Wouldn't we expect this God now as Man to perform godly deeds, to speak a divine language, to act like God? He did. He does. If you can make that transit, if you can walk this bridge from what Christ as Man who is God did during his visible stay in Palestine and then believe it's the same, identical Man who is God who is present on earth; what He did, he does. What he performed, he performs. What he said, he says. The only difference is in the tense of the verb.

The key to beginning to understand the superhuman, because it is divine, power of this Real Presence of God as Man on earth, the key to understanding, as far as our weak human minds can grasp, the key is the humanity of Christ. Once we believe, and we've got to believe this; any obscurity, any confusion, any loss in theological subtlety spoils it. The Man Jesus was God, he was really present on earth in Palestine, and the Man Jesus is God and he is present on earth hidden in the tabernacle.

On this third and humanly indescribable presence, that God in his infinite wisdom has conceived, not only is God present on earth as God by his power, which we call his omnipresence, or God present on earth in the souls of the just, by enabling them through his grace to do what naturally speaking they couldn't do, but God became man just like us except without sin, and that God Man or Man-God is present, and his presence changes the face of the earth. He now is willing to perform all the wonders that he worked in Palestine on one condition: that we believe. Even as his contemporaries in Palestine seeing a man had to believe that behind the man or within the man was God, so we believing that behind what looks like the Eucharistic species is a Man, we believe that behind that Man is God.

Given the widespread dissemination of error on the meaning of the Real Presence in some highly sophisticated circles, one of the marvels of our day, that I am sure the historians of the twenty-first century will recount, is that among the laity there is a phenomenal, indescribable fervor and devotion to the Real Presence. A layman told me he couldn't get into the Church during the day, it was locked. "I knelt on the steps outside to adore Jesus Christ." How we need to be clear in our own minds that this Real Presence is the principal way that God, having become Man, wants to save and sanctify the world.

The key is the humanity of Christ. Until the Incarnation God had taught many things to the world; he had done many things including creating the world. Quite an achievement! But God had not yet united himself with human nature. By what we call the hypostatic union - forming one Person out of two natures, God used that human nature during his visible stay in Palestine to win our salvation, by gaining the grace the world needed, otherwise no one would reach heaven. But having allowed himself to die in that humanity and rising in his human nature, God then decided - "Thanks, Lord! - to remain on earth in that humanity, that humanity united with the divinity. So that just as up to Calvary he used the humanity of his divine son to redeem the world, so now God uses the humanity of the Second Person assumed by channeling, communicating, pouring out giving, conferring, radiating grace. But I repeat what Christ told his contemporaries, that he couldn't work miracles because of a lack of faith. And what the Catholic Church needs today is a cosmic miracle of conversion especially among Christ's chosen ones. A miracle is being worked for those who believe.

Our present Holy Father, seeing the desperate hunger for devotion to the Real Presence among the simple, often unlettered, surely unsophisticated laity, as you know, began Eucharistic exposition and adoration Monday through Friday in St. Peter's basilica in Rome. And he wants bishops to promote this throughout the world. The prayer which the Holy Father composed and which he recited on opening the perpetual Eucharistic adoration in St. Peter's basilica in Rome is worth saying.

To appreciate the depth of the Holy Father's words, we must remember what happened on Easter Sunday. The two disciples on the way to Emmaus, poured out their hearts to Christ. "You must be the only stranger in Jerusalem. Jesus, we really thought he was the Messiah, we really did. Do you know what happened? The priests and the scribes had Jesus condemned to death and crucified." Then Jesus went along with them, and he sat down with the two and broke bread with them (St. Luke's expression for the Holy Eucharist). Now from the walk to Emmaus to the short stay in the house in town, the disciples noticed that Jesus gave the impression of wanting to leave, so they said, "Stay with us." That's the beginning of the Holy Father's prayer.

"'Lord, stay with us!" These words were spoken for the first time by the disciples at Emmaus. In the course of the centuries they have been spoken infinite times by the lips of so many of your disciples and confessors, O Christ. As bishop of Rome and first servant of the temple which stands on the place of St. Peter's martyrdom, I speak the same words today. Stay. And may we seek you in prayer of adoration and thanksgiving, in prayer of expiation and petition to which all those who visit this basilica are invited. Stay. You are at one and the same time veiled in the Eucharistic mystery of faith and also revealed under the species of bread and wine which you have assumed in this sacrament. The Eucharist is at one and the same time a constant announcement of your second coming and the sign of the final advent and also of the expectation of the whole Church. Every day and every hour we wish to adore you veiled under the species of bread and wine, to renew hope of the call to glory which you began with your glorified body at the Father's right hand. May the unworthy successor of Peter in the Roman See, and although you take part in the adoration of your Eucharistic Presence, attest with every visit of theirs, and may bring out again the truth contained in the apostle's words, 'Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.' Amen."

Transcription of the retreat given in December, 1988
by Father John A. Hardon, S.J. to the
Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica
No reproductions may be made without permission from InterMirifica.

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