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A Eucharistic Retreat

Meditation #4

The Teaching of the Church on the Real Presence in the Sixteenth Century

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

Our present meditation is on the teaching of the Church on the Real Presence in the Sixteenth Century. It seems only reasonable to devote one whole conference on the Church’s Eucharistic teaching in this century. Why is this teaching so important? Because, first of all, during the 1500’s, a form of Christianity developed that was consciously not Roman Catholic. This form of Christianity withdrew six whole nations from the Catholic Church and has determined the culture of most of North America, including the United States. Moreover, this form of Christianity, on principle, denies that Christ, at the Last Supper, instituted the priesthood and empowered ordained priests to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass — at which bread and wine are changed into the living flesh and blood of Christ. Consequently, it is imperative for us Catholics to know what the Catholic Church taught us as infallible doctrine during this most divisive era of Christian history.

The main source of information is found in the Council of Trent, which met for 18 years from 1545 to 1563. During these sessions, the Council issued three extensive documents on the Holy Eucharist in this order: on the Real Presence (October 11, 1551), on the Holy Communion (July 16, 1562), and on the Sacrifice of the Mass (September 17, 1562).

Since our focus in this meditation is on the Real Presence, we will concentrate on what the Council was called to defend and declare as defined doctrine on the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. There are five Canons specifically defining the Catholic Church’s faith in the Real Presence, and each Canon is worded in the form of an “anathema”. (Anathema means accursed. Each canon is worded: “If anyone says… let him be anathema”). This means anyone who denies one of these five dogmas is thereby denying a divinely revealed mystery of faith and ceases to be a Catholic.

Looking at each definition in sequence, I will identify each teaching with a title, quote what the Council of Trent defined and briefly explain each definition.

First Definition:  The meaning of the Real Presence

The first definition of the Council of Trent is on the Catholic meaning of the Real Presence. The definition reads: “If anyone says that the body and blood together with His whole Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore the whole Christ, is truly, really and substantially contained in the Sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist, but says that Christ is present in the Sacrament only as in a sign or figure or by His power, let him be anathema.”

There are four key terms in this solemn definition: “the whole Christ,” “truly,” “really,” and “substantially” contained. What then are we being taught by these definitions? First, we are being told the Holy Eucharist means “the whole Christ.” Everything which belongs to Christ — everything which makes Christ Christ — is present in the Blessed Sacrament. This consequently means Christ is present in His divinity as God and in His humanity as man. Christ is present in the Eucharist with His human body and human soul, with His bodily organs and limbs and with His human mind, will and feelings — “the whole Christ.” Latin reads Totus Christus.

Then we are told Christ is present “truly” and not only symbolically. He is present objectively and only subjectively in the minds of believers. He is contained in the Blessed Sacrament. Consequently, if our minds realize this objectives fact, we possess truth. And there is no more precious truth revealed by Christ than the truth that He is on earth, the whole Christ in the Eucharist.

Thirdly, we are taught Christ is “really” present and not only figuratively. The Eucharistic presence is not a metaphor or figure of speech. It is reality. Christ exists in the Holy Eucharist. And during the century when this Real Presence was defined by the Council of Trent, St. Robert Bellarmine counted the number of meanings given to Christ’s words at the Last Supper: “this is My body, this is My blood.” He found among the Protestant scholars more than 200 interpretations except the one which says Christ is “really” present in the Eucharist.

Finally, this definition tells us Christ is present “substantially” and not merely by the exercise of His power. True, Christ is everywhere exercising His power. Thus, we can legitimately say that Christ is present in every person in the state of grace. Christ confers His grace on those who are in His friendship. But being in the state of grace in not necessarily to have the Real Presence of Christ in our bodies and souls.

The Real Presence in the Eucharist is absolutely unique. Christ is not present everywhere with the wholeness of His divinity and humanity — only in the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, Christ is present in the fullness of His being.

Here’s and analogy to help draw the distinction: When I write a book that is published worldwide, am I present to those people in Japan who read what I have written? Is my influence present in their hearts and minds? I hope so! But unless I fly to Tokyo, I am not “substantially” present to those people.

On the other hand, Christ is present on Earth not only in the sense that He exercises His divine influence on the hearts and minds of human beings. Christ Himself is “substantially” present on Earth in the Eucharist. Only in the Eucharist is Christ present with the wholeness of His divinity and humanity.

That’s the first defined dogma on the Real Presence: “the whole Christ” is “truly,” “really and “substantially” contained in the Eucharist.

Second Definition:  Transubstantiation

The second definition of the Council of Trent concentrates on how bread and wine are changed into the whole Christ. And it better be changed, otherwise, there’s no Real Presence. “If anyone says that the substance of bread and wine remains in the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist together with the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ and denies that wonderful and extraordinary change of the whole substance of the wine into His blood, while only the species of bread and wine remain, a change which the Catholic Church has most fittingly called ‘transubstantiation, let him be anathema.

As often as we’ve heard the word “transubstantiation,” few Catholics know what it means. Transubstantiation means the substance of bread and wine — what makes them bread and wine — is replaced by the whole Jesus Christ. The “breadness” and “wineness,” so to speak, are changed into the living Jesus, true God and true man, whole God and whole man. It does not merely mean that the substance of bread and wine becomes the substance of Christ. Oh no! The Real Presence is not only the substance of Christ, but the whole of Christ — His substance plus all the human properties of His humanity.

Finally, transubstantiation describes how the physical qualities of bread and wine — their color, texture, taste and whatever else is perceived by the senses — remain, but they lose their substance. The qualities of bread and wine remain, but their substance is replaced by the whole Christ. I’ve taught too much Eucharistic Theology to too many priests to know how confused they can be by even the fundamental meaning of transubstantiation. If transubstantiation means the Real Presence of Christ, it also means the real absence of bread and wine.

Third Definition:  The whole of Christ is present in every portion of the species

This third definition from the Council of Trent brings out the reality of the Real Presence. “If anyone denies that in the venerable Sacrament of the Eucharist the whole Christ is contained under each of the species and under every portion of either species when it is divided up, anyone who denies that, let him be anathema.”

The key word here is “species”. The Eucharistic species are the physical properties of what used to be bread and wine before transubstantiation — the species of what is sensibly perceptible in the Holy Eucharist. The species are the size, texture, taste and weight of what was formerly bread and wine.

What does the Church tell us about the species? She indelibly teaches that the entire Christ is entirely present in every particle of the consecrated host and in every drop of what looks and tastes like wine. In the whole Host, Christ is there. Broken in half, Christ is in both parts. Even a single particle contains the whole living Christ. (How this needs to be known and believed in our “post-Christian” United States!)

We are also told that the whole Christ is fully and equally present in either species, so we don’t have to receive under both forms. A single drop in the chalice after consecration contains the whole Christ.

Fourth definition:  The Real Presence does not depend on Communion

It must seem strange that anyone would come up with the idea that Christ is present only if and when and as long as a person goes to Communion, but once Communion is over, there is no more Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament. As strange as it may seem, this is exactly what so many of the so-called reformers held. So many people in the sixteenth century said Christ is present only when and if and as long as you are receiving the Holy Eucharist. But the Council of Trent said: “If anyone says that after the consecration, the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ are not present in the marvelous Sacrament of the Eucharist, but are present only in the use of the sacrament while it is being received, and not before or after and that the true body of the Lord does not remain in the consecrated Host or particles that are kept or left over after communion, anyone who denies that, let him be anathema.”

If you know what ideas are being circulated today in nominally Catholic quarters, you have no doubt how relevant this cardinal definition is. To deny the doctrine of transubstantiation is only logical for those who have separated from the Catholic Church to either reject the Eucharist entirely (which some did) or to keep the Eucharist in name and verbally talk about Christ’s Presence only in Communion. But we see what happened (and is happening now again) to the meaning of Christ’s “presence” in the Eucharist once the real meaning of transubstantiation was lost. You may call it the “Lord’s Supper.” You may call it the “Liturgy.” You may call it the “Eucharist.” But people no longer speak of a “Real Presence” which does not depend on its being received by the faithful.

I have reasoned with too many priests who are caught up in the miasma that is penetrating the Catholic Church today. I tell them: “Look Father, Christ is present in the Eucharist not only when you or the people receive Communion. He’s present in the Eucharist. Period.”

A young man recently came to visit me at the university. He told me he was sitting in Church during a Mass at which Holy Communion was distributed in the form of leavened bread — which is wrong, but nevertheless, it was consecrated. He watched the people coming up to communion and noticed the floor was covered with crumbs—not crumbs of bread, but particles of the Sacred Species. He told me, “After everybody left the church, I went over to the front of the church and began putting the particles into a small container. The Pastor saw me from the sacristy and shouted, “What are you doing?” I told him I was picking up the particles after Holy Communion because I understand each particle is Jesus Christ. The Pastor told me “Get out!” He saw I wouldn’t move, so he pulled me by my collar and dragged me out of the church!

We better know — we better understand — that the Church defined that the whole Christ is present even under a microscopic particle of the consecrated Host. Once we believe that Jesus Christ is truly present in the Holy Eucharist, it is only logical than to respect and adore Our Lord, no matter how small the particle or drop from the chalice may be.

Fifth definition:  Eucharistic Adoration

This definition comes as no surprise. Once we believe Christ is really present in the Holy Eucharist, it is only logical to conclude that we should worship Him. The last thing we human beings want from another human being is to be ignored. The same is true with Christ present in the Eucharist. So now we look at the definition on the Holy Eucharist as the Adorable Sacrament.

The Council of Trent goes into some detail defining what so desperately needs to be known, publicized and practiced today. “If anyone says that Christ, the only begotten Son of God, is not to be adore in the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist with the worship of Latria, that means the worship only to God, including the external worship and that sacrament, therefore, is not to be honored with extraordinary festive celebrations, nor carried from place to place in processions, according to the praiseworthy universal rite and custom of the Holy Church or that the Sacrament is not to be publicly exposed for peoples’ veneration and to those who adore the Holy Eucharist are idolaters, let him be anathema.” Human language could not be clearer. Nor could the message be more important.

As our meditations go on, we should have ample opportunity to further explain and expound on the solemn teaching of the Church on the Adorableness of Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament. But I will say that I’ve been privileged in working for the Holy See for more than 21 years. And I know there is one thing the present Holy Father wants: he pleads and begs the Bishops of the Catholic Church not only to tolerate, but to promote Adoration of the Holy Eucharist. I may be bold to say the future of the Catholic Church will depend in large measure on believing Catholics acting on their belief and adoring Our Lord. However, it is not only the future of the Church which depends on this mystery of faith being believed, understood and lived out. It is indeed the welfare of the whole world. This I know, because that’s my assignment from the Vicar of Christ — to do everything in my power to promote Eucharistic Adoration, first among members of the hierarchy, then among priests, and then among all the people of God. It is not only the hope of the Holy Father to restore faith in the Real Presence where it has been removed, but also to strengthen the peoples’ faith in the Blessed Sacrament where it is still reserved. Thus, believing in the Real Presence, Catholics might act on what they believe and thereby obtain from Jesus Christ what only He can give — the light and the strength to the blind and paralyzed human beings of today. This comes from the same Christ who walked the streets of Palestine doing good then. He wants to do good now, but I depend on our faith.

Lord Jesus, we thank you for the clear, unambiguous teaching of your Church on the Real Presence, but we ask you Dear Lord, to open the mind that we have to penetrate into the meaning of the reality we believe, so believing in you who we do not see with our bodily senses, we may behold unveiled in that eternal Eucharist which is the meaning of the Beatific Vision. Amen.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica
No reproductions shall be made without prior written permission.

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