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Christ in the Eucharist - Presence and Reality

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

I would like to address myself to another aspect of the priesthood, namely, the priest's faith in the Eucharist, directing our attention to the specific aspect of the subject by reflecting prayerfully on "Christ in the Eucharist-Presence and Reality". It is perhaps remarkable that we should consider what must seem like a strange title, because most Catholics, including priests, are not accustomed to separate the two words "presence" and "reality" when they speak of the Blessed Sacrament.

We commonly and correctly say that we believe in the Real Presence and seldom give the matter a second thought. But today is not even yesterday, and it is certainly not 1965 when Pope Paul VI published his now historical encyclical "Mysterium Fidei" on the Real Presence. The Pope reminded the people and especially priests that there is a crisis of faith regarding the Eucharist, and that Catholics had better awaken to the fact; otherwise they are likely to be swept off their feet by subtle theology, and their faith, including the faith of priests, in the Eucharist will be weakened if not destroyed by the current assaults on this cardinal mystery of our faith.

Somewhere near the center of the theological controversy about which the Pope warned us is precisely the question that no Catholic should raise, namely, "Is the Holy Eucharist presence or reality? Or is it, as the Church teaches, presence and reality?" There is more at stake here than meets the eye-I mean the eye of the mind.

My purpose will be to defend the following statement: The Holy Eucharist is Jesus Christ, who is in the Blessed Sacrament both as reality and presence. He is in the Eucharist as reality because the Eucharist is Jesus. He is in the Eucharist as presence because through the Eucharist He affects us and we are in contact with Him-always depending on our faith and devotion to the Savior living really in our midst.

The Eucharist as Reality - The First Crisis of Eucharistic Faith

The Eucharist as reality. There have been, before modern times, two major crises of faith in the Real Presence in Catholic history. The first crisis occurred in the early middle ages when theological speculators (it's always theological speculators) mainly in France, raised doubt about the reality of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. This first crisis reached a peak in the person of one Berengarius of Tours, who died in 1088.

Berengarius denied the possibility of substantial change in the elements of bread and wine, refusing to admit that the body of Christ exists corporeally on the altar. His argument was that Christ could not be brought down from Heaven before the Last Judgment. He held that Christ's body, existing as he said "only in Heaven", is effective for humanity through its sacramental counterpart or type and that Christ, therefore, is not really in the Eucharist except 'ideally or symbolically".

Pope Gregory VII ordered Berengarius to subscribe to a profession of faith that has become the cornerstone of Catholic Eucharistic piety. I recommend memorizing this profession of faith. It was the Church's first definitive statement of what had always been believed, but not always clearly understood. It is a declaration of faith in the Eucharist as unquestionable, objective and unqualified reality.

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.
Words could not be clearer. If reality means actuality, and if actuality means objectivity, then the Catholic Faith believes that the Christ who is in the Eucharist is the Christ of history: the one who was conceived at Nazareth, born at Bethlehem, died, and rose from the dead at Jerusalem, and is now seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, The Eucharist is the same Christ who will call us when we pass out of time into eternity. It is the Christ who will appear at the end of the world to judge the living and the dead; it is the Christ who is the Omega of the universe and the goal of human destiny. That was the first crisis.

The Eucharist as Reality - The Second Crisis of Eucharistic Faith

Five centuries after Berengarius, the second great crisis of faith in the Eucharist arose, at the time of the Protestant Reformation. Again, many of the same objections were raised and theories disseminated as in the Berengarius controversy a half millennium before. Once again the Church countered, this time through the Council of Trent, to revindicate the reality of Christ who is in the Blessed Sacrament.

The Tridentine profession of faith is not unlike that Pope Gregory VII required of Berengarius. "The Holy Council teaches," declared Trent, "and openly and straightforwardly professes that in the Blessed Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, after the consecration of the bread and wine, our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is truly, really and substantially contained under the perceptible species of bread and wine."

But then Trent added, with characteristic vigor, that this is the plain meaning of Christ's words when at the Last Supper He said, "This is my body; this is the chalice of my blood." Consequently, the faithful were told, "It is an infamy that contentious evil men should distort these words into fanciful imaginary, figures of speech that deny the truth about the Body and Blood of Christ contrary to the universal understanding of the Church."

The reality of Christ in the Eucharist is no figure of speech; it is no fanciful rhetoric. It is, in the clearest words that can be expressed, it is Jesus Christ. It is the Incarnation extended into space and time, literally the Emmanuel made flesh, the God-man who is, we assert, here and now living in our midst. Therefore, it is not that Christ lived only then, 1900 years ago, and there, in Palestine-He is here now.

The Eucharist as Reality - The Crisis of Eucharistic Faith in Modern Times

Four centuries after the Council of Trent, the Church is now in another crisis of Eucharistic faith, and we had better realize it. This is the real crisis in the Catholic priesthood today; all others are secondary to this one, as I well know; this is my twenty-fifth year of teaching priests.

Palpable evidence of such a crisis is seen in the practical disappearance in so many dioceses of the Forty Hours Devotion and the corresponding disappearance of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. How often I have planned for Benediction but could find no monstrance! It is seen in the complete revision of Constitutions of once flourishing contemplative religious institutes that had specialized in worship of the Blessed Sacrament on their altars. It is seen in widespread neglect of showing any of the customary signs of reverence to Christ's Real Presence in the tabernacle and in the removal of the tabernacle in churches to some obscure and unobtrusive place where the Real Presence is isolated from even possible devotion by the faithful.

There is the mounting literature in still nominally Catholic circles that seldom touches on the Real Presence, or that explains it in a way congenial to those who do not believe in Christ's corporeal presence in the Eucharist. This is totally incompatible with the historic faith of Catholicism. There is the dissemination of religious education textbooks, teachers' manuals and study guides that may make an apologetic mention of this physical presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, but that leave the distinct impression that this presence is peripheral to Catholic faith and practice and is certainly not the fundamental mystery of the Church founded by Christ.

Though seldom averted to, part of this same crisis about the Real Presence is the contemporary desacramentalization of the Catholic priesthood. Priests are said to be essentially preachers of the Word or ministers of the Gospel, organizers of Christian communities or social leaders, spokesmen for the poor or defenders of the oppressed or political catalysts, academic scholars or theological appraisers of the faith of believers. So they are, depending on their talents and the circumstances in which they find themselves. But is that all? And is that the primary purpose of the Catholic priesthood? No.

The primary meaning of the priesthood is its relationship to the Eucharist as reality, as sacrament, and as sacrifice; and among these three primarily as reality, because obviously, unless Christ is really there, we cannot speak about the Blessed Sacrament or the sacrifice of the Mass. It is to make Christ present on earth, really, that Christ instituted His priesthood.

Once again, as in previous ages, the Church's magisterium has reaffirmed the real existence of Christ on earth in the Eucharist, but in accents and nuances that were not called for in previous times. Pope Paul VI, in "Mysterium Fidei" was concerned about those who in spoken and written word "spread abroad opinions that disturb the faithful and fill their minds with no little confusion about matters of faith."

Among these opinions was and is the theory that so redefines the meaning of Christ's real existence in the Eucharist as to obscure, if not deny, the reality. Mark this sentence, because it is the transition of part one to part two of our conference: it is as though someone said, "I believe in the Eucharist as presence but not as reality, or as reality that is only presence and not objective actuality." So far then about the Eucharist as reality.

The Eucharist as Presence

Now about the Eucharist as presence. The moment we hear the word "presence" we naturally tend to think of a personal relationship between two or more people. We are present to someone, or someone is present to us, when we are aware of them or they of us; when we have them on our minds and in our hearts, or they think of us and sense a kinship and affection for us. We are not exactly present to stones or trees, nor they to us, no matter how real they may be. Presence always implies rational beings. Something happens between people to make them present to one another.

Presence as such also transcends space and time. Saint Paul or Saint Augustine may be present to us, although they are long since dead and although they are not physically where we are physically. They can be present to us mentally or volitionally or spiritually. She can be in New York and he in San Francisco. Yet as soon and as often as he thinks of her with love, she is present to him. Whenever she does the same, he is present to her, reaching over the distance of miles and irrespective of the fact that neither is where the other is in body. No matter, they are with each other in spirit. That is what spirit is all about: it is independent of space.

Presence, therefore, does not deny physical reality, because two people can be both near to each other in body and intimately united in spirit. But, neither does presence require nearness in body. It rather stresses intimacy of mind and heart. Herein rests both the dignity and the danger of some current theories about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, some that have infected the lives of not a few priests.

There are those who laudably emphasize the subjective aspect of Christ's presence, but at the expense of the objective reality. Let me not be misunderstood. There is great need, even crucial need, to talk about and act upon the awareness of Christ in the Eucharist, and to raise our sentiments of love towards Him; but this cannot be at the expense of ignoring the prior fact that Christ is actually in the Eucharist, that in the words of the Church's solemn teaching, "He is contained under the perceptible species of bread and wine." What was bread and wine, after the words of consecration are no longer bread and wine but the living, physical, bodily presence-in a word, the real Jesus Christ. To believe in the Real Presence means to believe in the real absence of bread and wine after the consecration.

We might say, then, that the Eucharistic Presence of Christ is at once a reality and a relationship. It is a reality because Christ really is in the Eucharist, so that the Real Presence of Christ postulates on faith the real absence of bread and wine. He is now, where before the consecration were bread and wine; they are gone and He is here. What before was real bread and wine is only to external properties of bread and wine. He is here in the Eucharist truly present; they are no longer present but only their species or their appearance. Transubstantiation is a fact of faith. All the twisted but learned criticism of the Church's doctrine as being Hellenistic or Aristotelian is learned stupidity, which is the most dangerous.

For the soul that believes, transubstantiation is no Hellenistic or philosophical terminology; it is the expression of the truth. If we must use Greek, we can; the Greek tells us that the words of Institution institute a "metaousiosis", meaning that the "ousia" or the being, the "whatness" of bread and wine become the "ousia" or the being of what constitutes Jesus Christ-body, blood, soul and divinity. In a word, in the Eucharist there is present the "totus Christus" (the whole Christ) just as truly as He was present on earth in Palestine and as He is now in Heaven. It is the total Christ in the fullness of what makes Christ Christ, with no real difference between who He was in the first century on earth and who He is now in the twentieth century on earth. Jesus Christ is in Jemez Springs as He is also everywhere where a duly ordained priest has changed bread and wine into the Body and Blood of the Savior.

How this needs resaying in today's Catholic world. But we are not yet finished. As so often happens, error arises among men because they have been neglecting the truth. The hydra of Communism is partly God's visitation for the neglect by Christians of their practice of community love. So too with the Eucharist. Too many Catholics, including priests, have taken the Real Presence for granted. They complacently assume that Christ is in the Eucharist, and they proceed to leave Him there, in empty churches and empty chapels, with seldom a worshipper before the tabernacle and seldom a eucharistic thought among millions of believers, who would be offended if they were told that they ignored the greatest reality in the universe right in their midst.

What we need today in the present crisis regarding the Eucharist is another Saint Francis of Assisi, who was raised by God to remind the world of his day of what a priest is, and what his words of consecration produce in this valley of tears. The lack of such faith is the main reason for the most massive defection of men from the active priesthood in the last five hundred years. Francis was never himself ordained to the priesthood: strange as it sounds, he never considered himself worthy. But he had an extraordinary reverence for priests; because he saw them as the divinely enabled consecrators of the Holy Eucharist.

In his last will and testament Saint Francis wrote what we in our sophisticated age of agnosticism need to hear. "God inspires me, " he said, "with such great faith in priests who live according to the laws of the holy Church of Rome, because of their dignity, that even if they persecuted me I should still be ready to listen to them. I do this because in this world I cannot see the Most High Son of God with my own eyes except for His most holy Body and Blood which priests alone administer to others."

Saint Francis concluded on a superlative tone which was not customary with him. "Above everything else, I want this most holy Sacrament to be honored, venerated and reserved in places which are richly ornamented." This is the simple poor man whose name have become synonymous with total poverty, even to destitution, in imitation of his poor Master. But it is also the mystic who saw more clearly than most of his contemporaries who it is that dwells among us in the Blessed Sacrament. It is, in Francis' words, "the Most High Son of God" in human form, who is always here in reality; but He is not always present to us in spirit. We do not always honor and venerate Him reserved in the Eucharist in places which are richly ornamented, not so much in silver and gold as in acts of faith, hope, and love. That is why He is here, that we might also be where He is, united with Him in spirit as He has united Himself to us un body as a prelude to that union where the Eucharist will be unveiled and where vision will replace what our faith now tells us is true. Truth became incarnate to teach us how much God loves the sons and daughters of the human family.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

Conference transcription from a retreat that Father Hardon gave to the Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Mother of Sorrows Recordings, Inc.
Handmaids of the Precious Blood
Cor Jesu Monastery
P.O. Box 90
Jemez Springs, NM 87025

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