A recent survey in the United States revealed that 70% of Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. They saw it merely as symbolic. If that survey were to be repeated in the UK would it find a similar proportion of Catholics who would report the same. The Real Presence is what I want to explore in this post.
In recent weeks weeks, the parish newsletter has carried a reminder of how we should be receiving Holy Communion at Mass. It said:
When you approach to receive Holy Communion the Priest or Minister holds up the Sacred Host in front of you and says “Body of Christ”. You respond by saying “Amen”. The Sacred Host is then placed in your hand or on your tongue. If you receive the Sacred Host in your hand, place the Sacred Host in your mouth before moving away from the Priest or Minister. Under no circumstances should you carry the Sacred Host away from the Sanctuary in your hand.
“Why does the Church have such precise instructions? Is just a matter of respect, politeness for receiving a gift, tradition?”
Yes it’s all of these, but it would be the same in any Christian church which has a form of Eucharistic service. In the Catholic Church, there is something infinitely more and that is why we say “Amen” when the priest or minister presents the host to us.
“But it’s just a wafer of bread, isn’t it? Something that reminds us of the Last Supper.”
Well, that is partly right: it does remind us of the Last Supper and in its taste, colour, texture, even its nutritious qualities – as it appears to us – it is bread in all of its physical properties just as the wine remains wine in its properties.
At the consecration the priest calls on God to send the Holy Spirit to come down on the bread and wine so that they may become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
“Isn’t that just a symbol? It’s not really the body and blood of Jesus, is it?”
As an American writer replied bluntly to that question, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” She later added: “… it is the centre of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”
I am not going to explain what theologians have said over the last 2000 years about the Eucharist. I am only going to recall what Jesus said himself. At the Last Supper, he did not say “This is symbolic of my body … of my blood.” He was quite forthright in saying what he says again at Mass through the priest:
Take this, all of you, and eat of it,
for this is my Body,
which will be given up for you.
Take this, all of you, and drink from it,
for this is the Chalice of my Blood…
Jesus is clear in his words: This is my Body. This is my Blood.
“Was this just for the Apostles and what happens at Mass is just a memorial of that meal?”
He said “Do this in memory of me,” that is ‘do the same as I have just done.’ But to understand better we must look at what he said to the Jews in St John’s Gospel.
In Chapter 6 of the Gospel, Jesus says:
“I am the living bread which has come down from heaven.
Anyone who eats this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I shall give is my flesh.”
When challenged by the Jews about how he could give them his flesh to eat, he replied:
“If you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man
and drink his blood,
you will not have life in you….
For my flesh is real food
and my blood is real drink.
He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood
lives in me and I live in him.”
When Jesus blessed and broke the bread and blessed the wine at the Last Supper, they became one with his body and blood, not in appearance, but in their inner reality, their substance. Jesus is really present in the sacrament of the altar. We must believe that we eat the flesh and blood of Jesus or the Eucharist has little meaning.
“Why can’t other Christians receive Communion in the Catholic Church?”
When the bread of the host is presented to us with the words “The Body of Christ,” we say “Amen” so confirming that we accept and believe that we are eating his flesh and blood. That is why we only receive the Eucharist when we are Catholics fully received into the Church and, amongst other doctrines, assenting to its doctrine of the Real Presence.
“Why, apart from the time of Covid, do we not normally receive both bread and wine? Jesus said ‘unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you will not have life in you’?
A good question. At the consecration, the bread and wine are separately blessed as the body and blood of Jesus as they were separated on the Cross. However, before we acclaim Jesus in the prayer, “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world…”, the priest breaks the host and mingles a small piece with the wine so restoring the body and blood as one flesh as happened in the Resurrection. Even under one kind we receive both body and blood.
“So all Catholics should believe in the Real Presence?”
Yes. As St Paul said (1 Cor 10:16): “The cup of blessing that we bless is a sharing (communion) with the blood of Christ, and the bread that we break is a sharing in the body of Christ.”
If we do not accept the words of Jesus when he says, ‘this is my body,’ do we not deny him, substituting our own will, our materialism, and lack of understanding, for his truth and love? He was and is God and, when he chose to give us his body and blood in the form of bread and wine, he spoke, and still speaks through the priest, with all the power of God for whom nothing is impossible.
This is why, in the end, we observe the Church’s rules about how we should receive Holy Communion in reverence, respect, and with belief in the grace which it gives to us.
Fortunately, we do not have to crawl over glass to get to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, but we do have to have the faith which would make us do that if need be.