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Real Presence in
the Eucharist

by Jeffrey D. VonLehmen

How is Jesus present in the Eucharist? Most of us, at one time or another, find ourselves either asking that question or trying to explain the mystery for someone else. Catholics believe that the Body and Blood of Jesus is present in consecrated bread and wine. We do not say the Eucharist is like the body and blood of Jesus, but that it is the body and blood of Jesus. In the Gospels Jesus says, "This is my body" and "This is my blood." That is strong language. It is language which Christians have sought to understand for many centuries.

Perhaps we struggle to understand in the good sense of struggle. After all, in the Eucharist we proclaim the Mystery of our Faith. It is a mystery! But unlike murder mysteries, such as the Sherlock Holmes tales, where the author deliberately obscures some of the facts to lead the reader astray, the mystery of the Kingdom of God and the Eucharist is meant to be obvious. It is meant to reveal and not to obscure, although it cannot be reduced to human logic. As a parish priest who has struggled to deepen my own understanding of this mystery, I contend that what is most obvious sometimes is most overlooked.

In this Catholic Update, I invite you to look at the obvious—our ordinary human experiences—to help make sense of Eucharist and real presence. Why does it make sense for Catholics to believe in what has traditionally been called transubstantiation (the changing of the whole substance of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ)? Why is it important to say that the Eucharist is a concrete encounter of the community with Jesus and not just a spiritual thing between an individual and God? In our own human experience we can discover why real presence and the body-and-blood presence of Christ are important to us and to God.

Flesh-and-blood relationships

We often think of spiritual as invisible. But who wants an invisible relationship with a loved one?

Consider this example. A father leaves work early on a weekday, drives five hours to another city to be present at his son's college basketball game and then drives home the same night. The father arrives home about 5 a.m., catches an hour of sleep, then goes to work.

He does this often. Perhaps it would be enough to tell his son over the phone that he is thinking about him and cheering and praying for him. But think how much more it means to the child that his father is not just there in spirit—he is there in flesh. He is providing a real presence for his son. What a big difference!

A flesh-and-blood relationship can make a difference. Consider the true story of a baby who lost both parents in a fire. The child became so traumatized that he clung to himself, arms crossed over his chest, as stiff as a board. When rescuers took the child to the hospital he was placed in a crib just outside the nurses' station. Whenever the nurses and nurse's aides walked by, they would speak softly to the baby and gently caress him.

Over a period of time, the baby began to respond. First a finger loosened, then a hand, then an arm, then a leg, until the baby was completely relaxed and finally recovered from the shock. The body-and-blood relationship with the nurses gradually brought about the child's wellness. Again, what a difference the real presence of these nurses made to the child. There's no substitute for a real flesh-and-blood relationship.

When we love someone we want a concrete relationship. If a mother will stay at the bedside of her comatose daughter day and night until her daughter comes out of the coma, is not God going to be with the world, day and night, until it comes out of its comatose state? The loving Spirit of God always seeks a concrete body-and-blood relationship with us. Isn't that what we celebrate in the Incarnation at Christmas, in the death and resurrection of Jesus on Good Friday and Easter? The Spirit dwells in us so we might experience God, who wants a real relationship with us.

Like the little baby in the nurses' station, we need a body-and-blood relationship with God in Christ. Yet where do we learn about body-and-blood relationships? We can only begin to understand the body and blood of Jesus when we understand true love in relationships involving friends, family and marriage.

Sacrifice and life

Think in terms of word associations. When I say "green" someone might think of grass. When I say "blue," one might think of sky. In our culture, when someone says "blood," we more than likely think of something terrible, of violence or loss of life. When we hear about body and blood as sacrifice, as in the sacrifice of the Mass, we think somebody or something has been killed. But in the ancient Hebrew mentality, if an animal was sacrificed to God, the people did not think that the animal was killed to appease an angry God. Instead, they thought of blood as the presence of life. Sacrifice was not so much giving up their best lamb or the first and best part of their crop. Sacrifice meant communion of life.

This brings to mind the wonderful image of an infant in the mother's womb. The infant is being nourished through the umbilical cord by the body and blood of the mother. It's not a violent act—the baby is receiving life. The mother's body is making all kinds of changes and sacrifices for the infant in her womb. But the mother is not thinking, Oh, my body is making all kinds of sacrifices for the infant in my womb. Instead, the mother is very conscious of the communion she has with her infant, the communion of life. This relationship is truly a body-and-blood relationship.

The bond between us and God, our loving parent, is just as strong and concrete. God wants a body-and-blood relationship with us. And as God's infants, we need that relationship.

This concrete relationship is made possible in Christ. God so loved the world that God sent his only son. It is interesting in Sebastian Moore's book, The Fire and the Rose Are One, that Christ's sacrifice in becoming one like us in the Incarnation and in his passion on the cross establishes a communion of life; a real presence in which our greatest desire is assured: "The one I most desire does in fact desire me." The Eucharist is the continuous concrete encounter of a people with God in the incarnation and passion of Christ. In a loving communion between the mother and infant, that strong body-and-.blood presence assures the child that the one the child most desires does in fact desire him or her. In the body-and-blood presence of Christ, we are assured the One we most desire does in fact desire us.

The bread and wine are not simply like the body and blood of Christ; they are the body-and-blood presence of Christ. This is because our relationship is that concrete, that real, that wonderful! Jesus is God revealing God's self to us. Neither we nor God want an invisible relationship—we want the real thing!

We can increase our understanding of God's presence during the eucharistic prayer and Communion by thinking about being in the womb of God where we are fed concretely through the umbilical cord of the Holy Spirit. During this part of the Mass, the priest says, "This is my body which will be given up for you:' Then he says, "This is my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant." Through these words of life, love and communion, we encounter the person of Christ!

Demonstrating the importance of this sacrament, a Catholic visionary once said, "If I had a choice between a vision and the Eucharist, I would choose the Eucharist."

Real reverence comes first

There is no doubt that a body-and-blood relationship exists between a mother and her child. But they don't think of each other as body and blood. They think about the human relationship between them, whether or not it is mutually loving. It's the same way in the eucharistic celebration. We have a body-and-blood relationship with God in Christ. In this encounter, we no longer get stuck on the elements of bread and wine, body and blood. This is because we experience persons instead of things, relationships instead of magic. Real reverence has to be for the person of Christ and for all people for whom he died—the two are inseparable. That is why people are called the Body of Christ.

There was an unpleasant incident a few years ago regarding whether proper respect had been shown toward the Eucharist at a special youth Mass. Someone noticed that the precious blood remained on the credence table after Mass. The precious blood sat there during a lengthy youth function following Mass which involved clapping, shouting and a lot of carrying on. When the function was ended, a eucharistic minister took care of the consecrated wine. What had happened was an unfortunate oversight.

The eucharistic ministers were unable to see that the chalices were still on the credence table after Mass. There was no deliberate disrespect or neglect. Some people, however, felt it their duty to write the bishop about the pastor's neglect. They made no bones about attacking the pastor, accusing him and his staff of sacrilege. They never went to the pastor first to talk about it. They ripped him in front of the bishop and probably everyone else they knew. I firmly believe the real sacrilege, the real irreverence was being done by those people in their actions and attitude toward the pastor. Granted, we must treat the consecrated elements with respect. Real reverence, however, includes how we treat one another preceding and following the Eucharist.

We cannot have reverence for the body and blood of Christ—the person of Christ—if we knock down those for whom he died out of love. For this reason, people are the Body of Christ. Scripture always says it so well: "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me" (Mt 25:45). "Those who say, 'I love God,' and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars..." (1 Jn 4:20). In speaking of the condemnation of the unjust steward, Matthew's Gospel says, "So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart" (Mt 18:35).

It is simple: We must have reverence for one another. Can a man say he loves his wife if he abuses their children? Are not the children part of her? We cannot abuse one another, cannot help but want a community of compassion, mercy, peace and justice, if we recognize that we all come from the same womb of God, the love of God poured out into our hearts through the outpouring of the Spirit; signed and sealed in the body-and-blood relationship we have in Christ.

Both new and old

Since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has made it a priority to update and develop Catholic faith, not simply preserve it. Gaudium et Spes says that theologians, whether lay or cleric, "enjoy the freedom to inquire, to think, and humbly and courageously reveal their minds on the matters in which they are expert" (#62). Theologians have developed contemporary models for understanding Christ's real presence in the Eucharist. For example, theologians like Bernard Cooke, Joseph Powers, Piet Schoonenberg and Edward Schillebeekcx have set forth the Interpersonal Encounter Model, which emphasizes Christ's presence in the people gathered to celebrate the Eucharist.

Although this model uses new terms like transfinalization and transignification, it still adheres to the ontological change or transubstantiation of bread and wine into body and blood of Christ. In simpler language, the bread and wine really do become the body and blood of Christ. Pope Paul VI's encyclical Mysterium Fidei allows for these new formulas as long as they hold that Christ is really present in the eucharistic species: "As a result of transubstantiation, the species of bread and wine undoubtedly take on a new significance and a new finality, for they are no longer ordinary bread and wine but instead a sign of something sacred and a sign of spiritual food; but they take on this new signification, this new finality, precisely because they contain a new 'reality' which we can rightly call ontological."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms this approach: "At the heart of the Eucharistic celebration are the bread and wine that, by the words of Christ and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, become Christ's Body and Blood" (#1333).

Truly the Eucharist is a real, interpersonal encounter between God and the worshiping community precisely because Christ is body-and-blood present. Our human experiences of love and relationships tell us that any lover seeks concrete union with the beloved. Although there may be new formulas to describe the real presence, the love expressed in the Eucharist is as old as Christmas. It is like the love between a mother and her infant in the womb. It is the love of God in Christ for his prenatal people not yet fully born into the reign of God: "...the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh....Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you....Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them" (Jn 6:51-56).

Jeffrey D. VonLehmen is pastor of St. Pius X Church in Edgewood, Kentucky.


The Different Modes of Christ's Presence

In order that they should achieve a deeper understanding of the mystery of the Eucharist, the faithful should be instructed in the principal ways in which the Lord is present to his Church in liturgical celebrations.

He is always present in a body of the faithful gathered in his name (see Mt 18:20). He is present, too, in his Word, for it is he who speaks when the Scriptures are read in the Church.

In the sacrifice of the Eucharist he is present both in the person of the minister, "the same now offering through the ministry of the priest who formerly offered himself on the cross," and above all under the species of the Eucharist. For in this sacrament Christ is present in a unique way, whole and entire, God and man, substantially and permanently. This presence of Christ under the species "is called 'real' not in an exclusive sense, as if the other kinds of presence were not real, but par excellence."

—Sacred Congregation of Rites,
Instruction on the Worship
of the Eucharistic Ministry, #9



Being Really Present

"True, real and substantial" are very abstract terms when applied to presence. In day-to-day life, we do not speak about people whom we love being "truly, really and substantially" present to us. More often than not, we speak about presence in terms of intimacy. In the Eucharist, Jesus wants to be intimately close to each of us. Jesus is not simply present by being in the same building as we are or by being physically close to us but not caring about us.

Rather, Jesus, in the Eucharist, wants to be and is deeply present to us in love and in compassion. Only when we begin to understand the Eucharist as a time when Jesus is not distant, but close; not aloof, but very intimate; not above us, but profoundly near us; not judging us, but compassionate toward us, will we truly be able to relate this teaching of the Church to our faith and devotion.

—Kenan B. Osborne, O.F.M.,
Sacramental Guidelines:
A Companion to the
New Catechism
for Religious Educators
(Paulist Press, 1995), p. 80.



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