Christ’s Presence in the Eucharist: True, Real and Substantial
In describing Christ’s presence in this sacrament the Council of Trent used three adverbs. Jesus is present in the Eucharist “truly, really, and substantially”. (Denzinger-Schönmetzer 1651) These three adverbs are the keys that open the door to Catholic teaching and exclude contrary views, which are to be rejected
by Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ
Saint Erhard raises the consecrated Host, sculpture in lime wood from the second half of the XIV century attributed to the Styrian Ducal Studio, Narodna Slovenian Gallery, Lubiana
After the consecration, the priest at every Mass proclaims that the Eucharist is a mysterium fidei. The real presence takes the human mind to the very limits of its capacity. In the end we have to acknowledge that the mystery is ineffable and should be greeted with wonder and amazement. It is a truth that only the mind of God can fully understand. Nevertheless, something should be said, because God has not revealed Himself simply to mystify us. He wants us to imitate the Blessed Virgin, who pondered deeply the words spoken to her. At the very outset it must be said that the Church accepts the real presence as a matter of faith, because it contained in the word of God, as attested by Scripture and tradition. Jesus said clearly, “This is my body ... this is my blood”, and in controversy with the Jews He insisted that He was not just using metaphors. “My flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him”. (Jn 6: 55-56) Many of the disciples found this a hard saying and parted from His company, but Jesus did not moderate His statements to win them back. The Fathers and Doctors of the Church have confidently proclaimed the real presence century after century, notwithstanding all objections and misconceptions. At length in 1551 the Council of Trent gave a full exposition of the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist in which the real presence receives special emphasis. Repeated by many popes and official documents since that time, the teaching of Trent remains today as normative as ever. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is content to quote it verbatim, (CCC 1374, 1376-77).
In describing Christ’s presence in this sacrament the Council of Trent used three adverbs. He is contained in it, said the Council, “truly, really, and substantially”. (DS 1651) These three adverbs are the keys that open the door to Catholic teaching and exclude contrary views, which are to be rejected.1
In saying first of all that Christ is truly contained under the Eucharistic species, the Council repudiated the view that the sacrament is a mere sign or figure pointing away from itself to a body that is absent, perhaps somewhere in the heavens. This assertion is made against the eleventh-century heretic Berengarius and some of his Protestant followers in the sixteenth century.
Secondly, the presence is real. That is to say, it is ontological and objective. Ontological, because it takes place in the order of being; objective, because it does not depend on the thoughts or feelings of the minister or the communicants. The body and blood of Christ are present in the sacrament by reason of the promise of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, which are attached to the proper performance of the rite by a duly ordained minister. In so teaching the Church rejects the view that faith is the instrument that brings about Christ’s presence in the sacrament. According to Catholic teaching, faith does not make Christ present, but gratefully acknowledges that presence and allows Holy Communion to bear fruit in holiness. To receive the sacrament without faith is unprofitable, even sinful, but the lack of faith does not render the presence unreal.
Thirdly, Trent tells us that Christ’s presence in the sacrament is substantial. The word “substance” as here used is not a technical philosophical term, such as might be found in the philosophy of Aristotle. It was used in the early Middle Ages long before the works of Aristotle were current.
“Substance” in common-sense usage denotes the basic reality of the thing, i.e., what it is in itself. Derived from the Latin root “sub-stare”, it means what stands under the appearances, which can shift from one moment to the next while leaving the subject intact.
Appearances can be deceptive. You might fail to recognize me when I put on a disguise or when I become seriously ill, but I do not cease to be the person that I was; my substance is unchanged. There is nothing obscure, then, about the meaning of “substance” in this context.
Substance, meaning what a thing is in itself, may be contrasted with function, which has reference to action. Christ is present by His dynamic power and action in all the sacraments, but in the Eucharist His presence is, in addition, substantial. For this reason, the Eucharist may be adored. It is the greatest of all sacraments.
After the consecration the bread and wine have become, in a mysterious way, Christ Himself. Vatican II quotes Saint Thomas to the effect that this sacrament contains the entire spiritual wealth of the Church, for the Church has no other spiritual riches than Christ and what He communicates to her.2
Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini during the Corpus Christi procession
The change that occurs in the consecration at Mass is sui generis. It does not fit into the categories of Aristotle, who believed that every substantial change involved a change in the appearances or what he called accidents. When I eat an apple, it loses its perceptible qualities as well as its substance as an apple. It becomes part of me. But in the consecration of bread and wine at Mass, the outward appearances remain unchanged.
The Church has coined the term “transubstantiation” to designate the process by which the whole substance, and only the substance, is changed into the substance of Christ’s body and blood. A special word is needed to designate a process that is unique and unparalleled. In teaching that the species are unchanged, the Church indicates that the physical and chemical properties remain those of bread and wine. Not only do they look and weigh the same; they retain the same nutritive value that they had before the consecration.3 It would be futile to try to prove or disprove the real presence by physical experiments, because the presence of Christ is spiritual or sacramental, not physical in the sense of measurable.
To clarify the Church’s teaching on the real presence it will be helpful, I think, to contrast it with several erroneous positions. The presence of Christ may be understood either too carnally or too mystically, too grossly or too tenuously, too naively or too figuratively.
The naively realist error may be illustrated by the reaction of the Jews at Capharnaum who were shocked by the words of Jesus. They evidently thought that He was advocating cannibalism, which they rightly regarded as a horrible sin. Some Christians have understood the presence of Christ in the Eucharist in too materialistic a way, without sufficiently distinguishing between His natural and His sacramental presence. They sometimes imagine that He could suffer if the host were desecrated or that He could be lonely in the tabernacle. I read somewhere of a young schoolgirl who feared that if she ate ice cream after taking Holy Communion, Jesus would suffer from the cold.
In the early Middle Ages a number of theologians, following Paschasius Radbertus, maintained that Jesus in the Eucharist takes over the forms of bread and wine as His own proper appearances. Why could He not do so, they asked, since in the Resurrection He appeared as a pilgrim and a gardener not recognizable to His disciples What we see when we look upon the host, and what we swallow in Holy Communion, they tell us, is the body and blood of Christ in a disguised form. Some even went so far as to say that in the consecration the elements lose the natural nutritive capacity they had as bread and wine.4
To avoid the implication that Christ in glory could suffer indignity, some early medieval thinkers held that the body of Christ on the altar is not the same as the one in heaven. In fact, they spoke of the three bodies of Christ: His natural body, which is now in heaven; His sacramental body, which is in the Eucharist; and His ecclesial body, which is the Church.5 This position has never been condemned by the Church, but it is no longer widely held, perhaps because, contrary to the mind of its advocates, it seems to suggest that the body in the Eucharist is not the one born of the Virgin Mary. If so, we could not sing to it: “Ave verum corpus, natum de Maria Virgine”.
Saint Thomas Aquinas develops what we may call a mediating position. On the one hand, he avoids speaking of the Eucharist as a special body (sacramental or mystical), but on the other hand he asserts that the risen and glorified body of Christ has a different existence in heaven and in the sacrament. He contrasts Christ’s existence in Himself and His existence under the sacrament as two different states or modes of being. According to His natural mode of existence Christ is in heaven, and according to His eucharistic mode of existence, He is in the sacrament.6 The body of Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, but not in the way bodies are in place. Its parts and dimensions cannot be measured against other bodies. His circumference is not that of the host.
Saint Thomas objects to himself that some have reported seeing the boy Jesus or His Most Precious Blood in a consecrated host. He replies that God is able to bring about a miraculous change in the host so that it could look like a boy or human blood, but that what appears in such a case could not be the qualities of Christ Himself.7
Looking at the Host or the Precious Blood, we cannot say that the head is here and the feet are there. Christ’s presence in this sacrament resembles that of the soul in the body. My soul is not partly in my head, partly in my heart, partly in my hands, but is entirely present in the whole and in every part. And so it is with Christ in the Eucharist. When a host is broken, each fragment contains Christ as fully as did the whole. A single drop of the Precious Blood contains as much of Him as a whole chalice. As a helpful comparison Saint Thomas uses the example of an image in a mirror. When the mirror is broken, each fragment can reflect the whole object, just as entire mirror previously did.8
If the location and contours of the host are not those of Christ, the question arises: can we still say that Christ is carried about in procession or that He is placed in the tabernacle Do we not eat His flesh and drink His blood Yes, says Saint Thomas, He is moved, eaten, and drunk, but not in His own proper dimensions. He is moved, eaten, and drunk in His Eucharistic mode of existence, insofar as His presence coincides with the palpable properties or “accidents” of the bread and wine. He is not physically harmed by any violence done to the sacrament because its qualities and dimensions are not properly His.
Christ’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament is therefore knowable only by the intellect, which accepts the Word of God in faith.9 The presence may be called sacramental because the appearances of the bread and wine indicate where Christ’s body and blood are present. They are signs or sacraments of a reality that is present in them.
The Eucharistic presence, real though it be, does not cancel out the absence of which Jesus spoke when He took leave of His disciples at the Last Supper. The Eucharist is a memorial of Jesus’ historical presence here on earth and a pledge of His return in glory, when we shall be able to see Him as He is.
From what I have said, you can see that the presence of Christ in this sacrament is unique and mysterious. Spiritual guides warn us not to inquire too curiously, because our minds can easily become confused in speaking about such an exalted mystery. It is better simply to accept the words of Christ, of Scripture, of the tradition, and of the Church’s Magisterium, which tell us what we need to know: Christ is really but invisibly present in this sacrament. His presence is such that the bread and wine after the consecration are truly, really, and substantially His body and blood but according to a mode of existence that differs from His presence in heaven.
Let us turn now to the minimizing errors. The Council of Trent is sometimes attacked on the ground that it focused too narrowly on one of the ways Christ is present in the liturgy. According to Paul VI and the Second Vatican Council, these authors remind us, Christ is present in the liturgy in no less than five ways: in the congregation, when it gathers for prayer, in the Word of God when it is proclaimed, in the priests, when they preside at the liturgy, in the sacraments, when they are administered, and finally, in the Host and Chalice offered at Mass. The presence in the consecrated elements, these authors maintain, is only one of the five, and should not be taken as though it alone were real. In fact, they say, it should be seen as subordinate to the presence in the Church, of which it is a sacramental sign. Did not Augustine and Thomas Aquinas teach that the purpose of the sacrament is to bring about the unity of the Church as Christ’s mystical body Some theologians therefore began to say that Christ’s primary presence is in the gathered assembly.10
According to the teaching of the Church, the multiple presences of Christ are real and important, but the presence in the Eucharist surpasses all the others. Some fifteen years before Vatican II, Pope Pius XII called attention to four of the ways in which Christ is present in the liturgy. But he was careful to point out that these presences are not all on the same level. The divine Founder of the Church, he wrote, “is present ... above all under the eucharistic species”.11
Paul VI in his encyclical of 1965 gave a similar listing, adding to Pius XII’s list a fifth: Christ’s presence in the proclamation of the word.12 But he left no doubt about which presence is primary. After noting the manifold presences of Christ, he declared: “There is another way, and indeed most remarkable, in which Christ is present in His Church in the sacrament of the Eucharist, which is therefore among the rest of the sacraments ‘the more pleasing in respect to devotion, the more noble in respect to understanding, and the holier in regard to what it contains’, for it contains Christ Himself and is ‘as it were the perfection of the spiritual life and the goal of all the sacraments’”. (MF 38) This presence, he said, is called real not because the others are unreal but because it is real par excellence. (MF 39) As a substantial presence of the whole and complete Christ, the Eucharist surpasses His transitory and virtual presence in the waters of baptism, in the other sacraments, in the proclamation of the word, and in the minister who represents Christ in these actions. As if this were not authority enough, one could note that Vatican II in its Constitution on the Liturgy, said that Christ is present “especially (maxime) under the eucharistic species”. (SC 7) And Pope John Paul II, in his 2003 encyclical on the Eucharist, says that we should be able “to recognize Christ in His many forms of presence, but above all in the living sacrament of His body and blood”.13
There is a vast difference between Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and in the assembly or its members. The worshippers, if they have the proper dispositions, are mystically united to God by grace. The Holy Spirit dwells in them, but they retain their own personal identity. They are not transubstantiated; they do not cease to be themselves and turn into Christ the Lord.
The Church as Mystical Body can never rise to the dignity of Christ in His individual body, which was born of the Virgin Mary, died on the Cross, and is gloriously reigning in heaven. That body is present substantially in the Eucharist but not in the Christian community. There is a vast difference between the adoration we give to Christ in the Eucharist and the veneration we offer to the saints.
Above, a priest distributes communion to the faithful
Some of these minimizing theologians argue that because the purpose of the Eucharist is to form the Church as the body of Christ, His ecclesial presence is more intense and more important than that in the consecrated elements.14 The error in this logic can be exposed if one thinks of the Incarnation. Jesus became man and died on the Cross for the sake of our redemption, but it does not follow that God is more intensely present in the community of the redeemed than in the Incarnate Son, or that our devotion should focus more on our fellow-Christians than on Christ the Lord.
A second argument sometimes used to exalt the Church above the Eucharist is that the Church as a general sacrament produces the seven special sacraments, including the Eucharist. The Church, it is said, cannot give what she does not have. But this argument overlooks the fact that the Church does not produce the sacraments by her own power. The Eucharist, like the other sacraments, is God’s gift. In producing it, the Church is subordinate to Christ, the principal minister. The Church, moreover, is built up by the Eucharist. The faithful are one body because they partake of the one bread, which is Christ the Lord. (I Cor 10:17) And so we can truly say, as Pope John Paul II does in his encyclical, that if the Church makes the Eucharist it is no less true that the Eucharist makes the Church (EE 26).
A third line of thinking that tends to minimize the reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist comes from the personalist phenomenology that was in fashion around the time of Vatican II. Concentrating as it does on interpersonal relations, this school of thought equates personal existence with human relationships.
Theologians of this tendency rejected the idea of substance, especially as applied to the Eucharist, which they treated as a communal meal. Even on the natural level, they said, a meal with friends is much more than food and drink; it is a social occasion for expressing and cementing human relationships. So too, they say, with the Eucharist.
In inviting us to His Supper, the Lord gives the bread and wine a new meaning and a new purpose, as effective symbols of His redemptive love. The elements are changed insofar as they acquire new significance and a new finality. For this reason, they maintained, we should speak of “transignification” and “transfinalization” rather than “transubstantiation”.15
These novel terms are ugly and cumbersome, and thus rhetorically no improvement on “transubstantiation”. But in what they positively express, the terms are harmless. In the Eucharist the significance and purpose of the bread and wine are indeed changed: they indicate and bring about spiritual nourishment and joyful communion with Christ and with fellow-Christians. But the alternative terminology is deficient because it tells us nothing about what happens to the consecrated elements in themselves. Paul VI in his encyclical the Mystery of Faith pointed out that the bread and wine are able to take on a radically new significance and finality because they contain a new reality. The change of meaning and purpose depend on a prior ontological change. (MF 46) We can relate personally to Christ in the sacrament, and He to us, because He is really there. His presence in the sacrament is real and personal whether or not anyone believes or perceives it. The Eucharist is not just a sign, but a person who subsists in His own right, as persons do.
A Dutch theologian of the 1960s put the question whether the real presence would remain in consecrated hosts if everyone in the world were suddenly killed by some extraordinary disaster. He answered the question in the negative on the ground that personal presence cannot exist except in a mutual encounter between free and conscious subjects.16
This theologian seems to confuse two meanings of “presence”. It can mean either of two things. It can be presence in, as the soul is present in the body or as Christ is present in the Eucharistic elements. Or it can mean presence to others. Of the two, presence in is the more fundamental. To reduce the real presence to the latter is reductionist. It departs from the faith of the Catholic Church, which holds that Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist is objective and independent of anyone’s perception of it.
Questions continue to be raised about the term “substance”, mainly because the classical concept of substance, common to realist thought, is not widely accepted today. Since the time of Descartes and Locke the term has come to stand for something self-enclosed and inert, whereas formerly it meant an active, relation-generating center, which through its accidents entered into dynamic relations with other creatures.
Understandably, today, many people find it strange to call a person a substance. But if the classical concept is abandoned, some other term must be found to designate what a thing is in its own fundamental reality. In calling the eucharistic presence of Christ substantial, the Church means that the Eucharist in its own reality is nothing other than Christ.
Transubstantiation, as I have explained, is the process by which one substance, that of the bread or wine, becomes another substance, that of Christ’s body and blood, without any change in its physico-chemical aspects. Trent taught that the term was very apt. (DS 1652) Paul VI, in 1965, said that it was still “fitting and accurate” and, as I have mentioned, found it superior to other terms that had been proposed (MF 46). But the Church is not definitively wedded to any particular vocabulary.
A change in the terminology remains theoretically possible. Partly as a result of the new eucharistic theologies proposed during and shortly after Vatican II, there was a temporary loss of interest in the reserved sacrament. All attention came to be focused on the actual celebration of Mass. In many parishes and religious houses Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament was suddenly abandoned. In some churches the Blessed Sacrament was reserved in an inconspicuous place more like a closet than a chapel. The faithful were incessantly being told by avant-garde religious educators that the purpose of the sacrament was to be received in communion, not to be adored, as if the two were mutually exclusive.
The ecclesiastical Magisterium has constantly resisted and countered this negative trend. While agreeing that the primary purpose of the Eucharist is to make the sacrifice of the Cross present and to give spiritual nourishment to the faithful, the Council of Trent insisted that the Blessed Sacrament is to be honored and adored after the liturgy of the Mass has been completed. (DS 1643, 1656) To deny this is tantamount to a denial of the substantial presence of Christ in the sacrament.
In 1965 Pope Paul VI spoke out forcefully in favor of the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament in a place of honor in the church. He exhorted pastors to expose the sacrament for solemn veneration and to hold Eucharistic processions on suitable occasions; he urged the faithful to make frequent visits to it, (MF 55, 66-68).
Pope John Paul II, in his many writings as pope, has sought to promote the worthy celebration of the Eucharist and devotion to the Eucharist outside of the Mass. In his encyclical of 2003 he expresses satisfaction that in many places adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is fervently practiced but laments that elsewhere the practice has been almost completely abandoned, (EE 10).
A holy picture from the period of First Communion
The Pope himself spends long hours before the Blessed Sacrament and receives many of his best insights from these times of prayer. Like Saint Alphonsus Liguori, whom he quotes on the point, he is convinced of the religious value of adoring Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Prayer before the Eucharist outside of Mass, he writes, enables us to make contact with the very wellspring of grace, (EE 25). Thanks in great part to this papal encouragement, there has been a striking resurgence in the practice of exposition and holy hours of adoration. In the year 2000 it was reported that more than 1,000 parishes in the United States sponsored perpetual eucharistic adoration while another 1,000 provided opportunities for adoration during a substantial portion of the day.17
These practices, far from undermining the hunger for Holy Communion, stimulate it. They prolong and increase the fruits of active participation in the Mass. They also express and fortify the faith of Catholics in the full meaning of the real presence. By abiding in our midst in this sacramental form, the Lord keeps His promise to be with His Church “always, to the close of the age”, (Mt 28:20).
Although the mystery of the real presence certainly stretches our powers of comprehension to the utmost, it is not simply a puzzle. It is a consoling sign of the love, power, and ingenuity of our Divine Savior. He willed to bring Himself into intimate union with believers of every generation, and to do so in a way that suits our nature as embodied spirits.
The forms of food and drink, deeply charged with memories from the history of ancient Israel, are meaningful even to the unlearned throughout the ages. They aptly symbolize the spiritual nourishment and refreshment conferred by the sacrament.
On another level, they call to mind the crucifixion of Christ, who shed His blood for our redemption. And finally, they prefigure the everlasting banquet of the blessed in the heavenly Jerusalem. The many-layered symbolism of the Eucharist is not separable from the real presence. The symbolism has singular power to recapture the past, transform the present, and anticipate the future because it contains the Lord of history truly, really, and substantially.