There are four key aspects of it; ultimately, His presence in the Eucharist can only be discerned by faith
By Father Randy Stice
The transformation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ is both miracle and mystery, something that we can never fully comprehend. But for 2,000 years the Church has diligently reflected on this mystery and has deepened her understanding of Christ’s eucharistic presence. We can summarize His eucharistic presence this way: the Eucharist is the substantial presence of Christ’s glorified body under the appearances of bread and wine discerned by faith. In this column I want to look at the four italicized terms that indicate four key aspects of the Christ’s eucharistic presence.
First, Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is a substantial presence. St. Paul VI explained that “the way in which Christ becomes present in this sacrament is through the conversion of the whole substance of the bread into His body and of the whole substance of the wine into His blood.” The Church calls this “unique and truly wonderful conversion” transubstantiation, the complete change of one substance into another substance. 1 The result of this complete change of the substance of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ “is presence in the fullest sense…by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present.” 2 All that remains of the bread and wine are the outward characteristics—appearance, texture, and taste.
Furthermore, the substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist is not His body during His earthly ministry but his resurrected and glorified body. “The flesh of the Son of Man, given as food,” explained St. John Paul II, “is His body in its glorious state after the resurrection.” 3 To appreciate the significance of this, recall the Gospel accounts of Christ’s resurrection appearances. Sometimes His disciples recognized Him, but other times they did not. He wasn’t a ghost or a spirit—he ate with them and showed them the wounds from the crucifixion. Instead of coming and going, He appeared and vanished, and barriers to time and space were gone. What these encounters convey is the mysterious yet powerful reality of Christ’s glorified body after the resurrection.
The resurrection, wrote Pope Benedict XVI, is “something akin to a radical ‘evolutionary leap,’ in which a new dimension of life emerges, a new dimension of human existence. Indeed, matter itself is remolded into a new type of reality. The man Jesus, complete with His body, now belongs totally to the sphere of the divine and eternal.” 4 Similarly, Pope Francis wrote, “Christ’s resurrection is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world…It is an irresistible force.” 5 This is the “secret” of the resurrection that we digest when we receive the Body and Blood of Christ.
Finally, Christ’s presence in the Eucharist can only be discerned by faith, not by our senses. Our senses tell us that what we receive is just bread and wine. But our faith discerns the truth with absolute certainty, for it is based on the words of Christ—“This is my body,” “This is my blood” (Mark 14:22, 24). The Church has always believed and taught this truth. St. John Paul II quotes the instruction of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (who died in 386) to the new Christians, “Do not see in the bread and wine merely natural elements, because the Lord has expressly said that they are His body and blood; faith assures you of this, though your senses suggest otherwise.” 6 St. Paul VI quotes these words of St. John Chrysostom (died 407): “Let us submit to God in all things and not contradict Him, even if what He says seems to contradict our reason and intellect; let His word prevail over our reason and intellect. Let us act in this way with regard to the eucharistic mysteries, and not limit our attention just to what can be perceived by the senses, but instead hold fast to His words. For His word cannot deceive.” 7 The Catechism quotes the eucharistic hymn, Adore te devote, attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas (died 1274): “Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived; How says trusty hearing? That shall be believed; What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do; Truth himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.” 8
Most importantly, the substantial presence of Christ’s glorified body under the appearances of bread and wine and discerned by faith is a personal presence. “Jesus is not present in the Eucharist as a ‘thing’ or an object,” wrote Cardinal Cantalamessa, the preacher to the papal household, “but as a person.” 9 This is the astonishing mystery—beneath the appearance of a “thing” is a person. After receiving Communion, wrote St. Teresa of Avila, “you have the Person Himself present.” “Behold the lamb of God,” says the priest as he elevates the host and chalice, “Behold Him”—not “it” but “Him,” Jesus! In the Eucharist, Christ fulfills His promise to the apostles, “I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:20). In the Eucharist, Christ is truly Immanuel, God with us.
1 Paul VI, Mysterium Fidei (MF), no. 46
2 Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 1374
3 St. John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (Boston: Pauline Books and Media), no. 18
4 Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. II, p. 274
5 The Joy of the Gospel, no. 276.
6 Ecclesia de Eucharistia, no. 15.
7 MF, 17.
8 CCC, 1381.
9 Raniero Cantalamessa, The Eucharist: Our Sanctification, revised edition, Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1995), 82-83.
Father Randy Stice is director of the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at email@example.com.