Wednesday, 24 August 2011

The Real Presence

Last Saturday morning, as I opened the church door, I saw two small booklets on the floor. They had obviously been pushed under the door. They were both anti-Catholic. I was wondering who could have taken the trouble to do this, and why. Had they been left by Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons (we seem to have our fair share of such missionaries around here)? I don't know, but they are American publications and are the kind of fundamentalist tracts you would expect from a certain kind of evangelical. I simply did not have the time to look at them in detail, but I looked to see what they said about two articles of Catholic Faith - the Eucharist and the Papacy. The booklets were seriously flawed on both. I am, at present, reading up on the Papacy in case I have to give a talk on it, but I also decided to post something on the Real Presence, especially on two of the main aspects of the anti-Catholic position.

One of the booklets said, regarding the Real Presence, "Protestants believe it is symbolic" (referring to the words of Christ in John 6 about His Body being real food etc). To begin with, this is not entirely true. About 10 years after Luther had nailed his famous theses to the cathedral door, he had a meeting with other reformers about the Eucharist. They could not agree. Luther famously walked out on them. He believed that the Body and Blood of Christ is present with or within the bread and wine. This was later called "consubstantiation" to mark the difference from "transubstantiation", the Catholic position. The fact is that the main reformers all had different views about the Eucharistic Presence. The common evangelical position is only one Protestant view. Now for the scriptural argument.

One of the texts put forward by some Protestants for not accepting the words of Jesus as given is John 6 v. 63; "It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life"

According to St. John Chrysostom, Our Lord was speaking of those who understood His words in a "carnal sense". In other words, the teaching of Christ is accessible only through grace. To see only the physical, rational or scientific meaning, without being open to the mystery of faith is to be blind to the truth of Christ's words. We must take the literal meaning, but that plunges into a mystery that we cannot fully explain even as we become aware of its truth.
Some years ago I had the joy of receiving a young Japanese girl - a student - into the fullness of faith. A little way into the instructions I spoke about the gift of faith and I said, "let's test your faith". I spoke to her about the Real Presence. I gave her the usual basic formula - the substance of the bread and wine are changed; the appearances are not. Our Lord Jesus Christ is present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in every particle. We cannot see Him but we believe He is truly present. I asked her, "do you understand all that?" Without any hesitation, she said, "Yes". How is this possible? Of course, she did not understand it in the sense that a scientist would explain a natural change, like the change of water into vapour or ice. She "understood" it in faith, at a depth beyond mere rationality. I was then able to say to her "You have the gift of faith".

In a week or so I will be visiting the shrine of Lanciano. I have always wanted to go there. I'm sure most readers of this will know about it, but just in case you don't, here is some information.
How do we interpret that miracle? Do we say that when we eat the Eucharistic Body of Christ that we gnaw on a piece of flesh? No we do not. We say that we receive the WHOLE Christ, who is present in every particle. Is it the flesh of someone who has died? Emphatically, yes, BUT he is also risen, and we receive the risen Christ, His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. He makes the power of His death present in the Mass, and His death becomes our life, but He is not dead - He is risen! We are not cannibals - we are not simply eating dead flesh; we are feeding on the true Lamb of God who comes to us whole and entire, giving us everything that He is so that we can be changed and become like Him - sons and daughters of God raised up to eternal life. There is only so far we can go in describing this. The Orthodox theologians are right to warn us about going too far, and the Imitation of Christ, one of the treasures of western spirituality, warns us against inquiring too much into this mystery. Those who cannot accept the Real Presence, truthfully, do not know what they are missing.


  1. Splendid! Thank you.

  2. This is such an interesting piece Father, I learn so much from you. Thank you for sharing that.
    I wouldn't worry too much about the booklets. We have Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons calling here at the Presbytery all the time. Even though they know it is the Priest's House, they will stand there quoting passages out of the bible at me as if I didn't have one in the house! Maybe I just have the look of a woman who needs saving.