The Real Presence of Jesus Christ in The Sacrament Of The Eucharist: Basic Questions And Answers
Produced by the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and approved by the full body of bishops at their June 2001 General Meeting. The text is authorized for publication by the undersigned.
Monsignor William P. Fay
General Secretary, USCCB
The Lord Jesus, on the night before he suffered on the cross, shared one last meal with his disciples. During this meal our Savior instituted the sacrament of his Body and Blood. He did this in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the ages and to entrust to the Church his Spouse a memorial of his death and resurrection. As the Gospel of Matthew tells us:
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mt 26:26-28; cf. Mk 14:22-24, Lk 22:17-20, 1 Cor 11:23-25)
Recalling these words of Jesus, the Catholic Church professes that, in the celebration of the Eucharist, bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit and the instrumentality of the priest. Jesus said: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world. . . . For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (Jn 6:51-55). The whole Christ is truly present, body, blood, soul, and divinity, under the appearances of bread and wine—the glorified Christ who rose from the dead after dying for our sins. This is what the Church means when she speaks of the “Real Presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. This presence of Christ in the Eucharist is called “real” not to exclude other types of his presence as if they could not be understood as real (cf. Catechism, no. 1374). The risen Christ is present to his Church in many ways, but most especially through the sacrament of his Body and Blood.
What does it mean that Jesus Christ is present in the Eucharist under the appearances of bread and wine? How does this happen? The presence of the risen Christ in the Eucharist is an inexhaustible mystery that the Church can never fully explain in words. We must remember that the triune God is the creator of all that exists and has the power to do more than we can possibly imagine. As St. Ambrose said: “If the word of the Lord Jesus is so powerful as to bring into existence things which were not, those things which already exist can be changed into something else” ( De Sacramentis, IV, 5-16). God created the world in order to share his life with persons who are not God. This great plan of salvation reveals a wisdom that surpasses our understanding. But we are not left in ignorance: for out of his love for us, God reveals his truth to us in ways that we can understand through the gift of faith and the grace of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. We are thus enabled to understand at least in some measure what would otherwise remain unknown to us, though we can never completely comprehend the mystery of God.
As successors of the Apostles and teachers of the Church, the bishops have the duty to hand on what God has revealed to us and to encourage all members of the Church to deepen their understanding of the mystery and gift of the Eucharist. In order to foster such a deepening of faith, we have prepared this text to respond to the many questions that commonly arise with regard to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We offer this text to pastors and religious educators to assist them in their teaching responsibilities. We recognize that some of these questions involve rather complex theological ideas. It is our hope, however, that study and discussion of the text will aid many of the Catholic faithful in our country to enrich their understanding of this mystery of the faith.
- Is present,
- Is offering Himself,
- Is received.
It is Jesus Christ. It is not us. It is the same Jesus present in the Holy Eucharist who was conceived at Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, died on Calvary, rose on Easter Sunday, and ascended into Heaven on Ascension Thursday.
Certainly Jesus is in heaven. But He is also on earth. The whole Christ, with his Humanity and Divinity, with His eyes and lips and hands and feet, and Sacred Heart.
Jesus Christ is now offering Himself in every Mass. He is on earth, with His human body and blood, and human will. The essence of sacrifice is in the will.
Jesus Christ is now received in Holy Communion. We now receive Him no less than the Apostles did in the Last Supper. He is now glorified. His body enters our body, His soul enters our soul. This is no mere symbolism or metaphor. It is real.
- He is present,
- He offers,
- He comes.
He is present in order to be near us, with us, next to us, present to us. He wants to show us how much He loves us. He wants to teach us:
- Selfless charity.
He wants us to come to Him…He offers Himself in the Mass in order to give us the graces we need to surrender our wills to His. These are the distinctive graces of the Sacrament of the Mass. They are graces of:
He comes to us in Holy Communion in order to give us the graces of selfless charity. It is not coincidental that Christ did two things at the Last Supper:
- He gave us the New Commandment – love one another as He loves us, even unto death;
- He instituted the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
These two go together. We cannot practice selfless charity without receiving Holy Communion.
We are finally able to grow in our understanding of how we are to become apostles of the Eucharist in our day.
What is an apostle of the Eucharist? An apostle of the Eucharist is one who is personally very devoted to the Holy Eucharist.
- as Real Presence,
- as Sacrifice of the Mass,
- as Holy Communion.
An apostle of the Eucharist is one who realizes that there is no solution to the problems of the world or the problems of the Church except through the Holy Eucharist.
An apostle of the Eucharist is one who does everything in his or her power, by word and example, to promote a deeper faith in the Eucharist as Real Presence, Sacrifice of the Mass and Holy Communion.
An apostle of the Eucharist prays for a deeper understanding of the Blessed Sacrament, especially among priests.
An apostle of the Eucharist lives a life of reparation for those who neglect the Holy Eucharist, or desert the Holy Eucharist, or distort the Holy Eucharist.
An apostle of the Eucharist is zealous to convert or re-convert people to the Catholic faith, as the faith which believes that Jesus Christ is present on earth, offering Himself in this Holy Sacrifice, and available to us in the Sacrament of Communion.
An apostle of the Eucharist is a martyr for the Eucharist. No matter what price has to be paid, an apostle of the Eucharist is ready to pay it as a witness to his faith in Jesus Christ, living in our midst today.
An apostle of the Eucharist simply expects the Eucharistic Christ to work whatever miracles need to be performed in our day, especially miracles of conversion:
- Conversion of unbelievers to believers in Jesus Christ;
- Conversion of sinners, even of murderers, to followers of Christ.
But an apostle of the Eucharist has no illusions. There will be opposition. “Have confidence,” Jesus tells us, “I have overcome the world.”
“Lord Jesus, in the Holy Eucharist, we believe You are with us in the Blessed Sacrament. We believe You are inviting us to join with You in conquering the world for Your heavenly Father. But we are blind. Enlighten our minds. We are weak. Strengthen our hearts. Make us Apostles of the Eucharist in our day; make us Apostles of Life through the Eucharist. Help us to understand the Eucharist now on earth by faith – as a prelude to seeing You, our Incarnate God, face to face, for all eternity. Amen.”
By his Real Presence in the Eucharist, Christ fulfills his promise to be with us “always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “It is the law of friendship that friends should live together. . . . Christ has not left us without his bodily presence in this our pilgrimage, but he joins us to himself in this sacrament in the reality of his body and blood” ( Summa Theologiae, III q. 75, a. 1). With this gift of Christ’s presence in our midst, the Church is truly blessed. As Jesus told his disciples, referring to his presence among them, “Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it” (Mt 13:17). In the Eucharist the Church both receives the gift of Jesus Christ and gives grateful thanks to God for such a blessing. This thanksgiving is the only proper response, for through this gift of himself in the celebration of the Eucharist under the appearances of bread and wine Christ gives us the gift of eternal life.
Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. . . . Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. (Jn 6:53-57)