It is said that the English language boasts more words than French, German and Italian combined. Is it any wonder that it is so difficult for a new speaker of English to become fluent in the language? This column is not going to be about language,·but rather about one word in English as it is used in our Catholic faith: REAL!
The word real can have several widely different meanings in English. In ordinary speech it could mean true, legitimate, actual, and other similar adjectives, but all of these adjectives fail when we speak of real estate. Similarly, all these concepts fail when we speak of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. As when speaking of property, there is a specific, technical meaning of the word real, so also when speaking of the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. To use one of the meanings from ordinary speech for this presence of Jesus will only leave us confused and in serious error.
To come to an understanding of the meaning here, we have to take a look at some history. In Europe during the period known as the Reformation many theories about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist were developed by the Protestant Reformers, and some are still being devised in our own time. One that had rather wide popularity was that Jesus was spiritually present in the Eucharist. That is, because of the ubiquity of God (God is everywhere), the Eucharist contains the presence of Jesus spiritually. This was perhaps because the Reformers rejected the concept of Christian priesthood that is needed for Mass and the consecration of the Eucharist. Rejecting a mere spiritual presence based on the ubiquity of God, the Catholic Church countered with the word real rather than spiritual.
The origin of this word comes from various Latin adverbs based on the Latin word res, a thing. The thing present was the physical body and blood of Christ, born of Mary, and now here present under the appearance of bread and wine. The word real here means tangible, touchable. The humanity of Jesus is as near and approachable to us as he was to the Apostles during his preaching career, as He was at the Last Supper.
It would not be useful to explain all the various ways in which different Christian denominations have struggled to come to grips with the presence of Christ in the Eucharist without a priesthood. Beyond not being useful, it would be confusing and dismaying to see how this wonderful aspect of our faith has been distorted by fellow Christians. Instead, I shall simply quote some appropriate passages from Scripture and various Catholic writers over the years.
The author of the fourth Gospel writing around the end of the first century spoke of Jesus teaching in Capernaum, and no doubt that situation mirrored the state of affairs in his own time as well.
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven; he who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is My flesh for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51).
“Then many of His disciples who were listening said, ‘This saying is hard; who can accept it?”’ (Jn 6:60).
“As a result of this, many of His disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied Him” (Jn 6:66). Jesus let those who would not believe Him return to their former way of life.
St. Paul writing to the Corinthians challenged the lack of faith of some Christians using quite strong language: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Cor 11:27-29).
Do you think Paul would have used such strong language and envisioned such dire consequences if it were not the faith of the first-century Christians that the Eucharist is the very Body and Blood of Jesus?
While these are not the only passages in the New Testament that speak of the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, I want to move on to cite a few other witnesses to our Catholic faith.
Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to the Romans, A.D. 110) wrote: “I have no taste for corruptible food … I desire the bread of God, who is the flesh of Jesus Christ … and for drink I desire His blood.”
Justin Martyr (1st Apology, A.D. 151) penned: “The food which has been made into the Eucharist … is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus.”
Augustine (Sermon 227, A.D. 411) declared: “That bread which you see on the altar … is the body of Christ. That chalice, or rather, what is in that chalice is the blood of Christ.”
From every century and from all parts of the Christian world, similar quotations could be cited, but there is no need: this is our Catholic faith.
Can we understand how this takes place? I could quote the word transubstantiation, but that is simply a word based on Aristotelian philosophy. I would rather say that the how and why of the Real Presence is to be found in the power and love of God, just as is creation itself. If a person is not ready to embrace the power and love of God, I question if he is ready to say, “I am a Christian.”
I now live in a residence for retired priests and there is a little chapel next door to my room. Every time I enter or leave my room I stop to have a little conversation with Jesus. Sometimes I picture Him sitting on a stone or walking by the shore. I say “Hi, Jesus,” have a few words and then go on about my business. When you come before the tabernacle in church and bend your knee to the floor in genuflection, do you recognize before you the touchable, tangible humanity of Jesus; Son of Mary, eternal Son of God? Are you real Catholic? Do you acknowledge the Real Presence? If not, get real!
Father Buote is a retired priest of the Diocese of Fall River and a regular contributor to The Anchor.