bread that He would give for the life of the world was His
A subject that
seems to cause both Catholic and Protestant alike a lot of grief is the
belief in the Eucharist as the true presence of the body and blood of
Christ. It is true that many people consider the Catholic Church’s beliefs
about the Eucharist to be totally unbelievable and almost outrageous. We
believe it because Jesus said it, and this Word of His is transmitted to us
in various ways.
One of these
ways is the Bible. In addition to the testimony of the Sacred Scriptures, we
also have Sacred Tradition, that which the Apostles handed down to us and
which they learned from Christ. We also have the teaching of the Church,
given the authority to teach by Jesus in His name. Let us look first, then,
at the Bible to see how exactly the Church can so confidently teach what she
does about the Real Presence.
It is evident
in the Gospel of John that very early in His ministry Jesus gave the first
promise of the Eucharist (Jn. 6). A crowd of five thousand had just
witnessed one of Christ’s greatest miracles — the multiplication of the
loaves — and they were in great awe at what they had experienced. So, they
follow Him to Capernaum, wanting Him to perform more signs. When they begin
to speak about the manna that God gave to their ancestors to eat in the
desert, Jesus uses the opportunity to give a discourse that every Christian
should read and reread very carefully.
the bread of life,” he 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” (Jn. 6:51). The Scripture then says that
this shocked the Jews. How could he give them His flesh to eat? He answered
“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 up on the
last day. For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Whoever
eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him”
very powerful words, and they are the words of Jesus Christ! He was telling
At this point,
many of them left His company, but we notice that Jesus did not call them
back saying, “I didn’t mean it the way you think I did” or, “Should I reword
that last bit?” This is because He did mean it precisely as he spoke
it! If Jesus had meant His words to be taken symbolically only, then He
would have had to explain this to His disciples. But He does not, which is
highly significant. Now, He thought the rest of them would leave also, but
then Peter responds by giving one of the most moving answers in all human
history. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal
life” (Jn. 6:68). At that moment, Peter may not have even
realized the full import of what he was declaring, but later it would become
clear to him.
In verse 6:47, Jesus states,
believes has eternal life.” What was He talking about? It must have
been the teaching that He was giving them. Over and over in these passages
He repeats and reaffirms that He is the Bread of Life and that
anyone eats this bread, he will live forever” and the bread He will
give for the life of the world “is my flesh.” It takes great
faith to accept and believe these words of our Lord, but we should never
allow our predispositions or traditions to restrict us from recognizing the
truth that Jesus wished to teach us. Our Lord said,
“Blessed are those
who have not seen and yet believe” (Jn. 20:29).
The Catholic Church teaches that God’s
Revelation is transmitted to us through Sacred Scripture and also by Sacred
Tradition, and that both Scripture and Tradition are interpreted by the
authoritative and authentic teaching of the Church — the Magisterium. We
looked at the testimony from the Bible regarding the Real Presence of Jesus
in the Holy Eucharist, including Jesus’ own words. Now we will explore that
which we learn from Sacred Tradition regarding the Church’s teaching on the
When we speak of Tradition with a capital “T”
we are referring to what has been handed down to us by the Apostles, both in
oral and written form. The earliest written account of belief by the early
Church in the presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist comes from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, Ch. 11. He says,
“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on
to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night He was handed over, took bread,
and after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is
for you. Do this in remembrance of me’…. For as often as you eat this
bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he
This account of the celebration of the Lord’s
Last Supper was written about 50 years after Christ. In another verse from
that same chapter, Paul states, “Therefore whoever eats the bread or
drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and
blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27). This clearly indicates
that the early Christians truly believed that the Eucharist was indeed the
Body and Blood of the Lord. In 350 AD, Cyril of Jerusalem wrote about this
passage and stated,
“Since Christ himself has declared the bread to be
his body, who can have any further doubts? Since he himself has said quite
categorically, this is my blood, who would dare to question and say that
it is not his blood? Therefore, it is with complete assurance that we
receive the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ”
There is an enormous amount of historical
evidence in the writings of the early Church Fathers that testifies to
belief in the Real Presence. These men were prominent writers of the early
Church whose works manifested a pronounced theological sophistication. Why
should this be important for us today? Because some of them received what
they taught firsthand from the apostles. And the apostles learned it
directly from Jesus Himself. He gave to them the authority to teach in His
name. He even said, “Whoever hears you, hears me.”
St. Ignatius of Antioch, writing in the year
110 AD, bears a strong witness when he expresses the following:
“I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the
pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of
Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for drink I desire his
blood, which is love incorruptible”
(Letter to the Romans 7,3).
These are powerful words! And it is only one
example of the numerous early writings regarding the Holy Eucharist. This is
what is meant by our understanding of Sacred Tradition. The Catholic Church
has consistently taught belief in the Real Presence from the very beginning
to the present day. In the first thousand years, Christians generally did
not deny it, although there were some heresies. It was not until the
Protestant Reformation, fifteen centuries after Christ's death, that
rejection of the Real Presence gained a following of any significance.
Jesus knew how we would hunger for this “food”
which is Him, and He provided ways for us to know that it is available to
us. He revealed it through Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition and these
are interpreted and taught authoritatively by the Catholic Church. Each time
we participate in the Mass, we participate in that miracle of sacrifice and
redemption through the Eucharist, and each time we receive the true presence
of Christ we announce that Christ dwells within us in that most perfect of
sacramental unions. Our destiny is now linked to the promise of God the
Father through our union with Christ in the Mass.
Sacrificial Dimension of the Eucharist
Trent taught that the Eucharist is not simply
one of the sacraments but is pre-eminent among them because Christ
is present in the Eucharist even before the sacrament is used
(Decree on the Most Holy Eucharist, ch.III, Session XIII,1551).
(Const. on the Sacred Liturgy, n.2) declared that “the Liturgy...most
of all in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, is the outstanding means
whereby the faithful can express in their lives, and in manifest to others,
the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church.”
- The Eucharist is indeed the “source and summit of the
entire Christian life”(n.11).
Scriptural Background (Institution)
- Eucharist derived from Greek word meaning thanksgiving.
- Jesus himself “gave thanks” at the Last Supper (Lk 22:19; 1
Cor 11:24; Mk 14:23; Mt 26:27).
- Same basic structure as Passover meal: the words over the
bread, its breaking and sharing; the words over the wine and its sharing.
- But Jesus identified the bread and wine with his own body and
blood and speaks of himself as sacrifice.
- OT connection: idea of sacrifice of the Old Covenant in Ex.
24:8-11 and of the New Covenant in Jer. 31:31-34; and idea of the anointing
sacrifice of the servant of God in Isa. 53:12.
- Thus the NT interprets the death of Jesus as an atoning death
that establishes a new Covenant in his blood and brings redemption to all.
- Distributing bread and wine to the disciples indicates that
they too must share in Jesus' sacrifice and atoning death.
- As an act of remembrance (anamnesis) the Eucharist not only
recalls to mind what Jesus did but also effectively makes it present again
(cf. 1 Cor 11:24-25).
- Paul affirms the bodily presence of Christ: “Is not this the
cup of blessing we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? And is not the
bread we break a sharing in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16).
- Indeed, to eat and drink unworthily is to sin
the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:27) because we partake of
the same bread, “we, many though we are, are one body” (1 Cor
- Distinctive characteristics of the text have led to a
differentiation between a Petrine and a Pauline account.
- Petrine account occurs in Mt and Mk, and the Pauline in Lk and
- In addition Mt and Mk do not have the addition to the words
about the bread, i.e., “for you” or “that is given for you”.
- According to the Synoptics the Last Supper was a Passover meal
-- what we know is that Jesus instituted the new rite within the framework
of a meal.
Trent - Jesus left the Eucharist to the Church, his bride, as
a visible sacrifice.
One and the same sacrifice is made on Golgotha and in the
Eucharist, and one and the same person sacrificing, both then and in every
Eucharistic celebration, namely Jesus Christ (DS 1739- 1742; cf also canons
1 and 2, Ds 1751f.).
In the Eucharist the sacrifice of the cross is actualized in a
sacramental way (the event of Golgotha is re-actualized in a ritual way).
Trent teaches that the Mass is a true sacrifice, not only of
praise and thanksgiving but also of expiation for the living and the dead,
without diminishing the value of the sacrifice of Calvary. Christ is the
same victim and priest on the cross, although the mode of suffering is
different at mass.
Trent (Decree on the Mass, ch. II) declared the sacrifice of
the mass is “properly offered not only for sins, penalties,
satisfactions, and other needs of the faithful who are living but also for
the departed in Christ who are not yet fully cleansed.”
Dynamic Presence Of Christ In The Eucharist: Transubstantiation
The Permanent Presence of Christ in the Eucharist
(Reservation - Adoration)
- Official Catholic teaching that Christ is really present in
the consecrated elements of bread and wine.
- Fourth Lateran Council (1215): first to speak of
transubstantiation, i.e., the belief that the substances of bread and wine
are changed into the body and blood of Christ. Which was later reaffirmed
and made more precise by the Councils of Constance (1415) and Trent (1551).
- Paul VI reaffirmed the teaching that the real presence
continues after Mass, and he defended Eucharistic adoration and private
- According to doctrine of transubstantiation, the whole Christ
is present under each form, the consecrated bread and the consecrated wine
for that reason, Trent insisted, it is unnecessary to receive the Eucharist
under both species as John Hüs (d. 1415) and his disciples in Bohemia
- Vatican II
teaches that the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is not confined to the
consecrated elements of bread and wine for Christ is present, first, in the
community which has assembled for worship; secondly, in the person of the
minister who presides in his name; and thirdly, he is present in the
biblical word which is proclaimed. Finally, he is present in the sacred
species themselves (Const. on the Sacred Liturgy, n.7).
- Real presence of Christ in the Sacred species come about
through the ordained priest, who “confects” the Eucharist (Lateran IV) and
the power of priest to consecrate the bread and wine is not dependant on his
personal holiness (Council of Constance).
- The nature of the change brought about in the Eucharist, as
taught by the Church, lies beyond what chemistry, biology, or physics are
able to establish. What is changed is the essence, the fundamental being,
the hidden kernel, of the thing from which its particular forms of
manifestation and activity arise.
- Because the empirical phenomena, which came within the purview
of science, remain unaffected, bread and wine can exercise the same physical
functions after the transformation as before.
- Therefore distinction must be made between the terms
“substance” as referring to the empirical reality (the physical presence of
bread and wine) in science (this would be the area of “accidents” in
traditional Church doctrinal language).
- Transubstantiation is not the only mode of Christ's presence
(present in the Church, with the constant assistance of the Holy Spirit, in
faith in the hearts of men -- an effective presence, a presence that is
dynamic) -- signs produce what they signify.
The Church and the Eucharist (koinonia, intercommunion)
- 4th century witnessed an attitude towards Eucharist described
by the terms “terrible”, “alarming”, “dangerous” - due to Arian
interpretation that caused the image of the man Jesus to fade away.
- Attitude developed to the point that in the Middle Ages
communion was seldom received. Increased emphasis on divinity and total
reality, developed after 12th Century.
- Eucharistic sacrifice itself became overshadowed by adoration
(monstrance became more important than the cup).
- By giving itself vicariously for the whole of humanity through
Jesus Christ to God, the Church performs its worship and praise in a
representative way, so the Eucharist may have effects on the whole of
- The Lords supper establishes and celebrates the communion that
exists not only between the Church and Christ but also within the Church --
i.e., not only “with Christ” but also “in Christ”.
- The Eucharist, or Lord's Supper, was celebrated in the
beginning as a meal (the term mass is derived from the Latin word “missa”,
which meant “dismissal”, the closing blessing at any ecclesial celebration).