Where Do We Find Church Teaching on the Real Presence?

By Leon K. Suprenant Jr. and Philip C.L. Gray

Together, Leon Supernant and Philip Gray are the authors of Faith Facts, a series of two books answering common questions on the Catholic faith.  

The Catholic Church has always taught that in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist, the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus—the whole Christ—is truly, really, and substantially present. This teaching is rooted in Scripture, taught by the Fathers and doctors of the Church, and reaffirmed by popes and ecumenical councils throughout Church history. This teaching is summarized in paragraphs 1373-81 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. 

As Jesus Himself said in John 6: 

I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.  

This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:48-51) 

There are those today who accept the authority of the Bible but question whether Jesus was speaking literally in the Eucharistic passages, especially John 6. The Greek text itself evidences the Church’s constant understanding. In John 6:49, Jesus begins His teaching by first referring to eating manna. He uses the word ‘ε ´φαγον,1 which means “eat” or “consume.” This verb can be used literally or figuratively. He then refers to Himself as the new manna, the living bread from heaven, of which those who eat will live forever. In this context, He uses the same word because of the figurative connection with manna.  

After verse 52, when the Jews dispute His teaching, Jesus uses more emphatic language to clarify His teaching and address their concerns. He employs two techniques. First, He abandons any figurative association with manna. He no longer speaks of simply “eating,” but of “eating flesh and drinking blood.” He ends His explanation by stating, “This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as your fathers ate and died” (John 6:58). Second, later in the discourse Jesus began using the word τρ´ωγωυ,2 which is rendered “gnaw” or “chew.” The verb τρ´ωγω is rarely used figuratively, and in the context used by Christ is evidently to be taken literally. Many of the disciples had left everything to follow Jesus. They had just witnessed a miraculous multiplication of loaves (John 6:1-14) and probably heard about His walking on water (John 6:16-21), yet now they walk away from Jesus on account of this teaching (John 6:66). This reaction simply would not make sense if Jesus were speaking only figuratively or symbolically. 

Even more telling is the fact that during Christianity’s first thousand years there was virtually unanimous acceptance of the Church’s teaching on the Real Presence by faithful Christians. No one taught that the presence of Christ was only symbolic until Ratramnus (d. 868) and, more notably, Berengarius of Tours (d. 1088). The Church firmly rejected the teachings of both. Conversely, there are many early Fathers of the Church who affirm Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist. For example, we have the writing of Saint Ignatius of Antioch (d. 110), whose witness is of unique importance since he was a disciple of Saint John, the author of the fourth Gospel. If there were any confusion as to the proper interpretation of John 6, surely Saint Ignatius could clarify the matter. Yet he never wrote that Jesus was speaking figuratively. Rather, he wrote, “I desire the Bread of God, which is the Flesh of Jesus Christ.” Elsewhere he wrote that 

[t]hose who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us . . . do not confess that the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, Flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His goodness, raised up again. 

This teaching has been repeated over and over again by the great Fathers, doctors, and saints of the Church through the centuries. In the sixteenth century, when the Church’s constant teaching was called into question by the Protestant reformers, the Council of Trent solemnly reaffirmed Our Lord’s Real Presence in the Eucharist: 

But since Christ, our Redeemer, has said that that is truly His own body which He offered under the species of bread [cf. Matt 26:26 ff.; Mark 14:22 ff.; Luke 22:19 ff.; 1 Cor 11:24 ff.], it has always been a matter of conviction in the Church of God, and now this holy Synod declares it again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine a conversion takes place of the whole substance of bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of His blood. This conversion is appropriately and properly called transubstantiation by the Catholic Church [can. 2].

When the words of consecration are spoken by the priest (cf. Matt 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:17-19; 1 Cor 11:23-25), Christ is true to His word: Through the action of the Holy Spirit, the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Through the Eucharist, we are, among other things, nourished and strengthened in our Christian pilgrimage, and experience Christ’s assurance that He will be with us always (cf. Matt 28:20). 

Pope John Paul II has said that there is today a “crisis of faith” (Redemptoris Missio 2), and declining belief in and reverence toward the Real Presence is perhaps the case in point. Yet we know that the ability to accept this “hard teaching” (cf. John 6:60) is possible only through the gift of faith. As Saint Bonaventure teaches: "There is no difficulty about Christ’s presence in the Eucharist as in a sign, but that He is truly present in the Eucharist as He is in heaven, this is most difficult. Therefore to believe this is especially meritorious." 

When discussing our faith with Christians who aren’t Catholic, we must build upon our shared love for Christ. Their willingness to follow Christ as Lord is the essential pathway to accepting Christ’s teaching about the Eucharist (cf. John 6:67-69). If Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist, then He is truly there for all. A shared faith in Christ will lead us to a shared love of Him in the Blessed Sacrament. Let us pray to our Eucharistic Lord, then, for an increase of faith for ourselves and for all, so that, united as brothers and sisters in the Lord, we may together share in the one heavenly banquet. 

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