Christ Is Really Present — But How?

We love getting letters, and we’ve greatly appreciated the letters about the Eucharist we’ve gotten recently — and evident faith and love for the Eucharist that motivated them.

A quote in the Register recently sparked a conversation on our letters page about Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.

It was a quote about the Eucharistic synod held in Rome last October, and readers worried that it got the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist wrong. Said the story: “Nigerian Bishop Joseph Bagobiri of Kafanchan called on the synod to develop a ‘theology of presence’ so that the faithful are not confused and know that Christ is present sacramentally but not physically in the Eucharist.”

Now, the first thing to notice about the quote is who said it and where. A bishop said it, and he said it in the presence of hundreds of bishops and Pope Benedict. If he had been in error, he would have been corrected immediately. That did not happen.

Nevertheless, many Register readers have felt, strongly, that he was, indeed, in error. Surely, this reaction was motivated by a deep love for Christ present in the Eucharist, and the desire to uphold the “realness” of the Real Presence. They thought the quote left the strong impression that the bishop was denying that Christ’s physical body is present in the Eucharist.

That, however, is not the case.

In this regard, it is important to distinguish between what is present in the Eucharist and how it is present.

Regarding what is present: Christ’s physical body is present. The Church teaches that the full physical reality of Christ’s human body is present in the Eucharist. The bishop did not address this.

Regarding how it is present: Christ’s physical body is not physically present. Here is the paradox, and the miracle, and the sacrament.

The Church has never, not once, taught that Christ’s physical body is physically present in the Eucharist. It teaches that Christ’s physical body is present truly, really, sacramentally, substantially and essentially.

By contrast, it teaches that Christ is present naturally — in this context, “naturally” is equivalent to “physically” — in heaven. And this is what the bishop was referring to.

Paul VI, in his 1965 encyclical Mysterium Fidei,  teaches that:

“For what now lies beneath the aforementioned species is not what was there before, but something completely different; and not just in the estimation of Church belief but in reality, since once the substance or nature of the bread and wine has been changed into the body and blood of Christ, nothing remains of the bread and the wine except for the species—beneath which Christ is present whole and entire in his physical ‘reality,’ [this refers to what is present], corporeally present, although not in the manner in which bodies are in a place” [this refers to how it is present].

The last part of the quote distinguishes between “corporeally (or bodily) present” and “physically present” precisely by clarifying that Christ’s body is not corporeally present in the manner in which bodies are in a place. If it were, then it would be physically present.

Nobody, in the course of 2000 years of Christianity, has so far formally and publicly claimed that Christ’s body is physically present in the Eucharist. Not only is this not Eucharistic teaching, it is not even a Eucharistic heresy. There have been many Eucharistic heresies in the course of the history of the Church; this is not one of them. There is a reason.

Think what such a teaching would mean. It would mean Christ was naturally present, that is present in the manner in which bodies are in a place. That would mean that we would be able to see Christ’s body, touch it, hear his words, and give him food to eat (broiled fish is what the disciples in Jerusalem gave him before his ascension). He would not fit in our tabernacles. There would be no sacrament. We would be unable to receive him in Communion.

The Church teaches that Christ’s body is present in this way only in heaven.

Christ himself dramatically presented the difference between being present physically and being present sacramentally, in one of his last appearances before the ascension. “And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them,” recounts St. Luke (24:30-31). “With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight.” Later, these disciples recounted “how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

Christ still makes himself known to us that way, and it needn’t detract from our faith and love for Christ in the Eucharist at all. Quite the contrary. He is present, as one of my theology professors in Rome was fond of putting it, “almost, almost physically.” What Father Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, wrote on an anniversary of his ordination articulates the unique power of the sacramental presence of Christ’s body:

“I do not believe there can be greater bliss, dignity or consolation in this life than that of feeling that you possess the great power to transform bread into the most holy body of our Lord Jesus Christ. Every morning, every time I can bring him into my hands and take him into my heart, it seems that I am present at a new Bethlehem and a new Calvary. I would gladly — and he is witness to the truth of what I say — give all the gold, all the honors, all the fame of this world, and embrace poverty, humiliation and every imaginable disagreeable and painful experience, just to have but once the joy of making him come down into my hands. I think that the joy of those moments in life is similar only to heaven, where we can possess him without the veil of the sacrament to conceal him from us.”


Legionary Father Owen Kearns is

 publisher and editor-in-chief of the Register.

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