There is no doubt in Scripture or Church teaching that Jesus Christ is truly present in the Holy Eucharist.
— “And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood’” (Luke 22:19-20).
— “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a partaking in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a partaking in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16).
— “They recognized him in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35).
— “For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Corinthians 11:29).
— “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 6:51).
This last quote especially makes it clear that we are not permitted to think of the Eucharist as a symbol or in metaphorical terms.
When Jesus referred to the bread as his flesh, the Jewish people hearing him grumbled in protest. They understood him to be speaking quite literally.
But Jesus did not change to reassure them or to insist that he was speaking only symbolically. Rather, he became even more adamant by shifting his vocabulary from the polite form of eating, (phagete, in Greek meaning simply “to eat”) to the impolite form, (trogon, in Greek meaning “to munch, gnaw or chew”).
This is a doubling down that makes it clear that Jesus means exactly what he says in very real terms: We eat his Body and Blood.
So insistent was he that they grasp this that he permitted many to leave him that day, knowing that they would no longer follow in his company due to this very teaching (John 6:66). Yes, the Lord paid quite a price for this graphic and “hard” teaching (John 6:60).
To the truth of Scripture we can add the testimony of the Church Fathers and solemn Church teaching throughout the centuries. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1376) cites the Council of Trent:
“Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the 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 change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.”
The Catechism (1378) goes on to say:
“In the liturgy of the Mass we express our faith in the Real Presence of Christ under the species of bread and wine by, among other ways, genuflecting or bowing deeply as a sign of adoration of the Lord. ‘The Catholic Church has always offered and still offers to the sacrament of the Eucharist the cult of adoration, not only during Mass, but also outside of it, reserving the consecrated Hosts with the utmost care, exposing them to the solemn veneration of the faithful, and carrying them in procession.’”
So the teaching is clear. But is the teaching lived? To walk into many Catholic churches or liturgies one does not get the impression that anything particularly special is going on there.
A Methodist convert once said to me how surprised he was that in his Methodist church communion was received kneeling and at a rail, but when he came to the Catholic Church, which confesses the True Presence, the Eucharist was received so casually, standing and in the hand.
It seemed to him to be such a countersign, the very opposite of what one should expect. And he’s right: Such liturgical practices poorly reflect, and even undermine, our belief and reverence for the true presence of Christ in the Sacred Host and Chalice.
Yet another manner in which we undermine our teaching is by the fact that there is rarely (if ever) a mention of the need to receive the Lord worthily. Since Christ is really, truly and substantially present in the Eucharist, then it is our obligation to receive him free from mortal sin.
Here, too, let’s consider some texts from Scripture and Tradition. Consider what St. Paul writes:
“So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the Body and Blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves” (1 Corinthians 11:27-32).
So St. Paul teaches that examining one’s conscience and confessing serious sin is a prerequisite for worthy reception of the Eucharist. If that is violated, Holy Communion has the opposite of the desired effect. Rather than bringing the blessing of union with Our Lord, it brings condemnation.
Note, too, that his entire argument is based on understanding the Lord is truly present in the Eucharist. We do not sin against a symbol by unworthy reception — we sin against the very Body of the Lord. Therefore, out of respect for Christ and for our own good, the Church requires us to be in a state of grace when we receive as a way of honoring and recognizing the true presence of Christ.
Jesus says something similar:
“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:21-23).
Note the use of the simple word “first” in the second sentence. Jesus teaches that we cannot approach the altar if we are filled with sin or injustice toward our brethren. Repentance and confession before Holy Communion are necessary, lest our reverence for the Most Holy Sacrament be incoherent or a lie.
A text from the Didache, which was written about A.D. 90, says:
“If anyone is holy, let him approach. If anyone is not so, let him repent. Maranatha. Amen. … But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord. For concerning this also the Lord has said, ‘Give not that which is holy to the dogs.’”
So very early on, there was an understanding that the Eucharist was not merely a table fellowship with sinners but, rather, a sacral meal that presupposed grace and communion with the Lord and the Church.
And the Catechism (1385) states simply and clearly:
“Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of reconciliation before approaching Holy Communion.”
In all these warnings against irreverent reception, we see an insistence on the reverence for the true Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Lord. To receive Communion worthily is integral to our faith in the True Presence. The Eucharist is not to be regarded as ordinary or treated casually.
And yet, today’s near-complete absence of teaching on worthy reception and the need to tie frequent reception of Communion with regular confession gives yet another signal that there is nothing really special here.
Actions speak much louder than words. We can teach properly on the Eucharist, and well we should. But if our actions and attitudes belie our teaching, it is no surprise that so few have deep faith in the True Presence.
Accurate teaching is an important foundation, but if it is not reflected by liturgical reverence and spiritual discipline, we see that our teaching falls on deaf ears.
It is obviously well past time to teach courageously again on the need for worthy reception of so noble and glorious a sacrament.
Msgr. Charles Pope is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.