The Church’s teaching on the real presence of Christ in the liturgy is broader than people realize

As part of an ecumenical conversation about the place of the Eucharist in the life of the Church and in living the Christian faith, Archbishop Malcolm McMahon, OP of Liverpool offered the following address. The occasion was the Adoremus symposium, congress, and pilgrimage. Reprinted with kind permission of The Tablet in London.

The Catholic Church’s teaching on the real presence of Christ in the liturgy is much broader than most people realize.

It is quite clear that the Lord is present in the assembly of the faithful gathered in prayer in his name. It is also clear that he is present in his word when the scriptures are proclaimed in Church and explained. These are quite easy to understand and accept. After all we have Jesus’ own word for it that he will be in our midst when we gather in his name, and as we believe that Jesus is the Word made Flesh it is not too difficult to see the reading of the Scriptures as being a moment when Christ is present to his faithful followers. The church also teaches that he is present in the person of the minister – that is trickier to understand but the fourth presence of the Lord is in the Eucharistic sacrament. In a way that is completely unique, the whole and entire Christ, God and man, is substantially and permanently present in the sacrament. This presence of Christ under the appearances of bread and wine “is called real, not to exclude other kinds of presence as if they were not real, but because it is real par excellence’. (Eucharsticum Mysterium, no 55)

The Holy Eucharist was initially reserved for the sick. So that if they could not attend mass to receive Holy Communion they could have the sacrament brought to them. It followed because it was reserved it became an object of devotion. But the church has never taught that reserved eucharist should be honored in isolation of the liturgical life of the church. When the faithful honor Christ present in the sacrament they should remember that this presence is derived from and directed towards sacramental and spiritual communion.

We believe that prayer before Christ the Lord, sacramentally present extends the union with Christ which the faithful have reached in communion. It renews the covenant which in turn moves them to maintain in their lives what they received by in the midst of human society. faith and by the sacraments. They should try to lead their whole lives with the strength derived from the heavenly food, as they share in the death and resurrection of the Lord. Everyone should be concerned with good deeds and with pleasing God so that he or she may imbue the world with the Christian Spirit and be a witness of Christ. (Euch. Myst. 13)

Some controversial issues

Eucharistic processions:

Some Christian traditions see these as a kind of idolatry, but their purpose is to give a public witness of faith and devotion to the sacrament. Unfortunately, these have become triumphalist in some places and at times in history so that their purpose in witnessing the suffering death and resurrection of the Lord has been lost.


It is difficult to explain to Christians who share one Baptism, one Faith and one Lord that they cannot receive holy Communion in a Catholic church. One way of understanding this is to say that the Catholic church is in a real but imperfect union with their fellow Christians. The controversy centres on what we believe about the eucharist both personally and as a community. Because the different communities have different beliefs about the eucharist it is not possible for them to receive. On the other hand, on special occasions (e.g. weddings or a funerals) it is possible for non-Catholic Christians to receive holy communion if they share the same beliefs as Catholics regarding the Eucharist. Catholics believe that intercommunion is a fruit of unity not a means to it – but that may be controversial statement even for Catholics. (e.g. in a marriage between a catholic and a non-Catholic Christian sacramental unity in Christ exists in the sacrament of matrimony, but usually the non-Catholic partner cannot receive communion in a catholic church).

On a personal note my prayer is that of the Lord: that we may all be one. I have longed to share this Passover with you. (Lk 221:15)



  1. A quick and easy test to see if a Christian who is not in full communion with the Catholic Church shares the same belief in the Sacrament: Are they willing to adore the Consecrated Bread in adoration?

    1. That sounds to me suspiciously like using the sacramental presence of Christ as a litmus test for orthodoxy, not something that we should be at all comfortable doing, particularly with those who are not in the full communion of the Church. I could be misunderstanding, of course, because the taulology of “adoring…in adoration” might indicate a subtle nuance that is beyond me.

      Archbishop McMahon does not actually mention adoration at all. He talks about “praying before Christ the Lord, sacramentally present”. That seems to have a rather different and healthier flavour than whatever “adoring in adoration” might convey.

      1. What I meant in “adoring …. in adoration” is worshiping during Eucharistic Exposition or before a closed tabernacle. I think this is the same thing as “praying before Christ the Lord, sacramentally present.” I doubt that the good Archbishop would make the distinction you are making.

        As for the litmus test, whatever one thinks about the current Code of Canon Law, the German Bishops’ guidelines or the guidelines of other Bishops’ Conferences, a common denominator is that the non-Catholic should receive only if they share the same belief as Catholics in the Eucharist. So the current practice is sort of a litmus test.

        What I am suggesting is that prayer in a Eucharistic context that highlights a distinctive Catholic approach can supplement a pastoral conversation and may lead to more fruitful discernment to see if a non-Catholic can in good conscience say they share substantially the same believe in the sacramental presence and to examine the reasons and motivations for Eucharistic sharing.

      2. You write as if the essence of Catholic teaching on Eucharist is the Real Presence, and the most proper spiritual implication of that is adoration of the Host. But this is a misunderstanding and a distortion of Catholic theology, as especially as expressed in the reformed liturgy. Catholics believe in the Real Presence in the eucharist, and we adore the Host. But that isn’t the center, not by a long shot. Read the GIRM. Look at the contours of the Mass of Paul VI.

  2. “Because the different communities have different beliefs about the eucharist it is not possible for them to receive.”

    “…in a marriage between a catholic and a non-Catholic Christian sacramental unity in Christ exists in the sacrament of matrimony”

    Methodists, for example, only recognize two sacraments: Baptism and Communion. Can it really be said that they share sacramental unity with regards to matrimony? I find it interesting that they can still participate in a Catholic wedding, but not communion.

  3. It also assumes that all members of the Catholic Church have the same beliefs about the Eucharist. Which must be doubtful to say the least.

    1. Whenever a bishop talks about the teaching of the Church (emphasis on the capital ‘C’), he is referring to that of the Magisterium, as safeguarded by the Pope and those bishops in his communion. Many polls have confirmed what you observe, that the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist (among others) is nowhere near being unanimously internalized by ordinary Catholics, but the Church doesn’t rely on that to derive the Truth.

  4. I question whether we should use the term real in contrast with symbolic. Are not the sacraments sacred symbols which point to a sublime reality? We know that we couldn’t consume the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Risen Lord without the “accidents” of bread and wine. Protestants who have no reason to subscribe to Aristotelian/Thomistic philosophy should hardly be expected to associate Holy Communion with transubstantiation. As a matter of fact, is it not unreasonable to think that contemporary Catholics truly grasp this manner of understanding as well? We can teach right doctrines till the cows come home, but should we not be willing to examine more closely what faithful people actually experience with regard to manner of Christ’s presence in HC? Those who speak so easily about “orthodox” teachings regard many Catholics and nearly all Protestants as deficient in their beliefs regarding this sacramental presence. If Catholics have a problem with the term real is it not likely due to their equating real with physical? St. Thomas did not teach that real presence means we consume parts of Christ’s physical body. I suggest we all “get real” and earnestly look for ways to affirm various understandings of being sacramentally united with Christ in the True Bread come down from heaven for the Life of the world. Surely Christ wishes to be united with all who proclaim him as Lord and God. Should we not be exceedingly cautious about placing verbal and philosophical constructs in his path?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *