by Joseph Martos
An article of Catholic faith is that Christ is present in the Eucharist. When I was growing up in the 1950s, nobody questioned it. Today, polls show that up to 70% of Catholics no longer believe this.
The idea goes back to the first centuries of Christianity. Early fathers of the church took it for granted that the bread and wine used in the liturgy are the body and blood of Christ. The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke recount that Jesus said, “This is my body. . . . This is my blood,” over bread and wine at the Last Supper. And the sixth chapter of John’s gospel quotes Jesus as saying, “I am the bread of life. . . . This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
Late in the first century, Ignatius of Antioch wrote, “The eucharist is the flesh and blood of our savior.” Three centuries later, Ambrose of Milan said, “Before the consecration, the bread is not the body of Christ, but after the consecration, it is now the body of Christ.” A bishop of Constantinople even complained that people were not coming to communion because they did not feel worthy to come in physical contact with the divine Christ.
Explaining the Eucharist
The early church leaders never tried to explain how the bread and wine became the body and blood of Christ. They just accepted it as a fact. It was not until five centuries later that theologically minded monks began to offer explanations for this Catholic belief.
The most famous of these explanations was developed in the thirteenth century by Thomas Aquinas, a theologian who taught at the University of Paris. Using a type of analysis developed by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, Thomas argued that it was a change in reality without a change in appearances. Before a priest said, “This is my body. . . . This is my blood,” over the bread and wine, people perceived the reality of bread and wine on the altar. But after the words of consecration were spoken, devout believers perceived the reality of Christ, even though what they were looking at still looked like bread and wine.
The theological name for this change is transubstantiation, but this name is very misleading. The Council of Trent in the sixteenth century tried to explain it by saying that the substance of bread and wine become the substance of the body and blood of Christ. But the word “substance” (substantia in Latin) is misleading. In English, a substance is some kind of physical stuff. But the Latin word substantia simply meant something real, an individual reality. According to Aquinas, therefore, transubstantiation is a change from something that is real to something else that is real.
Can something change without its appearance changing? Certainly. Take a letter opener. Ordinarily it is a knife-shaped instrument for opening letters. But if a detective finds it sticking in the back of a dead body, he looks at it and sees a different reality, namely, a murder weapon.
People go through real changes all the time. After a couple speak their wedding vows, they are really married and no longer single. Someone who goes through a naturalization ceremony goes in a foreigner and comes out a citizen. Someone who takes an oath of office becomes something they weren’t before—a police officer, a mayor, a governor. Really.
Sociologists today would explain these real changes through social consent theory. But Catholic thinkers in the Middle Ages did not have social consent theory. They had Aristotelian metaphysics. And they did the best they could with what they had.
Changed Perceptions Change Reality
Your doorbell rings. You open the door and see someone there. Who is it? He shows you a badge, and suddenly you see a police officer standing in front of you. His height did not change. His clothes did not change. But his reality changed as soon as you perceived him differently.
A non-believer walks into a church during Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. He sees a priest holding up a large gold something-or-other. He doesn’t even notice the round white area in the center of it. At the same time, a devout Catholic looks up, ignores the display case called a monstrance, and focuses on the white wafer in the center. But she does not see a piece of white bread. What she sees—or perhaps we should say what she perceives—is Christ.
Most of us who grew up Catholic made our first communion when we were about eight years old. We were taught that Christ is really present in the Eucharist. We understood it the way an eight-year-old would.
Developmental psychology tells us that when children are eight, they are not yet capable of abstract thinking. Real for them means physically real. They know that air is real because they can feel it when they wave a hand back and forth.
When we as kids were taught the Christ is present in the Eucharist, we thought it meant physically present. If we were spiritually inclined and tried real hard, we might even have felt the presence of Jesus in us when we received communion.
When we got older, if we did not question what we were taught, we might still believe that Christ is physically present in the Eucharist. There is a good chance that the adults who taught us still believed in the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It’s possible that they never outgrew their childhood understanding of the faith.
Most Catholics who reject the idea of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist think it means that Christ is physically present in the Eucharist. And they are right to do that because it is stupid to think that Christ’s presence is a physical presence.
Are ideas real? Are thoughts real? If they are, how do we perceive them?
The simple answer is that we perceive spiritual realities through physical realities. You look at the physical words on this page, but you perceive things that are not physical, namely meanings or ideas. Your eyes look at black marks on a white background, but your mind perceives what the words mean.
The same happens when you listen to someone speaking. Your ears pick up vibrations in the air, or sounds, but your mind interprets the sounds and you perceive meanings. You perceive spiritual or non-material realities, namely meanings or ideas, through physical or material realities, namely vibrations in the air that set off vibrations in your ear.
I remember being at my Uncle Rudy’s funeral. There was something in the casket that looked like Uncle Rudy, but it wasn’t him. Uncle Rudy was a lively fellow, always smiling and cracking jokes. What was in the casket didn’t smile and didn’t move. I could look at it, but I could not see my uncle. His body was there, but he was not there.
When you look at someone, you perceive their presence. But their presence is not something physical. Who they are is not their body. Who they are is their personality, their character, their feelings, their thoughts. None of these are physical realities. They are immaterial or spiritual, but they are nonetheless real.
The Real Presence of Christ
If it is true that we perceive the real presence of others through physical realities such as their body, their clothing, their words and their gestures, it is also true that we perceive the real presence of God through physical realities.
Some people sense God’s presence through nature, others through art, still others through architecture, still others through religious symbols. Whenever it occurs, it is a genuine experience, a real presence. If you have experienced it, you know that it is real. If you have never experienced it, then you probably don’t know what I am talking about.
In traditional Catholic spirituality, people pray to saints and they pray to the Virgin Mary. When they do so, they often pray in front of a statue or a picture of some sort. They are not praying to the statue or to the picture. Rather, they perceive the person to whom they are praying through the statue or picture in front of them. It is no different from when people talk to you. They see a physical image in front of them, but the person to whom they are speaking is not that image. You are more than your skin, your hair and your clothing.
The presence of Christ in the Eucharist is more than just a belief. It is an experienced reality. Explanations such as transubstantiation were never just about beliefs. They were always about the experience of real presence. They were attempts to explain something that is real and experienced as such.
If you have experienced the real presence of Christ, then you know what I am talking about. Explaining it is never easy.
Joseph Martos has written extensively about the history and theology of sacraments. His latest book is Honest Rituals, Honest Sacraments: Letting Go of Doctrines and Celebrating What’s Real.