Real Presence(s)

I’m not one who believes that life’s coincidences are actually “signs” from God awaiting further interpretation. I do believe, however—along with the theologian/author Frederick Buechner—that coincidences can be opportunities for God to get our attention. Such a coincidence/opportunity occurred roughly two weeks ago, when I read the PrayTell blog post by Dr. Katharine Harmon (hereafter, Katie): Help, There’s a Monstrance in My Mass.

In that post, Katie recalled the parish liturgy she attended on the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi), the Sunday the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops had established as the inaugural Sunday of a years-long Eucharistic Revival to be observed in U.S. parishes. She described with excitement the rich possibilities she’d imagined for the day and for the revival itself. She was disappointed when what happened was the complete stopping of the eucharistic celebration (a.k.a. Mass) for Eucharistic Adoration. Cognitive dissonance ensued. After reading about her letdown, I felt somewhat glad on behalf of the various Roman Catholics I’d encountered (in person or on social media) who had absolutely no idea that this eucharistic revival was underway, much less what it was, and who may have endured similar situations.

This “Monstrance at Mass” experience didn’t surprise me all that much. The initial impression one gets from the revival website is that eucharist=the communion elements (most often the host). This focus on the eucharist as an object and not an action tends, in my experience, to still make “ocular communion” part of the sacramental ethos. It is the individual’s passive seeing (whether at the elevation or in the monstrance) that is understood as central or primary, not the participation in communal celebrating. Eucharist as celebration and a communion host in adoration are really two quite distinct modalities, as are a picnic on the beach and a romantic candlelight dinner. Why we have such trouble with distinguishing between modalities for the eucharist and nowhere else in life mystifies me.

Getting back to the coincidence previously mentioned: Katie’s post was the first thing I read right after I’d finished proofreading musical settings of two new eucharistic hymn texts of mine—eucharistic hymn texts inspired by Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC, #7) which articulates the various modes in which Christ is present at the eucharistic liturgy: the gathered assembly and ministers, the Word, “especially under the Eucharistic species,” and when the Body of Christ—the Church—prays and sings. Full disclosure: this is likely my favorite part of SC (along with the reminder in #9 that liturgy does not exhaust the whole work of the Church). I am not sure why it took me decades to get to work on these texts. This coincidence prompted me to take the opportunity to look at some of the revival materials a bit more closely.

Initially, my new texts were prompted by a suggestion from my GIA colleague, Michael Silhavy. So I’d started to do some work (mostly on nuts ‘n’ bolts matters like structure, meter, rhyme, and so on), but the work was given a new impetus when I began to encounter the materials being assembled and put out for this eucharistic revival. One of the first things I noted was the absence of my beloved SC #7, save as an addendum (“see also”) to a footnote from the Catechism. Indeed, the major landing pages for the eucharistic revival contain no references to Vatican II whatsoever. This was but one oddity that emerged among some others:

• Though affirmed by the entire national conference of bishops, the work on the eucharistic revival materials seems to have been done solely under the auspices of the doctrine subcommittee, with no evident or acknowledged input from the liturgy subcommittee. The same was true of the doctrine group’s other recent liturgically-connected document on hymnody. I am not sure why these matters, which have the liturgy at their core, were treated as exclusively doctrinal subjects.

• A certain inaccuracy (a couple of theology profs in my past would have used the term “sloppiness”) in liturgical/theological language and use of church documents. It is regularly asserted that Vatican II referred to the Eucharist as the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. It is, however, the whole of the Church’s liturgy that was given this distinction, with the Eucharist given special note (as in #7).

• The overarching inaccuracies that Eucharist = communion elements / the Eucharist = the [whole of] liturgy / the Eucharist = the bread happen in a number of places. The visuals (as of this writing, there are no photos of a celebrating assembly) certainly reinforce this.

One of the catechetical documents on the site, “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church” does go into a bit more depth with more nuance in its thirty-five pages, and does acknowledge that Christ is present at the eucharistic liturgy in other ways. It was heartening that several pages of the document are given over to the connection between the Eucharist’s transformative power and the Church’s mission of social justice in the world (though the use of that transformative power for justice within the structures of the Church itself is not touched on).

Hopefully, Katie’s “Monstrance at Mass” experience will be an outlier. Likewise, may similar experiences in different guises not be part of this revival. Veni, Sancte Spiritus! Bring us and make us all the presences of Christ.

(The hymn texts referred to may be found here. You will note that their content is similar; they were set to the contrasting hymn tunes CRUCIFER and LAND OF REST in hopes of serving a variety of celebrations, and a variety of communities with different musical resources.)


  1. Thank you, Alan! I too was mystified by the lack of attention to Sacrosanctum Concilium, and — as I have argued elsewhere — the perplexing absence of all but one reference to the Paschal Mystery, which is a recurring refrain throughout our magisterial texts since the Council, and also the guiding principle behind the presentation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

    It seems that the Eucharistic Revival is narrowly focused on the host. Your observations are spot on! And the conference is going to spend $28 million on a Eucharistic Congress at the end of it. We could use that money for liturgical catechesis of a more organic sort.

    1. I am in the process of sending a letter about celiac disease and the Eucharist to every bishop in the US. It’s a small seed… but maybe it will sprout in a few years….

  2. Yes, it seems that for many that Eucharistic Revival is centering on Eucharistic Adoration and not much on the Eucharist as a sacrament of initiation or as a liturgical celebration of and by the whole Church. Maybe by using Pope Francis’ June 29th motu proprio, attention can be drawn to the “bigger picture” that the ER should be about. I am doing a monthly article for the parish where I supply, and I will be concentrating on the basics as found in SC, the CCC, the homilies of Augustine and John Chrysostom, and even Trent on receiving the sacramental elements consecrated during the Mass the faithful are attending, as well as some other topics addressing current misunderstandings I see reflected in liturgical celebrations and devotional piety.

    1. Desidero desideravi is a wonderful letter, with a great deal of material that could enrich our experience of the Eucharist. I hope it is being read!

    2. Thank you, Lee – I found the real absence of language about Eucharist as a sacrament of initiation one of the flaws in the document. Along with SC #7 MIA, I really missed Augustine’s “Behold what you are; become what you receive” as well.

  3. Alan (and all), the narrowing of the reference of “source and summit” (SC, no. 10) from the liturgy to the Eucharist may be found already in the Introduction of John Paul II’s encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (2003). Moreover, in that opening paragraph (no. 1), the pontiff focuses on the “unique intensity” of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist on the bread and wine changed into “the body and blood of the Lord.” That opening article elaborates on this in terms of the Holy Eucharist containing (I consider the verb significant) Christ’s own flesh (footnoting Vat II’s Decree on the Priesthood, not SC), to conclude: “Consequently the gaze of the Church is constantly turned to her Lord, present in the Sacrament of the Altar, in which she discovers the full manifestation of his boundless love.“ No mention is made of the activity of the assembly (in prayer and song), nor the proclamation of the word of God. Throughout the encyclical the pope extols the “profound” affect proper to eucharistic worship as gratitude and amazement experienced in adoration of Christ in the sacred species.

    So, my point: There we have it. Some two decades ago a eucharistic encyclical centered on the mutuality of the sacrament on the altar and the ontology of the priest (yes, I acknowledge John Paul issued it as the annual Holy Thursday papal address to all priests). Then came the disciplinary follow-up, Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004), ordering cessation of several dozen widespread abuses, grave delicts, and irregularities against the sacrament, the rite, and the ontological nature of the priest. I would imagine the US bishops very much consider their current project’s objective and strategies a reasonable deployment of the Roman Catholic hierarchy’s contemporary teaching on and discipline for the Eucharist.

    1. It was by no means John Paul II who first narrowed “source and summit” language by applying SC’s general description of liturgy to the Eucharistic in particular. That narrowing was first executed by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council.

      SC 10. Nevertheless the liturgy is the summit [culmen] toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font [fons] from which all her power flows.

      LG 11. Taking part in the Eucharistic sacrifice, which is the fount and apex [fontem et culmen] of the whole Christian life, they offer the Divine Victim to God, and offer themselves along with It.

      Your comment does not actually seem to develop out of the “from liturgy to Eucharist” framing of its first sentence – you’re ultimately outlining a further narrowing of focus from Eucharistic sacrifice to Eucharistic presence. All the same, one can’t successfully defend Vatican II’s liturgical theology by impugning the propriety of narrowing source and summit language from liturgy to Eucharist.

  4. Spot on, Alan. If you check out the video (with your eyes closed) on the Eucharistic Revival site, it appears that the purpose of the revival is twofold: to get the faithful back to Mass, and to take the Eucharist out into the world. When you open your eyes, though, that appears to mean Eucharistic adoration and Corpus Christi processions. The bishops also seem to be missing the mark by not tying the revival into the Synod on Synodality, whose theme is Communion, Participation, Mission. Our parish is kicking off the Eucharistic Revival with a four-part “Synodal reflection” on Real Presence, with SC 7 as its heart.

  5. The two goods can be married. My most beautiful experience of this was over a few summers spent in Milwaukee for grad school. The Institute of Christ the King inhabit a restored Polish church in an historically poorer neighborhood, once home to Slavic immigrants, now largely home to Latin-American immigrant communities. In collaboration with the clergy of the two essentially Spanish-speaking geographical parishes, they have an evening Mass at the Oratory on Corpus Christi Thursday, with a procession to follow down Mitchell Ave stopping at the other two parishes as the altars along the route, with Benediction at the end. All the clergy, ICRSS and diocesan alike, take part, as do the laity.

    Trilingual hymns are sung on the way and in the churches, it is well attended by members of all the parishes, and it underlines our unity and mission as Church, as Christ’s Mystical Body, across linguistic, economic, cultural, and even liturgical divides. It is powerful to give public expression to the devotion of the faithful, and to be led by Christ truly present in the Host fearlessly through the very streets, the troubled streets, that He calls us to sanctify.

    It’s bold, down the middle of the street with police escort, and hugely attended, and both of these give witness to the truth of the Eucharist that strengthens and emboldens us for Christ’s work, and incorporates people from all backgrounds into His Body.

    On my experience, Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament doesn’t mind our love and devotion, nor will He let true devotion prove an obstacle to serving Him.

      1. Allan – thank you so much for posting this. It’s a bit sad/surprising how much contained in it is still pertinent. Also interesting to read having lived through the past twenty years or so.

  6. It is precisely the misidentification of the Eucharist as a liturgical action — the action of man — rather than the presentation of the person of Jesus Christ under the appearance of bread and wine — the action of God — that the Eucharistic Revival needs to address. This calling the bread and wine changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ the Eucharist goes all the Justin Martyr:

    And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist] . . . For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, This do in remembrance of Me, this is My body; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, This is My blood; and gave it to them alone.

    The liturgy is the context in which this sacrament is presented but the focus should be on the action of God rather than on that of faithful.

    Equally necessary is a correction to the attempt to equate the various forms of the presence of Jesus Christ with his unique and substantial presence in the Eucharist. They are not the same. Only the Eucharist is Jesus Christ and worthy of worship and the only reason that the liturgical celebration has any meaning is this changing of the bread and wine into his body and blood of Jesus Christ by the priest acting in persona Christ. This continues to be Church teaching even after Vatican II.

    1. ” the focus should be on the action of God rather than on that of faithful ”
      The action of God on the faithful is where the focus should be, more than the action of God on the elements of bread and wine.

    2. Mysterium Fidei (1965) para 39:

      This presence is called “real” not to exclude the idea that the others are “real” too, but rather to indicate presence par excellence, because it is substantial and through it Christ becomes present whole and entire, God and man.” [Footnote reference to Council of Trent Decree on the Holy Eucharist, c. 3 ]

      repeated in <i?Eucharisticum Mysterium (1967), para 9:

      This presence of Christ under the species “is called ‘real’ not in an exclusive sense, as if the other kinds of presence were not real, but ‘par excellence’.”

      What these paragraphs are saying is that the real presence of Christ in the sacred species is not more real than the others but more special, precisely because it is the only mode of presence that we can physically consume. We can’t drink the Word proclaimed nor eat the priest acting in persona Christi capitis nor consume the assembly gathered to worship, but we also can’t deny that these are equally valid forms of the real presence of Christ, along with all the other forms of real presence (at least six of them) enunciated by Paul Vi in Mysterium Fidei, paras 35-38.

      1. I would appreciate it if someone could point me to or explicate for me the origin of the priest acting in persona Christi. The only justification I have encountered concerning the phrase is that in the narrative of institution the priest speaks about the bread and cup in the first person: MY body, MY blood. But the explanation makes no sense since the priest is quoting Christ and not speaking in his own name.

      2. Michael –
        Pius XII uses the expression several times in Mediator Dei, but does not footnote an antecedent use. He does however quote these sources in paragraph 86. –
        This has already been stated in the clearest terms by some of Our predecessors and some Doctors of the Church. “Not only,” says Innocent III of immortal memory, “do the priests offer the sacrifice, but also all the faithful: for what the priest does personally by virtue of his ministry, the faithful do collectively by virtue of their intention.” [De Sacro Altaris Mysterio, 3:6] We are happy to recall one of St. Robert Bellarmine’s many statements on this subject. “The sacrifice,” he says “is principally offered in the person of Christ. Thus the oblation that follows the consecration is a sort of attestation that the whole Church consents in the oblation made by Christ, and offers it along with Him.”

      3. According to St. Paul VI’s reasoning in Mysterium Fidei, the presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine is higher than the other kinds of presence not because it is the only presence we can consume but because in it Christ is present entirely, through this presence the bread and wine cease to exist (the book doesn’t cease being a book, the members of the assembly don’t cease being individuals, the priest doesn’t cease being who he is), and this is the only presence to which is given latria (adoration due to God alone) both during and after the liturgical act.

      4. @ Michael Marchal,
        The Catechism cites Thomas Aquinas STh III, 22, 4c as well as Pius XII. (CCC 1548).

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