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Timothy P. O'MalleyFebruary 16, 2023
CNS photo/Bob Roller

What do Catholics mean when they talk about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist? Depending on who you ask, most Catholics don’t necessarily know exactly what they are encountering in the eucharistic liturgy. Consecration and transubstantiation, along with Real Presence itself, are terms that are not always precisely understood by the very people whose experience of God’s divinity is being mediated through the Eucharist. For that reason, the U.S. bishops’ National Eucharistic Revival (which I serve as a member of the executive team) is concerned with a deeper formation into the meaning of the doctrine of Real Presence.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church” calls the Eucharist a manifold mystery involving the interplay of divine gift and human response. While “no document can exhaust the mystery of the gift of the Eucharist,” the bishops write, “it is desirable to reflect on certain facets of the mystery that are relevant to contemporary issues and challenges and that help us to appreciate more deeply the gift of grace that has been given to us.”

The Real Presence of Christ, under the signs of bread and wine, invites us to see the presence of the beloved in the hidden places of love.

The data surrounding belief in the doctrine of Real Presence is, well, complex. A 2019 Pew study—widely criticized by sociologists and theologians alike—declared that only 30 percent of U.S. Catholics believed in this doctrine. A 2022 study conducted by Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate and commissioned by the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame (where I am on the faculty) found that 50 to 60 percent of U.S. Catholics believe in the doctrine, even if they were not able to precisely articulate the doctrine using the language of transubstantiation.

Why does any of this matter? If you are a Catholic who pays attention to ecclesiastical news, it may seem like there are more pressing matters for the life of the church than eucharistic doctrine. There is the dilemma of disaffiliation, the closing of parishes throughout the United States, the far-too-regular revelations related to sexual abuse of the faithful by clergy, divisions among U.S. Catholics and the refusal of many to recognize the gift of the multicultural church that (in my assessment) should be the special charism of U.S. Catholicism.

One can certainly understand such objections. And yet, perhaps the doctrine of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist may provide a framework in which an array of pastoral problems both named and unnamed may be attended to. Here I list but three ways that this doctrine matters for the renewal of Catholicism in our age:

1. Christ’s Real Presence reminds us of the reason for the existence of the church.

2. The transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ points toward the destiny of the entire created order.

3. The Real Presence of Christ, under the signs of bread and wine, invites us to see the presence of the beloved in the hidden places of love.

The reason for the church

First, the doctrine of Real Presence is closely connected to the raison d’etre of the church. The church is not a bureaucratic institution created for the sake of delivering surveys but a space of encounter with the risen Lord. The people of God—to use a phrase so beloved by Pope Francis—is a fundamentally eucharistic motif. We are those who have been convoked, assembled not to create strategic plans but to let our lives be transformed by Jesus himself.

Such transformation is not an abstraction. It unfolds at every eucharistic liturgy, where Christ comes to feed us with his very body and blood. Every man and woman in all their particularity is invited to the Supper of the Lamb. None of us gets to create the guest list for this feast, where the Lord gives himself to every man and woman. Whether we are members of this or that political party, whatever country we are from, whatever our status in the hierarchy of the church, we are first and foremost citizens and sojourners convoked so that the Lord himself might feed us.

Well enough, you might say. But does it really matter if we understand the precise language used for this doctrine, if we understand what is called transubstantiation? On the one hand, no. I have no doubt that many of those who are now in heaven praising God face-to-face lacked all understanding of transubstantiation as members of the church militant. On the other hand, this doctrine may open our eyes to what it means to hope that “God will be all-in-all” (1 Cor 15:28).

We are those who have been convoked, assembled not to create strategic plans but to let our lives be transformed by Jesus himself.

The destiny of all creation

Transubstantiation is the church’s belief that the gifts of bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, contrary to what the senses perceive. This is because the substance (what something really is) changes, while the accidents or species (what appears) remain. Bread and wine—as material goods—are taken up entirely into God’s own life. In this transformation, they still appear (and taste like) bread and wine.

The Lord feeds us in a way that we can receive it. Bread and wine do not have to lose their characteristics to be taken up into divine life. In fact, the particularities of this bread and wine matter more now than ever. Bread, after all, is made through a sacrificial process in which the seeds of grain are watered and the wheat is cut down, ground up and then baked in fire. So too the grapes are grown, crushed and fermented. The material significance of the erstwhile bread and wine matters even more, pointing entirely to the mystery of Christ’s sacrificial presence of love.

Is this not a hopeful doctrine for the U.S. church? When we gather as a multicultural communion, our individual particularities do not need to be left out of the equation. This is because every dimension o f creation, including the cultures that each belongs to, can in fact point toward the presence of divine love in the world. Yes, they must be transformed (perhaps even “transubstantiated”) to become spaces of love. This, after all, is what the church means by evangelization. But such evangelization does not mean joining some sort of mindless cult, where difference is erased. Every facet of creation can become a sign pointing toward the eucharistic Lord.

When we gather as a multicultural communion, our individual particularities do not need to be left out of the equation.

Hidden signs of love

This transformation, of course, is hidden. We do not see the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. Rather, we must give ourselves over to this mystery, to learn to see more in the consecrated gifts of bread and wine. This is an act of faith, as St. Thomas Aquinas summarized in one of his eucharistic hymns: Where the senses fail, faith alone suffices.

The doctrine of Real Presence forms us in this eucharistic way of seeing the hidden presence of love in the world. We go to the margins, as Pope Francis has reminded us, because there the hidden Christ dwells. It takes time to see this presence in the faces of the unborn infant, the criminal to be executed by the state and in the migrant looking for a cup of cold water. But there the hidden Lord appears.

Perceiving this presence of hidden love in the world is an initiation into contemplative beholding. In this sense, promoting eucharistic adoration (within the context of eucharistic worship as a whole) is a way of inviting every bishop, priest, deacon, consecrated religious and member of the baptized faithful to recognize that the thing which is most worthy of love is often hidden to our senses. Such adoration should not be a spectacle intended to violently move the passions—as it is often treated in youth and young adult ministry—but a free invitation to love the hidden Lord.

Perhaps the doctrine of Real Presence might be more important than initially thought. Not because it is the only concern of the church in 2023, but because it is through the presence of love itself that every Catholic may discover anew the art of self-giving love.

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