The sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, the third of the Church’s “sacraments of initiation,” is the Body and Blood of Christ, whole and entire. It is not a “sign” or a “symbol” or a “representation” of the Body and Blood of Christ — it IS the Body and Blood of Christ. When we receive Holy Communion, the minister offers us the host and says, “The Body of Christ;” in parishes or places where the chalice is also offered, the minister says “The Blood of Christ.” And we respond, “Amen,” a Hebrew word found throughout the Old and New Testaments that means, “yes, truly;” “so be it,” “I believe it.” The Lord Jesus Christ is fully present in the host and wine consecrated by the priest at Mass. The appearances of unleavened bread and true wine remain visible — the “sign” of the sacrament (remember the definition of a sacrament: “an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace”) and the taste remains the same — but they are totally, entirely and completely transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The theological term used for this transformation is “transubstantiation,” the mysterious process by which the Lord Jesus Christ becomes present. When we receive the host consecrated by the priest at Mass, we receive Christ’s Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. When we drink from the chalice of wine consecrated by the priest at Mass, we received Christ’s Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity.
How can this be? How can this happen? I cannot give a scientifically verifiable answer to those questions. But faith is not science. As we read in the Letter to the Hebrews, “faith is confident assurance about things hoped for and conviction about things we cannot see (Hebrews 11: 1).” Transubstantiation and the “Real Presence of Christ” are one of the core beliefs and acts of faith of the Catholic Church, one of the most important and one of the defining aspects of the Catholic faith. Mystery? Yes, it will always be. Truth? Yes, it will also always be. The fact that something is a “mystery” does not deny or negate the fact that it is at the same time true. And truth is not true BECAUSE we believe it. Truth is true whether we believe it or not. Believing or not believing does not alter or change the object of our believing or its truth.
But where does this truth or belief come from? It comes from God, from the Lord Jesus Christ. It is found in the Holy Scriptures. It is presented by the Catholic Church.
At the Last Supper of the Lord Jesus Christ, on the night before he died for us — Holy Thursday — Christ gathered with his apostles to celebrate the Jewish feast of Passover. It was there, in the upper room as described in the Gospel of Mark (see also, Matthew 26: 25-29; and Luke 22: 13-20), that the Lord Jesus Christ instituted the Holy Eucharist:
And as they were eating He took bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them and said, ‘Take, this is my body.’ And He took a cup and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them and they all drank of it and He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the New Covenant which is poured out for many (Mark 14: 22-24).
Earlier in his public ministry, the Gospel of John, chapter 6, reveals the famous “miracle of the loaves and the fishes,” where Jesus fed the multitudes with a few pieces of bread and some fish on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, “as much as they wanted (John 6: 11).” That night, after the miraculous feeding, John continues to describe, the apostles boarded a boat and headed across the lake toward Capernaum. Jesus walked toward them across the water and got into the boat until it reached the shore on the other side, another miracle. There, he explained the purpose of his miraculous feeding of the crowds, urging them to believe in him:
I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. … I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. … Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever (John 6: 35-51).
I am quoting here selections and quotes from chapter 6 of the Gospel of John. Catholics should read the entire chapter to get a clearer understanding of Jesus’ message and actions, foreshadowing and leading up to the institution of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper.
In the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, St. Paul instructs the community of faith there about the Holy Eucharist:
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11: 23-26).
The Holy Scriptures should always be read in text and in context to discern their full meaning. They are the “Word of the Lord.” Still, these few quotations affirm the scriptural basis of our belief in the Holy Eucharist and the constant teaching of the Catholic Church up to the present day.
Catholics continued to believe in, to celebrate and to “do this in memory of me (1 Corinthians 11: 24)” throughout the Catholic Church’s history. The early Fathers of the Church, its Councils, and the writings of its theologians helped explain the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist and the Real Presence of Christ to the faithful of every era. True, there have been theological discussions and debates — even disagreements — about the scriptural sources for and the meaning of this and other sacraments of the Catholic Church. But belief in the Holy Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ has endured in the Catholic Church from the Last Supper on as a fundamental and constitutive element of the Catholic faith. It is a non-negotiable belief for Catholics.
The Second Vatican Council (1963-65) referred to our Catholic belief in the Holy Eucharist as “the source and summit of the Christian life (Lumen Gentium, no. 11).” In our own day, quoting from Catholic documents relating to the Holy Eucharist, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) explains
1322 The holy Eucharist completes Christian initiation. Those who have been raised to the dignity of the royal priesthood by Baptism and configured more deeply to Christ by Confirmation participate with the whole community in the Lord’s own sacrifice by means of the Eucharist.
1323 “At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet ‘in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.’”
1324 The Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.” “The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch.”
1325 “The Eucharist is the efficacious sign and sublime cause of that communion in the divine life and that unity of the People of God by which the Church is kept in being. It is the culmination both of God’s action sanctifying the world in Christ and of the worship men offer to Christ and through him to the Father in the Holy Spirit.”
Hopefully, these ideas help us to understand better what the Holy Eucharist is and what the Catholic Church believes and teaches. It is also important to understand and believe what the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist does. In a recent catechesis, our Holy Father Pope Francis reflected:
First, the Eucharist affects the way we see others. In his life, Christ manifested his love by being with people, and by sharing their desires and problems. So too the Eucharist brings us together with others – young and old, poor and affluent, neighbors and visitors. The Eucharist calls us to see all of them as our brothers and sisters, and to see in them the face of Christ.
Second, in the Eucharist we experience the forgiveness of God and the call to forgive. We celebrate the Eucharist not because we are worthy, but because we recognize our need for God’s mercy, incarnate in Jesus Christ. In the Eucharist, we renew the gift of the Body and Blood of Christ for the remission of sins, and our hearts are enlarged to receive and show mercy.
Third, in the Eucharistic celebration, we are nourished as the Christian community by Christ’s Word and Life. It is from the Eucharist that the Church receives continually her identity and mission. It is in our celebration that Christ fills us with his grace, so that our lives may be consonant with our worship of God in the Liturgy. Let us live the Eucharist in a spirit of faith and prayer, with the certainty that the Lord will bring to fulfillment all that he has promised (Pope Francis, General Audience, February 12, 2014).
In the Holy Eucharist, we receive the Body and Blood of Christ. In receiving him, we become the Body of Christ, a community of faith and love. We receive him, yes, and we are also, at the same time, united with all who believe in him as brothers and sisters. The Holy Eucharist intensifies his command and our obligation to “love one another (John 13: 34).”
Most Reverend David M. O’Connell, C.M.
Bishop of Trenton
(The next Catechesis will concern the Church’s laws about the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.)