As Catholics, we firmly believe that the real presence of Christ is in the Holy Eucharist. The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests asserts, “The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate are bound up with the Eucharist and are directed towards it. For in the most blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ Himself, our Pasch and the living bread which gives life to men through His flesh– that flesh which is given life and gives life through the Holy Spirit” (#5). For this reason, the Council referred to the Holy Eucharist as the source and summit of the whole Christian life (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, #11).
Our belief in the Holy Eucharist is rooted in Christ Himself. As we have heard for the past four weeks in the gospel passages of Sunday Mass, recall the beautiful words of our Lord in the Bread of Life Discourse in the Gospel of St. John: “I myself am the living bread come down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread he shall live forever; the bread I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world. Let me solemnly assure you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. He who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has life eternal, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood real drink. The man who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the Father who has life sent me and I have life because of the Father, so the man who feeds on me will have life because of me” (John 6:51, 53-57). Note that none of this language is symbolic– Jesus meant what He said. Moreover, even when there is grumbling and objections, and even after some disciples abandon our Lord because of this teaching, Jesus no where says, “Oh please, stop. I really meant this symbolically.” Our Lord stood by His teaching.
The meaning of Bread of Life Discourse becomes more clear at the Last Supper on the first Holy Thursday. There Jesus gathered His apostles around Himself. According to the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus took unleavened bread and wine– two sources of basic nourishment. He took bread, blessed it, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to the apostles, saying, “Take this and eat it; this is my body.” He took the cup of wine, gave thanks, gave it to His apostles and said, “All of you must drink from it for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, to be poured out in behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.” If we extracted the words of consecration recorded in the Last Supper accounts of the gospels and distilled them, we would have our words of consecration used at Mass. (Confer Matthew 26:26-30; Mark 14:22-26; and Luke 22:14-20.)
Think of those words! Jesus was not just giving to the apostles blessed bread and wine. He was giving His whole life– Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. He was giving His very self. How true that was! The next day, Jesus’ body hung upon the altar of the cross. His blood was spilled to wash away our sins. As priest, He offered the perfect sacrifice for the remission of sin. However, this sacrifice was not death rendering but life giving, for three days later our Lord rose from the dead conquering both sin and death. Yes, the perfect, everlasting covenant of life and love with God was made by our Lord Jesus Christ.
This whole mystery is preserved in the Most Holy Eucharist and the Sacrifice of the Mass. We too take unleavened bread and wine, two sources of nourishment. By the will of the Father, the work of the Holy Spirit, and priesthood of Jesus entrusted to His ordained priests, and through the words of consecration, that bread and wine is transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus. Yes, the bread and wine do not change in characteristics– they still look the same, taste the same, and hold the same shape. However, the reality, “the what it is,” the substance does change. We do not receive bread and wine; we receive the Body and Blood of Christ. We call this transubstantiation, a term used at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). Therefore, each time we celebrate Mass, we are plunged into the whole everpresent, everlasting mystery of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter, and share intimately in life of our Lord through the Holy Eucharist.
The Catholic Church has always cherished this treasure. St. Paul wrote, “I received from the Lord what I handed on to you, namely, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which He was betrayed took bread, and after He had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper, He took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ Every time then you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes!” (I Corinthians 11:23-26).
During the days of Roman persecution, to clearly distinguish the Eucharist from the cultic rite of Mithra and to dispel Roman charges of cannibalism, St. Justin Martyr (d. 165) wrote in his First Apology, “We do not consume the Eucharistic bread and wine as if it were ordinary food and drink, for we have been taught that as Jesus Christ our Savior became a man of flesh and blood by the power of the Word of God, so also the food that our flesh and blood assimilate of its nourishment becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus by the power of His own words contained in the prayer of thanksgiving.”
Later, the Council of Trent in 1551 addressed the heretical views of the Reformers. Remember Zwingli and Calvin believed that Christ was present only “in sign”; Luther believed in consubstantiation whereby the Eucharist is both body and blood, and bread and wine; and Melancthon believed that the Eucharist reverts back to just bread and wine after communion.
Trent’s Decree on the Most Holy Eucharist specified, “In the Blessed Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, after the consecration of the bread and wine, our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and man, is truly, really, and substantially contained under the appearances of those perceptible realities. For there is no contradiction in the fact that our Savior always sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven according to His natural way of existing and that, nevertheless, in His substance He is sacramentally present to us in many other places.”
Therefore, no faithful, knowledgeable Catholic would say that the Holy Eucharist “symbolizes” the Body and Blood of Christ. Yes, we pray for grace that we may believe more strongly each day in this precious gift of Christ Himself. Perhaps we should dwell on the words of Thomas Aquinas in Adoro Te Devote “Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore; masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more. See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart: Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.”