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Where We Meet Real Presence

By Deal W. Hudson
January 31st, 2014
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Polls show that more than 60 percent of American Catholics say they do not believe in the Real Presence-that Jesus Christ is bodily present in the Eucharist. What does this mean? Are U.S. Catholics lacking in faith or poorly catechized, or are there more basic flaws in our current understanding of the Real Presence? I think most Catholics understand Real Presence too narrowly.
When people discuss the Real Presence, they usually have in mind what happens at the moment of consecration when the bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. But this is not all there is to the meaning of Real Presence.

WASHINGTON,DC (Catholic Online) - Polls show that more than 60 percent of American Catholics say they do not believe in the Real Presence-that Jesus Christ is bodily present in the Eucharist. What does this mean? Are U.S. Catholics lacking in faith or poorly catechized, or are there more basic flaws in our current understanding of the Real Presence? I think most Catholics understand Real Presence too narrowly.

When people discuss the Real Presence, they usually have in mind what happens at the moment of consecration when the bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. But this is not all there is to the meaning of Real Presence.

Given the historic debates over the Eucharist, it is understandable that people think in this way, but it can contribute to confusion in a number of ways. First, the term Real Presence is insufficient when applied to the change of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. The proper term for this substantial change, according to the Catholic faith, is transubstantiation. This means that the Eucharistic species is Jesus, the crucified and risen Savior. Thus, for Catholics, the Eucharist is not only the Real Presence of Jesus-it is Jesus.

Also, by considering the Eucharistic body and blood as the Real Presence, one perhaps forgets the other ways that Christ is really present to us. He is really present in our daily lives by grace in our hearts; He is really present to us in our neighbor and those in need; He is really present in our midst when we gather for group prayer; He is really present when the Church celebrates the liturgy; He is really present in the priest acting in His name; He is really present in the proclamation of His word.

Once Christ's presence is recognized in these diverse ways, the Eucharist understood as the Real Presence might simply come to be seen as one Real Presence among others when, in fact, it is more than that-it is Jesus, whole and entire, body, soul, and divinity. However, there is a difference in kind, not just in degree between the Eucharist and the various other modes of Christ's presence.

The important point is this: Understanding the consecration solely in relation to the Real Presence risks missing the heart of the liturgy-our participation in the paschal mystery of Christ's death, resurrection, and ascension. The Eucharistic prayer, and especially the consecration, offers the Church to God through, with, and in Christ. Certainly the bread and wine become Jesus, but that is the result of God making the Mass to be our participation in Christ's saving paschal sacrifice.

The consecration offers the entire body of Christ, head and members, to God-it does not just change the elements into Jesus. If we forget this, then we easily make the Mass to be about the manifestation of God's presence-or presences-rather than about our communion with Christ in His Pasch, or sacrifice at Calvary, glorifying God and redeeming mankind.

"Pasch" for Catholics refers to the sacrifice of Christ and the application of the merits of his blood -- the human race would be freed from the bondage of the devil and of sin. Good Friday in the early Church was called the Pasch of the Crucifixion, while Easter day was styled the Pasch of the Resurrection.

The difference between the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the presence of God in daily life should be carefully distinguished. Christ is really present in many ways. My neighbor is the real presence of Jesus to me; the priest is, the Scriptures are, the indwelling of the Trinity is, a cross is, an icon is, etc. He is equally present in the Eucharist and in other non-eucharistic modes, although the presence is achieved in distinct ways for distinct purposes. In that sense, they are equally real but different modes of presence.

But in the Host, Jesus is really and substantially present. Nowhere else, other than at the right hand of God, is Jesus substantially present. Substantial presence is real, but Real Presence need not be substantial. This is why Catholics should not be satisfied with saying the Real Presence to refer to the Eucharist-it does not say enough and easily reduces the Host to one "presence" among others.

The Documents of the Second Vatican Council talk about "four modes of Real Presence. Eucharisticum Mysterium (EM, 55) speaks  of "principal modes" of Christ's presence, saying that the principal modes are successively manifested during Mass: first, in the assembly of the faithful gathered in His name; then, in the reading of Scripture; also in the person of the minister; and finally, under the eucharistic species.

Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC, 7), however, keeps the focus of Christian life and liturgy not on the presence of Christ in various modes, but on the Church's communion with Christ in accomplishing the Pasch. This is why there is no dichotomy in our distinguishing the modes of presence from the Pasch. The Pasch is the reason for the presences-that Christ may accomplish His saving work.

The conventional use of the theory of four modes and their successive manifestations in post-Vatican II liturgical discussions no doubt was intended to remind people of the Church's longstanding teaching that Christ is present in the assembly, the word, the priest, and the Host. However, unlike Vatican II, this theory does not state the purpose of the presence: the Church's participation in the paschal mystery. Consequently, the theory easily leads people to focus on the modes rather than the Pasch.

Christ's presence in the Host, assembly, word, and priest is distinct from the universal presence of God in His creation. God is present to us in specific ways that arise through one specific process having one specific purpose. It is a trinitarian process in which the Father acts through the Son (or Word) by the power of the Holy Spirit to draw mankind into personal communion with Himself in Christ. We see this in the act of creation, in the history of Israel, in the paschal mystery, and in the life of the Church. Thus, God is always present to us as the source of our being and as the saving God who guides human history toward the completion of the Pasch. These are specific ways He is universally present to all men.

Christ is present in a unique way when the Church gathers to celebrate the liturgy because these assemblies act on behalf of the entire Church. Indeed, the one Church of Christ is present in liturgical gatherings of the faithful united to their bishops, so that, especially in the eucharistic assembly, the whole body of Christ, head and members, is present and at work (see SC 7). This gathering of the faithful in communion with Christ and all His members is rightly called a "church."

Christ comes to us in these various ways for one purpose: to draw all men into communion with God through His Pasch. The other ways Christ is present to us should not obscure the primary focus of our worship -- glorifying God in Christ's sacrifice.

Summary:

1. According to polling most  Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence.

2. The reason may be that Catholics identify only the Eucharist with Real Presence and ignore its other "modes," the priest, the Word proclaimed, and the community at worship.

3. However, when broadening our understanding of Real Presence it's essential to affirm the priority of Christ's Eucharistic presence, or Pasch, over the other ways Christ is really present to us

. Deal W. Hudson, Ph.D

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Deal W. Hudson is president of the Morley Institute of Church and Culture, Senior Editor at Catholic Online, and former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.This column and subsequent contributions are an excerpt from a forthcoming book. Dr. Hudson's new radio show, Church and Culture, will begin broadcasting in February on the Ave Maria Radio Network.

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