Summary: What do we mean when we say Christ is truly present in the Holy Eucharist?
From time to time you may be asked if you are a “Bible-believing Christian.” There’s no reason why a committed Catholic has to say “no” to that question. We believe that the Sacred Scriptures–all seventy-three books–are divinely inspired and true. What that means is that what the inspired authors intended to teach is literally true. But the Scriptures are first of all the Church’s books. The Catholic Church’s authority, given to her by Christ, established what books are to be considered inspired. Moreover, the Church is ultimately the authority we rely on to determine what those books mean and don’t mean.
Let me give an example: The ninth book of Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 9, quotes Jesus saying “Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” Now I, and most of you, call our priests Father Stan and Father Moses and Father Francis. It appears to violate the clear proscription of Our Lord. But if we are sinning, so was Saint Paul when he wrote to the Corinthians, “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (1 Cor 4:15) What Jesus was obviously condemning was treating other men and women as godlike father-figures, instead of respected, but merely human, guides and models.
In every instance, it’s actually pretty easy to defend Catholic teaching from the attacks of fundamentalist Bible-quoters. Use helps like the Catholic Answers website. The shoe, however, fits hard on the other foot. Those same “Bible-believers” must do a complicated dance when they are asked to explain why Jesus’ words don’t mean what they say. “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink; the one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in Me and I in him.” One has to feel some sympathy with the Protestant who has to explain why “This is my Body; This is the blood of the New Covenant shed for you” is a romantic fiction, or some kind of hyperbolic statement. Of course, what Jesus taught must be literally true. Receiving the Blessed Sacrament must be a requirement for our life in Christ, our growth in the Spirit. If it were not, when many of Christ’s disciples heard His words and responded, “This is a hard statement; who can listen to it?” (Jn 6:60) and began leaving Him, surely Jesus would have clarified and told all, “No, you are hearing me wrongly–it’s not really my body and blood, but just a symbol.” On other occasions He was never shy about correcting His disciples’ misconceptions. But in this instance, He not only let them go, He turned around and challenged His core disciples: “‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” From the beginning, the Church has known that the last thing Jesus would do to those He loves is to lie to them. What we take when we come to communion is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of the same Christ who died on the cross and rose from the grave, under either species or both. But I misspoke. Whom we take when we come to communion is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ. This is our faith; this is the faith that our forefathers lived and taught and died to preserve.
The Church’s has always believed in the real, bodily presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, but that faith has developed over time with changing pastoral reality. A persecuted Church, as we were for the first centuries in the Roman empire, rarely has fixed structures. So it was only after many years that pastoral need made it possible to reserve the Blessed Sacrament to take to the sick and dying. After all, the sacrament of the dying is not Extreme Unction or Anointing of the Sick, but Holy Viaticum. And since the One we share in Holy Communion is the Lord of the Universe and our King, it is only reasonable to make our tabernacles fit dwellings for Him. The worship of the Eucharist outside Mass also developed over time. As time went on, scholars began to debate just how Christ is present under the forms of bread and wine. Some taught an excessively carnal presence, to which priests like Berengarius reacted, but overspiritualized the presence of Christ to the point of heresy. Luther and Calvin and the other revolutionaries carried such an interpretation so far that most Protestants consider the presence just symbolic. And they are right for their own worship, because, lacking an ordained priesthood, they cannot validly confect the Eucharist. So how is Jesus present?