What is the central mystery of the Mass?
The celebration of the Mass centers on one central mystery: the change of bread and wine into the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. We, as Catholics, believe in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. This is the mystery of the consecration, and it is at the heart of the Christian life (“Lumen Gentium,” No. 11). However, this mystery is precisely that, a mystery, which cannot be fully grasped. This does not excuse us, however, from trying to learn more about this sacred mystery and making an effort to understand it to the best of our abilities. This is true of all the mysteries of the faith, but it is most true of the Eucharist, since all other mysteries flow from this one and point toward it.
Does Jesus tell us about the Real Presence in the scriptures?
Belief in the Real Presence stems ultimately from sacred Scripture, in which Jesus tells his disciples and apostles that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have eternal life. The central text on this point is John 6 and Jesus’ famed “Bread of Life Discourse,” in which he says, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51).
Again, at the Last Supper, Jesus identifies the bread and wine that he blessed and broke as his Body and Blood, telling his apostles to do this in his memory (cf. Matthew 26:26ff, Mark 14:22ff, Luke 22:14ff). The very early church believed this essential truth as we can see from St. Paul, “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 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 11:23ff).
The scriptures never use the phrase “Real Presence,” but the belief is clearly present in these key texts, which are among the most straightforward words of Jesus in all of Scripture – so much so that many of his disciples left him because they could not understand or accept this teaching.
What does the Real Presence mean?
For many Catholics, when a priest or catechist tells us that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist, we accept it without truly understanding it. We may think of this presence as a symbol such that the Eucharist is still bread and wine, but it represents Jesus’ presence among us. Others may think that what the church means by this is that Jesus really is present in the Eucharist not as a mere symbol, but that he is really there alongside the bread and wine. These thoughts are actually quite common and reflect the difficulty in understanding this great mystery, since both of these thoughts are actually not what the church teaches about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” tells us, “In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist ‘the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained’” (No. 1374).
What does it mean to say the Christ is “substantially contained” in the Eucharist?
To understand this technical, philosophical language, it might be easier to take a step back. Before consecration, no one would doubt that the bread and wine are truly bread and wine. At this point, we can say that the substance of the bread and wine is exactly that: bread and wine. What is truly present there at that time is only bread and wine. Now, when the Eucharistic Prayer and specifically, the words of consecration are prayed over the bread and wine and the Holy Spirit is called down upon the offerings during the Mass, a significant and miraculous change occurs. The bread and wine change from the substance of bread and wine into the substance of the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ! Now, this means that what is truly present is Jesus Christ and not bread and wine. Only Jesus is present after the consecration; the bread and wine no longer exist. He is present whole and entire in each of the species (host and chalice) and whole and entire in each of their parts, such that every crumb of the Host and every drop of the Precious Blood contains the fullness of Christ’s Real Presence (CCC, No. 1377).
How can the bread and wine no longer be there after consecration? I can still see it.
This question is the central difficulty for belief in the Real Presence. It is certainly true that when we go to Communion at Mass, it seems like what we are receiving is mere bread and wine – it looks and tastes like bread and wine. This is because part of this miraculous change is that the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ are truly present under the appearance of bread and wine. Why though? Why not help us to believe in the Real Presence by having flesh and blood appear at the words of consecration? This is a timeless question echoed by Christians throughout the centuries. In fact, this was most certainly a concern of the early Christians at the time of the apostles. Their persecutors accused them of cannibalism because of their command to eat his flesh. Even some of the Christians themselves struggled with this idea. While the church has never officially answered this question definitively, I offer the following basic suggestion. If what we saw when we went up to Communion was a dangling piece of flesh and a chalice full of warm blood, would we partake of Communion? I think that God, in his mercy, has given us the appearance of bread and wine so that we might more readily receive him in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist.
What do I do if this is too hard for me to believe?
The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” tells us that knowing that Christ is truly present in the Mass is not something that we can know by our senses, but only by the gift of faith (No. 1381). In this same section, the Catechism quotes St. Cyril of Jerusalem, “Do not doubt whether this is true, but rather receive the words of the Savior in faith, for since he is the truth, he cannot lie.” Finally, there are words of St. Thomas Aquinas in his hymn to the Blessed Sacrament:
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.
Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived;
How says trusty hearing? That shall be believed;
What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.
Ian Bozant is a second-year theologian studying for the Archdiocese of New Orleans at Notre Dame Seminary. He can be reached at email@example.com.