By Brian Evans, Holy Apostles College
According to The Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.” Unfortunately, a staggeringly high percentage of Catholics simply do not believe in the real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. These individuals fail to realize the solemnity and import of Our Lord’s gift of His Body and Blood to His Church; instead, they seem to be merely indifferent towards the holy presence of Christ in the sacrament. They lack a sure knowledge of the Eucharist and cannot comprehend the treasures of the faith. It is imperative, however, that the faithful understand what the Catechism teaches about the Eucharist—why the sacrament was instituted, what is meant by “the Real Presence,” and what purpose the sacrament holds for the faithful. By answering these questions, the mystery of the Eucharist can be better understood, leading not only to an increased understanding of the mystery of God’s plan of salvation but also to a deep immersion into God’s unfathomable love for mankind.
Why the Eucharist Was Instituted
To understand why the Eucharist was instituted, one must first attempt to understand the love of God. This perfect love of God crafted creation and shaped man in God’s own image, granting him the power of free-will since God did not desire to compel his creatures to love and serve Him. However, abusing his free-will, man sinned against God, thus falling from grace. Not abandoning man to the shackles of sin, though, “God calls him and in a mysterious way heralds the coming victory over evil and his restoration from his fall.” Eventually, through the Paschal mystery of Christ—the passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ—God freed man from the bondage of sin and restored his dignity. This forms the basis of the economy of salvation.
The Eucharist itself was instituted at the Last Supper, the Passover meal Jesus shared with His Apostles just before the onset of His passion. Interestingly, the yearly Passover meal, still celebrated by the Jews, is itself a remembrance of the mighty deeds God has wrought in the past while at the same time looking forward to a deliverance yet to come. This deliverance would come in the form of an eternal Savior, one who would open the gates of Heaven to the faithful and restore man’s union with God. In His Passion, Christ sacrificed Himself—Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity—presenting Himself as the unblemished lamb to the Father in expiation for the sins of mankind. This sacrifice perfected, completed, and surpassed all the sacrifices of the Old Testament, thus eliminating the need for animal sacrifices since Christ’s death on the cross provided the “sacrifice of sacrifices” to the Father. Indeed, Dominicae Cenae describes the Eucharist as being the “sacrifice of the Redemption and also the sacrifice of the New Covenant.” Through the Eucharist, Christ offers Himself as the true paschal lamb through His sacrifice on the cross and brings about the new and eternal covenant.
Thus, “when the Church celebrates the Eucharist, the memorial of her Lord’s death and resurrection, this central event of salvation becomes really present and the work of redemption is carried out.” The Catechism describes the Eucharist as 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.” It is through the Eucharist that the sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated for all ages. Indeed, by participating in the Eucharistic celebration, the faithful are united with the heavenly liturgy and are offered the promise of eternal life.  Through the sacramental liturgy of the Eucharist, “the whole Church plays the role of priest and victim along with Christ, offering the Sacrifice of the Mass and itself completely offered in it.”  Thus, in a marvelous way, the Body of Christ exercises its universal priesthood throughout the liturgy. The Eucharist can then be seen as a mysterious exchange of thanksgiving, praise, sacrifice, and love between God and His people.
Moreover, speaking about the love which permeates the Eucharist, the Catechism of the Catholic Church declares:
The Lord, having loved those who were his own, loved them to the end…. In order to leave them a pledge of this love, in order never to depart from his own and to make them sharers in his Passover, he instituted the Eucharist as the memorial of his death and Resurrection.
Thus, the Eucharist really is a testament of God’s great love for man. In the Ecclesia De Eucharista, St. John Paul II writes that, “Truly, in the Eucharist, he shows us a love which goes to the end, a love which knows no measure.”  Fr. John Hardon describes the Eucharist as the “incarnation continued on earth until the end of time.” Although this love that God bestows to man surpasses man’s understanding, it is not beyond God’s unlimited power. The Church draws Her life and indeed Her entire spiritual wealth from the Eucharist since it is in the Eucharist that one finds Christ Himself, the bridegroom of the Church. Indeed, Christ in His infinite wisdom knew that without a foretaste of future glory, man’s fallen state would go astray. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
It is highly fitting that Christ should have wanted to remain present to his Church in this unique way. Since Christ was about to take his departure from his own in his own visible form, he wanted to give us his sacramental presence…he wanted us to have the memorial of the love with which he loved us “to the end….”
Instituted in this context, the Eucharistic Sacrifice “makes present not only the mystery of the Savior’s passion and death, but also the mystery of the resurrection which crowned his sacrifice.”
The Real Presence of Christ
Ultimately, one cannot rationally demonstrate that Christ is truly present in the Holy Eucharist since the sacrament is simply inaccessible to the limited powers of human reasoning; indeed, the “Holy Eucharist is a mystery of faith.” Pope Paul VI stresses that “we must approach this mystery in particular with humility and reverence, not relying on human reasoning.” This is not to say, however, that one cannot acquire a certainty pertaining to the presence of Christ in the sacrament. The authors of Holy Scripture attest that Christ, in taking the bread at the Last Supper, declared it to be His Flesh. Moreover, Sacred Scripture writers testify that in giving His disciples the chalice, Jesus declared that it contained His Blood. The account of Christ offering His Body and Blood to His disciples at the Last Supper is corroborated in four different books of Scripture. According to Cardinal Schönborn, “When the testimony of four separate witnesses is in substantial agreement, their story is credible.” Furthermore, one can look to Church tradition to see that from its earliest times, the Church believed Christ at His word as the early Church members are described as “devoting themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42). In the Book of John, Jesus expounds on the Eucharist, stating that, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (Jn 6:54). This teaching proved to be a great stumbling block for many of Our Lord’s followers, and ultimately many left Him (Jn 6:66). Yet rather than “correcting the record” and declaring His words to be merely symbolic, Jesus turned to His disciples and asked them, “Do you also want to leave?” (Jn 6:67).
Since the Church teaches that God can neither deceive nor be deceived, the Church has always understood and taught that Christ is truly present Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in every morsel of consecrated Host and every drop of consecrated wine. Indeed, the Council of Trent definitively and authoritatively explicated Catholic teaching on the Eucharist, writing that “In the august 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 species of those sensible things.” Yet despite the inability of human reason to fully grasp and understand how Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, one must still believe in the real presence, for, according to St. Augustine of Hippo:
Whatever has been preached and believed throughout the whole Church with true Catholic faith since the days of antiquity is true, even if it not be subject to rational investigation, and even if it not be explained in words.
Even the great doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, could not provide a rational explanation for Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. Aquinas recognized that while the presence of Christ in the sacrament can neither be discerned by the senses nor understood by reason, this recognition becomes manifest “by faith alone, which rests upon Divine authority.”  For it is by the same power that created the world by His Word that bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Indeed, St. Thomas Aquinas asserted that transubstantiation, the changing of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, “is effected by a power which is infinite, to which it belongs to operate in an instant.” Christ’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament, then, is something that can only be acknowledged through faith, which requires humility on the part of the believer, for one must accept that which the senses cannot perceive nor the mind comprehend. Yet, this faith in God is not blind since God Himself can neither deceive nor be deceived.  Thus, when Christ declared at the Last Supper that he was freely giving His Body and Blood to His Church, one must accept Christ’s word. St. John Chrysostom echoes this fact when he declared:
Let us submit to God in all things and not contradict Him, even if what He says seems to contradict our reason and intellect; let His word prevail over our reason and intellect. Let us act in this way with regard to the Eucharistic mysteries, and not limit our attention just to what can be perceived by the senses, but instead hold fast to His words. For His word cannot deceive.
The Purpose the Eucharist Holds for the Faithful
In the Gospel according to St. John, Christ declares the necessity of the reception of the Eucharist when he declares, “Truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (Jn 6:53). Through the reception of the Eucharist, one is more deeply bonded to Christ since one’s soul and body receives Christ’s Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. Because of this deep union with Christ, one is strengthened against committing grave sins, which would break one’s union with Christ, and one’s venial sins are forgiven. Moreover, speaking of the transformative nature of the sacrament, Pope St. Paul VI declared that the Eucharist “cleanses and strengthens us to live not for ourselves but for God.” By living for God, one must work to fulfill the mission of Christ’s Church, which is the salvation of souls. Indeed, it is exactly through the fruits of the Mass in which the Eucharist forms its center that the faithful receive graces which compel them to work for the salvation of souls. In addition, it is through the celebration of the Eucharist that the Body of Christ is unified since the Eucharistic sacrifice is an action of the whole Church, a work of thanksgiving, memorial, and presence. Speaking about the transcendence of the Eucharistic sacrifice, Cardinal Schönborn declared, “When we celebrate the Eucharist…we too are present in the upper room.” By being present in the upper room, the faithful, like the disciples, receive the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ. This point demonstrates why Fr. Harden argues that, “Without faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, there is no Catholic Church.” For the Eucharist is the “whole” of Christ, and Christ is the Church. In fact, Fr. John Harden argues that “tampering with the Church’s Eucharistic doctrine is tampering with the foundation of Catholic Christianity.” Denying the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, then, necessarily means denying the Church.
Within the context of the Mass, then, the Church offers thanksgiving to God by recounting His mighty deeds; celebrates the memorial of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; and adores the real presence of Jesus, who is made present through the re-presentation of the sacrifice of the cross. The bloody sacrifice of Calvary is not recreated; rather, each Eucharistic celebration re-presents in an unbloody manner the ultimate sacrifice which Christ made “once and for all.” This sacrifice is indeed the pinnacle towards which the Church is oriented since it draws the faithful to Christ, who, through the priest acting in persona Christi, offers Himself to the Father through the Holy Spirit. Essentially, the people not only offer up to God the perfect sacrifice of His Son, but they also offer themselves up to the Creator as well. In doing so, the Church Militant is united to both the Church Triumphant and the Church Suffering since the extratemporal nature of the Eucharistic sacrifice makes present at each Mass the whole of the Church.
Indeed, the reception of the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ has powerful effects on the communicant (if he receives in a state of grace). According to Pope St. John Paul II, “Whenever the Church celebrates, the faithful can in some way relive the experience of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus—their eyes were opened.” Fr. Harden points to the immense value and efficacy of the Eucharist when he writes:
Ours is the age of martyrs. If we are to live a martyr’s life and be ready for a martyr’s death, we had better be sustained by the frequent, indeed daily reception of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.
Indeed, Fr. James Altman frequently declares that the faithful are “called to martyrdom—red or white.” By receiving the Eucharist, one is more strongly united to Christ, thus receiving the promise of eternal life. Through this sacrament, then, the faithful are better enabled to fulfill the mission of the Church and its to call to suffering and the salvation of souls. Above all, the Church each time she celebrates the Eucharist, echoing the words of St. Peter, humbly declares, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68).
At every Holy Mass, Catholics receive the fulfillment of God’s divine plan—the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ; it is through the Eucharist that one receives not only supernatural graces but also mercy, love, forgiveness, and a pledge of eternity. Indeed, with an understanding of the Eucharist, one can better comprehend Christ’s salvific work since all of Christ’s work is bound up in the Eucharist. Unfortunately, though, many Catholic laity and even clergy today have lost respect for the Sacrament of the Eucharist; many times there is an almost casual aura about the Mass and an almost glibness and brevity surrounding both the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Sadly, too, large numbers of Catholics have even lost belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Yet one cannot both reject the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and call oneself a Catholic. Rather, as stated in Canon Law:
The faithful are to hold the Eucharist in highest honor, taking part in the celebration of the Most August Sacrifice, receiving the sacrament devoutly and frequently, and worshiping it with supreme adoration.
Unquestionably, Catholics should hold the Sacrament of the Eucharist with the highest honor and respect because it is God’s greatest gift to mankind—a gift of total and absolute self-love—God Himself, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, cloaked under the sacramental veils. No other sacrament contains the whole of Christ. It is for this reason that the faithful must joyfully venerate and adore this blessed treasure and receive Him with a clear conscience so as not to defile the sacrament since it is Christ Himself whom the faithful receive.
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