By DON FIER
Over the past two weeks we have examined, in an abbreviated manner, the history of belief in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. Except for occasional aberrations such as that of Berengarius of Tours in the 11th century and John Wycliffe in the 14th century, we saw that the first 1,500 years of the Church’s existence was marked, for the most part, by unanimity of belief in this fundamental dogma of the Catholic faith.
But widespread doubts and even outright denials regarding belief in the substantial and abiding presence of Christ in the consecrated Species were to rock the 16th-century Church in the form of the Protestant Revolution. Two bedrock beliefs rarely before questioned — transubstantiation and the sacrificial character of the Eucharist — were rejected wholesale by the Protestant reformers.
The reformers also held divergent views concerning the Real Presence. As encapsulated by Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ, in volume 3 of Fundamentals of Catholicism:
“Luther admitted it but then added that it occurred only during the celebration of Holy Communion. Zwingli, along with many others, simply denied the Real Presence and claimed that the bread and wine are mere symbols of the Body and Blood of Christ. Calvin . . . rejected the substantial or real presence of the Body and Blood of Christ and taught a presence of ‘power,’ that is, through the Eucharist a power proceeds from the glorified Body of Christ in heaven and is conferred on the faithful” (p. 231).
More than 200 erroneous interpretations of Christ’s words of institution — “This is my Body. . . . This is my Blood” — were identified in writing by St. Robert Bellarmine (d. 1621), a Church doctor and important defender of the truth during the Counter-Reformation.
The Church’s response to the many doubts and denials of the Protestant reformers was the convocation of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) during which she infallibly and clearly defined her teaching on the Mass, the Eucharist, and the Real Presence.
As concisely stated by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, Trent instructs the faithful that the doctrine of the Real Presence means that “the one who is present is the whole Christ (totus Christus), with all the attributes of his divinity and all the physical parts and properties of his humanity” (Modern Catholic Dictionary, p. 457).
As such, teaches Holy Mother Church, the worship of latria (the adoration given to God alone) is due to the Sacred Species, whether during the celebration of the Mass or outside of it.
The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church outlines for us the practical implications of so great a sacramental presence:
“The Church guards with the greatest care the Hosts that have been consecrated. She brings them to the sick and to other persons who find it impossible to participate at Mass. She also presents them for the solemn adoration of the faithful and also bears them in processions. The Church encourages the faithful to make frequent visits to adore the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle” (n. 286).
Another marvelous outgrowth of eucharistic piety is the establishment of so many Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration Chapels where our Lord is exposed in the monstrance for unceasing adoration by the faithful.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), having first treated the Holy Eucharist as a “sacrificial memorial in which the sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated” (CCC, n. 1382) and then as the “Eucharistic presence [through which] he remains mysteriously in our midst as the one who loved us and gave himself up for us” (CCC, n. 1380), now examines the sacrament under the heading of Paschal Banquet, or “the sacred banquet of communion with the Lord’s body and blood” (CCC, n. 1382).
In a manner of speaking, these three dimensions of the Eucharist allow one to rightly describe it as a “triple sacrament.” In fact, in the first encyclical of his illustrious pontificate, promulgated in March of 1979, Pope St. John Paul II did precisely that in proclaiming of the Eucharist:
“It is at one and the same time a Sacrifice-Sacrament, a Communion-Sacrament, and a Presence-Sacrament” (Redemptor Hominis, n. 20).
It is not possible to overstate the critical importance of our present topic, for “the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice is wholly directed toward the intimate union of the faithful with Christ through communion” (CCC, n. 1382).
In his 2003 encyclical entitled Ecclesia de Eucharistia, St. John Paul underscored this by stating, “The saving efficacy of the sacrifice is fully realized when the Lord’s body and blood are received in communion. The Eucharistic Sacrifice is intrinsically directed to the inward union of the faithful with Christ through communion; we receive the very One who offered himself for us, we receive his body which he gave up for us on the Cross and his blood which he ‘poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’ (Matt. 26:28)” (n. 16).
It is through worthy reception of the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion that we receive spiritual nourishment for our souls in this vale of tears.
St. Peter Julian Eymard (1811-1868), dedicated apostle of the Eucharist who was canonized by Pope John XXIII in 1962 at the end of the first session of Vatican II, strikingly describes the effects of worthy reception of Holy Communion with an analogy.
“Just as food, after it has been digested, leaves in our bodies nourishing juices which flow into our members to strengthen them and renew their life,” says St. Eymard, “likewise, when the holy Species are consumed and the Sacred Humanity of Jesus is no longer with us, the divinity we received with His Body as food still remains with us….[It] acts within us, fortifying all the powers of our soul, feeding it with holy inspirations, with impulses of holy charity, spiritualizing us, divinizing us, changing us into Itself, and fulfilling that magnificent utterance, ‘he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him’ (1 Cor. 6:17)” (Holy Communion [HC], p. 26).
The Catechism now stresses the importance of the altar as the focal point of all liturgical action in the celebration of Eucharist; it “represents the two aspects of the same mystery: the altar of the sacrifice and the table of the Lord….The Christian altar is the symbol of Christ himself…both as the victim offered for our reconciliation and as food from heaven who is giving himself to us” (CCC, n. 1383).
Similarly, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal states:
“The altar, on which is effected the Sacrifice of the Cross made present under sacramental signs, is also the table of the Lord to which the People of God is convoked to participate in the Mass, and it is also the center of the thanksgiving that is accomplished through the Eucharist” (n. 296).
Much can be learned about the meaning of the altar from the Church’s rite for the dedication of a church. The altar is sprinkled with holy water, anointed with sacred chrism, incensed, dressed with a white cloth, illuminated with candles, and then, during the Celebration of the Eucharist, receives the Body of Christ.
As articulated by Fr. Douglas Martis in an excellent online resource entitled Elements of the Catholic Mass Study Guide, “The altar, like the Christian at Baptism, is made another Christ. [It] is the permanent symbol of the presence of Christ for the Christian community” (see www.elementsofthe
CatholicMass.com; episode 26). Early Church Father St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) said of the altar, “The altar is an object of wonder: by nature it is stone, but it is made holy after it receives the Body of Christ” (Homily 20 on 2 Cor., 3).
The Sacrament Of The Living
The Catechism now focuses specifically on the Holy Eucharist as Communion-Sacrament. In St. John’s sixth chapter, the Lord identified Himself twice with the words: “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35, 48). In words that followed, He could not have been clearer: “Truly, 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” (John 6:53; as cited in CCC, n. 1384).
His words were spoken with such declarative realism that there could have been no false impression that He was speaking figuratively or symbolically.
What are we being told by these words? As expressed by Fr. Hardon in the Basic Catholic Catechism Course, “The reception of Christ in Holy Communion is necessary to sustain the life of grace in the person who has reached the age of reason” (p. 145).
According to St. Eymard, “The life of grace received in Baptism, and regained and renewed in the Sacrament of Penance, that life of sanctity, more noble by far than the natural life, cannot be sustained without sustenance; and its principal nutriment is the Eucharistic Jesus” (HC, pp. 63-64). Later, the saint states: “I confess that the state of grace is incomprehensible to me unless it is supported by Communion” (HC, p. 93).
To be sure, however, Holy Communion is a sacrament of the living — we must be free from serious sin in order to receive our Lord. St. Paul, in particular, was poignantly clear in his inspired teaching on this matter. Moreover, it is of utmost importance that we “prepare ourselves for so great and so holy a moment” (CCC, n. 1385).
It is with these thoughts that we will pick up next week.
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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is doing research for writing a definitive biography of Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)