What is Catholicism

How Real is the Real Presence

1 Minute Watch - By Fr. Justin Huang

There was once a Catholic CIA agent assigned as a courier of intelligence between Baghdad and Jordan.  He would be driven at night in a truck, 145 kilometers per hour and without headlights, so as not to attract attention.  His driver was always a Muslim, and one time, a driver asked him, “Is it true?”  “Is what true?”  “Is it true you Catholics have Jesus?”  “What do you mean?”  “Is it true when you pray, you Catholics can make Jesus?”  “Oh, you mean the Eucharist… Holy Communion?  Yes, it is true, we have the Christ.”  “Then, I don’t understand.  Why are you here?  If it is true that you have Jesus… if I had Jesus I would stop everything and spend every hour every day there with Jesus!”  That CIA agent went on to become a priest in Alabama, and this discussion with the driver was part of his journey to switch vocations.

We Catholics believe Jesus is truly present in a physical way in our churches!  Today is the solemnity of the Body of Christ, in Latin, Corpus Christi, and it’s another celebration for us!  And I’m going to reuse purposely many of the theological explanations I’ve used in the past so that those of you who have heard these can understand them more deeply, and those who haven’t will appreciate them for the first time.

The only reason why we believe that Jesus is present in the Eucharist is because Jesus said so.  He says in the Gospel today, “‘The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’  The people then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” (Jn 6:51-52).  Jesus is a teacher, and whenever people misunderstood His words, He clarified.  But Jesus doesn’t say that eating means some sort of spiritual, invisible union, as when He says, “I am the vine, you are the branches” (Jn 15:5).  No one ever questioned Him about this because they knew He was using a metaphor.  Why do they question Him today?  Because they know He was speaking literally.  The Old Testament forbade Jewish people from drinking the blood of animals, so this metaphor wouldn’t be accepted by them (Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, 174).

Jesus doesn’t say, “Whoa, you’ve misunderstood me.”  What does He do?  He re-emphasizes His point: “Very truly, I tell you [Remember, whenever Jesus says ‘Very truly, I tell you’ He’s solemnly affirming what He’s saying is accurate (Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, 83-84)], unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Whoever eats (chews/gnaws) my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life… for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.  Whoever eats (chews/gnaws) my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in them” (Jn 6:53-56).  In the original Greek, at this point, Jesus changes the word ‘eat’ to ‘chew/gnaw.’  So, Jesus actually gets more physical in His explanation, not less.

Note also that many of His disciples left Him because of this teaching (Jn 6:66).  If it were just a spiritual teaching, why would they leave?  They never left Him because of His other metaphors.

Couple this episode with Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, “This is my body” (Mt 26:26; Mk 14:22; Lk 22:19), and early on in Church history, St. Paul understands Jesus’ words as literal when he writes, “Any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor 11:29).  Discern means to recognize, so we need to recognize Jesus’ body in the Eucharist because Jesus meant it literally.  As my good Evangelical friend said, “Obviously, there’s something more than bread there if Paul was saying this”.

The philosopher Peter Kreeft writes: “Look at history.  (This is the single clearest reason why I became a Catholic: because I looked at history.)  Not a single Christian in the world for 1000 years doubted or denied the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  The 11th century heretic Berengar of Tours was the first, and there were no others until the 16th century” (Jesus Shock, 106).

So, how are we to understand Jesus’ teaching?  First, what do we mean by ‘real presence’?  I know some Catholics have suggested that the Lord will protect them from COVID-19 if they take the Eucharist.  Unfortunately, the real presence doesn’t mean the Eucharist can’t get infected; it can.  This is what’s called naïve realism, which looks at the Eucharist in too materialistic a way (Avery Dulles, Church & Society, 458).  There was once a young girl who didn’t want to eat ice cream after Holy Communion because she feared Jesus would suffer from the cold.

Opposed to this, the Church teaches that Jesus is present “truly, really, and substantially” (CCC 1374).  These adverbs are used in a technical way: ‘Truly’ means it’s not just a sign pointing to Jesus in the heavens, but that He’s here.  ‘Really’ means at the level of being (for those who know philosophy, it’s ontologically real).  So, even if no one believes Jesus is present in the Eucharist, He’s still here; His presence doesn’t depend on what people believe.  ‘Substantially’ means the reality beneath the appearance of bread.

Second, let’s explain exactly what changes.  Catholic philosophers have reflected on Jesus’ teaching for a long time, and use two technical philosophical terms to explain the change: substance and accident.  “‘Substance…’ means what stands under the appearances (accidents), which can shift from one moment to the next while leaving the subject intact.  Appearances can be deceptive” (Dulles, 456-7).

Consider the following, if I wear a disguise and dress up in my awesome Jedi outfit, am I still Fr. Justin?  What if I gain a lot of weight and become a monsignor, am I still Fr. Justin?  What if I get horribly burned, you can’t recognize me, I get amnesia, would I still be Fr. Justin?  So my appearances can change in a profound way but not my substance—the two are different.  But God, in a miraculous way, can change the substance without changing the appearance.  Hence the word ‘Transubstantiation,’ which means literally across the substance.

At Mass when a priest says the words of consecration over the bread and wine, the bread and wine still look, smell. and taste the same (which should be obvious; by the way, no one has ever asserted that these properties change), but the underlying reality is Jesus Himself.  That’s why we take care of each tiny fragment of the Eucharist.  No matter how small the fragment, Jesus is substantially present and because we love Him, we worship and adore Him wherever He is present.

Third, how does this change happen?  By words that affect reality.  For example, certain human words can change our inner reality, as when someone affirms or criticizes us and this affects us for life.  When a properly deputized police officer says, “You’re under arrest,” you’re arrested.  His words change reality, at a juridical level.  If I were to pronounce these words, they’d have no effect because I have no authority.  But when a properly ordained priest, invested with spiritual authority, repeats the words of Jesus over bread and wine, he affects reality at a substantial level.

In 1950, the Catholic author Flannery O’Connor was invited to dinner, during which the host, a fallen-away Catholic, said to her that the Eucharist was a symbol and “a pretty good one.”  Flannery responded, “Well, if it’s only a symbol, to hell with it” (Robert Barron, Eucharist, 95).  Not a very diplomatic response, but it sums up Catholic faith very well.  If it’s just a symbol, why bother kneeling before it, teaching our kids about it, sacrificing time and energy to protect it, receiving it with the utmost care?

One of our sisters, Natalie Ng, said she would have gone to the protests downtown last week to fight against racism—good job.  But she didn’t because of COVID-19.  But why is she coming to Mass?  Because Jesus is really present here.

Today is a celebration!  Jesus loves us so much that He gives us His physical presence.  For the past three months, we have all learned the difference between real and virtual presence.  Being with people on Zoom is good but no comparison to the real thing.  Now, as I taught on Holy Thursday, April 9,  2020, spiritual communion isn’t a consolation prize to real communion, but, spiritual communion is always meant to lead us to physical communion (Vinny Flynn, 7 Secrets of the Eucharist, 86-89)!  Jesus knew the importance of the real and physical 2,000 years ago, and so wouldn’t settle for giving us a virtual presence, and He wants all spiritual communion to lead to physical communion.

During the lockdown, someone said, “I would kill for the Eucharist!”  He’s joking, but we know what he’s getting at.  Whether or not we are able to receive the Eucharist during this time, let’s celebrate it!  I got criticized by another priest for saying that, on the morning my dad died, I went to celebrate Mass before seeing my mom.  I said during the homily, “Take everything else and just give me the Mass”.  But I believe this sentiment is in line with the teachings and examples of the saints.

In 1997, St. Paul Parish in Richmond started their perpetual adoration chapel, led by Fr. Peter Chiang, who died this past May 23.  That’s where I’d go as a teenager to be with Jesus, after tennis, after hanging out with friends, whatever.  And it had a big part in helping me become a priest.  When I was in my fourth year of studies, I wrote Fr. Peter asking if he knew anyone who could help me pay for my final semester at Christ the King Seminary.  He wrote me the cheque himself for over $2,000 and told me not to tell anyone, and I never have until now.

Fr. Peter’s generosity in starting the chapel and helping other people concretely flowed from his huge Eucharistic heart, and to every parish he went, he tried to honour the Eucharist, and would always sing a very simple, childlike song to Jesus after receiving Communion.  Everyone found it cute, but it expressed his simple faith in Jesus.  I’ve asked Chris to sing it for us today during Communion.  Fr. Peter’s spiritual legacy is that he helped someone become a priest and helped hundreds of people have a Eucharistic heart.  Someone just told me that she recognizes how important and powerful the Eucharist is through my ministry.

Two questions for you today: 1) When you die, will anyone have a Eucharistic heart because of you?  Your family, spouse, children, friends?  Will you have any spiritual legacy with regards to the Eucharist?  2) When we approach communion today, how will our disposition and actions change when we truly receive Jesus Christ?

That CIA agent’s life was changed when the Muslim driver said, “If I had Jesus I would stop everything and spend every hour every day there with Jesus!”  Our lives have changed, too, because other people helped us understand that Jesus has given us His Real Presence.

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