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THE REAL PRESENCE IS A PHYSICAL PRESENCE

Regis Scanlon

Fr. Regis Scanlon, OFM Cap., is the Director of Prison Ministry for the Archdiocese of Denver, and is spiritual director for Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity who run a personal-care home in Denver for people suffering from AIDS. His article "The Inflated Reputation of Hans Urs von Balthasar" (NOR, March 2000), was widely noticed.

"This Is My Body…My Blood"

W hen converts recount their journey to the Catholic Faith, they often say: "There was always something different about being in a Catholic church. God seemed to be present in Catholic churches in a way that He was not in other churches." These people were drawn to the Catholic Faith by the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. What a consolation given to the Church by our Savior! We have Jesus Christ dwelling among us in the flesh, yet few Catholics adequately understand this mystery and miracle.

The difficulty today is that Catholics are being influenced by some Catholic educators who have drifted toward a Protestant sense of the Eucharist. These educators describe the Eucharist solely as a powerful symbol or as a subjective moment when the communicant becomes united to Christ during the act of receiving the Eucharist. While these perspectives have their merits, the Catholic Church's teaching on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is far deeper and richer. Pope Paul VI teaches in No. 46 of his 1965 encyclical, Mysterium Fidei, that after the consecration at Mass, "Christ is present whole and entire in His physical `reality' corporeally present…" (italics added). So when the priest pronounces the words of consecration over the bread and wine during the Eucharist, the bread and wine are physically changed into Jesus Christ, including His physical Body and Blood.

Contrary to this, a number of Catholic educators today reject the belief that the bread and wine are physically changed into Jesus Christ during the Mass. One good example of this is found in Catholic University Prof. Msgr. Kevin Irwin's article on the Eucharist published in Origins (May 31, 2001). Msgr. Irwin says the following about the Council of Trent's teaching on Transubstantiation and the Eucharist:

While Trent affirmed (and subsequent magisterial documents have repeated and adapted it) that Christ is present "truly, really and substantially" (Enchiridion Symbolorum, Denz.-Schon., 1651) and that "the whole substance of bread and wine is changed into Christ's body and blood" (ibid.), nowhere does it state or imply that this change is "physical."

While the Church has not used the precise phrase "physical change," the Catholic Church does teach that the consecrated species are the physical Body and Blood of Christ. The physical bread and wine, during the consecration, become the physical Body and Blood of Christ, so obviously there must be a physical "change," and any quibbling about the word "change" can only be meaningless semantics.

If one were to accept Msgr. Irwin's notion of no physical change of the bread and wine during the consecration of the Mass, then the Host would still be physical bread and not the physical Body of Christ after the consecration. The Physical Thing on the altar after the consecration would be merely bread!

Not surprisingly, this kind of take on the Eucharist has surfaced at the popular level, for example, in Msgr. M. Francis Mannion's Q&A column in Our Sunday Visitor. In his November 28, 1999, column, he said that the eucharistic presence is not a "physical" presence. He took some criticism for this, but did not back down. In his May 21, 2000, column, he insisted that Christ's presence is not a "material" presence. Rather, he said, Christ is present "symbolically" in the sense that "a symbol is a reality that embodies and really makes present another reality — for instance, my words symbolize me" (whatever that means!).

Let's take a closer look at Msgr. Irwin's statement. He appears to say that because the Council of Trent did not use the term "physical" when speaking about the change of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, we cannot use this term today to describe this change. But this argument loses its steam when one realizes that the term "physical" was not commonly used in connection to bodily or corporeal things during the time of the 16th-century Council of Trent. When the Oxford English Dictionary (1971) discusses the etymology of the word "physical" and "physically," it indicates that the word "physical" was first used in the context "of the body, and bodily members or faculties (as distinct from the mind); bodily, corporeal" in 1780, about two centuries after the Council of Trent. Trent could hardly have used a word in a way unfamiliar to the people of that time because the people would not have understood what the Church meant by her teaching.

While Msgr. Irwin quotes the Council of Trent as teaching that "the whole substance of bread and wine is changed into Christ's body and blood," a fuller quotation of Trent's teaching is: "in the sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist there are truly, really, and substantially contained the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and therefore the whole Christ"(Denz.-Schon., 1651). The Church, therefore, actually teaches that the "whole substance of bread and wine" is changed into "the whole Christ [totum Christum]." This "whole Christ" includes Jesus' resurrected physical Body. Thus, the physical bread is changed into Jesus Christ, including His physical Body, and the Physical Thing on the altar after the consecration is the flesh-and-blood Jesus Christ.

Paul VI elaborated on the doctrine of the Eucharistic Mystery in his Credo of the People of God (1968): "Any theological explanation intent on arriving at some understanding of this Mystery, if it is to be in accordance with Catholic faith, must maintain, without ambiguity, that in the order of reality which exists independently of the human mind, the bread and wine cease to exist after the consecration." So, while bread and wine may continue to exist in the memory of the priest and people after the consecration, bread and wine certainly do not continue to exist outside the human mind and on the altar after the consecration. Quoting the Council of Trent, Paul VI says in No. 45 of Mysterium Fidei that after the consecration, "Our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and true man," is contained in the Blessed Sacrament "under the outward appearances of sensible things." But, since Paul VI also teaches that following the consecration the "bread and wine cease to exist" "independently of the human mind," these "outward appearances of sensible things" could only be emanating from the human mind.

Thus, when the priest says the words of consecration over the bread (and wine), the physical bread outside the mind of the priest and congregation ceases to exist, but the "appearance" of the bread (i.e., the color, shape, feel, and taste) continues to exist in the minds of the priest and congregation. It is important to realize that, prior to the consecration of the bread and wine by the priest, the appearance of the bread was being impressed upon the senses and mind of the priest and congregation by the bread upon the altar. After the consecration, however, the appearance of the bread (tan or white, round, doughy, and wheat-like taste) emanates from the mind of the priest and congregation and not at all from the Host upon the altar. For that which is on the altar is no longer bread but Jesus Christ in the flesh. Obviously, Jesus Christ is not white or tan, round, doughy, and wheat-like in taste. Jesus did not turn Himself into bread, but rather He turned bread into Himself. Thus, our Lord permits Himself to be recognized, approached and received bodily by the ones He loves without fear in a most pleasant way under the appearance of bread and wine.

It should be quite clear that physical bread and wine do not remain ("exist") on the altar after the consecration. But there is something physical on the altar after the consecration, or the priest and the people could not handle, break, eat, and drink the Eucharist. And this Physical Reality or Physical Thing outside the human mind which priest and people handle, break, eat, and drink is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As mentioned earlier, Paul VI teaches in Mysterium Fidei that, after the consecration, "Christ is present whole and entire in His physical `reality' corporeally present…" (totus et integer Christus adest in sua physica `realitate' etiam corporaliter praesens…). Pope John Paul II reiterated this very same teaching in No. 12 of his January 22, 1999, apostolic exhortation, The Church in America: "Christ is present, whole and entire in his physical `reality,' corporally present."

Now, the laws of physics say a physical body can be in only one place at one time. It cannot be in two different places at the same time. So if the eucharistic Host is the physical Jesus Christ, how can He be on my tongue and on your tongue at the same time? Paul VI recognizes this conflict with the science of physics and explains that, yes, Christ's "physical `reality'" is "corporeally present" after the consecration, "although not in the manner in which bodies are present in place" (Mysterium Fidei, no. 46; italics added).

Some, however, will find it difficult to accept this apparent conflict with physical science. Thus, Paul VI stated in No. 16 of Mysterium Fidei regarding this mystery of the Real Presence: "And so we must approach this mystery in particular with humility and reverence, not relying on human reasoning, which ought to hold its peace, but rather adhering firmly to divine Revelation." And in No. 17 of Mysterium Fidei, he quoted St. John Chrysostom, the fourth-century Doctor of the Church:

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.

Obviously, the resurrected and glorified physical body of Jesus Christ is not limited by the natural laws of physics. The glorified physical Body of our Savior is able to be in more than one place at one time. This is a miracle in which the natural laws of physics and biology are superseded. In No. 15 of Mysterium Fidei, Paul VI quotes Pope Leo XIII, who says the Eucharist contains "all supernatural realities in a remarkable richness and variety of miracles."

In fact, one must have this same understanding of a miraculous resurrected Body of Jesus Christ if one is to believe the Mystery of the physical Resurrection of Jesus Christ as it is taught in sacred Scripture. The fact that Jesus Christ can be in more than one place at one time with His eucharistic physical Body is a miracle, much as it was a miracle when He entered the room where the disciples had gathered with His resurrected physical Body, "even though the disciples had locked the doors of the place where they were" (Jn. 20:19). Even though Jesus passed through walls or doors, He was truly physical, as the disciples quickly discovered when Jesus "ate" some "cooked fish" in their presence (Lk. 24:42-43), and St. Thomas put his finger into the holes of Jesus' hand and into the wound in Jesus' side (Jn. 20:27). Here too the laws of physics were superseded.

Paul VI teaches that the Eucharist is a "Mystery" containing "miracles." If the consecrated species on the altar are simply physical bread and wine which are symbols of Jesus Christ and not His real Person with His glorified physical Body, where is the mystery, the miracle? There is none! But, if Jesus Christ rose from the dead in His Flesh and Body — i.e., in His physical reality — and if this very same Person is on the altar with His Body and "physica `realitate'" after the consecration, then we do indeed have miracle and mystery in the Eucharist. So when the "whole substance of bread and wine" is changed into "the whole Christ" at the Eucharist, there is a physical change of the bread and wine into the real and living flesh-and-blood Jesus Christ. Deo Gratias!  

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