The Real Presence

The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a doctrine – an official teaching of the Catholic Church – and a profound mystery. With the words of consecration, the whole of Christ is truly present – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity – under the appearances of bread and wine.

The doctrine is based upon the words of Jesus Himself when He instituted the Eucharist. Jesus took the bread and said, “This is my body” (Mt 26:26), and He took the cup filled with wine and said, “This is my blood” (Mt 26:28). When Jesus said, “This is my body,” He declared that the bread actually is His Body, and that He is really present.

We accept and believe what Jesus said as a matter of faith. There is no scientific evidence, definite proof or factual explanation. We take Jesus at His word because He is truth (Jn 14:6), He came into the world to testify to the truth (Jn 18:37), and the words that He spoke are spirit and life (Jn 6:63). St. Cyril of Alexandria wrote, “Do not doubt whether this is true, but rather receive the words of the Savior in faith, for since He is truth, He cannot lie.”

The words of Jesus are clear and unambiguous, yet the doctrine of the Real Presence is questioned and doubted by some, and challenged, ridiculed or rejected by others. Recent public opinion polls have reported an alarmingly high percentage of those who claim to be Catholic who do not believe in the Real Presence. Other Catholics have wavered and their faith has eroded because of personal uncertainty, or because they have been swayed by the secular press, the teachings of misguided theologians or the objections of non-Catholic Christians.

There are a number of faulty explanations that are contrary to the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence: that the bread and wine remain bread and wine and that there is no change; that they become the spiritual presence of Christ, not the actual presence; that they become a symbol that represents Christ’s presence; that they are a reminder, memento, or foreshadowing of Christ; that they become more significant or important spiritually; or that they are simultaneously Christ’s body and blood but also ordinary bread and wine.

Over the centuries, some non-believers have attacked the Catholic belief in the Real Presence with claims that it is impossible, ridiculous or superstition. During outdoor Eucharist processions, some spectators hurled taunts and insults, and their behaviors were so disrespectful that the processions were taken off the streets and moved back into cathedrals and churches to uphold and protect the sanctity of the Eucharist.

In the face of questions, misunderstanding and attack, the Church has defined, defended and reinforced its teaching on the Real Presence. St. Ambrose, who lived in the fourth century, wrote, “Could not Christ’s word, which can make from nothing what did not exist, change existing things into what they were not before?”

The doctrine was enunciated by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 and reaffirmed and rearticulated by the Council of Constance in 1415. During the upheaval of the Protestant Reformation, the Council of Trent declared in 1551, “By the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the Body of Christ our Lord.”

In his 1965 encyclical “Mysterium Fidei,” Pope Paul VI wrote, “The presence is called ‘real’ … it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes Himself wholly and entirely present.”