Understanding Real Presence

by Joseph Martos

An article of Catholic faith is that Christ is present in the Eucharist. When I was growing up in the 1950s, nobody questioned it. Today, polls show that up to 70% of Catholics no longer believe this.

The idea goes back to the first centuries of Christianity. Early fathers of the church took it for granted that the bread and wine used in the liturgy are the body and blood of Christ. The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke recount that Jesus said, “This is my body. . . . This is my blood,” over bread and wine at the Last Supper. And the sixth chapter of John’s gospel quotes Jesus as saying, “I am the bread of life. . . . This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

Late in the first century, Ignatius of Antioch wrote, “The eucharist is the flesh and blood of our savior.” Three centuries later, Ambrose of Milan said, “Before the consecration, the bread is not the body of Christ, but after the consecration, it is now the body of Christ.” A bishop of Constantinople even complained that people were not coming to communion because they did not feel worthy to come in physical contact with the divine Christ.

Explaining the Eucharist

The early church leaders never tried to explain how the bread and wine became the body and blood of Christ. They just accepted it as a fact. It was not until five centuries later that theologically minded monks began to offer explanations for this Catholic belief.

The most famous of these explanations was developed in the thirteenth century by Thomas Aquinas, a theologian who taught at the University of Paris. Using a type of analysis developed by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, Thomas argued that it was a change in reality without a change in appearances. Before a priest said, “This is my body. . . . This is my blood,” over the bread and wine, people perceived the reality of bread and wine on the altar. But after the words of consecration were spoken, devout believers perceived the reality of Christ, even though what they were looking at still looked like bread and wine.

The theological name for this change is transubstantiation, but this name is very misleading. The Council of Trent in the sixteenth century tried to explain it by saying that the substance of bread and wine become the substance of the body and blood of Christ. But the word “substance” (substantia in Latin) is misleading. In English, a substance is some kind of physical stuff. But the Latin word substantia simply meant something real, an individual reality. According to Aquinas, therefore, transubstantiation is a change from something that is real to something else that is real.

Explaining Change

Can something change without its appearance changing? Certainly. Take a letter opener. Ordinarily it is a knife-shaped instrument for opening letters. But if a detective finds it sticking in the back of a dead body, he looks at it and sees a different reality, namely, a murder weapon.

People go through real changes all the time. After a couple speak their wedding vows, they are really married and no longer single. Someone who goes through a naturalization ceremony goes in a foreigner and comes out a citizen. Someone who takes an oath of office becomes something they weren’t before—a police officer, a mayor, a governor. Really.

Sociologists today would explain these real changes through social consent theory. But Catholic thinkers in the Middle Ages did not have social consent theory. They had Aristotelian metaphysics. And they did the best they could with what they had.

Changed Perceptions Change Reality

Your doorbell rings. You open the door and see someone there. Who is it? He shows you a badge, and suddenly you see a police officer standing in front of you. His height did not change. His clothes did not change. But his reality changed as soon as you perceived him differently.

A non-believer walks into a church during Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. He sees a priest holding up a large gold something-or-other. He doesn’t even notice the round white area in the center of it. At the same time, a devout Catholic looks up, ignores the display case called a monstrance, and focuses on the white wafer in the center. But she does not see a piece of white bread. What she sees—or perhaps we should say what she perceives—is Christ.

Being Real

Most of us who grew up Catholic made our first communion when we were about eight years old. We were taught that Christ is really present in the Eucharist. We understood it the way an eight-year-old would.

Developmental psychology tells us that when children are eight, they are not yet capable of abstract thinking. Real for them means physically real. They know that air is real because they can feel it when they wave a hand back and forth.

When we as kids were taught the Christ is present in the Eucharist, we thought it meant physically present. If we were spiritually inclined and tried real hard, we might even have felt the presence of Jesus in us when we received communion.

When we got older, if we did not question what we were taught, we might still believe that Christ is physically present in the Eucharist. There is a good chance that the adults who taught us still believed in the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It’s possible that they never outgrew their childhood understanding of the faith.

Most Catholics who reject the idea of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist think it means that Christ is physically present in the Eucharist. And they are right to do that because it is stupid to think that Christ’s presence is a physical presence.

Spiritual Realities

Are ideas real? Are thoughts real? If they are, how do we perceive them?

The simple answer is that we perceive spiritual realities through physical realities. You look at the physical words on this page, but you perceive things that are not physical, namely meanings or ideas. Your eyes look at black marks on a white background, but your mind perceives what the words mean.

The same happens when you listen to someone speaking. Your ears pick up vibrations in the air, or sounds, but your mind interprets the sounds and you perceive meanings. You perceive spiritual or non-material realities, namely meanings or ideas, through physical or material realities, namely vibrations in the air that set off vibrations in your ear.

I remember being at my Uncle Rudy’s funeral. There was something in the casket that looked like Uncle Rudy, but it wasn’t him. Uncle Rudy was a lively fellow, always smiling and cracking jokes. What was in the casket didn’t smile and didn’t move. I could look at it, but I could not see my uncle. His body was there, but he was not there.

When you look at someone, you perceive their presence. But their presence is not something physical. Who they are is not their body. Who they are is their personality, their character, their feelings, their thoughts. None of these are physical realities. They are immaterial or spiritual, but they are nonetheless real.

The Real Presence of Christ

If it is true that we perceive the real presence of others through physical realities such as their body, their clothing, their words and their gestures, it is also true that we perceive the real presence of God through physical realities.

Some people sense God’s presence through nature, others through art, still others through architecture, still others through religious symbols. Whenever it occurs, it is a genuine experience, a real presence. If you have experienced it, you know that it is real. If you have never experienced it, then you probably don’t know what I am talking about.

In traditional Catholic spirituality, people pray to saints and they pray to the Virgin Mary. When they do so, they often pray in front of a statue or a picture of some sort. They are not praying to the statue or to the picture. Rather, they perceive the person to whom they are praying through the statue or picture in front of them. It is no different from when people talk to you. They see a physical image in front of them, but the person to whom they are speaking is not that image. You are more than your skin, your hair and your clothing.

The presence of Christ in the Eucharist is more than just a belief. It is an experienced reality. Explanations such as transubstantiation were never just about beliefs. They were always about the experience of real presence. They were attempts to explain something that is real and experienced as such.

If you have experienced the real presence of Christ, then you know what I am talking about. Explaining it is never easy.

Joseph Martos has written extensively about the history and theology of sacraments. His latest book is Honest Rituals, Honest Sacraments: Letting Go of Doctrines and Celebrating What’s Real.






14 responses to “Understanding Real Presence”

  1. Padre Dave Poedel Avatar
    Padre Dave Poedel

    Well done! Thank you!

  2. Alan Hommerding Avatar
    Alan Hommerding

    Thank you for these excellent reflections.

    I’d like to know the source of your statistic near the opening – I’m aware that a quite-old USA Today survey had right around that response percentage. The question people responded to was: is Christ truly present in the communion elements, or are they symbols. I like to say this is the Catholic sacramental equivalent of “have you stopped beating your wife?” – the true answer to the question is “yes,” because symbols ARE real. CARA, I believe, has done a much more thorough surveying of US Roman Catholics on this topic, with very different results.

    Another layer of cognitive static comes in with the use of the word “real” – it’s a shorthand for “substantial, in the Aristotelian/Thomistic understanding of that word” so it’s much more convenient. Yet Christ is really/truly present in the Word, in the minister, in the gathered assembly, and above all in the eucharistic elements. All of these are “real” presences, according to Vatican II, though only the eucharistic elements have a “substantial, in the Aristotelian/Thomistic understanding of that word” presence. Also, many of the baptized faithful (including some clergy) presume – incorrectly (on one occasion in my experience, heretically) – that “real” means “physical” – yet the real presence is not physical.

    1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
      Karl Liam Saur

      And there’s always Paul VI’s attempt to address physicality in Mysterium Fidei :

      The Physical Reality of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist

      To avoid misunderstanding this sacramental presence which surpasses the laws of nature and constitutes the greatest miracle of its kind we must listen with docility to the voice of the teaching and praying Church. This voice, which constantly echoes the voice of Christ, assures us that the way Christ is made present in this Sacrament is none other than by the change of the whole substance of the bread into His Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into His Blood, and that this unique and truly wonderful change the Catholic Church rightly calls transubstantiation. As a result of transubstantiation, the species of bread and wine undoubtedly take on a new meaning and a new finality, for they no longer remain ordinary bread and ordinary wine, but become the sign of something sacred, the sign of a spiritual food. However, the reason they take on this new significance and this new finality is simply because they contain a new “reality” which we may justly term ontological. Not that there lies under those species what was already there before, but something quite different; and that not only because of the faith of the Church, but in objective reality, since after the change of the substance or nature of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, nothing remains of the bread and wine but the appearances, under which Christ, whole and entire, in His physical “reality” is bodily present, although not in the same way that bodies are present in a given place.

  3. Father Scott McCarthy Avatar
    Father Scott McCarthy

    A very much appreciated explanation…Perhaps the other sacraments could be explored in similar ways.

  4. Anthony Hawkins Avatar
    Anthony Hawkins

    I like the analogy of marriage. In the English form, there is a gap of about 20 seconds between the parties uttering their consent. Does that mean the groom is married to the bride for twenty seconds before she is married to him?
    Our attempts to pin down the eucharistic mystery are, I think, always doomed to lead to category errors. Human beings grasp of reality is much more tenuous then we like to suppose, as is shown by discussions of quantum mechanics.

  5. Fr. Jack Feehily Avatar
    Fr. Jack Feehily

    A magnificent analysis of the meaning of real in “real presence”. There are Catholics who are truly amazed upon discovering “Eucharistic miracles” because they prove that Christ is physically present in the sacrament. I am agnostic on such reported miracles, but the perception of them as proof of the real presence, in my view, is associated with a distortion of what sacramental presence really means. Martos is on target in stating that the so-called 70 percent of Catholics who prefer symbolic to real as the question is put actually do believe they are receiving the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ when they take and eat, take and drink. I wonder if this false perception that Catholics don’t believe in the real presence has led other Catholics to overstate the significance of the worship of Christ in the tabernacle or monstrance.

  6. Todd Flowerday Avatar

    Excellent essay, but call me a skeptic on the 70%/nobody questioned it notion. Perhaps previous generations could parrot the Balt-Cat, but could they put it into their own words? And would those words be judged orthodox by the hierarchy of the day? Would they not participate in the devotional life of Catholics and appear to accept and endorse much of what was in an unknown language?

    I think we cannot really know what pre-conciliar Catholics as a whole accepted because it was never asked, especially by a secular pollster. The questions I ask myself when it comes to liturgy: Did our music open a door? Did I stay out of the way? Did I facilitate a real encounter with the Lord? Questions I would put to college students involved in liturgy when I worked with them. Questions I would ask of any priest or other liturgical minister today.

  7. Devin Rice Avatar
    Devin Rice

    I question whether physicality can truly be excluded. If Christ is substantially present in the sacrament then so is his humanity. And I doubt his humanity can be seperated from his body/flesh/blood.

    Granted, I think we need to make a distinction between his resurrected body present in the Eucharist and his pre-resurrected state. After the resurrection, Christ’s flesh had some interesting properties in regards to physicality.

    I would say the degree with which we can attribute physicality to the post crucifixion appearances of Jesus, it is the same degree that we can ascribe physicality to His Presence in the Blessed Sacrament.

  8. Bill deHaas Avatar
    Bill deHaas

    Thank you – appreciate the writings of Martos. The key to me is that Martos centers on eucharist/real presence and its meaning as a communal action (not an object). That action is a relationship (real presence) rather than getting hung up on some type of philosophical process that objectives the meaning.

  9. Tom Piatak Avatar
    Tom Piatak

    I don’t think it’s stupid to believe Christ is physically present in the Eucharist. Nor, I suspect, did the author of “Ave Verum Corpus,” or those geniuses who set that meditation on Christ’s physical presence in the Eucharist to music.

    1. Chistopher Lazowski OSB Avatar

      The problem is that the words “physical” and “physically” are ambiguous.

      If by “physical”, you mean that the body of the risen and glorified Christ is really and truly present, that is to say it refers to WHAT is present, yes.

      If you mean that his body is present in the way we experience our bodies as present in a place, that is to say it refers to the MODE of presence, no, at least according to St. Thomas and Trent.

      There is a very simple test for this. If “physical” presence means that the body of Christ moves from one place to another when the consecrated species are moved from one place to another, then no, his body is not physically present, because the eucharistic presence is not a local presence, that is to say that the body of Christ is not present as in a place. This is becasue localisation is in technical Aristotelico-Thomist terms an “accident”, and Christ’s body is present by its “substance” (in the metaphysical sense), without its “accidents”; according to St. Thomas (and Trent, inasmuch as the Council teaches that the Catholic Church rightly calls the eucharistic transformation “transubstantiation”); the “accidents” (hence localisation) of the bread and wine remain after the consecration, but not the “substance”.

      I’m not a card-carrying Thomist, and I’m well aware that the Thomist analysis of the eucharist has its weaknesses (of the main ones is that it doesn’t take proper account of the liturgy as a “locus theologicus”), but it also has its strengths, one of which is to spell out very clearly what the eucharistic presence is not. Alas, I’m not at all sure that Catholic piety has really assimilated the implications of Thomas’s theology. Someone who was a fully paid-up Thomist of the strict observance was Father Jean-Hervé Nicolas O.P., professor of dogmatic theology at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland from 1955 to 1980. In his “Synthèse dogmatique” (the published version of his courses on dogma), he says that the eucharistic presence is “the spiritual presence of Christ’s body”, which strikes me as a good a summary of transubstantiation as you can get. What is really and truly present is Christ’s risen, glorious and spiritual body, and in a spiritual manner; spiritual means quite the opposite of unreal, indeed it means the deepest sort of reality.

      Happy feast of Corpus Christi, which in my community we keep today. Adoro te devote, latens Deitas!

      1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
        Anthony Ruff, OSB

        Thank you, Christopher! You just said everything I want to, and better than I could have.

        The main take-away is that words like “physical,” “substance” “real,” and the like, are exceedingly ambiguous and multivalent. If we Christians are all aware of that in our probings with other Christians of this unfathomable mystery, our conversations will perhaps help all of us approach the mystery with a bit more wisdom.


  10. Bill deHaas Avatar
    Bill deHaas

    Agree – excellent summary. BTW, transubstantiation is not *dogma* nor is it even the core meaning of what the community celebrates in the eucharist. It is a cultural explanation that will always need to be changed, modified, and added to as the people of God build the kingdom of God.
    Also, thought Martos did a very concise, simple explanation of a very difficult theological discussion around sacrament, symbol, and sign. Unfortunately, the cultural understanding of *real presence* continues to misdirect the conversation. As Chris said, we easily agree on WHAT but the HOW leads us into a maze.
    Need to stay focused on the common shared meaning – vs. getting lost in the secondary method.

  11. Bill deHaas Avatar
    Bill deHaas

    More from today’s feast (hat trick to Mary McGlone at NCR):

    We know how Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it. Paul reminds us that Jesus identified the bread with his body, his gift of self, and the cup with the new covenant in his own blood. With the bread and the wine, Paul repeats Jesus’ phrase in Luke, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
    By emphasizing “remembrance,” Paul called on his peoples’ religious imagination and experience. For the Jews of his day, memory had the power to bring the past into the present with such force that people who were born long after an event could truly feel part of it. (Remembering Christ’s promises for the future allows the past to influence the present in a similar way.) – thus, amenensis is just as important as the institution narrative (and a few rites have no institution narrative)
    We might say that among these people religious memory was not an intellectual activity but a power that allowed them to participate in what had formed their people in ages past.
    Thus, Paul said, “As often as you eat this bread … you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” The only genuine way to proclaim Jesus’ death is to live in readiness to participate in it.
    Suggest that arguments (intellectual activity cited above) focused only on the HOW is like trying to figure out how many angels can sit on a pin’s head.

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