In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives His followers a crash course on the doctrine of the Real Presence: “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” (John 6:53)
Don’t worry, it didn’t sound any less weird and horrifying to them then than it does to us today. There was murmuring and quarreling about it then, as now. People left the Church over it then, as they did in the sixteenth century, and might today if anyone really talked about it.
But let’s go there. Let’s talk about what Jesus taught, and what the Apostles and evangelists and Church Fathers defended, and what every Catholic must profess to believe about the Real Presence in the Eucharist.
The Council of Trent—convened in 1545 to address the Protestant schism—asserted: “In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist ‘the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1374)
There you have it. At every Mass, just as Jesus explained, Catholics receive the actual flesh and blood of the actual Jesus. An account of the entire doctrine is beyond the scope of one devotion (the USCCB has a great q&a), but if the “what” is the Real Presence, the “how” is called Transubstantiation. That is, that the “substance” which means “what it is,” of the bread and wine is changed at the consecration to the body and blood of Jesus, while the “appearance” of the bread and wine, and its other properties, remain unchanged. It still looks, tastes, and smells like bread and wine, but, as Saint Thomas Aquinas says, is “the entire body of Christ, that is, the bones and nerves, and the like.” (source)
No formed, informed Catholic can claim that the Eucharist “symbolizes” Christ. That contradicts Church teaching as well as the words of Jesus Himself. As Flannery O’Connor wrote in The Habit of Being, in her unmistakable style, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”
So, what are we to do with this information? Our two choices are pretty well summed up by verses that follow today’s gospel: “As a result of this, many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. Jesus then said to the Twelve, ‘Do you also want to leave?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’” (John 6:66-68)
Spend some time in the Adoration chapel this week. When you receive the Eucharist at Mass, pray a special prayer of thanksgiving for a God Who became Man so we could partake in His life!
Kendra Tierney is a forty year old mother of nine and wife of one living in and working on a big old fixer-upper house in Los Angeles. She’s a homeschooler and a regular schooler and is counting down the days until her oldest turns sixteen and can take over some of the driving! Her new book, the Catholic All Year Compendium: Liturgical Living for Real Life, will be published on October 7th. You can find that here, her first book, A Little Book About Confession, here, her blog here, and her word art here.