The Real Presence: dealing with doubt

John 6:51-58 (Corpus Christi, year A)
Christ with the Host, Paolo da San Leocadio, 1520
When I was living in Rome, one of my favorite events to attend was the annual Corpus Christi procession. Every year this begins with the Pope celebrating Mass at the famous basilica of St. John Lateran. After Mass, the Pope places a consecrated host inside a monstrance and leads a crowd of several thousands in procession through the streets of Rome to the nearby basilica Santa Maria Maggiore. There everyone spends some moments in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Now, if you had no knowledge of Catholic tradition and belief, the event would seem very strange. You might ask, quite understandably, why people were adoring what looks like a piece of bread. If you were to ask why we did this, we’d reply it is because we believe that this bread is not bread but that it is really, truly, substantially Jesus. This belief in the Real Presence would no doubt leave you confused and doubtful. This reaction is not uncommon, both among Catholics and non-Catholics.

In fact, the feast of Corpus Christi came about because of doubt in the Real Presence. Back in the year 1263 a German priest was travelling to Rome on pilgrimage. Along the way, he stopped in the small, Italian city of Bolsena to celebrate Mass. During his pilgrimage, this priest was experiencing a crisis of faith. He was struggling to believe in the Real Presence. While he was celebrating Mass, something extraordinary happened. At the moment of consecration the host began to drip blood onto the piece of linen, called a corporal, that sat upon the altar. Shocked, the priest went to visit Pope Urban IV who was staying in the nearby city of Orvieto. After an investigation, the Pope ordered that the host, along with the corporal be displayed in the Cathedral of Orvieto for veneration. You can still see them there today. Soon after this event, Pope Urban instituted the feast of Corpus Christi, in honor of the Body and Blood of Jesus. He even commissioned St. Thomas Aquinas to write the prayers for this special feast, one that came about because of doubts that a priest had in the real presence.

Today it seems that many Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence. In 2013, a survey of American Catholics (I assume the numbers would be similar for Canadians) found that approximately 40% of American Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence. That is, they do not believe that at the consecration during Mass, the bread and wine really become the Body and Blood of Jesus and are not just mere symbols. That only six out of ten Catholics believe in the Real Presence is hardly encouraging. When you look closer at the study, however, some interesting facts emerge. This study explains that half of American Catholics do not know that the Church teaches the Real Presence. Looking closer we see that 17% of Catholics do not know that the Church teaches the Real Presence, but believe in it nonetheless. On the other hand, 33% do not know that the Church teaches the real presence and do not believe in it. Most interesting of all, of those who actually know that the Church teaches the Real Presence, a mere 4% do not believe in it. From this study, we can draw an important lesson. Though four in ten Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence, the vast majority of these people are ignorant of Church teaching. This study then tells us that lack of belief in Real Presence is more a problem of lack of proper religious education rather than doubt.

The Catholic Church has always taught the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. The reason the Church has always taught that the Eucharist is no mere symbol but that Jesus is really present in the Eucharist is simply: Jesus has told us so. He does this clearly in the Gospel of today, taken from John, chapter 6. As many of you know, in John’s account of the Last Supper, he has makes no mention of Jesus instituting the Eucharist. This is no accident; John’s discussion of the Eucharist happens in chapter 6. This chapter begins with Jesus feeding a multitude through the multiplication of loaves. Later in the chapter, Jesus discusses the significance of what He has done. He explains that though He has given them bread in this miracle, He will give them something better. Jesus explains that He will give Himself as bread in two ways.
  1. In the first way, Jesus becomes bread in a symbolic way. In the Old Testament, wisdom from God was seen as bread (see Proverbs 9:15). This is the bread that gives true life. Jesus explains that He is the wisdom of God; He is the bread that gives true life.
  2. In the second way, Jesus literally gives us Himself under the appearance of bread in the Eucharist, which is truly and really His Body and Blood. We just read this in the Gospel of Today. Here Jesus is no longer speaking symbolically. We know this for a few reasons, here are two. First, the verb for “to eat” changes. The greek verb “trogein” is used. This verb is crassly material, meaning “to gnaw”. This serves to emphasize that Jesus will truly give Himself for us to eat. Secondly, it was clear that those Jesus spoke to realized He was speaking literally. For Jews the idea of drinking the blood of an animal, let alone of a human, was repugnant. Throughout the chapter people are becoming more and more hostile to what Jesus is saying. Ultimately most left Him because of this teaching. Jesus could have stopped and said “listen, I am only speaking symbolically!” He could have kept most of His followers by making this clarification, but He didn't.
The Catholic Church teaches that the Eucharist is not some mere symbol. The Church teaches that Jesus is really, truly present in the Eucharist because He has told us so.

There are some simple ways that we can strengthen our faith in these words of Christ.  Recently, Pope Francis said something which I found striking:
Every Sunday we go to Mass, we celebrate the Eucharist together and the Eucharist is like the ‘burning bush’ in which the Trinity humbly dwells and communicates itself.
After reading this, I thought, “how did Moses acknowledge that he was in the presence of God?” He took off his sandals. Because having a body is integral to what it means to be human, we must express our beliefs with gestures. Moses took of his sandals because he believed he was in God’s presence. As Catholics, we have a rich tradition of gestures associated with the Eucharist. These gestures and the way that we act when in the presence of the Eucharist both express our faith and strengthen it. For example, we kneel during the consecration not to take a rest, but to adore Jesus who is really present in the Eucharist. When we enter or leave a Church we genuflect to the tabernacle. In the Middle Ages, when someone entered the presence of a king they would genuflect. Genuflecting toward the tabernacle reminds us that Jesus - the King of kings - is really present there in the Eucharist. Doing these simple gestures like kneeling and genuflecting both expresses and strengthens our faith in Jesus’ teaching that He is truly, really present in the Eucharist.

Today on Corpus Christi we give thanks to Jesus that in His great love for us He has given us in the Eucharist the greatest gift of all, the gift of His very self. The Eucharist is no longer bread. It is not a mere symbol. It is really Jesus. This has never been an easy teaching to accept. We believe in the Real Presence because of the word of Jesus. We believe it because He has told us so. Let us remember that kneeling and genuflecting are not part of some “Catholic Aerobics routine” but are rather powerful, simple ways to strengthen our faith in Jesus’ teaching.