Saint Robert Bellarmine, writing in the sixteen hundreds, counted over two hundred interpretations of our Lord’s words at the Last Supper, “This is my Body…this is my Blood.” Over the centuries, this has been the principal source of division among the Protestant Churches of the world.
My purpose in this conference will be twofold: first to identify and explain what the Catholic Church understands by the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and then to see how basic to Protestantism is the denial of the Real Presence.
Catholic Faith in the Real Presence
When Catholic Christianity affirms, without qualification, that “in the nourishing sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, after the consecration of the bread and wine, our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and true man,” is present “under the appearances of those sensible things,” it rests its faith on the words of Scripture and the evidence of Sacred Tradition. 1
The beginning of this faith comes from the discourse recorded by St. John, writing toward the end of the first century. Christ had already worked the miracle of multiplying the loaves and fishes. He had also spoke at length about the need for faith in Him and His words as a condition for salvation. Then He continued:
I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the desert and they are dead; but this is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.
Then the Jews started arguing with one another. Did they understand Him correctly? Was He actually telling them He would give His own flesh for food? “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” they asked. Instead of reassuring them that he did not mean to be taken literally, Christ went on:
I tell you most solemnly, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you will not have life in you. Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him. As I, who am sent by the living Father, myself draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will draw life from me. This is the bread that came down from heaven; not like the bread that your ancestors ate; they are dead, but anyone who eats this bread will live forever (John 6:48-58).
The evangelist explains that Christ taught this doctrine in the synagogue, but that hearing it “many of his followers said, ‘This is intolerable language, How could anyone accept it?’” Jesus was fully aware that His followers were complaining and, in fact, asked them, “does this upset you?” But He took nothing back. Rather He insisted, “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” At the same time He explained that such faith is not of man’s making, since “no one could come to me unless the Father allows him.”
Following this animated dialogue, we are prepared for the statement, “After this, many of His disciples left Him and stopped going with Him.” Then, to make absolutely certain there was no mistaking what He was saying, Jesus said to the Twelve, “What about you, do you want to go away too?” To which Simon Peter replied, “Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe” (John 6:59-68).
The Church’s decisive revelation on the Real Presence is in the words of the consecration, “This is my body; this is my blood,” whose literal meaning has been defended through the ages. They were thus understood by St. Paul when he told the first Christians that those who approached the Eucharist unworthily would be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. There could be no question of a grievous offense against Christ Himself, unless Paul assumed that the true Body and the true Blood of Christ are really present in the Eucharist.
The Rise of Eucharistic Heresy
The first ripples of controversy came in the ninth century, when a monk from the French Abbey of Corbie wrote against his abbot, St. Paschasius (785-860). Ratramnus (d. 868) held that Christ’s Body in the Eucharist cannot be the same as Christ’s historical body once on earth and now in heaven because the Eucharistic is invisible, -impalpable, and spiritual. He wanted to hold on to the Real Presence but stressed the Eucharist as symbolic rather than corporeal. His book on the subject was condemned by the Synod of Vercelli, and his ideas, it is held, influenced all subsequent theories that contradicted the traditional teaching of the Church.
Within two centuries the issue had reached such a point of gravity that a formal declaration was evoked from the Holy See. In 1079, Archdeacon Berengar of Tours who favored Ratramnus’ position and wrote against what he considered the excessive realism of Paschasius, was required by Gregory VII to accept the following declaration of faith in the Eucharistic presence:
I believe in my heart and openly profess that the bread and wine placed upon the altar are, by the mystery of the sacred prayer and the words of the Redeemer, substantially changed into the true and life-giving flesh and blood of Jesus Christ our Lord, and that after the consecration, there is present the true Body and Blood of Christ which was born of the Virgin and, offered up for the salvation of the world, hung on the cross and now sits at the right hand of the Father, and that there is present the true Blood of Christ which flowed from His side. They are present not only by means of a sign and of the efficacy of the sacrament, but also in the very reality and truth of their nature and substance. 2
This profession of faith in the Real Presence was quoted verbatim by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Mysterium Fidei. The Holy Father quoted this profession of faith in the Real Presence in 1965, during the sessions of the Second Vatican Council. The reason was because he saw a resurgence of the Eucharistic heresies which began to evade the Catholic Church almost a thousand years ago.
In my thirty years of working for the Holy See, I have learned many things. Among them was the rise of a widespread undermining of faith in the Real Presence.
Protestant Roots of Heretical Catholicism
I never tire repeating the direct order I received from Pope John Paul II in 1986 and 1988 to do everything in my power to restore faith in the Real Presence in the United States, where it has been lost, and strengthen this faith where it still exists.
According to the Holy Father, unless this faith in the Real Presence is strengthened and restored, he feared for the survival of the Catholic Church in more than one diocese in our country.
It all began with the Protestant so-called reformation. In countries like ours, where Protestantism has become the prevailing culture of a nation, two truths of the Catholic faith have suffered profoundly. They are faith in the priesthood and faith in the Real Presence.
Whatever else Martin Luther denied, it was the existence of a priesthood instituted by Jesus Christ when He ordained the apostles bishops and priests at the Last Supper. Over the years one of my favorite definitions of Protestantism has been “priestless Christianity.” In the words of Martin Luther, the idea that there are two levels in Christianity, the spiritual and the temporal, is untrue. There is no basic distinction between priest and the laity. Says Luther:
It is fiction by which the Pope, bishops, priests and monks are called the spiritual estate, while the princes, lords, artisans and peasants are the temporal estate. An artful life and hypocritical invention, but let no one be afraid of it, because all Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them, save office. For we are all consecrated priests by baptism. Since we are all priests alike, no man can put himself forward, or take upon himself without our consent and election to do that which we all have a like power to do. Therefore, a priest should be nothing in Christendom but a functionary; as long as he holds his office, he has precedence; if he is deprived of it, he is a peasant or a citizen like the rest. But now they have invented indelible characters and even imagine that a priest can never become a layman; which is all nothing but mere talk and human conjecture.
This was the beginning of the breakdown of Catholic Christianity. Once you deny that there is a priesthood, instituted by Christ, which alone has the power from Him to change bread and wine into His living Flesh and Blood, you have erased historic Christianity.
The full implications of Luther’s theology touched every aspect of Church and State relationship. Only civil laws have binding power on the citizens, since the State has a right to pass judgment on ecclesiastical legislation, but not vice versa. Civil officials may determine if churchmen are serving the common interest, and punish or depose as they please; but the Church does not have dual rights except those conceded by the State. Indeed, civil coercion can deprive any ecclesiastic, even the pope of his ministry and if need be, of the very title he pretends to have received from God.
Once we recognize this basic principle of Protestantism, we begin to see what happened in countries like ours. The priesthood, as a unique power instituted by Jesus Christ, has disappeared from all Protestant churches throughout the world. Inevitably this has deeply affected the Catholic church in Protestant-dominated nations like our own.
The impact of this heresy on the Catholic Church has been immense. Already in the sixteenth century, some six nations, all formerly Catholic, became Protestant. This includes England and, as a consequence, English-speaking countries like our own.
By now there are over four thousand Protestant denominations throughout the world. Mind you, these are not Protestant churches but denominations. Not a single one of them, anywhere in the world, believes in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Why not? Because they do not believe in the priesthood.
Impact on the Catholic Eucharistic Faith
We could now begin not only another lecture on the widespread Eucharistic errors in the Catholic church today. We could literally speak for the next three months, seven hours a day, describing the widespread breakdown of authentic Catholic doctrine in the Real Presence.
Among the hundreds of false interpretations of the Real Presence, one of the most popular is to identify Christ in the Eucharist with the exercise of His extraordinary power.
The meaning of the phrase, “Body in Christ” (Romans 12:5), is that the Body by which Christians are formed is to be identified with the pneumatic Christ, who is the source of Divine Life, and the origin of charismatic graces and of (all) moral and religious activity…The indwelling of Christ in the faithful described in the expression, “Christ in us,” is not to be limited to an impersonal force operating in the Christian. It should be taken literally to mean the presence and activity of the pneumatic Christ in man…The Body of Christ which constitutes the Church can be said to be Christ because the pneumatic Christ is incorporated in it, because He gives to it the principle of activity and manifests Himself visibly by means of it. 3
What is the author saying? He is telling us that the Real Presence is the Body of Christ dwelling in the souls of all the members of the Mystical Body.
Another author is writing for Karl Rahner’s Encyclopedia of Theology. It is a more then six-column article on transubstantiation. For one half of the article he describes what the Catholic Church over the centuries had understood by the term “transubstantiation.” But the times have changed.
Modern theologians, he claims, have discovered that the centuries-old understanding of transubstantiation should be radically changed. It should now rather be called transfinalization. The quotation from Rahner’s encyclopedia is a bit lengthy. But I think it should be given almost in full.
The more recent approaches suggest the following considerations. One has to remember that the words of institution indicate a change but do not give any guiding line for the interpretation of the actual process. As regards transubstantiation, it may then be said that substance, essence, meaning and purpose of the bread are identical. But the meaning of a thing can be changed without detriment to its matter.
A house, for instance, consists of a certain arrangement of materials and has a clearly established nature and a clearly established purpose. If the house is demolished and the materials used for building a bridge, a change of nature or essence has intervened. Something completely different is there. The meaning has been changed, since a house is meant to be lived in and a bridge is used to cross a depression. But there has been no loss of material. In an analogous way, the meaning of the bread has been changed through the consecration. Something which formerly served profane use now becomes the dwelling-place and the symbol of Christ who is present and gives himself to his own (Karl Rahner, Encyclopedia of Theology, pg. 1754).
So the writer goes on. And so scores of authors could be quoted, all professedly Catholic and all teaching the same thing. What the Catholic Church infallibly believes is the real physical Body and Blood of Christ has been reinterpreted to mean something else.
The result in a country like ours has been devastating. It is no coincidence that the number of Catholic seminarians in the United States has dropped by ninety percent since the close of Vatican II. Nor is it a coincidence that, in one Catholic Church after another, many of the people no longer genuflect before the Eucharist. Nor is it surprising that tabernacles have been removed from so many Catholic Churches.
But that is why we have this conference. We need to alert ourselves to the grave crisis through which the Church of Christ is going in our day.
There is only one solution. We must restore our faith in the Real Presence where it has been lost, and strengthen this faith where it still exists.
Lord Jesus, we believe you are present in the fullness of your divinity and humanity in the Blessed Sacrament. We further believe that at the Last Supper you told the apostles, “This is my Body, this is my Blood.” We also believe that you told the apostles to, “Do this in commemoration of me,” by which you ordained them as priests and gave them the power to ordain other priests until the end of time. This we believe, and we are ready to lay down our lives for this faith. Amen.