ACCORDING TO A RECENT SURVEY, close to fifty percent of Catholics in the United States do not know the Church teaching that the bread and wine used in Holy Communion do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ. What is the cause of such a misconception? Maybe it can be traced back to inadequate catechesis. But I think the problem is deeper than poor theology; I believe it represents a kind of crisis of “humanity.”
One has to wonder if the reason why so many fail to believe in the Real Presence in the Eucharist is because they do not have a lived experience of “real presence.” Without an encounter with real presence in our daily lives, the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist becomes an idea, an abstraction. People have no frame of reference for seeing its relevance to their needs. For many, the misconstrual about the Flesh and Blood of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist stems from what is lacking in the flesh and blood of their own lives.
On a human level, what constitutes “real presence”?
One element of real presence is commitment. It begins very simply by giving the person in front of me my undivided attention. One of the virtues that defined Blessed John Paul II’s holiness is that when he looked at you, you felt as if you were the only person on the planet. The Eucharist is Christ’s commitment of his never-failing Presence: I am with you always until the end of the world.
In a TV sitcom, a character at a party is talking to a couple, and is clearly bored. But then she glances at the door and exclaims, “Oh, look! Better people!” And she dashes off. Yet, C.S. Lewis reminds us: “It is with awe that we should conduct all our dealings with one another. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”
Our Lord commits himself to us in the Eucharist because, as Pope Benedict XVI tells us, “the root of man’s wretchedness is loneliness – is the fact that my existence is not embraced by a love that makes it necessary.” Showing others charity for charity’s sake, anticipating others’ needs, giving without counting the cost – all this makes others know they are necessary.
A second key aspect of real presence is communication. One of the simplest but most powerful acts of charity we can perform nowadays is simply to listen to another person. How our isolation worsens when we have no one to talk to, no one to listen to us. It is not a coincidence that receiving the Eucharist at Mass is called “communicating.”
The goal of conversational communication and eucharistic communication is the same: the sharing of self with an other. Pope Benedict XVI says that conversation between people only comes into its own when they are no longer trying to express something, but trying to express themselves; then does dialogue become true communication. And the Catholic philosopher Louis Lavelle wrote that genuine communication takes place only when each “reveals to the other the deep, unknown desire he bears in the secret places of his heart.” This is the essence of the Eucharist.
And all real presence is marked by communion. What differentiates real presence from just being with others in a crowd is belonging: unity in charity, forgiveness, helping people, self-sacrifice, intimacy. We long for this oneness with others; united with one who loves me, I can face any fear… I am up to any challenge. In the Most Holy Eucharist, wrote John Paul II, “is the pledge of the fulfillment for which each man and woman, even unconsciously, yearns” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia 59). This is why “Holy Communion” is the Eucharist’s other name.
Pope Benedict teaches us that “communion always and inseparably has both a vertical and a horizontal sense: it is communion with God and communion with our brothers and sisters” (Sacramentum Caritatis 76). Living eucharistically means I am devoted to being a friend to others – to loving others’ needs more than my own concerns.
And so, the Holy Father exhorts us: “What the world needs is God’s love; it needs to encounter Christ and to believe in him… Missionary outreach is… an essential part of the Eucharistic form of the Christian life… The wonder we experience at the gift God has made to us in Christ… commits us to becoming witnesses of his love” (Sacramentum Caritatis 84, 85). People will come to believe in the Real Presence in the Eucharist the more we offer them a human experience of real presence in our daily interactions with them.
Rev. Peter John Cameron, O.P.