There's more to the Real Presence than the Eucharist

Amid surveys that say fewer Catholics believe Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, Father Mark Francis, C.S.V. raises another issue: Does an exclusive focus on the Real Presence in the bread and wine mean we're missing God's presence in other places?

AT THEIR MEETING LAST JUNE, THE U.S. BISHOPS issued a document titled The Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist: Basic Questions and Answers. It is no secret that this statement was issued because of a concern among some bishops that U.S. Catholics were losing belief in the Real Presence.

An opinion poll conducted in 1992 by the Gallup organization and another in 1994 by the New York Times/CBS News led several analysts to conclude that a growing percentage of Catholics, especially the younger generation, no longer believed in the church’s teaching on Christ’s Real Presence in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

Why? Some proposed disciplinary reasons such as the elimination of the fast or the former insistence that it is always appropriate to go to Confession before receiving Communion. Others have criticized the renewed liturgy itself as the source for this decline in belief—its more “informal tone” and the fact that now most Catholics receive Communion in the hand rather than kneeling at a Communion rail. Still others argue that the fundamental cause is the prevalence of a “watered down” catechesis that describes the Eucharist only as a communal meal and fails to emphasize the Mass as sacrifice.

Whether or not the distinctive Catholic belief in the Real Presence is in crisis (and many analysts have persuasively argued that the results of these polls were overly pessimistic), we need to place the discussion in a broader context—let’s not confine the Real Presence. While Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is central to our identity as Catholic Christians, we risk impoverishing our rich tradition by an exclusive focus on Christ’s presence under the appearance of bread and wine.

As the bishops’ document itself points out, Christ is present during the Eucharist in various ways. Christ’s substantial presence in the eucharistic elements is not meant to “exclude other types of his presence as if they could not be understood as real.” In fact, it was precisely the exclusive focus on the Real Presence of Christ in the eucharistic elements that the liturgy constitution of the Second Vatican Council attempted to balance by speaking about other presences of Christ at Mass.

Christ is also present in the liturgy in three other ways: in the person of the presiding priest acting in the person of Christ; in the Word of God proclaimed in the biblical readings; and when the baptized assembly prays and sings. Building on this teaching, Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical letter Mysterium fidei, while reaffirming the teaching of the Council of Trent on transubstantiation, also speaks of the “real presences” of Christ in the church manifested in acts of mercy, in preaching God’s Word, in shepherding God’s people, and in the celebration of all the sacraments.

Awareness of the other presences is important because they point out how we Christians believe God acts and is revealed in the world and in our lives. This broader context for the discussion on Real Presence was powerfully illustrated for me several years ago while I was serving as a Sunday “supply” priest in a working class, Irish American parish in Chicago. The church had just been renovated. The altar had been moved forward and was now surrounded by a semicircle of pews; the tabernacle had been relocated to a side chapel. One Sunday morning after Mass an older woman came into the sacristy visibly upset. “Mary” wasn’t one of the cranks of the parish. In fact, she was someone whose opinion I respected. A member of the parish for many years and a recent widow, Mary had been a grade-school teacher all her life, had raised five children, and was one of the people who could be counted on to help in parish activities.

I listened to her as she vented over the renovation. She was unhappy the tabernacle had been moved and uncomfortable with the new seating arrangement because where she always sat before no longer existed. But she was most upset with how she was “distracted” from her prayer by all those people she now saw facing her on the other side of the sanctuary. My only advice to her was to “give it some time.” If, after a couple of weeks, she was still unhappy with the arrangement, I advised her to sit down with the pastor and tell him. She allowed that this was probably good advice and left the sacristy-if not mollified, at least more subdued.

A week went by, then another. one morning after Mass she came into the sacristy again. Her mood that morning was quite different. She started by apologizing for her anger over the renovation. “I was upset because the church I had known all my life had been changed. I know I was consulted. But when the renovation finally happened I was just angry . . . and grieving over losing what was for me a familiar and comfortable arrangement. I just needed to vent.”

And then she said something that I’ll never forget: “But you know something? This new arrangement has got me thinking and praying in different ways than I have before. Remember how upset and distracted I was to see those faces across from me during Mass? Now their presence has become part of my prayer.

“I’ve known many of these people for years. I’ve shared many of life’s ups and downs with them. I often see a good friend who is a widow like me and who has suffered a lot because she’s in poor health and her children seem to have abandoned her. I see some of the kids I taught years ago who have just married or those who now have kids of their own—and I know the challenges of having kids these days. I see people with all kinds of problems—alcoholism, poverty, loneliness. Yet they’re at Mass. Some are really fervent, others less so. But they’re here despite all the difficulties they have had—or maybe because of them.

“Now I see my fellow parishioners as an important part of my prayer. That’s one of the main reasons for the Mass, isn’t it? To take our joys and sorrows to God in prayer together? The Eucharist is not just about me; what I need or what I want. In being aware of the presence of others at Mass, of their goodness and of their limits and suffering, I’m more aware of Christ’s presence.”

Vatican II’s liturgical reform sought to give the church the insight that Mary so eloquently described. We need to be as passionately convinced of the presence of Christ in those “around the altar” as we are certain of Christ’s presence in the eucharistic elements. Without making this connection, we risk overly objectifying Christ’s presence and overlooking his presence elsewhere—in our neighbors and especially in those who are poor and suffering.

The bishops rightly call on us to reaffirm our belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. May this reaffirmation also lead us to experience with even greater clarity his real presence in the least of our brothers and sisters, for in so doing, we bridge the chasm that often divides liturgy and life.

By Father Mark R. Francis, C.S.V., superior general of the Clerics of St. Viator in Rome. He was professor of liturgy at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago for 12 years. This article appeared in the June 2002 (Volume 67, Number 6) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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