The Real Presence: Accept No Substitutes

John Grondelski

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.


Erge/Pixabay/CC0BLOGS |  JUN. 14, 2020The Real Presence: Accept No SubstitutesOn this Solemnity of Corpus Christi, I propose that Catholics make two old slogans their own: “accept no substitutes” and “beware of imitations.”John Grondelski

As we celebrate the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, some dioceses may have resumed public Sunday Masses. After the suspension of public Mass this year, this Solemnity is an opportunity for the Church to evaluate its Eucharistic faith, especially its faith in the Real Presence.

Less than a year ago, a Pew Research Center survey claimed that only 31% of Catholics appear to understand what our faith teaches about the Eucharist. Sixty-nine percent — nearly seven in 10 Catholics—held a view that was objectively heretical, i.e., that the Eucharist is a “symbol of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”

This is not to say I suggest these people are formal heretics, that the Church has been infiltrated by some fifth column of Ulrich Zwingli’s disciples. Zwingli, an early Protestant reformer, held that the Eucharist is merely bread and wine that “signifies” Jesus, much like a postcard from a friend on vacation makes that friend “present.” I think that, inchoately, many Catholics think the Eucharist is “the body of Christ,” though they are not really sure what that means nor what it implies for what appears still to be bread and wine.

There are lots of reasons for Catholic Eucharistic illiteracy, not least of which would be the vacuous “religious education” with which many Catholics were victimized. The overemphasis on the Eucharist-as-meal to the ignoring of the Eucharist-as-sacrifice is another. Not teaching the children of a virtual age the hard stuff of “substance” and “accident” is a third.

Without dwelling on the causes to blame for this disaster, this Corpus Christi is a moment to ask: so what are we going to do about it?

Wilfrid Stinissen’s excellent little book, Bread That Is Broken, holds together the various elements of our Eucharistic theology, stressing above all its reality: Jesus Christ is truly here, body and blood, soul and divinity, under the appearance of bread and wine. This is Jesus. It is not Jesus in bread. It is not bread that Jesus uses to give us grace. It is not just a reminder of Jesus. And it’s not just a goodbye meal whose Guest of Honor is to be found in the midst of the assembly.

Jesus is personally present in the Eucharist and gives himself personally in the Eucharist. Persons give themselves as persons, not as things. That’s why Pope St. Paul VI was prophetic in his Eucharistic encyclical, Mysterium Fidei, when he wrote that “the way in which Christ becomes present in this Sacrament is through the conversion of the whole substance of the bread into his body and of the whole substance of the wine into his blood, a unique and truly wonderful conversion that the Catholic Church fittingly and properly calls transubstantiation” (# 46). Jesus does not “turn into” a thing or coexist with a thing. What was bread and wine are totally personalized: Jesus has chosen to remain with us “until the end of time” as a Person, not as or in a thing. That is what is really important about Real Presence.

This is the absolutely most Real way Jesus is present to us now. This Personal presence will continue until he “comes in glory,” when there will be no need for sacraments, because we will see him face to face. (See Lumen Gentium, 48). This is Jesus’ ultimate way of being present in our world, here and now. That is why Vatican II calls the Eucharist the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, 11). All the sacraments lead to and point to the Eucharist.

I stress this point because I believe this point is under stress, especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Without litigating here the wisdom of the national lockdown on the Mass here, let it simply be noted that critics of that decision did so because it seemed that the “source and summit of the Christian life” should not go so gently into the night, rapidly disappearing absent more vigorous and creative efforts at adaptation that might have avoided that scenario.

The moratorium on public celebration of the Mass, however, also exposed many other ideas as equally undermining of our faith in the Real Presence as contemporary Catholic illiteracy about it. What is particularly concerning is that those ideas are promoted by those whose theological backgrounds say they should know better.

My gravest concern was the “alternate presence” ideas hawked primarily in the international journal, La Croix. Various writers in that journal criticized the lament of Catholics who complained of the Eucharistic moratorium as insufficiently attentive to “other ways” Jesus is present.

Some focused, for example, on Jesus’ Presence in Scripture. Now, I don’t deny that the Word is present in his Word, but this is still not the “summit” presence of the Eucharist. That is why I am disturbed by the temporizing approach of some German bishops who, instead of resuming celebration of the Eucharist, propose interim “Word services” and criticize what one called our “fixation on the Eucharist.” Yes, there are other liturgies besides he Mass, but the Mass is not “an acquired taste” — it is the liturgy to which every other liturgy leads and only in whose light do they make sense.

This “Word/Eucharist” dichotomy sometimes finds expression in the notion that the Mass includes “two tables — the table of the Word and the table of the Eucharist,” suggesting almost a false equivalence between the two. In the evolution of the Catholic Mass, today’s “Liturgy of the Word” was once called the “Mass of Catechumens,” in which those yet unbaptized and public sinners received instruction from Scripture and sermon … and then dismissed. What we call the “Liturgy of the Eucharist” was once the “Mass of the Faithful,” for only those fully initiated could remain to celebrate what that full initiation led them to: the “source and summit of the Christian life.” Yes, the core liturgical action of our faith is “fixated” on the Eucharist. So, Jesus’s Scriptural Presence is not the equal of his sacramental presence but, in fact, is intended to lead to it (just as Jesus, after “explaining the Scriptures, has the road to Emmaus lead to the Eucharist, which is the moment the disciples recognize his “Presence”).

[I will comment only in passing that, within Protestantism, the accentuation of Christ’s Presence in and importance of Scripture led eventually to the absolute erosion of their focus on and then practice of the Eucharist. Protestant “Word” services displaced the Eucharist, so that the primary Sunday service eventually became Bible reading and a sermon, with the Eucharist losing its centrality and becoming, in many denominations, a quarterly add-on service].

Likewise, the “alternate presence” proponents focused on Jesus’ presence in the Church: “where two or three are gathered, I am in their midst” and, since, the Church is the “[Mystical] Body of Christ,” instead of hungering for the sacrament we should go out and meet Jesus in our neighbor and social action.

Yes, Jesus is present in my neighbor and, yes, the Eucharist ought to inspire action for others. But neither my neighbor nor his good substitutes for the Eucharist. Indeed, since God is the foundation of all being, he is indeed truly “present” everywhere – yet we would hardly say that God’s ubiquity as he who creates and constantly sustains all things ranks up there with one’s personal encounter in the Eucharist.

What is really operative behind many of these “alternate” forms of “presence” ideas, however, is really a desire to invent an “alternate church,” a church in which priesthood and Eucharist are separated. A theme running through many of these “alternate presence” ideas is that baptism, which incorporates us into Jesus’ offices of priest, prophet and king, is somehow truncated by the connection between Eucharist and priesthood. For proponents of these ideas, the nexus between Eucharist and priesthood is merely “clericalist,” so that the “community” in which Jesus is “present” can maybe even make him “present” in the Eucharist without a priest. In this silly season, these ideas have taken various forms, from an Austrian theologian who suggested that Catholics did not need to deprive themselves of the Eucharist if they would just put some bread in front of their computer screen during online Mass screening to the ongoing idea that the community can consecrate the Eucharist all by itself (which is the “theology” of underground “priestess” groups).

So, on this Solemnity of Corpus Christi, I propose that Catholics make two old slogans their own: “accept no substitutes” and “beware of imitations.” Recognize that the Eucharist is Jesus Personally present to you in the most complete and total way possible this side of the eschaton. He is there. And he is there in a way like nowhere else. So “accept no substitutes” and recover Eucharistic faith.