When the Church speaks of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, she means that the whole Christ is truly present, body, blood, soul and divinity under the appearances of bread and wine. It is the glorified Christ who rose from the dead after dying for our sins.
In calling this presence of Christ in the Eucharist "Real," the Church does not exclude other types of His presence as if they could not be understood as "Real" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1374), for she teaches that the Risen Christ is present to His Church in many ways, but most especially, in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.
To more fully understand this mystery we need to recall that on the night before Jesus suffered and died on the Cross, He shared His Last Supper with His disciples. During that solemn meal He instituted the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.
He did this to perpetuate the Sacrifice of the Cross and to entrust to His Church something to remember Him by, a memorial of His death and resurrection. What happened is well described in the Gospel of St Matthew: "Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread and when He had said the blessing He broke it and gave it to His disciples. 'Take it and eat,' He said, 'this my Body.' Then He took a cup, and when He had given thanks He handed it to them saying, 'Drink from this, all of you, for this is my Blood, the blood of the covenant, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins'." (Mt 26:26-28)
And so the Church believes and teaches, based on these words, that in the celebration of the Eucharist, bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, and the power given to the priest through the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
Jesus also said: "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 ... For my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink" (Jn 6:51,55). This means that the whole Christ is truly present, the body, the blood, soul and divinity under the appearances of bread and wine, the same glorified Christ who rose from the dead after dying for our sins. That is why we call this great mystery the "Real Presence."
Many people ask what does it mean that Jesus is present in the Eucharist under the appearance of bread and wine and how does it happen. We can only say that the presence of the Risen Christ in the Eucharist is an inexhaustible Mystery, which the Church can never fully explain in words.
However, we must also remember that God is the Creator of all that exists and has the power to do much more than we can ever possibly imagine. St Ambrose, one of the great Saints, said: "If the Word of the Lord Jesus is so powerful as to bring into existence things which were not, then it follows that those things which already exist can be changed into something else." The wonderful aspect of this is that God created the world in order to share His life with ordinary people and His great plan reveals a wisdom that far surpasses any human understanding.
However, God has not left us in ignorance for He has revealed His truth to us in ways that we can understand, that is, through the gift of our faith and the grace of the Holy Spirit who helps us to understand. Through the gift of the faith and the Holy Spirit we can then understand, in some way, what would otherwise remain unknown to us, though quite clearly, we can never completely comprehend the mystery of God.
People have suggested that there are easier ways for Jesus to give Himself to us. Despite what they think He has given Himself to us as food and drink in the Eucharist as our spiritual nourishment out of love. God's whole plan in creating us is directed towards our being joined together more fully in the life of the Blessed Trinity which is the Communion of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We start to share in this life when we are baptised, when, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are joined to Christ and become adopted sons and daughters of the Father. This sharing in the life of the Trinity is strengthened and increased through the Sacrament of Confirmation, and it is nourished and deepened through our participation in the Blessed Eucharist.
Through our eating His Body and drinking His Blood in the Eucharist we become united to the person of Jesus through His humanity: "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in that person" (Jn 6:56). But, in being united to the humanity of Christ, we are at the same time united to His divinity and our mortal and corruptible natures are transformed by being joined to the source of life: "As the living Father sent me, and I draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will also draw life from me" (Jn 6:57).
So, by being united to Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, we are drawn up into an eternal relationship of love with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Just as Jesus is the eternal Son of God by nature, so we become sons and daughters of God by adoption through the Sacrament of Baptism. Through the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation we become temples of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us.
By His in-dwelling we are made holy by the gift of Sanctifying Grace. Our hope, given to us through the Resurrection, is that we will one day share in the life of the Holy Trinity. Thus, we come to understand that God does not merely send us good things from on high, but we are brought up into the inner life of God, the communion of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Then in the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, which means "thanksgiving," we give praise and glory to God for this sublime gift. Hence the need for the greatest reverence when in the Real Presence.
Bishop Manning's article first appeared in 'Catholic Outlook', the Parramatta Diocesan newspaper.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 14 No 9 (October 2001), p. 20