One of the most cherished teachings of the Catholic Church is the doctrine on the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. At the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the bread and wine become the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. He is truly present under the form of bread and wine.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states (1374): “The mode of Christ’s presence under the Eucharistic species is unique. It raises the Eucharist above all the sacraments as ‘the perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all the sacraments tend.’ In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist, ‘the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.’ This presence is called real; by which is not intended to exclude the other types of presence as if they could not be real too but because it is presence in the fullest sense; that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God, and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present.”
The Eucharist is not a symbol or a sign of Jesus’ presence. Jesus is present. It is not based on whether we subjectively accept his presence. He is objectively present. Therefore, it was disturbing when a recent poll revealed that only a minority of Catholics accept the doctrine of the Real Presence. Most know that I hold Catholic Identity as one of my three priorities in my leadership and vision as Archbishop of Milwaukee. Simply defined, Catholic Identity is who we are. It is imperative therefore that a bishop fulfills one of his trifold areas of responsibility, that is to “teach.” He is responsible that the teachings of the Church be properly present and integrated into the life of the local community that he shepherds. When individuals fail to understand the teachings on the Real Presence, it is an attack on the very identity of their lives as Catholics and an attack on the Church.
Understanding the Eucharistic presence challenges us to make sure that we have a proper disposition toward the sacrament. It is a mistake to think that every Catholic must be admitted to the reception of the Eucharist. In fact, Canon Law (914, 915, 916) prohibits certain individuals from receiving the Eucharist; those who have not reached the use of reason or are not sufficiently disposed, those under canonical penalties (excommunication or interdict) or those who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, and those who are conscious of grave sin and have not participated in a sacramental confession.
Part of the problem in the appreciation of the Real Presence in the Eucharist is that, in our modern era, we have become lax in our approach to the Eucharist. There has been a lack of catechesis in the lives of many Catholics. The loss of the sense of sin has contributed to a laissez-faire attitude when approaching the sacrament. The availability of sacramental confession has been limited in many areas. In addition, there is a lack of reverence toward the Eucharistic sacrament in worship and failure to promote Eucharistic devotion.
There has been much hope in recent times that a sense of the Real Presence has regained some lost attention in our parishes and the Universal Church. Divine Mercy Sunday (the Sunday after Easter) has promoted the mercy of God extended through the sacrament of Reconciliation, a new appreciation for confession. The promotion of Eucharistic adoration in many of our communities has led to an increased devotion. A greater attention to a sense of reverence in the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and incorporating silence into the liturgical celebration emphasizes that we must listen as Our Lord speaks to us.
It should come as no surprise that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will be taking up the task of presenting a document on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The bishops are teachers. This central doctrine of the Church is under attack by ignorance, neglect, complacency and secularism. The plan is to create a teaching document that will assist in recapturing the Catholic Teachings in the lives of those who profess the Catholic faith. This will be a pastoral document, which will address our understanding, responsibilities and spirituality, helping us to grow in our faith. Like all presentations, it will need to be studied and, hopefully when finished, will be incorporated into a yearlong celebration of the Sacrament throughout the United States. We need to concentrate on the wonderful blessing the Real Presence is in our lives, how the Real Presence is at the core of our worship.
Often during the pandemic, I heard people remark how they missed the Eucharist. It was a heartfelt longing for Christ received in Holy Communion. As an archdiocese, we can build on that heartfelt feeling and unite it to a deeper understanding of Jesus’ presence in our lives and the need to conform our lives to Christ and the teachings of his Church.
This last Lent, we embarked on an Archdiocesan program “Living the Gift of Sunday.” Mission preachers offered their reflections in every deanery on the importance of Sunday and the primary activity of all believers that is worship. Our program, “Living the Gift of Sunday,” blends well with the proposed teaching from the USCCB on the Real Presence of the Eucharist. We will be in a great position to promote the Real Presence on the heels of our own program. Nothing could be more important than reclaiming the Lord’s Day and receiving him in love. Living with Jesus as our priority in life will not only change ourselves personally but also change our society.
Hopefully, the teaching proposed by the Bishops Conference will also challenge us to consider how we approach the sacrament, asking us, are we worthy? Do we live and profess our faith? Are we instruments, brining others closer to God and His Church? Do our lives create scandal and divide us from the truth that is proclaimed by the Church?
No less a figure than St. Paul tells us that whoever therefore eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.
“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food and my blood true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in Him.” (John 6: 54-56)