In his popular blog, Fr. Dwight Longenecker asked, “What do we mean by ‘Real Presence’?” The question is useful for initiating ecumenical dialogue. Fr. L. understands the term “transubstantiation,” which he prefers as an alternative to “real presence,” to entail the claim that, unlike Protestant doctrine, Christ is present in the Eucharistic elements in a physical or corporeal way. In support of his position Fr. L. quotes Pope Paul VI’s 1965 encyclical Mysterium Fidei.
Pace Fr. L., the essential dimension is not “corporeal” reality but rather “sacrifice.” I would like to make two brief points: (1) “real” does not necessarily imply “corporeal” or “physical,” and (2) what is made present in the Eucharist is the reality of Christ’s spiritual sacrifice on the cross under the signs of bread and wine. Bread and wine are the corporeal dimension of the sacrament.
The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation certainly requires a belief in the reality of Christ’s presence but that presence is not “corporeal” if the word means physical or material sense data. Our senses encounter the appearances of bread and wine, not the reality made present in the sacrament. In Mysterium Fidei, Pope Paul comments that the real presence is “a substantial presence…” But what does “substantial” mean here? The Pope makes a critical distinction: Christ “is bodily present, although not in the same way that bodies are present in a given place” (my emphasis). Therefore the word “substantial” should not be understood in the context of Eucharistic theology as referring to a body in space and time.
The saving power of the cross, inseparable from the indivisible Christ (Body, Blood, soul and divinity) is the “substance” that is present “in a sacramental form” under corporeal appearances of food. Only the appearances of bread and wine appear “in the same way that bodies are present in a given place.” The Body of Christ is now glorified, and so is a spiritual reality, not a localized one. The word “substance” is thus not to be understood as the outward form that looks, feels and tastes like bread and wine; it denotes the reality made present. Christ’s sacrifice, really present, saves us when received in faith, as he opens our hearts to the needs of immigrants, prisoners, the hungry, homeless, and victims of oppression and injustice.
David Hammond teaches theology and church history for Saint Joseph’s College Online.