The Real Meaning of the Real Presence

Deal W. Hudson
June 1, 2001

Although the communion lines at Sunday Mass in American churches have perhaps never been longer, polls show that more than 60 percent of American Catholics say they do not believe in the “real presence”—that Jesus Christ is bodily present in the Eucharist. What does this mean? Are U.S. Catholics lacking in faith or poorly catechized or are there more basic flaws in our current understanding of the real presence? Crisis publisher and editor Deal W. Hudson interviewed Rev. Timothy V. Vaverek, who holds a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, is pastor of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Waco, Texas, and writes frequently on liturgical matters. Father Vaverek believes that we need a more complete understanding of the Eucharist as the fulfillment of Christ’s “Pasch,” His Paschal sacrifice expressed in His crucifixion, resurrection, and second coming, in order for the doctrine of the real presence to make sense.

Hudson: When people discuss the “real presence,” they usually have in mind what happens at the moment of consecration when the bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and He becomes present. Is this the best way to think about “real presence”?

Father Vaverek: Given the historic debates over the Eucharist, it is understandable that people think in this way, but it can contribute to confusion in a number of ways. First, the term “real presence” is insufficient when applied to the change of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. The proper term for this substantial change, according to the Catholic faith, is “transubstantiation,” which means that the Eucharistic species is Jesus, the crucified and risen Savior. Thus, for Catholics, the Eucharist is not only the real presence of Jesus—it is Jesus.

Also, by considering the eucharistic body and blood as “the real presence,” one perhaps forgets the other ways that Christ is really present to us. He is really present in our daily lives by grace in our hearts; He is really present to us in our neighbor and those in need; He is really present in our midst when we gather for group prayer; He is really present when the Church celebrates the liturgy; He is really present in the priest acting in His name; He is really present in the proclamation of His word. Once Christ’s presence is recognized in these diverse ways, the Eucharist understood as “the real presence” might simply come to be seen as one “real presence” among others when, in fact, it is more than that—it is Jesus, whole and entire, body, soul, and divinity. There is a difference in kind, not just in degree between the Eucharist and the various other modes of Christ’s presence.

Perhaps the most important point to make is this: Understanding the consecration solely in relation to the real presence risks missing the heart of the liturgy—our participation in the paschal mystery of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension. The eucharistic prayer, and especially the consecration, offers the Church to God through, with, and in Christ. Certainly, the bread and wine become Jesus, but that is the result of God making the Mass be our participation in Christ’s saving paschal sacrifice. The consecration offers the entire body of Christ, head, and members, to God—it does not just change the elements into Jesus. If we forget this, then we easily make the Mass be about the manifestation of God’s presence—or presences—rather than about our communion with Christ in His Pasch, or sacrifice at Calvary, glorifying God and redeeming mankind.

What is the difference between the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the presence of God which you speak of in our daily lives?

Well, this is the problem I am trying to address. Christ is really present in many ways. My neighbor is the real presence of Jesus to me; the priest is, the Scriptures are, the indwelling of the Trinity is, across is, an icon is, etc. He is equally present in the Eucharist and in other non-eucharis-tic modes, although the presence is achieved in distinct ways for distinct purposes. In that sense, they are equally real but different modes of presence. But in the Host, Jesus is really and substantially present. Nowhere else, other than at the right hand of God, is Jesus substantially present. Substantial presence is real, but real presence need not be substantial. This is why Catholics should not be satisfied with saying “the real presence” to refer to the Eucharist—it does not say enough and easily reduces the Host to one “presence” among others.

What do the theologians of the era following the Second Vatican Council mean when they talk about “four modes of real presence?”

I do not know the complete history of the so-called four modes of presence. An important part of that history is a document of the postconciliar reform titled Eucharisticum Mysterium (EM), issued on May 15, 1967. EM 9 speaks of “principal modes” of Christ’s presence, and EM 55 says that the principal modes are successively manifested during Mass: first, in the assembly of the faithful gathered in His name; then, in the reading of Scripture; also in the person of the minister; and finally, under the Eucharistic species.

To my knowledge, neither the idea of principal modes nor their “successive manifestation” had ever been mentioned previously in an official Church document. For this reason, discussions of the four modes usually appeal to Eucharisticum Mysterium and include the notion that those modes are successively manifested during Mass.

The problem is that Eucharisticum Mysterium explicitly limited itself to offering liturgical norms based on existing teaching, and therefore, EM 9 and EM 55 cannot legitimately be used as the basis for new teachings about the liturgy. EM 55 and EM 9 claim to reflect the teaching of Vatican II found in its document Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), Part 7. However, the purpose of SC 7 is to identify the entire life of the Church with the Pasch of Christ, not merely to affirm His presence in the liturgy. This point is clear from its opening words: “To accomplish so great a work”—that is, our salvation through His Pasch “Christ is always present in his Church, especially in liturgical celebrations.” SC 7 never mentions “principal modes,” or the notion that the modes are successively manifested during Mass. In fact, for Vatican II, the focus of Christian life and liturgy is not on the presence of Christ in various modes, but on the Church’s communion with Christ in accomplishing the Pasch. This is why there is no dichotomy in our distinguishing the modes of presence from the Pasch. The Pasch is the reason for the presences—that Christ may accomplish His saving work.

The conventional use of the theory of four modes and their successive manifestations in post-Vatican II liturgical discussions no doubt was intended to remind people of the Church’s longstanding teaching that Christ is present in the assembly, the word, the priest, and the Host. However, unlike Vatican II, this theory does not state the purpose of the presence: the Church’s participation in the paschal mystery. Consequently, the theory easily leads people to focus on the modes rather than the Pasch.

You mention the “longstanding teaching” of Christ’s presence in the Host, assembly, word, and priest. Could you explain how that presence is distinctive from the universal presence of God in His creation?

God is present to us in specific ways that arise through one specific process having one specific purpose. It is a trinitarian process in which the Father acts through the Son (or Word) by the power of the Holy Spirit to draw mankind into personal communion with Himself in Christ. We see this in the act of creation, in the history of Israel, in the paschal mystery, and in the life of the Church. Thus, God is always present to us as the source of our being and as the saving God who guides human history toward the completion of the Pasch. These are specific ways He is universally present to all men.

Christ is present in a unique way when the Church gathers to celebrate the liturgy because these assemblies act on behalf of the entire Church. Indeed, the one Church of Christ is present in liturgical gatherings of the faithful united to their bishops, so that, especially in the eucharistic assembly, the whole body of Christ, head, and members, is present and at work (see SC 7). This gathering of the faithful in communion with Christ and all His members is rightly called a “church,” or even Christus totus (the complete Christ, head, and members).

Christ comes to us in these various ways for one purpose: to draw all men into communion with God through His Pasch. The primary focus of our daily life and worship should be on glorifying God in Christ’s Pasch, not on the means of Christ’s presence.

Your answers repeatedly go back to the idea of the “Pasch.” Why do we hear that word so little?

For me, this is one of the great curiosities and misfortunes of the postconciliar liturgical and theological renewal. The Pasch is absolutely central to Christian life and worship, and consequently to the thought of Vatican II, yet the term, for the most part, remains unused.

Simply speaking, the Pasch is the Passover; hence, for example, the lamb offered at Passover is called the paschal lamb. St. John the Evangelist depicts Jesus as the paschal lamb in his account of the Baptist’s preaching (“Behold, the Lamb of God,” John 1:29); in the timing of Christ’s sentencing (John 19:14); in the vision of the heavenly liturgy (Revelation 5); and in the depiction of heaven as the wedding feast of the Lamb (Revelation 19). John is not alone in this. St. Paul, for example, affirms that “Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7). So, in Christian usage, the Pasch is Christ’s Pasch, His Passover, from suffering and death to resurrection and glorification at the right hand of the Father.

The Pasch, in sum, is the saving work of Christ, the sacrifice of perfect love by which He atones for the sins of the world and unleashes God’s grace to transform redeemed humanity into His image as members of His body. Christ’s Pasch is the new covenant that fulfills the old covenant established after the first Passover.

The early Christians saw a complete parallel between the image of the Hebrews placing the blood of the lamb on their dwellings, passing through the Red Sea, wandering in Sinai nourished by manna, and entering, at last, the promised land, and the image of Christians being washed in the blood of Christ, their passing through the waters of baptism, their journey through life with the Eucharist as pilgrim’s food, and their entering the kingdom of heaven. Whereas the first Passover freed God’s people from slavery in Egypt, so the Pasch of Christ freed them from slavery to sin and death. Whereas the purpose of celebrating the Jewish Passover is to recall annually God’s mercy and the freedom He gave His chosen people, Christians celebrate the Pasch of Christ on the Lord’s Day, or even daily, to recall the mercy of God in freeing us to be His sons and daughters.

In fact, the Mass not only recalls the saving event of Christ’s Pasch; it makes it present so that the Church might participate fully in the life and mission of its Head and Bridegroom. The mission of the Church is to live and celebrate the Pasch until Christ returns again to complete His saving work. This is a very traditional view of Christ, the Church, and Christian life that has in our day been reaffirmed by Vatican II, especially in its writings on the liturgy and the Church.

“Pasch” is still not a word we hear very often. Can you express the concept in more familiar terminology?

In the English language, we have problems whenever we try to translate the word “Pasch.” The events of the Pasch correspond to the Last Supper, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday, as well as Ascension Thursday, and 4 the wedding feast of the Lamb. How then are we to translate the term? For instance, we often call the “paschal candle” the “Easter candle,” but this loses all reference to the Passover and to the movement implied in the term “Pasch.” We wind up thinking the candle is lit in commemoration of Easter when, in fact, it is lit in remembrance of the Pasch. The paschal symbolism of the candle explains the prayers used when inscribing the candle with a cross, Greek letters, and the year: They refer to His saving death, His lordship of all times and places, and His return in glory as the Alpha and the Omega.

Awareness of the Pasch and the use of the term help us to avoid the false dichotomy that has plagued much of post-conciliar liturgical discussions. Is the Mass a celebration of Christ’s real eucharistic presence and the sacrifice of the cross, or of Christ’s four real presences and our sharing in Christ’s risen life? It is all this and more. It is the great celebration of our communion with Christ in His passion, resurrection, and ascension until He comes again in glory!

Focusing on only one aspect of the Pasch is destined to distort our understanding of the liturgy. Whereas in the past the focus was on the reenactment of the cross, now the focus is on Christ’s presence in our midst. Each assertion is true, but each misses the point: The Mass is a participation in the Pasch uniting us to Christ in His historic suffering and resurrection as well as in His glory at the right hand of the Father.

What exactly do you mean by “completing the Pasch”?

“To complete the Pasch” means simply to be caught up in Christ’s love now and in eternity, thereby participating in the redemption of the world to the glory of God. To accomplish this, we need not do great things; we need only act with great love. The “little way” of St. Thérèse of Lisieux reveals how every Christian may participate at every moment in the work of the Pasch. Who would believe such a thing? God has allowed sinful man to participate in the work of redemption! How tragic that so few Christians know what “the Pasch” is or what “completing the Pasch” means. This is our very life. Without it we are nothing, and our lives have no meaning.

The liturgy is but one way, a supremely privileged way, in which we participate in completing the work of the Pasch and experience a foretaste of the life of the kingdom (see SC 8-10). This is especially true of the Mass, the sacramental renewal of the paschal covenant, in which the faithful are drawn into the consuming love of Christ and set aflame by Him.

Is this paschal understanding something Catholics already know and believe but may not express this way?

Paschal language is ancient, not new, and it expresses the unchanging faith of the Church. I would say that, in general, Catholics growing up in America before the Second Vatican Council were taught to recognize the centrality of the cross as pivotal for daily Christian life and the Mass. Catholics formed after the council generally were not taught the centrality of the cross, although they are aware of living and sharing the life of the risen Jesus. Tragically, we have been subjected to a false “either…or” in this matter when what we need is a “both…and” approach.

 I am getting the impression that our thinking about real presence in the Mass has been distorted by post-Reformation polemics. Do you think that may be the case?

Add post-Enlightenment polemics, and I think you have hit the nail on the head. Controversy bred polemics that in turn led to distortions that still haunt us. In my opinion, this phenomenon lies at the root of the present crisis in the life of the Church and explains in large part the difficulties experienced in authentically receiving and implementing Vatican II.

The Reformation attacked the sacrificial nature of the Mass, the function of the priest acting “in the person of Christ,” and the belief that Holy Communion entirely ceases to be bread or wine and becomes Jesus Christ. The Enlightenment attacked any form of tradition in favor of knowledge attained through a reasoned “hermeneutic of suspicion” applied to personal experience. This had the effect of making knowledge, ethics, and social structures highly individualistic. Naturally, the Catholic Church reacted strongly against such errors.

The efforts of Catholic thinkers to respond to the Reformation and the Enlightenment often had the unintended effect of allowing the culture to dictate the shape and terms of the discussion. For example, moral theology was typically presented in a casuistic fashion as a matter of obeying divine and ecclesiastical laws. The Church itself was understood primarily as a visible hierarchical society arranged in accord with canon law.

The sacraments were seen as the work of the priest acting in the person of Christ in order to bring grace to the people. The Mass was considered the means of making present “the unbloodied sacrifice of the cross” and the “real presence” of Jesus on the altar. The struggle shaped the presentation of the truth so that other crucial theological aspects were ignored, neglected, or poorly understood. Sometimes certain aspects suffered because writers wanted absolutely to avoid granting any concessions to the heretics or appearing themselves sympathetic to heresy.

Lamentably, many clergy and laity involved in the postconciliar “renewal” had at best a superficial knowledge of pre-Reformation Catholicism and did not know how to read either the letter or spirit of Vatican II. Therefore, after the council they tended either to desire to continue the polemical struggle or, as was more common in the 1960s, to launch a new polemic against the old polemic (thereby appearing to embrace the ideas of the Reformation and Enlightenment).

Thus, for example, the basis of morality shifted from church and law to personal conscience and spirit. The Church was re-envisioned not as a perfect hierarchical society, but as an egalitarian “people of God.” In liturgy, the emphasis changed from sacrifice, cross, priest, and Host to meal, resurrection, assembly, and word. Piety tended to move from devotion and contemplation to liturgical and social action. The visible presence of the tabernacle, made increasingly prominent after Trent, came to be seen as a hindrance to giving due attention to Christ’s many other “real presences” in the liturgy. In each of these examples, there is a lack of appreciation for the deeper vision that would bring the various aspects into unity.

Each side of the polemic creates a false dichotomy that seeks to force a person to choose “either…or” when the answer is “both…and.” In this light, one can see that many of the attempts at postconciliar “renewal” have done little more than continue, sometimes in new ways, the old polemics. The difference from the past is that now both sides of the old debates are advocated within the Church. No wonder that problems—liturgical and otherwise—seem intractable. Notice, for example, that both before and after the council the focus in liturgy remained largely on “seeing” modes of Christ’s presence and on who was permitted “to perform” various ritual actions. Vatican II’s vision of liturgy as a participation in Christ and His Pasch would have us recast the entire discussion.

Vatican II makes possible authentic renewal by rejecting these polemics in favor of truths we have long neglected in our catechesis and debates. This deeper vision, inspired by the Holy Spirit, provides a better explanation of our faith (and hence offers a more penetrating critique of polemics in and out of the Church). One of the most fundamental aspects of this renewed vision is our communion with Christ in the paschal mystery. Liturgical sensibility based on communion in the paschal mystery values the “real presence” of Christ in a myriad of ways as the means to our participation in the Pasch, the true goal of the liturgy. This paschal vision has the potential to break the pre- and post-Vatican II polemics—and to renew the Church—because it focuses on the deepest meaning of Christian life and liturgy.

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