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  • Writer's pictureDavid OMalley

Did you receive Jesus in communion?

The Real Presence

A recent pew research poll found that as many as 70% of USA Catholics no longer believe in the real presence.[1]

Bishop Barron accepted the results of the survey but said this:

I'm blaming myself, bishops, priests

and anybody responsible for transmitting the faith, he said. We're all guilty.

Thinking about the survey results as a Catholic priest I began to ask myself if I too have been negligent in presenting the truth of the real presence? Have I ‘dumbed down’ the stark truth about how God is present in the Eucharist, in the word and in people? Have I, unwittingly allowed the real presence to become a just another metaphor or a symbol? This reflection is an attempt to clarify how I would present the real presence as something more than a symbol, wider than the mass and in fact, at the heart of each person. Forgive me in advance for getting it wrong because this is too big a mystery to sit comfortably in our narrow minds.

This is my body....

When the priest raises the host at the consecration and the host is brought out in a monstrance for adoration, that is the real presence. Jesus is really present as he promised when he said, “do this in memory of me” and “this is my body.” When we receive communion from the minister, we receive that real presence into our own body, and we become one with that real presence of Jesus.

When we change our focus at mass from the altar to the lectern, we hear the word proclaimed again in our present moment. That too is the real presence.

This is the word that is made flesh in the Eucharistic prayer. The word is life, light and eternal wisdom expressed in human language. It is the same word that called creation into being and it too is the real presence for Catholics.

Changing our focus again to the congregation gathered at the Eucharist, we encounter the real presence in people. Each person is already formed in image of God, both male and female. We all carry the real presence because the word was made flesh and lives among us now. “I am with you always, until the end of time” Jesus told us before his ascension. In these earthenware vessels of our bodies we hold a treasure, the real presence. That is why we, as a congregation, are the body of Christ, a real presence shared.

The reformation has been described as Catholics picking up the Eucharist and running in one direction and the reformers picking up the word and running in the opposite direction. Each emphasising their own focus on the real presence but at the expense of the other’s views. Lives were lost and martyrs made over this issue. We still need to be reconciled fully. The “either or” mentality about the real presence needs to develop into a “both and” approach.

One way to look at the mystery of the real presence is to see it as a matter of focus: When light passes through a lens it brings that light to a focus point where things become clearer. If the lens is more or less curved it changes the focal point, bringing it closer or further away. It is the same light that is present but focused at different at different points. In the same way, the word, the sacraments, and people made in God’s image focus the real presence in different ways.

The lens of the Eucharist brings us to a point where we encounter Jesus at the last supper repeating the instruction, “take and eat, this is my body”. The lens of the word brings the focal point to an established a community of faith and its scriptures giving us a focus and a tradition to help us recognise God’s real presence in scripture. Finally, an individual person and a community become another focal point where the real presence becomes visible in the way people trust the real presence within them and become signs and bearers of God’s love for others.

What you do for the least you do to me

Three focal points but only one, mysterious, real presence. Thinkers have tried to grasp this mystery for two thousand years and all explanations fall short. Thank God that they do. This reflection is also inadequate. We need to be clear that our trust in the real presence is based on the words of Jesus. His word reveals and creates, it does what it says- it makes reality. So, when Jesus says, this is my body, then it really is his body. When Jesus says whenever you do this to the least of my brothers and sisters you do it to me then that also is literally true. That word is God’s word and it achieves what it says because of who has spoken it. We believe in a God who spoke creation into being by his word. If the whole of creation is created by God’s word, then surely we can trust that word when Jesus says “this is my body”?

The real presence cannot be contained in any one place or defined. We cannot grasp it, we have to allow it to grasp us and help us to live the mystery in trust. Let’s not try to organise God in to our mindset and enjoy the ambiguity and the adventure of growing into relationship with this real presence until we meet God face to face.

I too apologise as a priest for not presenting this great mystery with more clarity. All I know in the end is that when I receive communion I receive Jesus himself because he said it and I trust Him.

My word achieves its aims


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