In this 2014 file photo, Pope Francis elevates the Eucharist as he celebrates Mass on the feast of Corpus Christi outside the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. (Paul Haring | CNS)

The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist

NAPLES  |  One of the most important doctrines of the Catholic Church is our belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “By the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood” (CCC 1376). While the appearances of bread and wine remain, the substance is changed to the body and blood of Christ.

Recently, the Pew Research Center reported that only one half of American Catholics know the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist, and only a third of American Catholics believe this essential truth. Our contemporary culture, in which seeing is believing, can present challenges to our faith. And yet we still use old adages to remind ourselves that appearances can be deceiving: “All that glitters is not gold.” “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Just as some people were never able to look beyond the humble carpenter to see the divine son of God, so too, without faith it can prove difficult to look beyond the appearance of simple bread and wine to see that through the Eucharistic consecration Christ has become truly present. Although the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist cannot be weighed or measured empirically, there are several persuasive factors that can serve to assure us of its truth.

In the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John we read: “‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.’ At this, the Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. 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 is true drink.’ … Then many of his disciples who were listening said, ‘This saying is hard; who can accept it?’ … As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.” 

It was at this moment that Jesus lost many of his disciples, and that Judas began to plot against him. This sudden change did not result from Jesus’ use of a poetic metaphor. It was clear to the people that Jesus meant what he said, that he is the bread of life and that his flesh is true food and his blood true drink. A metaphor would not have turned so many away from him, and Jesus would not have risked the loss of so many disciples over a metaphor. He would have quickly clarified if he had not intended his listeners to take him literally. It was precisely this visceral literalism of what he said that shocked them.

Secondly, how can the Church be built on a metaphor? In the same chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus said: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.” Jesus is indicating that something transformative happens when we receive the Eucharist. We are united with Jesus, and we are given life from the only one who is the way, the truth and the life. If the Eucharist were just a symbol or an image, then the Mass would be no more than a pep rally, and our unity with one another and with Christ would be no more than sentiment, and not a true sacramental transformation. If our unity with one another and with God is real, then the Eucharist, the sacrament of unity, must also be real. As St. Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” 

Finally, it is precisely at times when faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist comes into doubt, that God sends the church Eucharistic miracles. For example, in 1263 a priest who doubted the doctrine of transubstantiation celebrated mass at Bolsena, Italy. During the Mass, the Eucharistic host began to bleed. The blood from the host fell onto the altar linen in the shape of the face of Jesus as traditionally represented, and the priest came to believe once again. The following year, Pope Urban IV instituted the feast of Corpus Christi to celebrate this miracle. This blood-stained corporal is still venerated as a major relic in the Orvieto Cathedral in Italy. In the same century, a similar Eucharistic miracle occurred in Santarem, Portugal. The bloodied host is still venerated in Santarem at the Church of St. Steven.

More recently, on Aug. 18, 1996, Father Alejandro Pezet discovered a defiled host in the back of Blessed Sacrament church in Buenos Aires. Because it could not be consumed, Father Alejandro placed it in a container of water so that it would dissolve. Several days later, when he returned to dispose of the dissolved host, he found that, rather than dissolving, it now appeared to be flesh and blood. He reported this to his auxiliary bishop, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (now Pope Francis). The cardinal had it professionally photographed and then advised Father Pezet to keep the host under observation. For years it remained the same, without decomposing.

On Oct. 5, 1999, Cardinal Bergoglio sent a sample of the substance to a laboratory in New York City for forensic analysis. Since he did not wish to prejudice the study, the laboratory was not informed of the sample’s origins. Dr. Frederic Zugiba, a forensic pathologist, concluded that the substance was human flesh and blood that came from a fragment of the left ventricle of a man’s heart and the presence of many white blood cells within the heart muscle suggested that the man had suffered extreme trauma. When Dr. Zugiba was finally told of the origin of the sample, he reiterated that all his scientific analysis assured him that the sample was indeed human flesh. This study was replicated in several laboratories around the world to verify the initial findings. The outcome has always been the same: The specimen is a fragment of heart muscle that was alive when the sample was collected. 

These miracles are only some of many that have occurred when faith in the real presence was jeopardized. They are gifts from God to reassure us and revive our belief that Jesus is truly present to us in the Eucharist, uniting us to himself and to each another, and gently transforming us into his image. With eyes of faith, let us look beyond surface appearance to see the risen Lord among us.