Today we celebrate a very blessed day as we celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi, or the Body of Christ.
Before leaving his Apostles, Jesus instituted the Sacrament of the Eucharist at the Last Supper in order that He may remain physically present with His people for all time. He knew we would need Him to sustain us, both spiritually and physically, as we navigate the stormy seas that exist in our lives. In Matthew 14, Jesus walks on water. Peter, having faith in his beloved friend, asks the Lord to call him out on the water to join Him, which he did. As the winds stirred the water, Peter became afraid and started to sink, crying out to the Lord for help. Jesus reached out His hand and saved Peter. We are Peter, struggling through the trials that life throws at us, and the Eucharist is, in fact, Jesus physically lifting us up above the fray.
In 2019, the Pew Research Center sadly found that 69% of self-described Catholics do not believe in the real presence of the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Pew also found that 43% of those Catholics who believe the Eucharist is symbolic, also believe that the Church actually teaches a doctrine of symbolism, which means we have a huge gap in understanding the truth of what the Eucharist is and what the Church teaches. Given these statistics, it is highly likely that some of you reading this fall into these groups. Unfortunately, a mere symbol cannot nourish us or lift us up out of the depths of the sea. It was Jesus’ real, physical hand that saved Peter from drowning.
Let us first begin with the official Church teaching on the Eucharist. The Catholic Church has always believed in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist. However, when the Protestant Reformation took place in 1517, the Catholic Church held a counter-reformation in order to more firmly define her doctrines. Thus, the Council of Trent was held from 1545-1563. The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes the defined doctrine from the Council of Trent saying: “In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist ‘the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained’” (CCC #1374). The Catechism goes on to cite Trent, explaining that the Church has always held this belief because Jesus Himself told His Apostles at the Last Supper that the Eucharist truly is His body and blood (CCC #1376). The change that takes place is called transubstantiation. When the priest consecrates the bread and wine, the substance of each one is completely change into the body and blood of Christ. Jesus gave us a precursor of this at the wedding feast at Cana when he changed water into wine. If we believe Jesus could change one substance into another then, why should we doubt that He can do the same now? Instead, we should look with eyes of faith and believe in His awesome divine power that He has continued to demonstrate across time, through today, at every Mass around the world.
While the Council of Trent reinforced what the Church has always believed, we can see that belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is based in Scripture. In John 6:53-56, Jesus says to His followers, “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.” In the original Greek, John first used the word phago which is a word to describe eating in a general sense. The second time, he changes the word to trogon which translates to “to chew” or “to gnaw.” The change to a stronger verb indicates an emphasis on making the command unambiguous as to what Jesus intends to mean here. If we read a little further in John, we see that the disciples understood very clearly that He meant a very literal eating of His flesh as they say, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” (John 6: 60). “As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him” (John 6:66). If Jesus had intended them to carry out a symbolic eating of His flesh, why would the saying be so difficult to accept that His followers would abandon Him? All of this clearly suggests that Jesus was not speaking of symbols, but of actualities. He then turns to His twelve Apostles and asks if they will leave Him too. Peter answered Him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:69). The Apostles were able to accept the very hard teaching of the bread of life as the literal Body of Christ because they had faith in Jesus. We, too, are called to this level of faith, where we believe because He says it is so. He has the words of eternal life and we have nowhere else to go.
Moving from Scripture to Tradition, we have further evidence that the very early Church believed in the real presence of Christ’s flesh and blood in the Eucharist. St. John Damascene lived from 675-749 AD and he wrote: “You ask how the bread becomes the Body of Christ, and the wine…the Blood of Christ. I shall tell you: the Holy Spirit comes upon them and accomplishes what surpasses every word and thought…Let it be enough for you to understand that it is by the Holy Spirt, just as it was of the Holy Virgin and by the Holy Spirit that the Lord, through and in himself, took flesh” (De Fide Orthodoxa). We can see the faith St. John has in the power of the Holy Spirit to carry out great miracles. He reminds us of this power by pointing out the fact that the Holy Spirit made Jesus in the flesh within the Blessed Virgin’s womb. In doubting the truth of the Eucharist, we are doubting that miraculous power of the Holy Spirit that brought about our Savior in the flesh.
Earlier this year, Bishop Olmsted wrote an apostolic exhortation entitled Veneremur Cernui – Down in Adoration Falling. It is a letter to all of us about the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. I invite everyone to read this letter, particularly those who struggle with the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, as the Bishop writes beautifully and in terms that are easy to understand. Also, regardless of where you are on the spectrum of faith, pray for a deeper understanding for the Eucharist and be open to God working in your heart. In Mark 9:24, a man who asks Jesus to heal his son but then seems to doubt if Jesus could do it exclaims, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” Similarly, in his Confessions, St. Augustine wrote, “Of your eternal life I was now certain … But as for my temporal life, everything was uncertain, and my heart had to be purged of the old leaven.” Even great saints struggled with divine truth, but they always asked for help and remained open to receiving it.