I. THE BREAD OF LIFE
ONE day more than nineteen centuries ago a man was preaching to an attentive group in the Jewish synagogue at Capharnaum, a city situated near the Lake of Genesareth in Palestine. He was Jesus, well known to the people of that region as a prophet who taught sublime doctrines and a lofty code of morality, proclaiming them to be the revelations of God Himself. To support His claim, He performed wondrous deeds which evidently could be accomplished only with the miraculous assistance of the Almighty. Even now, as He was speaking, His listeners recalled that two days previously He had fed a multitude of five thousand persons with five barley loaves and two fishes, and some even knew that afterwards He had walked upon the waters of the storm-tossed sea to meet His disciples struggling in their tiny boat. With these thoughts in mind to persuade them that when a man exercised such extraordinary power it must be that the God of truth was attesting the correctness of His statements, the people listened to an astounding promise from the lips of Him whom Catholics acknowledge as the Son of God made man. “I am the bread of life; he that cometh to Me shall not hunger, and he that believeth in Me shall never thirst. . . . I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread that I will give is My flesh, for the life of the world. . . . Amen, amen, I say unto you: Except you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink His blood, you shall not have life in you. He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood hath everlasting life, and I will raise him up in the last day. For My flesh is meat indeed and My blood is drink indeed. He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood abideth in Me and I in him” (John vi. 35-57). Thus did Jesus Christ promise to give His flesh and blood to be the food and drink of men. Evidently His listeners on this occasion took His words literally, for they asked one another in astonishment: “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” And when Christ repeated His wondrous promise in even more explicit language, many who had been His followers up to that time complained: “This saying is hard, and who can hear it?” and departed from Him forever. Then our Lord turned to the little band of twelve chosen disciples, and put the pathetic question: “Will you also go away?” With unwavering faith the loyal Peter answered: “Lord to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we have believed and have known that Thou art the Christ, the Son of God” (John vi. 53-70). A year rolled by, and the feast of the Pasch was at hand. Christ had expressed an ardent longing to eat the ceremonial banquet ushering in that feast with His Apostles. “With desire I have desired to eat this Pasch with you before I suffer” (Luke xxii. 15). Evidently, He intended to do or to say something of great importance on this occasion. What this was He revealed after the ritual supper was ended on that memorable Thursday evening. He then took bread, rendered thanks to God, and breaking the bread gave it to His disciples with the words: “Take ye and eat; this is My body.” Then taking a cup of wine, He gave it to them to drink, with the words: “Drink ye all of this. For this is My blood of the new testament which shall be shed for many unto remission of sins.” Finally our Lord commanded that the rite which He had performed should be continued in His Church, for He said: “Do this for a commemoration of Me” (Matthew xxvi. 26-28; Luke xxii. 19). Thus did Jesus Christ institute the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist—a sacrament venerated by Catholics as the greatest of the sacraments. Moreover, in most of the other Christian denominations a rite of this nature is administered, known among Protestants as the Lord‟s Supper or Holy Communion. However, there is a vast difference of belief between Catholics and the majority of Protestants as to what this sacrament really contains. The usual Protestant view is that the Eucharist is nothing more than bread and wine, symbolizing our Lord‟s body and blood. Catholics believe that this sacrament contains the living, physical flesh and blood of our Saviour; and this is known as the doctrine of the Real Presence. The Oriental churches separated from the Catholic Church such as the Greek Orthodox Church, also accept this doctrine, as do some Lutherans and Anglicans. Of course, the crucial point is the significance of Christ‟s words when He promised and when He instituted this sacrament. For, since He empowered His Apostles to do whatever He had done at the Last Supper, and since their power has been transmitted to their successors in the sacred ministry, it follows that if Christ promised to give, and later actually gave His real body and blood to the little group around the supper table, the Holy Eucharist consecrated by the bishops and priests who have inherited the powers of the Apostles also contains the living Christ. What reasons have Catholics for believing that our Saviour gave the Apostles His real body and blood? In the first place, we point to the undeniable fact that His words, both on the occasion of the promise and at the Last Supper, if taken literally, denote a true, and not a merely symbolic presence of Himself in the Holy Eucharist. He could not have expressed this more clearly or more forcibly than He did: “He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood hath everlasting life. . . . For My flesh is meat (food) indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. . . . This is My body…This is My blood.” Now, it is a universally accepted principle of interpretation that words are to be taken in their literal sense unless there are good reasons to the contrary. Are there any such reasons in the present instance? Those who deny the doctrine of the Real Presence do indeed adduce numerous arguments against the literal acceptance of Christ‟s statements, but an honest examination of these arguments will show that they all have one common basis—the difficulty of understanding how our Lord‟s real body and blood can be simultaneously present in thousands of places in a manner imperceptible to human senses. Now, this is only a repetition of the argument brought up by those who listened to Christ Himself at Capharnaum: “How can this man give us His flesh to eat? . . . This saying is hard, and who can hear it?” The weakness of this argument is that it measures divine power by human standards. He who has assured us that the Holy Eucharist contains His body and blood is the all-powerful, all-truthful God. Shall we twist His assertions to suit our ideas just because our puny intellects cannot understand how the miracle of the Real Presence takes place? Should we not rather exclaim with St. Peter: “Thou hast the words of eternal life,” and humbly acknowledge as divine truth the sublime doctrine which the Son of God has made known to us with His own lips? Secondly, the attitude of those who heard Christ‟s promise and His reaction furnish an argument for the Real Presence. It is very evident that they understood our Lord to be referring to His own body and blood, and not to a mere symbol. Now, from Christ‟s manner of acting on other occasions we can conclude that if they had interpreted Him wrongly He would have set them right. Thus, when the disciples understood literally His announcement: “Lazarus sleepeth,” He told them plainly: “Lazarus is dead.” Again, when He spoke of meat which He had to eat, and they thought He referred to material food, He told them: “My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me” (John xi. 11-14; iv. 32-34). But on the present occasion, when it was evident that His followers were accepting His words literally, He did not say: “I intend merely to give you bread and wine as a symbol of My body and blood.” On the contrary, He repeated His promise even more explicitly; and though He saw many departing from His company, He uttered not a single word implying that He had been speaking in figurative language. Thirdly, with His supernatural knowledge Christ foresaw that in the course of future ages millions of devout Christians, relying on His words, would accept the doctrine of the Real Presence, and adore Him as truly contained in the Holy Eucharist. With this realization before His mind, how could our Saviour have been free from the grossest deception if He did not intend His words to be taken literally and yet gave no further explanation? Indeed, if the Holy Eucharist contained nothing more than bread and wine, Christ would be responsible for innumerable sins of idolatry. From the earliest days of its existence the Catholic Church has firmly proclaimed the doctrine of the Real Presence, as is clearly attested by the writings of the first centuries. St. Justin, who wrote in the second century, said: “We receive (the Holy Eucharist) not as common bread or as common drink. We have been taught that this nourishment is the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus” (Apologia I, 66). Tertullian, writing in the third century, stated: “Our flesh feeds on the body and blood of Christ, that our soul may be nourished by God” (De Resurrectione Carnis, 8). Such quotations from the early writers could be multiplied almost indefinitely. It was only in the eleventh century that the doctrine of the Real Presence was first denied explicitly by one claiming to be a Christian—a certain Berengarius. Very few followed his teaching until the sixteenth century, when a large number of those who accepted the new creed of Protestantism, especially as proclaimed by Calvin and Zwingli, rejected the traditional belief of Christians in the reality of Christ‟s sacramental presence. However, Martin Luther and his disciples upheld the Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist, although they dissented from the Catholic Church as to the manner in which Christ takes up His abode in this sacrament. In the Catholic Church the Holy Eucharist is the very center of worship and devotion, and as the most excellent of the sacraments is often known as “The Blessed Sacrament.” In view of the sublimity of the doctrine of the Real Presence it is not surprising that Catholic poets and painters and musicians have devoted the best efforts of their artistic genius toward expressing veneration and affection for the Son of God, ever dwelling in our midst in the Holy Eucharist and thus fulfilling in a wonderful manner His consoling promises: “Behold, I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world” (Matthew xxviii. 20).
II. THE THEOLOGY OF THE HOLY EUCHARIST
Although our Saviour has told us clearly that He is truly present in the Holy Eucharist, He has not explained fully the manner of His presence. Nevertheless, from a careful study of what He has told us, the Church and Catholic theologians under the guidance of the Church have compiled a systematic and fairly extensive explanation of the mode in which Christ is present in the Blessed Sacrament. We can divide the Church's doctrines and the teachings of theology on this subject into two classes — those concerning the manner in which our Lord becomes present, and those concerning the manner in which He remains present. Under the first heading the most important point is the doctrine, taught by the Catholic Church as an article of faith, that our Lord becomes present in the Holy Eucharist by that process of change of the bread and wine known as transubstantiation. We could imagine various ways in which the Real Presence could take place. Doubtless Christ could enter into the substances of the bread and wine and coexist with them, somewhat as fire exists in and with a mass of molten metal. This view of the sacramental presence, known as the doctrine of consubstantiation, was defended by Martin Luther, and is accepted by many present-day Lutherans. Or, perhaps the soul of Christ could be united to the substance of the bread or wine in each host or chalice, making out of each a body. But in this latter case our Lord would not have the same body in the Holy Eucharist that He has in heaven, but would have a new body wherever the Holy Eucharist would be consecrated. However, all such modes are excluded by the clear teaching of the Catholic Church that our Lord becomes present by transubstantiation—that is, the change of the entire substance of the bread and of the wine into the same body of our Saviour that was born of the Virgin Mary and is now in heaven at the right hand of the Father. Every material thing is made up of substance and accidents. The accidents are those elements which are perceived by our senses, such as color and taste and quantity. The substance is the thing beneath the accidents, supporting them in existence, yet itself imperceptible. Thus, we refer to the whiteness of the bread, the sweetness of the wine, the height of the tree, thus indicating that whiteness or sweetness or height is distinct from that which constitutes the substance of bread or wine or wood. Now, at the consecration of the Mass it is the substance of bread or wine that is changed into the body or blood of our Saviour, not the accidents. Moreover, the entire substance of bread or wine is changed, and thus this process differs essentially from any of the substantial changes that take place according to the laws of nature. For in the case of a natural substantial change—such as the change of wood into carbon or the change of hydrogen and oxygen into water— something of the previous substance is carried over into the ensuing substance, while only the element that determines each substance to be what it is differs in the two substances involved. The element common to both is called the matter, the distinctive element of each is called the form. Accordingly, a natural substantial change is called a transformation, because only the form of the previous substance passes away and only the form of the ensuing substance is new. But in transubstantiation both matter and form of the bread or wine pass away, the substance of our Lord‟s body or blood being entirely different. All this is implied in our Lord‟s own words: “This is My body.” For these words indicated that the substance of the bread was no longer present, but had been changed into the substance of Christ‟s body. Furthermore, it was a change of the entire substance of the bread, because what was then present was the identical body which the Apostles saw before them, and that differed both as to matter and as to form from the substance of the bread which Christ had taken from the table. The accidents of the bread and wine remain unchanged. These accidents—also called appearances or species—could not naturally continue to exist without a material substance to support them, but in the Holy Eucharist they are miraculously sustained in being by the direct power of the Almighty. There is no more difficulty involved in this than if God were to support a stone in the air without any created cause to hold it up. Consequently, the eucharistic species continue to act in the same manner as they would if the substance of bread or wine were still upholding them. Our senses perceive the color, the taste, the odor of bread and wine. When the Blessed Sacrament is consumed in Holy Communion, the same process of digestion and nutrition ensues as if bread had been eaten. All this is quite normal, since the accidents continue to exist unchanged. For a material substance is not of itself perceptible or active; it is perceived and it acts only through its accidents. Hence, the consecrated species, being preserved in existence by the power of God, function in the same manner as if the substances of bread and wine were still present. Under the doctrines concerning the manner in which our Lord remains present in the Holy Eucharist comes first the truth of His permanent abiding. This means that after the consecration Christ remains present under the sacramental species as long as they retain the appearances proper to them as the accidents of bread and wine. It is only when the process of digestion or disintegration produces such a change in the consecrated species that they no longer have the taste, color, etc., of bread and wine that the Real Presence ceases. Some ancient writers held that Christ leaves the sacred host when it is given in Communion to a sinner; and the Lutherans believe that our Lord is present only during the Communion service. The Catholic Church on the contrary teaches the permanence of the Real Presence in the sense just explained. This doctrine is the basis of the many devotions practiced in the Catholic Church in honor of the Holy Eucharist outside the time of Mass and Holy Communion, such as Benediction, the Forty Hours‟ Devotion and visits to the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle. Another Catholic doctrine explanatory of the manner of Christ‟s presence asserts its totality. This means that our Lord is present in His entirety—that is, with His body, blood, soul and divinity—under each of the two consecrated species. It is true, the words of consecration spoken over the bread signify and effect of themselves the presence of His body only; but since the body that becomes present is the same body that is now enthroned in heavenly glory, and that body is inseparably united to the blood, the soul and the divine personality, the entire Christ becomes present under the accidents of bread. In theological language we say that the body of our Lord is present in the host by the power of the words of consecration, while His blood, soul and divinity are present by concomitance. Similarly we conclude that under the accidents of wine the blood of Christ is present by the power of the words of consecration, while His body, soul and divinity are present by concomitance. Moreover, Christ is entirely present in each portion of the consecrated host and of the consecrated species of wine. We cannot, of course, fully understand how a complete human body can be truly present in so small a compass, and can be simultaneously present in many thousands of consecrated hosts and chalices; yet we can acquire a limited conception of these marvels by analyzing the idea of quantity. When we think of a body as having quantity, the first thing we attribute to it is a number of parts, each related to the others and distinct from them. This aspect of quantity we call internal extension. Next we conceive the body as occupying a definite space, so that the whole body fills the whole space, and each part fills a distinct part of the space. This we call external extension. Now, we believe that while our Lord‟s body in the Blessed Sacrament has the first element of quantity, it does not possess the second in relation to the place occupied by the consecrated species. The various parts of His body—head, trunk, limbs, etc.—are present in their full perfection and proportion, entirely distinct from one another. But, by a miracle, His body is not contained in the place where the Blessed Sacrament is present in such wise that each part of the body occupies a different part of the place, as is the case with our bodies. On the contrary, it is present somewhat after the manner in which a person‟s soul is present in his body—wholly and entirely in every part. And since our Lord‟s body is not restricted by the space-boundaries of any particular host, it can exist simultaneously in any number of consecrated hosts throughout the entire world. Since the body of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament is the same body that is present in heaven, it performs on the altar the same actions that it is eliciting with its faculties in the kingdom of the blessed — for example, gazing on the radiant beauty of our Lady and speaking to her. The question naturally arises, whether our Lord with His bodily eyes sees those who kneel in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament and with His bodily ears hears their prayers and hymns of praise. It seems that He does not, since His senses have no external extension in the Holy Eucharist, and so are not adapted to receive impressions from what goes on around them. Doubtless by a miracle His body could be rendered capable of such sense-perception, but such a miracle is not called for, since in the vision of the divine nature which His human intellect always possesses Christ dearly beholds the thoughts and actions of all men. And so, when we kneel before the Blessed Sacrament we can be assured that our every act of adoration and of love, our every manifestation of devotion, are perfectly known by Him whom we venerate beneath the Eucharistic species. And the realization of the wonderful miracles wrought by divine omnipotence to give us the living Christ for our strength and consolation should prompt us to exclaim from the depths of our hearts: O Sacrament most holy, O Sacrament divine, All praise and all thanksgiving be every moment thine.