Commentary

Real presence: Beyond the Pew Study

Originally Appeared in : 9922-10/24/19

The recent Pew Study on the beliefs of Catholics revealed some truly disturbing responses regarding the truth of the real presence of our Lord in the Eucharist. And, of course, the secular media had a field day headlining “63% of Catholics don’t believe.…” When the wise reader digs a bit deeper to check the methodology of the study, that wise one finds that among active Catholics who attend Mass weekly, 69% of them accepted the Real Presence, and 17% said they didn’t know or were confused. Sadly, 14% rejected the foundation.

 

So a simple historical review of what the very first Christians believed seems in order, and reveals a clear truth: From the letters of Saint Paul through the discourses of Saint Augustine, every early Christian writing accepts the real presence as “Gospel truth.” It is a very foundation of our acceptance of Christ as our Lord and Savior.

 

In one of the earliest known Christian writings, Saint Paul states clearly that he received his knowledge from Christ Jesus himself: “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you: That the Lord Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said: ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant of my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11; about 54 AD).

 

Each of the three synoptic Gospels, written 15-30 years after Saint Paul, have this same blessing by Jesus repeated during the Last Supper. Saint John’s Gospel, written about 90 AD, has the Lord’s words not at the Last Supper but after the Sermon on the Mount (chapter 6), concluding with this powerful guidance: “Unless you eat my body and drink my blood, there is no life in you.” Indeed, it is Saint John who develops the beautiful description of Jesus as the “bread of life” in this glorious chapter.

 

Writings from the very first century are also clear: Saint Clement (third Bishop of Rome) and the Didache (the first catechism) provide guidance on how and when to receive the Eucharist. Saint Ignatius (third Bishop of Antioch; 110 AD) states that “it is the true flesh of Christ” which we receive in the Sacrament. The first Christian philosopher, Saint Justin Martyr (150 AD) emphatically proclaimed: “Not as common bread or common drink do we receive these; … [but as] both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus.”

 

The list of writers who proclaim the truth of the Real Presence continues unbroken through the centuries: Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (180 AD); Saint Clement of Alexandria (200 AD); Saint Cyprian of Carthage (250 AD); Saint Serapion of Antioch, Saint Ephrem of Syrian, Saint Athanasius of Alexandria (all in the third century). Many more write in the third, fourth and fifth centuries. Saint Augustine, the great Bishop and preacher of Hippo, Africa) writes in 420 AD: “That bread which you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the Body of Christ. The chalice, or rather what is in the chalice, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the Blood of Christ.”

 

Ultimately, like all matters of our spiritual well-being, faith is the driving force. God reveals certain truths to humans, and we are free to recognize and accept those truths—or reject them. The Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection—these are the core beliefs of Catholics. And accepting the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is as much a foundation as any. For a person to say: “I am Catholic but I reject the real presence” is the same as rejecting the Incarnation. The definition just doesn’t work.

 

For a thorough list of writers through the first nine centuries, check out this excellent article: therealpresence.org/eucharst/father/a5.html

 

From a homily delivered Sept. 24 by Deacon Robert Larcher at
Sacred Heart Church, Savannah.

 

Go to top