On the Unreal Presence

Deacon Scott Maentz Vatican II, Year of Faith

An often asked question when I was attending seminary was, “Do you believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist?” It is an unfortunate question both in that it is accusatory (the implication being that the person does not believe in this basic tenet of our Catholic faith) and that there would be any doubt that someone who is studying for the priesthood would not hold to the basic beliefs of Catholicism. This being said, I always appreciated the answer given by a classmate of mine who when asked said, “No. I don’t believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I believe in the unreal presence of Christ in the Eucharist.”  His answer was followed up by his explanation that he firmly believed in Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, and that His presence among us is not limited to our limited human explanations.

How many times have you seen something that can only be described as unreal. Whether it is an athlete who makes an incredible play, an overwhelming sunrise or sunset, or a new invention that seems unfathomable to us, “unreal” is often the word that comes to mind. What we as Catholic understand to happen in the Eucharist would certainly fit the category. How does one fully wrap one’s mind around the fact that the God whom all the universe cannot contain enters physically into our worship so we can take Him into our own bodies and become so intimately connected to Him that his blood flows through our veins? Perhaps one of the best words to describe the real presence is unreal.

The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy describes Christ’s presence in the Eucharist in these terms,

To accomplish so great a work, Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, “the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross”, but especially under the Eucharistic species. By His power He is present in the sacraments, so that when a man baptizes it is really Christ Himself who baptizes. He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. He is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20) .

I have always loved this paragraph that proclaims our firm belief in Christ’s presence in the form of bread and wine transformed into His own Body and Blood. But the beauty doesn’t end there. Christ is present in the Eucharist also in the one who presides. One of the main reasons for vestments and for the use of a common set of prayers is to make it clear that it is Christ’s presence in the minister that allows him to perform the sacramental actions rather than any power of his own. Christ is truly present also in the Sacred Scriptures which contain the Word made flesh. Christ is there too in all who gather to pray and sing.

The good news for us is that when we gather for the Eucharist, these four visible signs of Christ are always present, but they do not exhaust the places where we can see Him among us. The Altar, the Paschal Candle, the Baptismal Font, the Crucifix, and so many other symbols are there to surround and remind us of a God who wants to remain close to His bride, the Church.