Sunday, September 26, 2004

The Nature of His Presence

In my earlier efforts to emphatically describe the Reality of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, I sometimes said that He is physically present. By this, I meant to contrast the Protestant belief of a mere spiritual or metaphorical presence. I used the word physical to convey that we can perceive Him with our senses, though the appearance is bread and wine.

The September, 2004 issue of This Rock Magazine contained a letter to the editor from Richard Gaillardetz, the author of a book titled By What Authority, in response to a Book Review which appeared in This Rock last March. The reviewer criticized the book on several points and accused Gaillardetz of believing that Christ is present in the Eucharist "symbolically but not physically." In Gaillardetz's letter, he says that both Augustine and Aquinas insisted that the Eucharistic Body of Christ was not Christ's physical body. Rather Christ is present in a real but spiritual manner. Then he quotes an Aquinas commentary on Augustine to back his argument.

James Kidd, the author of the critical Book Review, responded in the September issue by acknowledging that "it is true that the Church does not teach that Christ is physically present in the Eucharist". This exchange forced me to reevaluate my description of the Holy Eucharist. The problem lies not in my misunderstanding the nature of the Eucharist, but rather in my misunderstanding of the word physical. The first definition in my dictionary says "of nature and all matter." To me, physical meant having substance or form, perceptible to the senses. While we often use the word in that way, it carries a deeper philosophical meaning which renders it inappropriate when describing the nature of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist.

The July/August, 2000 issue of Envoy Magazine contains discussion on this topic in some detail, pointing out that the Council of Trent, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, all avoid using the word physical when describing the Real Presence. The editor includes the following statement:

Whether Christ's real presence in the Sacrament is "physical" depends on how we choose to define "physical," since the Magisterium hasn't defined this term for us as a way of speaking about the matter. Some orthodox Catholic writers have used the word in this regard, and if we use it in the popular sense of "material" or "corporeal," then the Church does in fact affirm such a "physical" presence. On the other hand, if we define the term in such a way that we would argue against a "physical" presence, then we must make clear that in doing so we don't mean to imply that the presence is merely "spiritual," "symbolic," or "psychological."

This is where the confusion arises. I originally used the word physical to emphasize that Christ is Bodily present, and what appears to be bread and wine is NOT bread and wine. What we see, feel, hear, smell, and taste is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the same Body and Blood sacrificed on Calvary, made Present on the altar today. Yet, the accidents, or appearance of bread and wine normally remains, and philosophically, we must distinguish between the appearance and the substance. By proper definition, we cannot say the presence is physical because it is not natural. Rather, it is supernatural. The substance changes, but the accidents do not. Therefore, I used the term physical incorrectly.

As the Envoy editor points out, a problem arises when we Catholics try to describe the nature of the Holy Eucharist to our Protestant brothers and sisters. If we say the Presence is not physical, most will take us to mean it is symbolic. On the other hand, when I used the word physical during a discussion with an Evangelical Protestant, he thought I was claiming the Body and Blood could be discerned by laboratory analysis. How do we avoid the word physical and convey the reality? I can now empathize with the Council of Trent. Confronted with this dilemma in 1551, they coined a new word,
Transubstantiation, to describe what happens during the consecration. Today, we are still challenged to find English words to adequately explain what it means.

If Christ is not physically present, what term can we use? Substantially present? Sounds too much like mostly present. Really present may not adequately convey the change in substance that actually takes place. We can say that He is Sacramentally present, but non-Catholics will probably interpret this as a symbolic existence.

The Envoy magazine article noted above, quotes the Council of Trent's explanation. It says the following: "In the first place, the holy Synod teaches, and openly and simply professes, that, in the august sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, after the consecration of the bread and wine, our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and man, is truly, really, and substantially contained under the species of those sensible things." Perhaps the Council's repetitative emphasis says it best. What appears to be bread and wine, is truly, really and substantially the Body and Blood of Christ.