Sunday, December 30, 2007

Christ’s Mass Presence

I recently wrote about our parish adult formation class that I have been attending. (See Sailing . . .October 27, 2007). The group began with just two of us plus our pastor. We were later joined by a couple from a nearby parish and the five of us have been studying Bishop Charles J. Chaput’s book, Living the Catholic Faith. The class has been quite interesting and the discussion quite spirited at times.

As I stated in my earlier post, the other parishioner (I’ll call her Mavis) and I have occasionally been at odds with our pastor concerning his expression of Catholic teaching. We try to be very orthodox in our Catholic belief and our pastor can be a bit liberal in his thinking. The new participants are long-time friends of our pastor and tend to think along the same lines. The wife is quite reserved while her husband is just the opposite. He keeps the class lively and is never at a loss for words. Some of his comments have drawn terse reaction from Mavis who can be somewhat cantankerous at times.

Our most recent sessions have focused on the Eucharist. At the close of one meeting, Father talked about “being Eucharist to one another” and “seeing Eucharist” in others. A few days after the class, Mavis asked me what Father meant by “seeing Eucharist” in other people. She pointed out that Eucharist literally means thanksgiving and asked how we see thanksgiving in others. I agreed that applying the term Eucharist to our vision of Christ’s presence in other people was confusing to say the least. Even if one can make the argument that such an expression is appropriate by some definition of the word, we both agreed that doing so can only diminish the sanctity of belief the unique Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist.

The following week, our session was progressing quite smoothly when Mavis said, “By the way Father, what did you mean last week when you talked about seeing Eucharist in others?” Father replied that Jesus is present is all of us. “But not in the same way He is present in the Eucharistic species,” Mavis interjected. “Yes, He is,” Father responded. Now I had to chime in. “Not substantially present,” I said looking for clarification. Again, Father responded that Jesus presence in others was substantial. Trying to assure myself that we were just misunderstanding each other, I stated that Jesus could be substantially present for fifteen minutes or so after receiving the Holy Eucharist. But again, Father reaffirmed his statement that the substantial Presence of Jesus exists in all of us beyond our reception of the Holy Eucharist.

I was astounded by what I was hearing. “So then, why shouldn’t I genuflect to those sitting around this table the same way I would genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament?” I asked. “You can do that,” Father replied. I could not believe my ears, and to complicate matters, the other gentleman at the table was agreeing with Father. “That’s heresy,” I said. By this time, Father’s face was red. He told me I was the one with the heretical belief. He started to express his frustration with me when I suggested we all calm down and discuss this further at a later time.

I didn’t sleep well that night. Many questions came to mind. Knowing what the Church teaches about transubstantiation, how can a Catholic priest believe that Christ is substantially present in others beyond the temporary Real Presence after the reception of Holy Communion? After transubstantiation occurs, the substance of bread and wine cease to exist and only the accidents remain. As understood and affirmed by the Council of Trent, the substantial Presence of Jesus in the Eucharistic species continues until the accidents are no longer intact, either as a result of consumption or natural deterioration. It seems to be generally taught that the Real Presence continues for about fifteen minutes after consumption. Then, how is it possible for Our Lord to be substantially present in a person beyond that point? Once the species of bread and wine are digested and no longer exist, how can the substantial Presence continue and under what form does it exist if it is not bread and wine?

The only conclusion I could reach was that our priest was just plain wrong. I began to look for evidence to present at our next session since I knew he would not accept me at my word. What I found confused me even more. Searching the EWTN website, I found an answer written by Father Robert J. Levis (08-31-2007) which said, “ . . . , The sacramental presence of Jesus remains about 15 minutes within us, as long as the species lasts.” Okay so far. Then he says, “The real presence, Jesus’ presence itself remains till mortal sin destroys it.”

The last sentence says the “real presence” (often capitalized when referring to the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ) remains. Using the term “real presence” as he does can be understood to indicate the Eucharistic Bodily Presence of Jesus remains in the person as long as that person remains in a state of grace. I have to assume Father Levis is referring to a spiritual presence remaining as opposed to a substantial or bodily presence which he calls sacramental in the first sentence.

In search of clarification, I found another answer by Father Robert J. Levis (12-10-2005) to a similar question on the EWTN website where he says the “Eucharistic elements” remain with us for about fifteen minutes after reception. He goes on to say, “It is ideal to spend these few precious moments with Jesus in the Eucharist temporarily present within us, or for at least some of this time.” This affirms my statement to Father that the Real Bodily Eucharistic Presence in the person is only temporary.

My confidence in understanding the Real Presence comes from my rudimentary familiarization with the philosophical difference between substance and accidents as proposed by Aristotle. In transubstantiation, the substance of bread and wine cease to exist while the accidents or physical properties of bread and wine remain. The substance becomes the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ and continues until such time the accidents are corrupted. When I used the word “substantial” in my argument with Father, I was using it as a technical term derived from this philosophy.

While searching for more information on the topic, I came across an essay on the Adoremus website by Avery Cardinal Dulles which confused me a little more. In referring to the Substantial Presence as affirmed by the Council of Trent, he says the following:

. . . . Trent tells us that Christ's presence in the sacrament is substantial. The word "substance" as here used is not a technical philosophical term, such as might be found in the philosophy of Aristotle. It was used in the early Middle Ages long before the works of Aristotle were current. "Substance" in common-sense usage denotes the basic reality of the thing, i.e., what it is in itself. Derived from the Latin root "sub-stare", it means what stands under the appearances, which can shift from one moment to the next while leaving the subject intact.

Regardless of how one understands the meaning of substance, the Eucharistic Jesus is a unique corporeal presence that surpasses all other forms. This same issue was addressed in the Blog of Catholic Apologist Jimmy Akin (September 14, 2006). In an entry titled Flattening the Real Presence, he was asked how to verbalize the difference between Christ’s Presence in the Eucharist as opposed to his presence where two or three are gathered or in the faces of the poor. He begins by saying this is not an easy question to answer because Jesus did not provide us with details in describing the manner of his presence in those other situations, but he goes on to say that Jesus’ presence in others is less than the full reality of his presence in the Eucharist. Mr. Akin says the following:

Therefore, one does an injustice to the Eucharist – and to Jesus himself – if one attempts to flatten the uniqueness of the Eucharistic presence and reduce it to the other modes of his presence which Scripture and theology speak of. To do so speaks of either gross ignorance of the faith or an agenda of some sort that is so strong it overrides what is patently obvious.

As evidence for the unique way Christ is present in the Eucharist, Mr. Akin highlights several statements from several sources, the first being the Compendium of the Catholic Catechism where it states that “Jesus Christ is present in the Eucharist in a unique and incomparable way.” (#282) He also cites the Catechism itself. "This presence is called 'real' - by which is not intended to exclude the other types of presence as if they could not be 'real' too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present." (CCC 1374) He also refers to Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Mysterium Fidei which says, “These various ways in which Christ is present fill the mind with astonishment and offer the Church a mystery for her contemplation. But there is another way in which Christ is present in His Church, a way that surpasses all the others. It is His presence in the Sacrament of the Eucharist” [38].

So, what have I learned after contemplating all of this? To a novice philosopher like me, it seems the substance does not exist apart from the accidents. Therefore, when the accidents no longer remain, neither does the substance. If the form of bread and wine become corrupted after about fifteen minutes of digestion, the substantial form of the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus is no longer present in that form. Beyond that, Jesus can still be present in one who remains in a state of grace in some other form, but how this occurs is a mystery. I am still confident in my statement that Christ’s substantial presence in the human person is only temporary, but I am less confident that I will be able to win an argument with our pastor.