Mar 15, 2002

The Reality of the Real Presence

Online Edition – Vol. VIII, No. 1: March 2002

The Reality of the Real Presence

by Donald J. Keefe, SJ

A question over the physical presence of the risen Christ in the Eucharist has been rattling around the English-speaking Church for the past decade. In recent months some published questions and answers concerning the "physical presence" of Christ in the Eucharist have been the subject of controversy.

One prominent pastor, after an unexceptionable affirmation of the traditional Eucharistic piety and doctrine supporting the exposition and adoration of the Eucharistic Lord, remarked ad cautelam that the Risen Jesus is not "physically present" in the Blessed Sacrament:

Contrary to what you may hear about the practice, Jesus is not physically present or contained in the tabernacle or the monstrance, nor is he a prisoner nor lonely, he does not need our company.

It is evident from the context in which this denial was placed that the "physical presence" he had in view is one which would submit the Eucharistic Christ to the accidents of space and time — a view of the Real Presence that is clearly ruled out by the Church’s historical tradition.

By now there is sufficient confusion and misunderstanding about what the Church means by the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist — a situation complicated by talk of the "many presences" of Christ — to warrant a review of the Church’s teaching.

In the late fifth century, Faustus of Riez spoke explicitly of the Eucharistic conversion of an earthly substance into the substance of Christ: this in a Homelia de Paschate, much cited by later theologians of the ninth through the twelfth centuries. "Substantia" was used by Faustus in a nontechnical sense, meaning simply that reality which underlies appearances in material creatures. Some of the phraseology of this homily, bearing upon transubstantiation, appears in Saint Thomas Aquinas‘s hymn, Lauda Sion. The pertinent statement from Faustus of Riez reads:

Therefore heavenly authority confirms exactly that "my flesh is really food and my blood drink". Let every hesitation of unbelief withdraw therefore since the author of the gift is himself also the witness to the truth. For the invisible priest, by a mysterious power of his word changes (convertit) visible created things into the substance of his body and blood (visibiles creaturas in substantia corporis et sanguinis sui) saying thus: "Take and Eat: this is my body"! and repeating the sanctification, "take and drink, this is my blood".

Further on in the homily, using words supporting the later language of transubstantiation, Faustus wrote:

the created things placed on the altar, before being consecrated by the invocation of his name (artequam invocatione sui nominis consecrantur), are the substance of bread and wine; after the words of Christ, they are the Body and Blood of Christ.

In the East, more than a century earlier, Cyril of Jerusalem had taught the same Eucharistic realism, contrasting the change in the Eucharistic elements with that which occurs in chrism [holy oil] upon its liturgical blessing: the former is a change in reality, the latter is not, being rather a consecration to a use.

Cyril’s Eucharistic realism was echoed by John Chrysostom and by the Antiochenes generally: there was no serious challenge to it before the eleventh century.

The Eucharistic theology of the latter half of the eleventh century was dominated by the challenge posed to Eucharistic realism by Berengarius of Tours, whose enthusiasm for "dialectic" led him to deny the truth of the words of institution, and so the Eucharistic presence of Christ that those words affirmed.

His major adversary was Lanfranc of Bec who described as "essential" the Real Presence of Christ. His effort to speak metaphysically, in quasi-technical language, was refined by his pupil, Guitmund of Aversa who, like Faustus of Riez, spoke of a "substantial" change of the elements into the body and blood of Christ.

In the next (12th) century Alger of Liege spoke of a "substantial" presence, as a few decades later did also Gregory of Bergamo.

About 1150, theologians began to speak of Eucharistic "transubstantiation", which term entered into the Eucharistic doctrine taught by Innocent III at the Lateran IV (1215); it was definitively affirmed against the Reformers at Trent in 1551.

Thus the conviction that the Real Presence is properly called "substantial" was firmly in place more than a century before Saint Thomas spoke of the Eucharistic presence of Christ as a presence "per modum substantiae", i.e., in the manner of substance.

By this term he meant to indicate a Real Presence whose objective reality is not empirical, and which therefore is not submitted to the fragmentation, the mutability and the corruption proper to fallen time and space.

It follows that, insofar as "physical" is understood to mean "empirical", the Real Presence is not "physical". However, the denial that the Real Presence is physical can easily be misunderstood to mean that the Real Presence is not historically objective because not corporeal — for our ordinary language associates "physical" reality with corporeal reality. Anyone accustomed to that interpretation of the "physical" would understand a denial of the "physical" presence of Christ in the Eucharist to be a denial of his substantial or concretely actual Real Presence. It must be insisted that the Real Presence is precisely corporeal, objective, and historical: it is a concrete Event — presence, whether the Event be termed transubstantiation, or the offering of the One Sacrifice. It is in this specifically Catholic understanding — that the Eucharist is concretely an Event, identically the Event of the Cross, that the Catholic Church parts company with those Protestants who affirm, with Luther, a Real Presence, but who, with Luther, deny the Sacrifice of the Mass, and deny transubstantiation.

It is well to avoid language which can be so easily misunderstood. It is better by far to speak of a substantial Real Presence because it is by a Presence per modum substantiae that the Risen Lord is incapable of being "imprisoned" or "contained" in this fallen world, whatever we may do.

If this is elementary; it is also an inadequate, because merely negative, grasp of the meaning of Christ’s Real Presence per modum substantiae. It is important that we view positively the Risen Christ’s Eucharistic transcendence of the changes and corruption of our fallen world, which is to say, that we understand it not merely as a sort of miraculous immunity, but rather as Jesus the Christ’s Lordship of history.

Thus understood, the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the concretely corporeal and historical Event-Presence of the risen Christ, is the liberation of all creation, by its Head, from its ancient imprisonment by sin and the fear of death.

So viewed, we recognize in the Eucharistic Sacrifice the Head’s restoration to our fallen history of its free unity and salvific significance. This is His "recapitulation", His "re-heading", of the fallen world.

In the Mass the risen Christ, the second Adam, the Head, restores to the Good Creation — in signo, in the sacrificial institution of the Eucharistic One Flesh — that free and nuptial unity, the loveliness it had "in the Beginning," which is to say, that it had in the Christ, who is the Beginning, the Alpha as well as the Omega.

This Catholic conviction must trump the lis de verbis over whether the Real Presence of the Eucharistic Lord is "physical". His historical objectivity, His Sacrificial Event-Presence in the Mass and in the world, is Lordly: only thus is it redemptive.


Father Donald Keefe, SJ, author of Covenantal Theology, is professor of systematic theology teaching at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit.

The Physical Reality of Christ’s Body and Blood in the EucharistTo avoid misunderstanding this sacramental presence which surpasses the laws of nature and constitutes the greatest miracle of its kind we must listen with docility to the voice of the teaching and praying Church. This voice, which constantly echoes the voice of Christ, assures us that the way Christ is made present in this Sacrament is none other than by the change of the whole substance of the bread into His Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into His Blood, and that this unique and truly wonderful change the Catholic Church rightly calls transubstantiation. As a result of transubstantiation, the species of bread and wine undoubtedly take on a new meaning and a new finality, for they no longer remain ordinary bread and ordinary wine, but become the sign of something sacred, the sign of a spiritual food. However, the reason they take on this new significance and this new finality is simply because they contain a new "reality" which we may justly term ontological. Not that there lies under those species what was already there before, but something quite different; and that not only because of the faith of the Church, but in objective reality, since after the change of the substance or nature of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, nothing remains of the bread and wine but the appearances, under which Christ, whole and entire, in His physical "reality" is bodily present, although not in the same way that bodies are present in a given place.

Pope Paul VI in Mysterium Fidei [emphasis added]
[Mysterium Fidei can be accessed on the Adoremus web site]



Donald J. Keefe, SJ