The Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist

Basic questions and answers: questions 10 and 11

By Bishop Robert J. Baker

In this diocesan “Year of Evangelization” we continue our presentation of sections of the 2001 document on the Holy Eucharist produced by the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The Holy Eucharist lies at the heart of our efforts for evangelization as the principal means by which we encounter Christ.

Understanding better the church’s teaching on the Holy Eucharist will foster a deeper openness to the grace the Lord holds in store for those who experience His presence in this great sacrament.

Sections 10 and 11 of this document treat the reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist as not being dependent on our own attitudes or disposition.

With the words of consecration at Mass, the bread is no longer bread, and the wine is no longer wine. They are now the Body and Blood of Christ. In the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist “the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained” (Council of Trent [1551], DS1651).

We repeat the words of Pope Paul VI from his encyclical Mysterium Fidei (39), where he says that “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.”

Catholics who have a deep faith in the Lord of the Eucharist experience a hunger for the Holy Eucharist similar to a person who has been without food or drink for a long time. They need no explanation for the church’s insistence on Sunday Eucharist or the church’s requirement to receive Holy Communion at least once during the Easter season. For them daily Mass is a common practice.

Reception of the Lord of the Eucharist calls for one to believe in the Lord’s presence in the Eucharist, to be properly disposed by being in the state of grace (i.e. without mortal sin), and prayerfully prepared.

As section 11 indicates, “the attitude or disposition of the recipient cannot change what the consecrated bread and wine are,” but our attitude or disposition will affect how we benefit spiritually from our receiving the Holy Eucharist.

Christ present in the Holy Eucharist will bring many blessings to the person who is prepared for His coming and longs for His presence in faith, hope, and love.

10. If someone without faith eats and drinks the consecrated bread and wine, does he or she still receive the Body and Blood of Christ?

If “to receive” means “to consume,” the answer is yes, for what the person consumes is the Body and Blood of Christ. If “to receive” means “to accept the Body and Blood of Christ knowingly and willingly as what they are, so as to obtain the spiritual benefit,” then the answer is no.

A lack of faith on the part of the person eating and drinking the Body and Blood of Christ cannot change what these are, but it does prevent the person from obtaining the spiritual benefit, which is communion with Christ. Such reception of Christ’s Body and Blood would be in vain and, if done knowingly, would be sacrilegious (1 Cor 11:29).

Reception of the Blessed Sacrament is not an automatic remedy. If we do not desire communion with Christ, God does not force this upon us.

Rather, we must by faith accept God’s offer of communion in Christ and in the Holy Spirit, and cooperate with God’s grace in order to have our hearts and minds transformed and our faith and love of God increased.

11. If a believer who is conscious of having committed a mortal sin eats and drinks the consecrated bread and wine, does he or she still receive the Body and Blood of Christ?

Yes. The attitude or disposition of the recipient cannot change what the consecrated bread and wine are. The question here is thus not primarily about the nature of the Real Presence, but about how sin affects the relationship between an individual and the Lord.

Before one steps forward to receive the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion, one needs to be in a right relationship with the Lord and his Mystical Body, the church — that is, in a state of grace, free of all mortal sin. While sin damages and can even destroy that relationship, the sacrament of Penance can restore it.

St. Paul tells us that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup” (1 Cor 11:27-28).

Anyone who is conscious of having committed a mortal sin should be reconciled through the sacrament of Penance before receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, unless a grave reason exists for doing so and there is no opportunity for confession. In this case, the person is to be mindful of the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition, that is, an act of sorrow for sins that “arises from a love by which God is loved above all else” (Catechism, no. 1452).

The act of perfect contrition must be accompanied by the firm intention of making a sacramental confession as soon as possible.