Catholic Doctrines

The Real Presence of Christ in Bread & Wine:
Sacred Text, Holy Tradition, Authoritative Teaching

Holy memory or sacred meal? Ancient observance of Jesus or a living, vital sacrament? Real presence of Christ or simply bread and wine? These are questions that swirl around the celebration of what Catholics call Holy Communion. Where did our beliefs come from and are they trustworthy? Does it even matter?

While the subject of church authority is beyond our scope today, it is important to see that the Catholic Church teaches from and relies upon the Holy Scriptures—even her more than twenty centuries of tradition and official magisterial teachings are founded upon and bounded by the Scriptures—which give us great confidence amid great division of opinion. We will look at the biblical record (in chronological order), the followers of the Apostles, and the Catholic Church’s systematic teaching resource, The Catechism of the Catholic Church. This is not a systematic or comprehensive analysis, simply an introduction (references and other resources will be listed on the next page for your personal study and further reflection).

A remarkably consistent pattern presents itself to the student willing to step out of preconceived ideas, social or cultural biases, or family traditions that might obscure one of the greatest gifts to every Christian today—the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion consecrated and experienced in the Mass.

The Witness of the Scriptures

The record of the Scriptures, which are inspired by God and able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ (II Timothy 3:16), clearly reflects the importance of Christ’s institution of the Last Supper as a lasting and living event in the life of the Church. In order of their writing (as agreed upon by most conservative scholars), the earliest writer of the New Testament was the Apostle Paul. His Epistle to the Corinthians was written as early as 56 AD, earlier than the first gospel, The Gospel According to Mark, written about 64 AD. Paul also claims a divine origin—Christ himself—for his apostolic and authoritative teaching:

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. (1 Corinthians 11:23–29; all citations from the NRSVCE)

Paul’s teaching already warns against partaking in a manner that is “unworthy”, that does not “discern the Body” and would make us liable for serious judgment.

The next New Testament text in chronological order would have been St. Mark's Gospel. Written about 64 AD, in Rome, Mark, not an eyewitness, probably heard the account of the Last Supper he recorded from the Apostle Peter:

While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”
(Mark 14:22-24)

The third account of the Last Supper is from St. Matthew's, the tax collector also named Levi, an eyewitness to the meal. He was one of the 12 Apostles. Matthew probably wrote his Gospel in the 70's.
While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:26-28)

St. Luke's account of the Last Supper, written from the standpoint of a Gentile convert and a non-eyewitness, and addressed primarily to a non-Jewish audience, probably heard the details of the Last Supper from St. Paul. Luke was a traveling companion of Paul. Luke also wrote in the 70's.

(Christ) said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (Luke 22:15-20)

The first inspired writers were clear, consistent, and convinced—Christ instituted a Supper to be remembered and repeated by His followers—and He was both the sacred guest and the meal Himself. Not simply a recalled memory, but an actual participation and commemoration; not simply a symbol (powerful though that may be) but that which is both Body and Blood. As Christ’s words transformed bread and wine into Body and Blood, so also His church would do the same. Nearly 20 years after St. Luke’s Gospel, we have the account of St. John, the reading from today’s homily. Some have asked, why no direct words of Christ? Why no repeating of the Passover meal in John’s Gospel that we otherwise find in Matthew, Mark, and Luke? The absence of these words is easily explained by considering the initial audience of St. John’s writings—2nd- and 3rd-generation Christians in Asia Minor (Ephesus) who had been consuming Christ in Holy Communion for about 50 years!

What St. John writes in John 6 is not yet another description of Holy Communion to those Christians who had been partaking of Christ for decades, but John underscores the dissension and disruption caused by the unequivocal mandate by Jesus to “eat his flesh and drink his blood.”

Stated both positively (“you must eat”) and negatively (“if you do not eat”), John leaves us no “wiggle room”—Jesus’ Body is real food, his Blood real drink. Then as now, this teaching caused casual followers and even committed disciples to abandon Christ (John 6:56-60). We should not be surprised today that there are many who may believe in Christ, accept some teachings from the Scriptures, but stop short of accepting this precious teaching, because “this is a hard teaching.”

The Witness of the Fathers: Church Tradition
Whatever we may believe or accept as authoritative today, one simply cannot dismiss the remarkably consistent thread in the first 5 centuries of the Church’s history—bread and wine are transubstantiated into Body and Blood by the presbyter (later called “priest”) in the Mass of the early church. A few of many examples:

Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of the apostle John and who wrote a letter to the Smyrnaeans about A.D. 110, said, referring to “those who hold heterodox opinions”, that “they abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in his goodness, raised up again” (6:2, 7:1). 

Forty years later, Justin Martyr, wrote, “Not as common bread or common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nourished, . . . is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus” (First Apology 66:1–20).

Origen, (A.D. 244), attested to belief in the Real Presence. “I wish to admonish you with examples from your religion. You are accustomed to take part in the divine mysteries, so you know how, when you have received the Body of the Lord, you reverently exercise every care lest a particle of it fall and lest anything of the consecrated gift perish. You account yourselves guilty, and rightly do you so believe, if any of it be lost through negligence” (Homilies on Exodus 13:3). 

"It is not the power of man which makes what is put before us the Body and Blood of Christ, but the power of Christ Himself who was crucified for us. The priest standing there in the place of Christ says these words but their power and grace are from God. 'This is My Body,' he says, and these words transform what lies before him." St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Treachery of Judas 1,6; d. 407 A.D.

Scores of other citations only underscore a consistent and repeated theme in the centuries following the Apostles: bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ.

The Teachings: Insights from the Catechism

The Catholic Church organizes its doctrines and teachings (as do most Protestant faiths) into a systematic catechism. We find its teaching on the Real Presence of Christ to be  clear, coherent, and convincing. “If from the beginning Christians have celebrated the Eucharist and in a form whose substance has not changed despite the great diversity of times and liturgies, it is because we know ourselves to be bound by the command the Lord gave on the eve of his Passion: “Do this in remembrance of me”(CCC, 1356).

“We carry out this command of the Lord by celebrating the memorial of his sacrifice. In so doing, we offer to the Father what he has himself given us: the gifts of his creation, bread and wine which, by the power of the Holy Spirit and by the words of Christ, have become the body and blood of Christ. Christ is thus really and mysteriously made present (CCC, 1357). “The Eucharist is the memorial of Christ's Passover, the making present and the sacramental offering of his unique sacrifice, in the liturgy of the Church which is his Body. In all the Eucharistic Prayers we find after the words of institution a prayer called the anamnesis or memorial” (CCC, 1362).

Further Reading & Reflection

The Catechism of the Catholic Church
Eucharistic Doctors: A Theological History, Owen Cummings
Our Daily Bread: Glimpsing the Eucharist, Ralph Wright
The Mass of the Early Christians, Mike Aquilina