Bowing low, the priest takes the host with the thumb and forefinger of each hand as he prays the words of consecration: “Take this, all of you, and eat it. This is my body, which will be given up for you.” The priest genuflects, then elevates the host. The elevation is surrounded by the ringing of bells or silence. Taking the chalice, the priest repeats the action: “Take this, all of you, and drink from it. This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant.” Another elevation follows, again enveloped by bells or silence.
In the course of this most solemn ritual, nothing visible has changed: it appears that the same bread and chalice lifted off the altar by the priest were replaced after a brief ceremonial. Empirically, one cannot prove that anything has happened. Our faith in the Eucharist comes instead from an even greater source: the authority of Jesus Christ, entrusted and passed on through his Church. St. Thomas Aquinas agreed: “Not to sight, or taste, or touch be credit, hearing only do we trust secure; I believe, for God the Son has said it.”
Today, lodged in the bleakness of postmodernity, we have difficulty trusting our own senses, to say nothing of the words of God the Son. We have been conditioned to believe that there is no truth, no beauty, no good; all judgments are also conditioned – by our environment and subjective emotions, so we can know nothing for certain. Since the ancient Greeks we have had faith in reason; now the crisis of faith has undermined not only the belief of the Church, but also reason itself. And if we cannot trust what is immanent, surely there cannot be room for the transcendent.
Much ink and many pixels have been deployed to explain how so many Catholics have lost faith in the Eucharist, called “the Sacrament of sacraments” by the Catechism because it is “the perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all the sacraments tend.” Sloppy and banal liturgies stripped of mystery and solemnity, overemphasizing the Eucharist as a meal at the expense of its sacrificial core, proliferation of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, and Communion received in the hand have all been cited, rightly, as contributing to the widespread decline in belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. But underlying all of these practices is a deeper philosophical problem: the loss of belief in God, in the supernatural, in the invisible. We believe images of galaxies far away, but we have been conditioned to doubt that God and his grace can transcend those galaxies. Philosophy, once considered the handmaid of theology, has turned against theology and now threatens its very existence.
Although belief in the Eucharist does not depend on sense perception – the Lord remains hidden under the veil of bread – this sacrament, like the others, is grounded in historical reality. Only in light of Good Friday do we understand the Eucharist’s full import; while the Eucharist, in turn, reveals the full nature of the sacrifice on the Cross. The Eucharist is the memorial of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection; hence it is offered in “the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.” The Mass re-presents the one and the same sacrifice of Christ in an un-bloody manner. Whereas the other sacraments transmit real grace through visible signs, the Eucharist is the sacrament par excellence because it makes present Christ himself under the visible signs of bread and wine.
When the priest prays the words of consecration (or, in Eastern rite churches, the epiclesis), the bread and wine cease to exist, even though they remain visible. In their place, Christ has become present in his body, blood, soul, and divinity. The Church has long called this conversion of substances transubstantiation. Due to the crisis of philosophy, some theologians have sought more fashionable words (transfinalization, transignification) to describe this conversion. But as Pope Paul VI cautioned in his courageous encyclical on the Eucharist, Mysterium Fidei, we can speak of a new finality and signification for the bread and wine only because a new reality has taken their place in the objective order; that is, the body and blood of Christ now truly exist under the appearances of bread and wine.
In this new reality of the Eucharist “the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.” The doctrine of the Real Presence rests upon two truths held in tension: first, Christ has become present in the Eucharist without leaving heaven, since he sits now at the right hand of the Father; and second, this same body, with its blood and soul, is corporally present in each host in a sacramental way. While this great mystery lies beyond our comprehension, Father James O’Connor has suggested in The Hidden Manna that we can envision it not as Christ coming down onto the altar, but rather as Christ drawing the bread and wine up to himself in heaven next to the Father, where he transforms them to become identical with his own being.
Although the Eucharist transcends the limits of nature and reality, our belief in it depends upon our belief in reality itself. Much work is necessary to heal the crisis of faith of our time. We can begin by offering our doubts and those of others on the altar of the Lord, and pray that the Lord takes them up to himself and transforms them.