Over the years, Pope Benedict XVI has presented a rich theology of the presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. It can be summed up best in his simple statement at the Eucharistic Procession at Lourdes (September 2008): “Lord Jesus, You are here!” If you unpack his meaning, you discover that it is founded on the consecration of the bread and wine that involves “the substantial change of bread and wine into the body and blood of the Lord Jesus, a reality which surpasses all human understanding.”(Sacramentum caritatis 6)
He goes on to say: “The Eucharist is a ‘mystery of faith’ par excellence: ‘the sum and summary of our faith.’” So, according to him, and the tradition of the Church, all of the life and theology of the Church converges on this mysterious point, that Jesus Christ is present body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Eucharist.
He is present right here in our history, our neighborhood, right now. So even to say that faith in the real presence is essential is to make a statement that, although technically accurate, does not capture the full grandeur of the reality. The Catholic Church is the Church of Presence!
Such a presence is a mystery in the proper theological sense. In other words it has such fullness of meaning that, no matter how hard we try, we can only begin to scratch the surface. One can only try to understand what this means in some kind of linear fashion.
The pope starts with the Trinity. So he uses Jesus’ teachings on the bread from heaven: “My Father gives you the true bread from heaven; for the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.” (Jn 6:32-33)
Then he includes Jesus’ explicit identification of himself with this bread: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (Jn 6:51) Out of Benedict’s analysis of Christ’s presence, the mystery of love in the Eucharist unfolds: namely that God loves us infinitely and reaches out, drawing us into the loving plan of salvation of all mankind.
The salvation of all mankind took place on the cross of Jesus Christ. A number of things happened. Following just one thread: “Through the sacrament of the Eucharist Jesus draws the faithful into his ‘hour’; he shows us the bond that he willed to establish between himself and us, between his own person and the Church.”(SC 14) So the Church continually springs forth from the Eucharist, as does the faith of the Church and each individual who joins this faith.
Now as we identify more and more elements of the mystery of the presence of Christ on earth, we are not moving further away from Christ himself. We are still really in the presence of Christ under some particular aspect.
It is as if created realities like bread and wine (the fullness of the Body and Blood of Christ), community (Body of Christ), human beings (priest in persona Christi), books (Sacred Scripture), and rituals burst their bounds in showing us the presence of the glorified risen Lord. The challenge for us is to see them in their integrity so that the reality in front of us is still: “Lord, you are here!”
The corollary to the real presence is the real experience of Jesus Christ. Right there in the tabernacle is Jesus Christ, Savior of the world. If we take the time, Benedict teaches us, we can “accept to recognize in your lives the presence of him who is present here.” This means that we can learn to “contemplate him. . . . [and] adore him.” Contemplation is real openness to Jesus and adoration is recognizing who he really is.
The third experience of Jesus that Benedict mentioned at Lourdes was love: “We love, and we seek to grow in love for him who is here, in our presence, for us to gaze upon, for us perhaps to question, for us to love.”
The Real Presence is the presence of real love, the totally selfless wishing for and working for the good of the other, the love of God himself. In Benedict’s words: “Whether we are walking or nailed to a bed of suffering; whether we are walking in joy or languishing in the wilderness of the soul (cf. Num 21:4): Lord, take us all into your Love; the infinite Love which is eternally the Love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father, the Love of the Father and the Son for the Spirit, and the Love of the Spirit for the Father and the Son.”