The Real Presence within the Eucharist

The doctrine of the Real Presence asserts that in the Holy Eucharist Jesus is literally and wholly present—body and blood, soul and divinity—under the appearances of bread and wine. The Catechism of the Catholic Church 1367 states; “The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: “The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different.” “And since in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner… this sacrifice is truly propitiatory.”  Thus, it is a memorial of Christ’s unique bloody sacrifice offered 2,000 years ago “once for all”, but is made truly present to us in the form of bread and wine as an unbloody sacrifice made possible by Christ’s eternal priesthood as well as His eternal sacrifice of Himself to the Father. CCC 1357-1358 states; “

We must therefore consider the Eucharist as:

-thanksgiving and praise to the Father;
-the sacrificial memorial of Christ and his Body;
-the presence of Christ by the power of his word and of his Spirit.”

The Catholic Church has consistently taught the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist from its very beginning. The idea that Communion is a mere symbol of Christ’s death or a simple memorial meal is a sixteenth century theological innovation that was initially rejected even by the original Protestant reformers.

 The core of this belief is stated explicitly by Christ in John chapter 6; “the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. . . .  unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:51,53).  Christ’s disciples asked how this was possible.  Rather than explaining with a metaphor, Jesus reiterated that his flesh was “true food” and his blood was “true drink” (John 6:55). When His disciples heard this, they were taken aback, responding “this is a hard saying” (John 6:60).  This is the only time in the Gospels that Christ’s own disciples leave Him over one of His teachings.  Scripture even indicates that this is when Judas fell away (John 6:64).

Christians who deny the Real Presence in the Eucharist will point to verse 63, where Jesus says, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”  They claim that if the ‘flesh is useless’ and that Jesus’ words are ‘spirit’ then Jesus  was clearly speaking in metaphor.  This does not work for three reasons.  The first is that when Jesus says “the flesh is useless”, he is referring to the carnal understanding of fallen human flesh being incapable of grasping spiritual realities such as the Eucharist.  Second, “of the spirit” cannot mean “metaphor” as no where in the Bible is a spirit just a metaphor.  God the Father, the Holy Spirit, the angels, demons, and our own souls are all spirits and none of them are understood to be metaphors.  Lastly, it is clear that the disciples leaving Jesus understood His words to be literal (hence it being a hard saying).  If Christ was speaking in metaphor, He had a moral obligation to call those disciples back and explain that to them.  He does not do this, but in fact, turns to the Apostles and asks them if they also wish to leave.  Peter’s response is a confused one as he believes Jesus has the words of ever-lasting life, but does not seem to understand what they mean  (John 6:67-70).

Christ’s meaning would become clear at the Last Supper while they were celebrating the Passover and Jesus; “took 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 likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:19-20).  The Apostles understood these words to be literal as St. Paul later confirms in 1 Corinthians when he:  equates the bread and wine with the body and blood of Christ (10:16-21);  states that abusing the meal is abusing Christ (11:23-28);  and pronounces judgment on those who do not discern what the Eucharist really is: “For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (11:29).

So clear was the Church’s understanding of the Eucharist as Jesus’ body and blood that Christians were accused of being cannibals by non-Christians unfamiliar with it’s doctrines.  The first few centuries are filled with Church Father quotes defending the Real Presence in the Eucharist (see below).  The only writings that deny this are of Gnostic origin, which was a heresy that believed all flesh was evil and some sects took it so far as to claim that Christ never had a body at all and -being pure spirit- laughed at their folly when they tried to crucify Him.

The first Christian writer to truly deny the truth of the Eucharist appears to have been Berengarius of Tours in the eleventh century. Berengarius held that Christ was present in the Eucharist “as mere sign and symbol” and that, “bread must remain.” Fortunately, he recanted of his heresy in 1079. It is of interest, however, that St. Thomas Aquinas calls Berengarius “the first deviser of this heresy,” (ST IIIa, q.75, a.1) which indicates that no one of import denied the Eucharist for the first 1,000 years of Christian history.  The next person to deny it came 500 years later during the Protestant Reformation. Ulrich Zwingli, who became the theological forerunner of the Anabaptist movement, began the first large-scale movement to deny the reality of the sacraments. So bizarre was this position that the Anabaptists were violently persecuted as heretics even by other Protestants.  Martin Luther firmly challenged Ulrich Zwingli on what Luther felt was a clear deviation from Scripture.

Historical Belief in the
Real Presence:

Bible Verses:

John 6:50-70

Luke 22:19-20

1 Corinthians 11:23-29

Church Father Quotes:

St. Ignatius of Antioch (35-107 A.D.)

“I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ . . . and for drink I desire his blood, which is love incorruptible” (Letter to the Romans 7:3 [A.D. 110]).

“Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. . . . 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 that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1 [A.D. 110]).

St. Justin Martyr

“For not as common bread nor 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 nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus” (First Apology 66 [A.D. 151]).

St. Irenaeus of Lyons 

“If the Lord were from other than the Father, how could he rightly take bread, which is of the same creation as our own, and confess it to be his body and affirm that the mixture in the cup is his blood?” (Against Heresies 4:33–32 [A.D. 189]).

“He has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be his own blood, from which he causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, he has established as his own body, from which he gives increase unto our bodies. When, therefore, the mixed cup [wine and water] and the baked bread receives the Word of God and becomes the Eucharist, the body of Christ, and from these the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they say that the flesh is not capable of receiving the gift of God, which is eternal life—flesh which is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord, and is in fact a member of him?” (ibid., 5:2).

Tertullian of Carthage 

“[T]here is not a soul that can at all procure salvation, except it believe whilst it is in the flesh, so true is it that the flesh is the very condition on which salvation hinges. And since the soul is, in consequence of its salvation, chosen to the service of God, it is the flesh which actually renders it capable of such service. The flesh, indeed, is washed [in baptism], in order that the soul may be cleansed . . . the flesh is shadowed with the imposition of hands [in confirmation], that the soul also may be illuminated by the Spirit; the flesh feeds [in the Eucharist] on the body and blood of Christ, that the soul likewise may be filled with God” (The Resurrection of the Dead 8 [A.D. 210]).

St. Hippolytus of Rome 

“‘And she [Wisdom] has furnished her table’ [Prov. 9:2] . . . refers to his [Christ’s] honored and undefiled body and blood, which day by day are administered and offered sacrificially at the spiritual divine table, as a memorial of that first and ever-memorable table of the spiritual divine supper [i.e., the Last Supper]” (Fragment from Commentary on Proverbs [A.D. 217]).

Origen of Alexandria 

“Formerly, in an obscure way, there was manna for food; now, however, in full view, there is the true food, the flesh of the Word of God, as he himself says: ‘My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink’ [John 6:55]” (Homilies on Numbers 7:2 [A.D. 248]).

St. Cyprian of Carthage

“He [Paul] threatens, moreover, the stubborn and forward, and denounces them, saying, ‘Whosoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily, is guilty of the body and blood of the Lord’ [1 Cor. 11:27]. All these warnings being scorned and contemned—[lapsed Christians will often take Communion] before their sin is expiated, before confession has been made of their crime, before their conscience has been purged by sacrifice and by the hand of the priest, before the offense of an angry and threatening Lord has been appeased, [and so] violence is done to his body and blood; and they sin now against their Lord more with their hand and mouth than when they denied their Lord” (The Lapsed 15–16 [A.D. 251]).

St. Aphrahat the Persian Sage

“After having spoken thus [at the Last Supper], the Lord rose up from the place where he had made the Passover and had given his body as food and his blood as drink, and he went with his disciples to the place where he was to be arrested. But he ate of his own body and drank of his own blood, while he was pondering on the dead. With his own hands the Lord presented his own body to be eaten, and before he was crucified he gave his blood as drink” (Treatises 12:6 [A.D. 340]).

St. Cyril of Jerusalem

“The bread and the wine of the Eucharist before the holy invocation of the adorable Trinity were simple bread and wine, but the invocation having been made, the bread becomes the body of Christ and the wine the blood of Christ” (Catechetical Lectures 19:7 [A.D. 350]).

“Do not, therefore, regard the bread and wine as simply that; for they are, according to the Master’s declaration, the body and blood of Christ. Even though the senses suggest to you the other, let faith make you firm. Do not judge in this matter by taste, but be fully assured by the faith, not doubting that you have been deemed worthy of the body and blood of Christ. . . . [Since you are] fully convinced that the apparent bread is not bread, even though it is sensible to the taste, but the body of Christ, and that the apparent wine is not wine, even though the taste would have it so, . . . partake of that bread as something spiritual, and put a cheerful face on your soul” (ibid., 22:6, 9).

St. Ambrose of Milan

“Perhaps you may be saying, ‘I see something else; how can you assure me that I am receiving the body of Christ?’ It but remains for us to prove it. And how many are the examples we might use! . . . Christ is in that sacrament, because it is the body of Christ” (The Mysteries 9:50, 58 [A.D. 390]).

Theodore of Mopsuestia

“When [Christ] gave the bread he did not say, ‘This is the symbol of my body,’ but, ‘This is my body.’ In the same way, when he gave the cup of his blood he did not say, ‘This is the symbol of my blood,’ but, ‘This is my blood’; for he wanted us to look upon the [Eucharistic elements] after their reception of grace and the coming of the Holy Spirit not according to their nature, but receive them as they are, the body and blood of our Lord. We ought . . . not regard [the elements] merely as bread and cup, but as the body and blood of the Lord, into which they were transformed by the descent of the Holy Spirit” (Catechetical Homilies 5:1 [A.D. 405]).

St. Augustine of Hippo 

“Christ was carried in his own hands when, referring to his own body, he said, ‘This is my body’ [Matt. 26:26]. For he carried that body in his hands” (Explanations of the Psalms 33:1:10 [A.D. 405]).

“I promised you [new Christians], who have now been baptized, a sermon in which I would explain the sacrament of the Lord’s Table. . . . That bread which you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ. That chalice, or rather, what is in that chalice, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the blood of Christ” (Sermons 227 [A.D. 411]).

“What you see is the bread and the chalice; that is what your own eyes report to you. But what your faith obliges you to accept is that the bread is the body of Christ and the chalice is the blood of Christ” (ibid., 272).

The Council of Ephesus

“We will necessarily add this also. Proclaiming the death, according to the flesh, of the only-begotten Son of God, that is Jesus Christ, confessing his resurrection from the dead, and his ascension into heaven, we offer the unbloody sacrifice in the churches, and so go on to the mystical thanksgivings, and are sanctified, having received his holy flesh and the precious blood of Christ the Savior of us all. And not as common flesh do we receive it . . . but as truly the life-giving and very flesh of the Word himself.” (Session 1, Letter of Cyril to Nestorius [A.D. 431]).

Non-Catholic Quotes:

Martin Luther, Father of the Protestant Reformation

“Sooner than have mere wine with the fanatics, I would agree with the pope that there is only blood.” (Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, 1528)

“[S]ince we are confronted by God’s words, ‘This is my body’ – distinct, clear, common, definite words, which certainly are no trope, either in Scripture or in any language — we must embrace them with faith … not as hairsplitting sophistry dictates but as God says them for us, we must repeat these words after him and hold to them” (Ibid.)

“There we have it! This is clear, plain, and unconcealed: ‘I am speaking of My flesh and blood.’ … There we have the flat statement which cannot be interpreted in any other way than that there is no life, but death alone, apart from His flesh and blood if these are neglected or despised. How is it possible to distort this text? … You must note these words and this text with the utmost diligence … It can neither speciously be interpreted nor avoided and evaded” (Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 6-8, 1532).

“I confess that if Karlstadt, or anyone else, could have convinced me five years ago that only bread and wine were in the sacrament he would have done me a great service. At that time I suffered such severe conflicts and inner strife and torment that I would gladly have been delivered from them. I realized that at this point I could best resist the papacy … But I am a captive and cannot free myself. The text is too powerfully present, and will not allow itself to be torn from its meaning by mere verbiage (Letter to the Christians at Strassburg in Opposition to the Fanatic Spirit, 1524).

“Even if we had no other passage than this we could sufficiently strengthen all consciences and sufficiently overcome all adversaries …“… The bread which is broken or distributed piece by piece is the participation in the body of Christ. It is, it is, it is, he says, the participation in the body of Christ. Wherein does the participation in the body of Christ consist? It cannot be anything else than that as each takes a part of the broken bread he takes therewith the body of Christ …“He could not have spoken more clearly and strongly …” (Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments, 1525).

John Calvin, Protestant Reformer 

“If there is nothing in heaven or earth of greater value and dignity than the body and blood of our Lord, it is no small error to take it inconsiderately and without being well prepared.” (Calvin’s Short Treatise on the Holy Supper).

J. N. D. Kelly, renowned Protestant historian of the early Church

“Eucharistic teaching, it should be understood at the outset, was in general unquestioningly realist, i.e., the consecrated bread and wine were taken to be, and were treated and designated as, the Savior’s body and blood” (Early Christian Doctrines, 440).

“Ignatius roundly declares that . . . [t]he bread is the flesh of Jesus, the cup his blood. Clearly he intends this realism to be taken strictly, for he makes it the basis of his argument against the Docetists’ denial of the reality of Christ’s body. . . . Irenaeus teaches that the bread and wine are really the Lord’s body and blood. His witness is, indeed, all the more impressive because he produces it quite incidentally while refuting the Gnostic and Docetic rejection of the Lord’s real humanity” (ibid., 197–98).