"The body of Christ."
"The blood of Christ."
Receiving Holy Communion is an act so brief and so often repeated that it can be done almost without thought. Yet Father Kevin McKenna emphasized that these moments deserve nothing less than our deepest reflection.
"We’re a people of habit; we tend to stay on the surface. We don’t reflect on what this gift is, why it is so important to have the Eucharist," said Father McKenna, pastor of St. Cecilia Parish in Irondequoit. "Some would say that if people really understood what the Eucharist means, they would come to Mass on a more regular basis."
The gift of which Father McKenna speaks is no less Jesus Christ himself — what Catholics believe to be his real presence in the Eucharist.
"The whole Christ is truly present, body, blood, soul, and divinity, under the appearances of bread and wine — the glorified Christ who rose from the dead after dying for our sins. This is what the Church means when she speaks of the ‘Real Presence’ of Christ in the Eucharist," explains The Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist: Basic Questions and Answers, a 2001 resource produced by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine.
The USCCB document observes that Christ is present during Mass in several forms, such as in the person of the priest, in the readings proclaimed and in the gathering of the congregation. While it notes that such means of Christ’s presence in the celebration of the Eucharist "are certainly not unreal, this way (the Real Presence) surpasses the others."
The Catholic Church teaches that through the process of "transubstantiation," bread and wine are transformed into Jesus’ actual body and blood. This occurs during the consecration — the point during Mass when the celebrant holds up the host proclaiming on behalf of Christ, "This is my body," and then the cup proclaiming, "This is my blood."
The concept of transubstantiation is difficult to grasp from a strictly logical perspective, since the bread and wine undergo no visual changes and taste no different after the consecration than before. Indeed, several Protestant denominations hold that bread and wine are linked to the body and blood of Christ in a purely spiritual or symbolic sense, but that he is not present in them in a real way.
Even Jesus’ disciples struggled with the concept. The Gospel of John notes: "The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us (his) flesh to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him’" (Jn. 6:52-54).
Section 1382 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church stresses that the Real Presence is grounded firmly in faith rather than based on physical evidence: "That in this sacrament are the true Body of Christ and his true Blood is something that ‘cannot be apprehended by the senses,’ says St. Thomas, ‘but only by faith, which relies on divine authority.’" The section goes on to cite St. Cyril’s commentary on Jesus’ offering of his body and blood in the form of bread and wine, as depicted in Luke 22:19: "Do not doubt whether this is true, but rather receive the words of the Savior in faith, for since he is the truth, he cannot lie."
"You cannot go to the next stage without a leap of faith," Father McKenna observed. "With the gift of faith you are able to do so."
He said belief in the Real Presence is a stumbling block for Catholics as well as Protestants, calling for more emphasis in homilies and catechesis on "the theological aspects of the understanding of the presence of Christ." Additionally, Father McKenna said he’d like to see Catholics devote more reflection time on the Real Presence, perhaps through quiet meditation before or after Mass.
"When I was young, people would come to Mass early and stay late," he remarked.
The priest, a canon lawyer and former chancellor of the Diocese of Rochester, said he’s looking forward to the three-year diocesan spiritual renewal program scheduled to begin in early 2008, noting that its first phase involves deepening our relationships with Christ.
"I have great hopes for this renewal," he said.
Father McKenna added that Catholics need instruction about changes made since the Second Vatican Council in the way we receive the Eucharist. Among these changes are taking the cup along with the host, receiving the host in the hand and receiving Communion from lay people who serve as extraordinary ministers of holy Communion. Many older Catholics have trouble understanding these modifications because kneeling for holy Communion, taking the host but not the cup and having the host placed on the tongue by a priest "had been drummed into them," he said.