"Do you mean Catholics believe that Jesus is REALLY present in that piece of 'bread'?"
"Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, 'Take, eat; this is my body.' And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, 'Drink of 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].
These amazing words are pronounced by the priest in every the Mass. Without accepting these words literally, the Mass would be reduced to a mere symbolic re-enactment of the Last Supper. Receiving communion would then be merely taking and eating an ordinary piece of bread. Yet, Jesus did not tell us to eat bread; He told us to eat his flesh!
When a priest, who is acting in persona Christi, says these words in the consecration, the substance of the bread and wine is changed into the blood and body of Christ (transubstantiation); thus, we witness the Real Presence of Our Lord of Hosts and we are able to follow the Lord's command.
Our Lord's tells us, "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 has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink…" [John 6:53-57]
The Jews knew He was not talking about a mere symbol and they turned away from Him. Peter too had a difficult time with what Jesus was saying. Seeing His disciples abandon Him, Jesus asked Peter what he would do. Peter replied, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God." [John 6: 68-69]
You can almost feel the desperation in Peter's words. Peter does not abandon Jesus. Instead, he trusts that what Jesus has told them is true; even though the mystery is beyond comprehension that we can only know by His revelation. Through Peter, Jesus receives the act of faith that is required from every one of us.
The Church has always held the doctrine of the Real Presence from its very earliest days. St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote, "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)].
Every time we receive Holy Communion, we declare our faith in this truth. When the priest presents the Host saying, "The Body of Christ," we respond "Amen."-and in so doing, we profess that the Eucharist is really and truly the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, who suffered, died and rose again for our sins. When we approach the altar to receive communion, we share in the greatest gift of love that God can bestow upon us here on earth, Himself.
In later articles, we will look more deeply at many different aspects of the Real Presence. In the meantime, you are welcome to come and be present at the Last Supper to witness this supreme act of love. Please remember, in order to receive the Eucharist you must be a baptized Catholic in full communion with the Church and in the state of grace. To find out more, contact a priest at any Catholic church near you. To find a Mass near you, please visit www.masstimes.org for Mass schedules at churches throughout the U.S.