The “Real Presence”–A Flexible Friend

Yesterday at Mass for Corpus Christi I spoke about the real presence of the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. It reminded me that many Catholics use an abbreviated form of this theological mouthful and refer to “the Real Presence”.

The problem with this is that “the Real Presence” is a term that is also used by non-Catholics to refer to their beliefs about the Eucharist. I’ve heard Anglicans, Methodists and even a Baptist talk about “the Real Presence” at Holy Communion. They all mean something different by the same term.

This reflects a major problem in all theological and ecumenical discussion: people use the same terminology to describe totally different beliefs. The Catholic uses the term (or should) to refer to transubstantiation. The Anglican says he believes in “the Real Presence” and may be referring to consubstantiation (the belief that Christ is “with” or “beside” the consecrated bread and wine) or receptionism (Christ is received by the individual as he receives the bread and wine by faith) The term “Real Presence” used by a Baptist or Methodist may simply mean, “I feel close to Jesus when I go to communion.”

So what does the term mean and where does it come from and what should we do about it? Read more.

  • flyingvic

    So if I understand you correctly, Father, “the Real Presence” is a term coined by reformist Anglicans which the Church of Rome has adopted and invested with a different meaning, which now gives you the right to say that every other denomination uses it not only differently but incorrectly. Why am I not surprised by this process?

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      I don’t know if you read the complete article to which I linked, but you have not understood me correctly. In fact you have actually got things back to front. The term “the real presence of Christ’s Body and Blood in the sacrifice of the altar” was the authentic medieval Catholic terminology. The Anglican Reformers–looking for a turn of phrase which could sound Catholic, but carry reformed theological meanings claimed the Catholic phraseology and shortened it to “Real Presence” I believe Latimer or Ridley actually used the phrase “Real Spiritual Presence” to express their meaning. I understand the pressure that RIdly, Latimer and Cranmer were under. They had to dress up their Protestantism in Catholic clothes in order to be accepted. However this theological sleight of hand–taking Catholic terminology and interpreting it according to a Protestant mindset has become a sort of Anglican tradition now.

      • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

        i remember the same negative teaching in my Evangelical upbringing. Nobody said what Communion was. They just said what it wasn’t. This is what I found bewildering: that they said over and over and over again that it was not the Body and Blood of Christ, but then when we said their Eucharist was not a valid Catholic Eucharist they got upset.

      • flyingvic

        Certainly I did, Father, noting that your flagship longer phrase caused John of Paris to lose his professorship because of its ‘unorthoxy’ and noting also that the shorter phrase was the subject of most of your essay . . .

        Perhaps therefore we need further discussions on the real meaning of ‘real’ in this context; and then a dissertation on which meaning of ‘substance’ (lit. ‘under’ – ‘stand’) you understand to be standing under ‘transubstantiation’.

        I wait with bated breath . . .

        • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

          John of Paris was deprived of his professorship because he called into question the doctrine of transubstantiation. His use of the phrase “real presence” still indicated Catholic orthodoxy, but it was a first step to the denial of Catholic beliefs by Wycliffe and other reformers as outlined in the article.

          Don’t hold your breath too long. Discussions of the word ‘real’ or ‘substance’ are un necessary. It’s all pretty clear in Catholic theology. If one wants to be in conformity with Catholic belief on this issue it is really very simple–just affirm transubstantiation. No need to complicate things too much.

  • veritas

    When I was an Anglican I remember the Evangelicals publishing a lot of material which went to great detail to explain that Jesus was NOT in any physical, practical manner present in Holy Communion.

    I read a book by an Anglican bishop, a well known Evangelical Bible scholar, about the Lord’s Supper. What puzzled me about the contents of this book was that throughout the book he went into great detail to tell us what the Lord’s Supper was NOT. It was NOT in any sense a sacrifice, it was NOT in any way Christ Himself.
    I was at that time still Evangelically inclined and anti Catholic, yet I was puzzled about the book. It was so determined to tell me what the Lord’s Supper was NOT, that it nowhere really tried to tell me what the Lord’s Supper WAS!

    The book left me empty and wondering why Christians would bother celebrating a ceremony every week if the ceremony had no real content. Though most Evangelicals didn’t go to Communion weekly – they only bothered about Holy Communion about once a month, many less than that.

    It was some time later that I heard some Anglo Catholics sum the situation up by explaining that Evangelical Anglicans seem to believe in the Real Absence.

  • Malvenu

    Thank you, Father, for another fantastic post that deepens my understanding of my faith and confirms and reconfirms my decision to convert to the Roman Catholic Church by deepening my understanding of possibly the most important doctrine in the Church.

    Other than some sort of ‘cultural-religious-blinkeredness’ I can’t understand how Christians – particularly those able to read the NT in the original languages – can read John Chapter 6 and deny that Jesus is talking about his actual flesh and blood.

    It reminds me of a scene from an agricultural show in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in which the lecherous Rodolphe is trying to talk the ‘heroine’ into bed and his words are interspersed with the speakers in the agricultural show talking about manure inasmuch as when we read John 6 it might seem natural, while actually reading it to think “I’m sure he doesn’t really mean I need to eat his flesh” and interspersed through the whole narrative Jesus keeps interrupting those thoughts again and again insisting that we DO need to eat his REAL flesh and drink his REAL blood, to CHEW his flesh, etc. as he says it over and over again.

    Again, Jesus says, “This is my body”, “This is my blood of the new covenant which will be given up for you”. Perhaps if Jesus symbolically gave up His body and blood a symbolic reading of His words would be acceptable. On the other hand, since we believe that His giving up of His life was real and physical what justification is there to believe that when Jesus said, “This is my body” it is acceptable to understand those words as, “This symbolises my body”?

    Did Jesus often mince His words?
    Did He say to Peter: Get behind me, you little tyke, you! (Mt 16:23)?
    Or to the Pharisees: You group of fellows who are sadly misguided! (Mt 12:34)?
    Or to the young man: For a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven well, phew, that’s a tough one, i’d sure like to see somebody give that a shot! (Mt 19:24)?
    Or to the multitudes: Let your yes be ‘probably’ and your no, ‘maybe not’ (Mt 5:37)?
    Or to his followers doubting His words about the Bread of Life. Does this scandalize you? Well I didn’t really mean that you had to eat my body…. no, don’t leave me… I didn’t mean it. (Jn 6:62f)

  • Jennifer Fitz

    Great post, Father. True story related to this:

    My husband Jon was a born-again evangelical, of the take-scripture-literally type. So he read “flesh and blood” in John 6, researched the Greek, looked around the NT, glanced back at the OT, and decided that sure enough, holy communion is the body and blood of Christ. He wasn’t quite sold on Soul & Divinity yet.

    At which point, he went camping at our usual spot up near Caesar’s Head. One weekend the preacher at the Baptist church next door preached a sermon about how communion was only a symbol, and definitely not really the body and blood of Christ. Jon was incensed. From then on, when he went camping, he’d always drive into Pickens and attend Mass there — I joked that it “his parish”.

    One thing led to another, and now he’s Catholic. It was precisely this insistence on clarity concerning beliefs about the Eucharist that was the hinge on the door leading him back to the Church.

  • asshur

    A very interesting insight on the use of the “Real Presence”.
    I have a personal “caveat” though. There are few thing I’m more sure to believe what the Church teaches than the Eucharistical Mistery, but I feel strongly unconfortable using the “Transubstantiation” term. Within an aristotelical (thomistic) framework, the term is self-evident and the conclusion unimpeachable; but alas, the XIII century alignment of the physical, metaphysical and theological paradigms is no more … And to explain it nowadays, forces one to rehearse the full metaphysics and to enter in the tarpit of the relationship between physics and metaphysics. I got (aeons ago) a degree in Physics. So do believe me how dificult is.
    The use of the (long) “Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ”, is a convenient escape hatch, bracketing out the gory details in absence of a functional metaphysical paradigm for current physics. Well it might imply a return to pre XII c. Theology, and is more the description of an intuition (in the Bergsonian sense) or purely faith inspired knowledge …