Domestic Bliss Report

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Real Presence vs. Literal Presence

Our homeschooling group has a Moms' Night Out (MNO). There are usually a dozen regulars or so and we dish pretty explicitly. Some months ago, there were even pregnancy tests taken (one was positive). Really.
So it's no surprise that talk turns to religion. Don't get nervous; there is very rarely any raised voices or harsh words; it's almost always in the vein of clarifying one's own beliefs and educating others--not necessarily to convert anyone.
It seems a few folks had seen the video Common Ground and there were some questions about the Real Presence. I'd talked about it with one person before but... I'll be honest. My 1970's Glitterchesis was thirty years ago, and while Madeleine made her First Communion last year, Daddy did the teaching. I needed to knock some rust off.

See, in the video, Father Riccardo (whose orthodoxy I have no reason to question--quite the contrary) said something very like if not exactly, "It's not literally the Body of Christ." (I haven't seen the video--yet.) This gave me the screaming willies. I need to see this, and quickly, to put it in context.
I lead a busy life, so renting and watching videos is one of those things that gets done rarely. Instead, I mulled it. I thought about it. And I realized that "literally" has a very narrow meaning. It appeared I had two options.

Did I believe that Jesus' Body is literally made of unleavened bread and, were He to cut Himself shaving, would bleed wine? Hmm. That sounds vaguely familiar...

In a word--no.

The other apparent option if we're talking literally is that, upon consecration, the bread and wine undergo some kind of chemical change that turns them into Glorified Human Flesh and Blood-down to their molecular makeup.

That one is just as silly and even scientifically disprovable. Is there a third option?

I decided to consult the Catechism to see what actual Church teaching is. Paragraph 1374, in its entirety, says: The mode of Christ's presense under the Eucahristic species is unique. It raises the Eucharist above all the sacraments as "the perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all the sacraments tend." In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist "the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained." "This presence is called 'real'--by which is not intended to exclude the other types of presence as if they could not be 'real' too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present."

Whoa. There's no talk of "literally." We look through the eyes of faith and see Jesus present sacramentally--really, truly present, but not literally. I mean, the Blessed Sacrament to my knowledge has not cured a woman's issue of blood by simple contact, restored sight, or healed a withered hand. While It may float on water, I don't think It will walk.

I'm not trying to be disrespectful. I'm trying to get a grip on the doctrine of the Real Presence and how to explain it. I read John 6 and it's like algebra--makes sense while I'm reading it but ten minutes later, it's gone. When I watch Common Ground, I'll bet Father Riccardo's explanation will help.

I think, though, that it's called a Sacred Mystery for a reason. Better minds than mine have thought about it for longer than I have time to do, and haven't been able to explain it fully. For those non-Catholics, "Sacred Mystery" is Catholic-speak for "let it go."

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At 2:07 PM, Anonymous Gregg the Obscure said...

JPII in Ecclesia de Eucharistia said: "The sacramental re-presentation of Christ's sacrifice, crowned by the resurrection, in the Mass involves a most special presence which – in the words of Paul VI – 'is called 'real' not as a way of excluding all other types of presence as if they were 'not real', but because it is a presence in the fullest sense: a substantial presence whereby Christ, the God-Man, is wholly and entirely present'. This sets forth once more the perennially valid teaching of the Council of Trent: 'the consecration of the bread and wine effects the change of the whole substance of the bead into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. And the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called this change transubstantiation'. Truly the Eucharist is a mysterium fidei, a mystery which surpasses our understanding and can only be received in faith, as is often brought out in the catechesis of the Church Fathers regarding this divine sacrament: 'Do not see – Saint Cyril of Jerusalem exhorts – in the bread and wine merely natural elements, because the Lord has expressly said that they are his body and his blood: faith assures you of this, though your senses suggest otherwise'."

The classical formulation - much derided at the Reformation - was that the bread and wine after consecration become the Body and Blood in all ways but for their physical presentation (then described as the "accidents" of the elements).

At 5:03 PM, Blogger Rick said...

To follow up on Gregg substance point, the substance vs. accident. The substance, what makes something what it is, is the Lord Jesus. The accidents - color, taste, weight, shape, smell is that of a wafer. S

Another contrast, real (res in Latin meaning thing) vs. nominal or literal (by name). The Eucharist is not just a nominal or symbolic Body of the Lord; it is the actual, real Body.

Jesus said, "This IS my body." He did not say, "This is like my body or this is a symbol of my body."

Hope that helps. God bless.

At 7:12 AM, Anonymous Jon said...

Surely the difficulty here is not so easily solved by parsing the meaning of the word "literally" so as to interpret Fr. Riccardo's statement in the most orthodox way possible. The reason you got the screaming willies is that when people say the word "literally," what they usually mean is "truly, really, and substantially." (Sometimes, oddly, they mean "metaphorically.") This may be an abuse of language, but we cannot ignore the popular usage of words when making statements like this (especially in videos), because people will take them out of context and not take into account the grammatical parsings.

So I think that if someone asks you if the Eucharist is literally the Body and Blood of Christ, the correct answer is "Yes, but allow me to qualify that statement sometime."

At 7:23 AM, Blogger Kasia said...

#1 - if you ever want to borrow the DVD, I'll be happy to lend mine. Father Riccardo is one of the main reasons I'm Catholic.

#2 - One thing anyone who reads this should know about Fr. Riccardo is that he is absolutely gnat's-behind precise with his words. Example: he despises the word "nice" because its Latin root means "stupid". Never mind that that's not the common understanding of the word NOW. He still will call you out on using it.

With all of that borne in mind, I think your mullings are spot-on in terms of what Father Riccardo meant and was saying (I remember the segment well). And in fact, because I am nearly as gnat's-behind precise as Father John is (though I still say "nice" when he can't hear me), that segment was incredibly helpful for me in coming to terms with transubstantiation and the Eucharist.

Now, having said that, Jon is correct that for evangelization purposes, we need to be aware of the common usage of words, and adjust accordingly. I think he's also right about why it gave you the screaming willies. I'm not sure where the balance lies between accommodating common misunderstandings of words and maintaining a language in which words still have an objective meaning, but that's a challenge we face...

At 7:33 AM, Blogger Kasia said...

One other thing:

I mean, the Blessed Sacrament to my knowledge has not cured a woman's issue of blood by simple contact

During last year's RCIA program, in which I had the honor to serve as a sponsor, our DRE told us a story about a woman who needed surgery. I don't recall the exact condition - it resulted in a near-constant vaginal bleed, though.

Anyway, she went to one of those Healing Masses the day before her surgery, and when she went up to receive the Eucharist, she reached up and touched the bottom of the paten (reminiscent of touching the hem of His garment).

Next day when she went in for her surgery, they said, "We have no idea how this happened, but you don't need the surgery anymore."

Now, this has not to my knowledge been certified as a jen-yoo-wine miracle by the Holy See. Nor do I know if, and how, it might change your point; but it sprang to mind when I read the sentence of yours I quoted.

At 7:24 AM, Blogger Melanie B said...

1. Yeah, that gives me the screaming willies too.

I suspect the problem here one that is common among theologians. They get caught up in the technical theological terminology that they aren't very effective at communicating spiritual truths to lay people.

Father is correct in the sense that "literally" is not the proper theological term to describe the Real Presence. As many other commenters have noted, that is always described in terms of "substance" and "accident".

However --again keeping in mind that he may have contextualized his remarks, we don't know at third hand-- Father seems to have been at least not quite prudent in his choice of words because, as Jon and Kasia say, the popular understanding of the word literally is that it means really, truly and we do really truly believe Christ is present.

Theologians used specialized vocabulary that is not readily accessible to the layperson precisely because it is able to capture extremely fine distinctions of meaning. The problem with a word like literally is that the popular usage of it is so broad that it cannot carry the weight of those fine distinctions. It is useless for the purposes of understanding exactly how Christ is present in the Eucharist.

If I were posed with the question of whether we believe Christ is literally present in the Eucharist, I think I'd ask the questioner if they wanted the technical explanation of the layman's quick response. The quick response is that yes we really truly believe that Christ is really present in the Eucharist; but that the word literally is easily misunderstood so we generally don't use it in that context. The technical explanation has already been given quite nicely in the above comments and the excerpt from the Catechism.

2. I mean, the Blessed Sacrament to my knowledge has not cured a woman's issue of blood by simple contact.

The Eucharist by definition is Jesus. He really is there and he really does miraculous things through his Presence in the Sacrament just as he did through his body before His death and resurrection. Miraculous cures don't happen every time anyone receives communion, no. But there are plenty of documented Eucharistic miracles. In fact one jumps to mind because of the direct parallel to the gospel story of the woman cured by touching Jesus' garment.

Dom has a good book on the subject: Eucharistic Miracles by Joan Carroll Cruz. In it she recounts the story about the miraculous cure of St. Gorgiona, sister of St. Gregory of Nazianzus (d 389):

". . . for several years she had suffered from a palsy which physicians were unable to cure. Having the Blessed Sacrament reserved upon an altar in her home, as was permitted to some in the early days of Christianity, she turned to the Divine Physician one night and prayed earnestly for a cure. In imitation of the woman in the Gospel who touched the hem of Christ's garment and was healed, Gorgiona approached the altar, rested her head upon it and resolved not to leave until she was cured. After annointing herself with blessed oil, she wept bitterly before the Blessed Sacrament. St Gregory tells us that Gorgiona experienced a complete restoration of health that very night."

It's a great book, you should check it out. As well as many, many stories of miracles and of the Eucharist in the lives of the saints it also has good explanations about the history of Eucharistic devotion.

At 12:49 PM, Blogger Kasia said...

Respectfully (and I mean that!), I think this discussion is leaving out a really crucial element: what did Father actually say?

Since I have the DVD, I took a few minutes to transcribe the section in question. My husband is going to try to extract not just this small segment, but the larger context of the discussion which led to this particular explanation (which was a discussion of the Mass as an unbloody re-presentation (not representation) of Christ's sacrifice on Calvary), but he is going to rip the DVD overnight and try to extract it tomorrow. So, in the meantime, this is relatively short; Heather, I hope you don't mind if I post what I think is the immediate context of the "literally" statement that's caused so much of the willies?

All of this is Father Riccardo; the Protestant guy (Pastor Andrews) doesn't say anything in this portion, and I've tried to recreate his emphases as closely as possible:

"So we would say the Eucharist is truly Jesus - He's rea- [ed. I think Fr. started to say "really" but changed his mind] - He's substantially there.

"But he's hidden Himself. Just like He hid Himself under the appearance of flesh - and He was really flesh - but He wasn't only man. So we would say that the Lord has chosen to hide Himself under the appearance of bread and wine; but it's not really bread and wine. It just looks like it.

"That's why we would call it trans-substantiation. The substance has changed, even though the accidents remain.

"Is it literally Him? NO - it's sacramentally Him. If Jesus were to walk into the church while Mass was going on, he wouldn't look like a host. We'd be down on our face by his majesty."

I for one think that that's sufficient clarification of the rejection of the term "literally", such that the average listener at least wouldn't be tripped up by that per se; but I'm biased b/c as I said before, Fr. John was instrumental in bringing me into the Church.

Others' thoughts?

At 6:34 PM, Blogger ignorant redneck said...

Transsubstanciation was defined by an Ecumenical councel as a dogma of the church--the Coucil of Trent.

At 7:10 PM, Blogger Melanie B said...


Thanks so much for clarifying with context. I hate trying to guess someone's meaning when you've only got secondhand reporting on what they actually said. You never know what has been garbled in transmission by the person doing the reporting. Just to further clarify, is the DVD a recording of a live show or is it something that was scripted? If a live show, well when speaking off the cuff there is a little more room for loose language. Trying to think on your feet can be tough as you search for the exact words.

The use of the word "literally" still bugs me; but I agree that in the context given he clarifies right away with the word "sacramentally" so that most people probably will understand what he's getting at. Still, I think the Catechism and other Church documents avoid using the word literally precisely because the common usage is so broad that it just doesn't fit one way or the other. It all depends on your understanding of the word "literally", which can vary from person to person and depends heavily on context.

But as I said that's a general difficulty in trying to translate precise theological terminology for laypeople without loosing meaning. I've heard quite a few orthodox, theologically sound, well-meaning priests bungle the explanation of transubstantiation in their homilies as they get tied up in these kinds of linguistic difficulties.

At 4:57 PM, Blogger Kasia said...

Melanie - absolutely my pleasure!

It was definitely not scripted.

What it is, is a one-on-one interview between Fr. Riccardo and the pastor of a local almost-mega-church, primarily Baptist in tradition and theology. They, being pastors of two of the largest churches in the county and only a mile or two apart, got to be friends; and they made this DVD as a means of clarifying for their respective parishioners what they had in common and particularly for the Protestants, what the Catholic Church actually teaches. (My understanding is that the Protestant pastor had noticed a lot of anti-Catholicism among his church members, particularly among former Catholics, and he didn't like it.) The pastor has a list of notes or questions; Fr. Riccardo has his brain and his Bible. That's about it.

They did a series of talks, too; I think the DVD was meant to be a companion to those. Fr. Riccardo got transferred to a larger parish with a school, so the talks have stopped, I think; but the DVD remains and is really very good.

The one thing I have to say for Fr. Riccardo - of whom I'm obviously fond; he came back and delivered the homily at my wedding - is that he's an incredible teacher and communicator. Seriously - he's been compared to Fulton Sheen.

However, you're absolutely right about the difficulties of communicating things like transsubstantiation to the average audience. One of my friends, a canon lawyer who spent some time in seminary discerning the priesthood, related that they were told, essentially: "It's not a question of whether you'll teach heresy at some point. You will. But you need to know which heresy you're teaching."

The priest who told them that didn't mean that they would intentionally teach heresy; he meant that at some point they were going to screw up and say something that was not doctrinally orthodox. And his point was that they needed to know so that they could know that it was a mistake - post facto, but better than never.

Husband dear hasn't finished ripping the DVD yet, but when he's done I'll post the segment on my blog. I do also recommend the DVD to anyone with the inclination to watch it.

At 6:02 PM, Blogger Melanie B said...

"It's not a question of whether you'll teach heresy at some point. You will. But you need to know which heresy you're teaching."

Too funny. And so very true. My sister and husband both majored in theology, and have both reported being told similar things at various times. My sister once told me a story about one of her profs used to identify the precise heresy every time a student misspoke, misunderstood, or was too vague.

Also, Heather, I got myself started on actually reading the whole of the Eucharistic Miracles book I mentioned and it's got a very good opening chapter explaining what the Church teaches about the Eucharist. The author of the book interesting says, of the words of institution, "this is my body... this is my blood" that "These words of Our Lord have ever been and are now accepted in their true and literal sense by the whole of Catholic Christendom." She's not a theologian and these aren't Church documents but the word "literal" grabbed my attention.

Also there are some awesome miracles: the Host may not walk but there have been instances of levitation. And of it turning to stone when someone who didn't believe tried to receive, or into real flesh and blood (type AB blood and myocardial muscle tissue, according to medical examination). And one nobleman who attempted to receive unworthily found the ground sinking beneath his feet and his hands sinking into the altar. Evidently you can still see the depression today and the handprints in the altar stone.

One last thing on the use of the word literal and then I really will shut up, I promise. I think where it is problematic to me is that I always think of "literal" and "figurative" as antonyms. And thus when you say something is not meant literally, then I think you mean it must be figurative or symbolic. And it certainly is heresy to say that Christ is present only symbolically in the Eucharist.

At 6:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I simply have to echo Kasia's statements. And if you wonder what Fr. John Riccardo really means, go to the Catechism...:-)
You can hear more of him on, go to Fr. John and read his homilies, hear his podcasts etc.
Please be careful in attacking priests. They have a hard enough life as it is, and for a man like Fr. Riccardo who is about as in persona christi as it comes, I am sure the challenges are many without additionial attacks. I also recommend reading or listening to anything any of us want to comment on before we comment in the public square. We don't want to create scandal.
Thanks for a good discussion on here!


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