Affirmation of the Real Presence

By Fr. Jack Treloar, SJ | For The Compass | June 15, 2022

The second reading this week comes from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Paul narrates the institution of the Eucharist from the Last Supper. This letter was written about 20 years after that meal. By the time of Paul’s writing, it is clear he understood the Eucharist as the true body and blood of the Lord.

As a person goes into any Roman Catholic Church, one almost immediately sees the small flickering light in the sanctuary telling the believer that Christ is physically present in this holy place. As part of my responsibilities at the Jesuit Retreat House in Oshkosh, I open up the facilities in the morning during retreats. Customarily, when I walk into the chapel and turn on the lights, I say quietly, “Good morning, Jesus, I love you very much.” This small prayer reminds me that Jesus is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament and worthy of my adoration.

The realization that God is in our midst has its origins in the most ancient of our traditions. Just as God was present to the Jewish people during their long trek through the desert, so now Jesus, the Son of God, is present with us in our passage through life. God fed the people in the desert, so Jesus feeds us with his Body and Blood on our journey. God promised his people a land flowing with milk and honey, so Jesus tells us the end of our journey will be union with him and his Father. God was present in the temple, so Jesus is truly present in our chapels and churches today.

We must separate the fact of the Real Presence from various attempts to explain how it happens that Christ is present with us. Throughout the centuries, theologians have tried to describe how Christ is present in the Eucharist. Some explanations have succeeded in clarifying how he remains with us physically in the sacrament. Others that lean toward affirming the presence as only symbolic have failed.

Flannery O’Connor, a Catholic author of the 20th century, affirmed the fact of the Real Presence most emphatically and was not at all concerned with the theological intricacies of how it happens. One evening, when she was in a long conversation with some of her atheistically inclined friends, the topic of the Real Presence arose. These friends leaned toward the explanation that the Eucharist is only a symbolic action. Flannery O’Connor said in response to the discussion, “‘Well if it is a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of, but I realize now that is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me, all the rest of life is expendable.” As we celebrate this feast, we remember the centrality of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist.

Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.

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