The Eucharist and Orthodoxy: Orthodoxy means “right thinking” in terms of the teaching of Christ and his Church. What is an orthodox, “right thinking” belief about the Eucharist?
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
24 August 2019
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?” That’s the question posed in our gospel today (Lk 13:22-30). Jesus responds with a warning that entering into heaven will be difficult. He urges those who wish to gain everlasting life to strive to enter through the narrow gate. However, many will not be strong enough to do so. It seems Jesus clearly teaches that many will be lost.
If you think about it, who can ever be strong enough to enter heaven? It’s not naturally, humanly possible for us to do so. We need healed—saved. We are in crucial need of the grace of Christ. Jesus himself must lift us to the heavens and his realm of light. In order to attain that glorified state, we must be brought into union with Christ, as he said in John’s gospel: “No one comes to the Father but by me” (Jn 14:6). The supreme goal is to become one with Jesus. And that is precisely what Christ does for us when we worthily receive him in the Eucharist.
As Christ is Savior, the divine sacrament of the Eucharist is a saving reality. That it is, provided we receive it worthily and with proper disposition. If not, it becomes our judgment.
A Crisis of Faith and Belief
What do you believe about the Eucharist? Do you believe what Jesus, the Church, her tradition and scriptures, all teach in unison about it? On the other hand, do you know what this teaching is?
Apparently, there are a lot of Catholics who don’t.
The Pew Forum released a disturbing study this month (Aug. 5, 2019) that indicates only about 1/3rd of people who identify as Catholics in the US believe the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ. The other 2/3rds think it’s only a symbol.
Caution is warranted when considering survey results. They can be inaccurate for a host of reasons. However, I don’t think this survey is very far off base. The Pew Forum is known for its careful, detailed analysis in conducting its surveys. And, from what I’ve observed, the results of the survey seem fairly obvious.
It’s not surprising that only about 1/3 of US Catholics have an orthodox, faith-based belief that the Eucharist is truly Christ himself: his body, blood, soul and divinity. Why do I say that? Because less than about 30% of US Catholics attend Mass at all, other than perhaps during Christmas and Easter, when the seasons move them. So, the Pew survey has to be interpreted in that light. That is, some of the findings of the survey are based on the views of people who are Catholic in name only; they’re nominal Catholics who are not in full communion with the Church and do not practice their faith at all on a regular basis.
But here’s the really disturbing part of the survey: about 1/3 of Catholics who DO attend Mass each Sunday, do not believe that the bread and wine are converted into the body and blood of Christ. They believe that the consecrated bread and wine are merely symbols of Christ, that they symbolically represent Jesus, which is technically a heretical position.
These findings represent what we already know: we’re in the midst of a terrible crisis of faith. There’s lots of reasons for it: lack of reverence for the Eucharist during the holy sacrifice of the Mass, a failure in catechesis, the scandalous habit of giving Holy Communion to pro-abort politicians, indifference toward learning the faith, freethinking disregard for the belief of the Church, religious indifferentism, “Cafeteria Catholicism,” the influences of Protestantism. Relativism. Sin. Modernism. Have I missed any? Most certainly.
Orthodoxy of Faith
Given that situation, what does Christ, the Church, her tradition and scripture all teach in unison about the Eucharist? Although entire books have been written on the Eucharist, and rightly so, given its mysterious depth and incomparable beauty, here’s the condensed teaching:
In the Eucharistic Liturgy, during the words of consecration pronounced by the priest, the bread and wine are converted by the power of the Holy Spirit into Christ himself. They are transformed into the body, blood, soul and divinity of the Risen Lord Jesus. We use the word “transubstantiation” to describe this miraculous change that occurs. The substance of the bread and wine is transformed, converted into the glorified body of Jesus Christ—the glorified body of Jesus is truly, substantially, wholly present in the Eucharist in its entirety. Thus we say that the Eucharist is the Real Presence of Christ. Of course, we can’t see his bodily presence. Jesus is sacramentally present in the Eucharist, meaning he is invisibly present there, under the signs of bread and wine. Note that the bread and wine are signs, not symbols.
All of this means that the Eucharist is Christ himself. It’s NOT a symbol of Christ. It’s not a representation of Christ. It’s not that Christ is present alongside the bread and wine, as if they somehow contain Christ (a heretical belief coined by Martin Luther called “consubstantiation”). It’s not Christ with bread and wine. The bread and wine no longer exist in substance. The Eucharist is Christ himself.
We see and taste bread and wine because the appearances of bread and wine remain, which are called “accidents” according to the technical term. However, the reality of what is truly present is the body, blood, soul, and divinity of the Risen Christ.
We Believe the Eucharist Is Christ Because That’s What The Son of God Says It Is
Why do we believe this teaching as Christians? Because it is the teaching of God himself. In Luke’s gospel (22:19), at the Last Supper, Jesus takes the bread into his hands and says, “This is my body.” At that moment, he institutes the Eucharist. He doesn’t say the bread “symbolizes my body” or “contains my body.” Jesus Christ, who is truly God and man, says, “This is my body.” As Catholics, we take Jesus at his word. We believe in faith what he says.
I encourage you to read the bread of life discourse in John’s gospel, chapter six. There you will find the clearest and firmest teaching on the reality of the Eucharist. Given its length, I’m only going to share some of its main points with you today.
In John six, Jesus speaks about the bread that God gives. He tells the people that the bread of God “is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world” (6:33). The people listening like the sound of that. Who wouldn’t want that kind of bread? They respond by saying, “Lord, give us this bread always” (6:34).
Then things start to get interesting. Jesus talks about how he is the bread of life that came down from heaven. He says that those who come to him shall not hunger or thirst, that those who believe in him shall have eternal life. Here the Jews begin to murmur against him (Jn 6:41). All of it’s just a little too fantastic to swallow. How can Jesus say, “I have come down from heaven?” they ask (v. 42).
Next, Jesus says something radical and astonishing. He tells the Jews not only that he is the bread of life, but that the bread he gives is his flesh for the life of the world. He says, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (6:51).
The Jews then dispute among themselves. I can imagine them looking at each other, shaking their heads. What is this? Eat is flesh? “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (6:52). Notice that the Jews know he is speaking literally, not symbolically. They are thinking Jesus is speaking about cannibalism, something totally repulsive.
Note that Jesus makes no attempt to soften his teaching. He does not say, “You misunderstand, I’m speaking symbolically.” No, he emphatically restates his teaching in a clearer, more direct way, saying: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (6:53-56).
Here the Greek verb trogo is used, which means to “gnaw” or “chew,” emphasizing that we must express our faith by eating in a real, physical way Jesus’ glorified and life-giving flesh in the sacrament of the Eucharist (1). Remember, at the Last Supper Jesus took the bread into his hands and said, “This is my body.” He then gave it to the apostles to eat.
When many of his own disciples hear this teaching, they say, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (6:60). After this, “many of his disciples drew back and no longer walked with him” (6:66). This was the first and most significant schism in the early Church, and it was over Jesus’ teaching on eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Many of his followers turned their backs on him because of his eucharistic teaching.
Granted, it was hard for his first disciples to understand since they did not enjoy the favor of centuries of theological, Spirit-guided insight. It was a moment that called for faith in Jesus. Believe or not? Many chose the latter.
Note that Jesus did not call them back. He didn’t tell them that they misunderstand his teaching. Those who listened to him knew he was speaking literally and he made no attempt to soften anything he said. His flesh is real food and his blood is real drink. Period.
Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Church
The Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith because it is Christ himself. We worship the Eucharist; we adore it; we praise it. We consume it so that we may have a share in Christ’s divine nature, that we may have eternal life. If it’s only a symbol, we commit idolatry.
The Church herself—including the Mass—draws its life from the Eucharist. If the Eucharist is only a symbol, the Mass has no power, the Church cannot be, and the central and foundational aspect of the divine faith of the Church is void. And it gets worse. If a person believes the Eucharist is only a symbol after hearing Christ’s teaching, he denies the divinity of Christ, for it is the God-man who decreed that the consecrated bread is his body; it is his glorified flesh and blood.
If a Catholic intentionally rejects Christ’s teaching on the Eucharist, there’s little point in even attending Mass or continuing on as a Catholic.
I’m reminded of a story about the American novelist Flannery O’Connor, whose writing often reflected her Catholic beliefs. Ms. O’Connor was having dinner with a former Catholic, Mary McCarthy, and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. Mrs. Broadwater had left the Church at age 15 and become a “Big Intellectual,” as Flannery described it. Consequently, Flannery had nothing to say to her, since they had nothing of importance in common. At some point during the dinner, the subject of the Eucharist came up:
Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this 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.”
Worthiness and Proper Disposition
Above I mentioned that if we receive the Eucharist worthily we become one with Christ. We join into communion with him. In doing so, we receive spiritual food for eternal life. What does it mean to receive worthily?
First, we must be in a state of sanctifying grace, meaning we are not conscious of having intentionally and knowingly committed a serious sin, such as breaking one of the 10 Commandments. For instance, skipping Mass without a serious reason would render a person unworthy, and would warrant that he receive the sacrament of confession before receiving the Eucharist.
Receiving the Eucharist worthily also means being of a proper disposition. That is, believing not only everything Christ teaches about the Eucharist but everything he teaches through his Church. It means fasting for one hour before receiving the Eucharist. It means discerning in faith that the Eucharist is Christ himself. It means embracing and living by what the Church teaches on faith and morals—all of it. It’s a package deal, you might say, not a list of options to choose from like a restaurant menu.
Recall that Jesus warned in today’s gospel to “strive to enter through the narrow gate.” That includes orthodoxy of faith and belief in the Eucharist. It includes a proper disposition and reception of the divine sacrament of Christ in a state of grace. St. Paul gives this warning about receiving the Eucharist unworthily:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. (1 Cor 11:27-30)
If a person receives the Eucharist unworthily, deliberately rejecting what the Church teaches in favor of his own personal ideas, he is guilty of sacrilege. He is guilty of profaning Christ and places his soul at risk. It’s piling mortal sin on mortal sin. Physical death of the body is scary, but eternal, spiritual death of the soul is terrifying.
What’s the remedy if you find yourself in such a position? Through an act of the will, believe what Christ teaches. It’s not about feelings. It’s about a conscious choice to unite your intellect and will to what Christ teaches and the Church believes. It’s an attitude of free and firm self-entrustment to the Savior who won the Eucharist at the cost of his death on a Roman cross.
Ask Christ for forgiveness and attend the sacrament of confession before receiving the Eucharist. Pray for an increase in faith—a prayer God always answers. Live and believe as a Catholic in full communion with the Church. Then receive Christ’s flesh and blood in the Eucharist that you may become one with him and be raised up to life eternal.
The Eucharist is the heart of the Church, the foundation of our faith, and the life-blood of the Christian. The thought of anyone forsaking it is as disastrous as it gets.
- RSVCE Study Bible, 175.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.