The Catholic Church teaches that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist. The Church calls this transubstantiation—the moment during the consecration at Mass when the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus.
We read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
By the consecration the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ is brought about. Under the consecrated species of bread and wine Christ himself, living and glorious, is present in a true, real, and substantial manner: his Body and his Blood, with his soul and his divinity.
The bread and wine do not just represent Jesus. They actually become Jesus. It is not merely a symbol. It is Him.
The Catechism dedicates nearly 100 paragraphs to teaching on the Sacrament of the Eucharist (paragraphs 1322-1419), including stating that the Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life,” and that, “in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself.”
However, as fundamental as this belief is to being Catholic, a survey published last year by Pew Research showed that only about 30 percent of those who identify as Catholic believe that the bread and wine actually become Jesus during the Mass. For those surveyed who attend Mass at least weekly, belief in the Real Presence was higher at 63 percent, but still showed that even a good number of Catholics who regularly attend Mass do not believe the bread and wine are anything more than a symbol.
Thinking about these survey results, I was reminded of an explanation and reflection I heard on the Gospel of John, chapter 6. This reflection has personally helped strengthen my belief that what still appears to the senses to be bread and wine, is truly the Lord. And considering that belief in the Real Presence is critical to living out our Catholic faith, I wanted to share this reflection here in case it may help someone else too.
Jesus was speaking literally in John 6.
First, for some context and setting, at the beginning of John 6, Jesus multiplies a small number of loaves and miraculously feeds thousands of people. When the crowd witnessed this miracle, they wanted to carry Jesus off and make Him king, so He withdrew to a mountain to be alone.
The next day, the crowds who were searching for Jesus eventually find Him in another town (He had walked on water, met His disciples in a boat, and landed in Capernaum), and a dialogue ensues in a synagogue there.
In verse 51, Jesus says:
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
Is he speaking figuratively or literally here? One way to help know is to see how those who were listening responded. In verse 52, the Jews quarreled among themselves, saying:
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
So the Jews take Jesus to be speaking literally. If Jesus meant what He said to be metaphorical, this seems like it would have been a good time to provide clarifying language. But here is what Jesus says next in verses 53 to 58:
“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.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.
Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.
This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
How did those listening respond to all of this? What did His own disciples, those who witnessed His miracles and wanted to crown Him king, have to say? Did they take Him to be speaking literally or figuratively? Verse 60 says:
Then many of his disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”
Ultimately, in verse 66:
“Many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.”
So now many disciples are walking away from the Lord because of this teaching. The man who miraculously fed thousands of people with only a small amount of bread and fish—the man who, just yesterday, they were ready to carry off and make their king—had taught something so “hard” that they could no longer follow him.
If they took Him to be speaking symbolically, what was so hard to accept?
They knew he was speaking literally. And how can they follow someone who says they have to eat his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life? Who can accept it?
Jesus then has an opportunity to clarify and could have said something along the lines of, “Wait, don’t leave, you misunderstand.” Instead he turns to his closest friends, the twelve apostles, and asks:
“Do you also want to leave?”
In other words, “Yes, I meant what I said literally. Are you still with me?”
Peter answers Jesus with faith:
“Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”
Peter does not say he totally understands, or that it all makes perfect sense. But he has faith. He knows who is speaking, and that He has the words of eternal life.
Fast forward to the Last Supper (recorded by Matthew, Mark, and Luke), when Jesus breaks the bread, gives it to His disciples and says, “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood.”
This is when Jesus instituted the Sacrament of the Eucharist. He tells Peter and the other apostles, “Do this in memory of me.” The Catholic Church, founded by Jesus with Peter as the first pope, has taught for two millennia what Jesus taught.
When the priest says the words of consecration at each Mass, he quotes Jesus—This is my Body. This is my Blood. It is not figurative. The Eucharist does not represent Him. The Eucharist is Him.
His flesh is true food, and His blood is true drink.
If we lack faith now or ever begin to have doubts in the Real Presence, may we pray to the Lord to give us the faith of Peter, always trusting in the words Jesus has taught us, the words of eternal life.