The Real Presence is rooted in Biblical testimony

Father John A. Kiley

Present day Roman Catholics are well aware of the heretical notions concerning the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist that Luther, Zwingli, Cranmer and Calvin propagated in the 16th and 17th centuries. Many Protestant communities to this day disavow any Communion service and only favor preaching the Word. But the Protestant Reformation was not the first time the Church had rallied its forces against those who denied the Real Eucharistic Presence in its fullness.
A major crisis occurred in the early Middle Ages when theological adventurers, chiefly at the schools in Chartres and Paris, raised doubts about the true Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. A chief instigator of these disagreements was Berengarius of Tours, who died in 1088 and who was distinguished from mainline Catholic theology chiefly by his ranking of Scripture ahead of Tradition, as the later Reformers would, and his denial of the Real Presence as it was understood at the time. Berengarius denied the possibility of substantial change in the elements of bread and wine and rejected the belief that the Body and Blood of Christ truly exist under the appearance of bread and wine. He argued that Christ could not be brought down from heaven before the Last Judgment. He taught that Christ’s body really exists “only in heaven” and is useful for believers only in a spiritual or symbolic sense and not through a substantial Presence.
Pope Gregory VII ordered Berengarius to subscribe to a profession of faith that might be considered a cornerstone of Catholic Eucharistic piety. It was the Church’s first definitive and official statement of what had always been believed, but was not always clearly appreciated. Pope Gregory VII’s words are a declaration of faith in the Eucharist as an indisputable, actual and definite reality and certainly worthy of pondering on this coming Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ. The complete text follows here:
“I believe in my heart and openly profess that the bread and wine placed upon the altar are, by the mystery of the sacred prayer and the words of the Redeemer, substantially changed into the true and life-giving flesh and blood of Jesus Christ our Lord, and that after the consecration, there is present the true body of Christ which was born of the Virgin and, offered up for the salvation of the world, hung on the cross and now sits at the right hand of the Father, and that there is present the true blood of Christ which flowed from His side. They are present not only by means of a sign and of the efficacy of the sacrament, but also in the very reality and truth of their nature and substance.”
Celebrating the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ as a public feast on the Church’s calendar originated a generation later in 1246 when Bishop Robert de Torote, of Liege in Belgium, first ordered the festival celebrated in his diocese. He was persuaded to initiate the feast by St. Juliana, prioress of Mont Cornillon near Liège, who had experienced a vision. She had seen a dark spot on a heavenly body and understood that it symbolized the deficient grasp of the full meaning of the Real Presence by many of the faithful. However it was Blessed Eva of Liège, an anchoress attached to the parish church attended by St. Juliana, who was instrumental in bringing the feast beyond its provincial origins after St. Juliana’s death.
Blessed Eva contacted Pope Urban IV with the request to celebrate the feast throughout the universal Church. Pope Urban IV had originally and providentially been a priest in Liège and was already familiar with St. Juliana’s visions and their meaning. In 1264, this pope issued a decree through which an observance in honor of the Body of Christ was declared a feast throughout the entire Latin Rite. This was the very first pontifically sanctioned universal feast in the history of the Roman Rite. Juliana was canonized in 1869 by Pope Pius IX and further celebrated by Pope John Paul II, who wrote a letter mentioning her on the 750th anniversary of the Feast of Corpus Christi. Her feast day is April 6.
Although belief in the Real Presence has sharpened and deepened over the centuries, the truth of Christ’s Body and Blood present on Catholic altars has clear Biblical testimony. St. Paul decidedly reminds the Corinthian Church: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” And Jesus himself boldly challenges the Jewish crowds just fed on the hillside: “...the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” Roman Catholics should be and are justly proud of our continued beliefs and faithful celebrations of the true and real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist.