Question Box: Explaining ‘real presence’


Q: Growing up as a Catholic and attending Catholic schools, I never recall hearing the term “real presence” to describe the mystery of the Eucharist. When did this language come about?

Fr. Hennen

A: To be clear, what we believe about the Eucharist has not changed, but how we talk about it has evolved over time. To speak of Christ’s “real presence” in the Eucharistic species (the con­secrated bread and wine) rolls off the tongue as we try to describe or defend our belief about the Eucharist. But what do we mean by “real?” Some people will assume that by “real presence” we mean “physical presence.” While we are certainly dealing with the physical elements of bread and wine, this is not quite correct.

It is not as though we believe Jesus to be physically present in exactly the same way that he was when he walked this earth. Similarly, we don’t believe that if we turn the host upside down we are turning Jesus upside down or that if we chew the host we are hurting Jesus, in a kind of hyper-realism. And yet, he is truly present, both in our celebration of the Eucharist and in the Eucharistic species. Let’s not forget that as people of faith we believe in many things that are not physical and yet are very real — God, angels, the soul, etc.

Part of our understanding of the Eucharist is that the physical properties, what St. Thomas Aquinas (borrowing from Aristotle) called the “accidents,” remain. It still looks, feels, smells and tastes like bread and wine. Cases of Eucharistic miracles aside, if you were to look at the sacred host or the precious blood under a microscope or do a chemical analysis, it would not indicate anything other than bread and wine. Yet, we believe that the underlying reality, the “substance” (again, Aquinas borrowing from Aristotle), has changed. This is where we get the somewhat clunky term “transubstantiation” — probably not where you want to start in preparing children for their first Communion.


As Aquinas poetically puts it in his hymn to the Eucharist Adore Te Devote: “Sight, touch, taste all fail; hearing alone believes” (my own rough translation from the Latin). In other words, we hear Christ say through his priest, “This is my body … This is the chalice of my blood,” and we take him at his word.

In addition to the testimony of Scripture, which I have previously written about, there are many witnesses in the early Church who speak to this belief including St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus, all as early as the 2nd century. If we went “off the rails” on this belief, then we did so within almost a generation of the apostles — not likely.

I still haven’t really answered your question. From what I could find, the term “real presence,” ironically, emerges from Protes­tantism, specifically the Anglican Reformation, and not until the 16th century, so it is a relatively new term. It seems to have been used to clarify or even differentiate slightly from Catholic belief.

We might more correctly use terms like “substantially present” or “sacramentally present.” This is not merely “representative” presence, but neither can it be reduced to raw physicality. There is something truly incarnational about the Eucharist. As Christ is true God and true man, so he gives us his body and blood as true food and true drink.

(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport. Send questions to

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