Last week while I was working at my computer, my phone chimed with an incoming text. I decided to go with the distraction, so I picked up the phone to read:
I need to miss adoration tonight. Are you going to be there? If not, I’ll make it.
The text was from my partner in eucharistic adoration. We fill the same late-night slot at a local parish that offers perpetual adoration. I quickly responded, “No worries, I’ll be there.”
The brief conversation was a small detail within a busy day: “Will you be there? Sure.” But it got me to thinking over what the discussion was about. The object of the discussion was to make sure someone would be present to sit in a chapel for an hour, so that what to all appearances seems to be a wafer in a glass-fronted gold case would not be left alone.
To someone who either does not understand or does not believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, this must seem strange. Why all the concern over whether someone is there? Some non-Catholic Christians might ask, “Why do you think Jesus would care if someone is present when a Communion wafer is outside its box? If someone wants to pray there, fine, but what’s the big deal if no one is there?”
The only response a Catholic can make might seem to the unbeliever to be rather superficial. “We have to be there because Jesus is there.” But, really, what other answer is there? Jesus is there—body, blood, soul, and divinity, under the appearance of a wafer—and it is not fitting that he be left exposed and vulnerable.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Catholic belief in the Real Presence manifests itself the most not in grand gestures like a Eucharistic Congress, as lovely and important as such gestures are, but in the ordinary details of how we approach the Eucharist in our everyday lives. Here are a few examples I’ve encountered. I’m sure you can think of ones in your own life:
- At Mass, I like to receive the precious blood when it is offered. I’m always careful to get a good grip on the chalice, to sip slowly, and then to make sure the minister of Communion’s hands have a secure grasp before relinquishing my hold. All of this to ensure against a spill. Because a spill would be a terrible thing. Why? Because Jesus would fall to the floor.
- A friend of mine once told me that he had been struggling with believing in the Real Presence. He was in an adoration chapel, pouring out his anguish to God over his difficulties in faith, when suddenly he paused a moment, struck by a sudden thought. If Christ was not truly present in the Eucharist, then why was my friend praying before the host in the first place? Why had he been drawn to bring his anguish over his lack of faith here? While not every question he had was resolved right away, the insight that his very action of praying in the chapel witnessed to the Real Presence helped him get through his moment of crisis.
- Non-Christians can at times sense the Real Presence, although they may not be able to articulate it. A friar told me of how his community had to sell the house in which they lived and move to another location. The house was bought by a Jewish family. During escrow, the family came in to assess the kitchen for remodeling so that it could be made kosher according to their religious practice. The friars had already moved out their own furnishings, but this priest was present while the wife of the family looked around the rest of the house. When they got to the room that had been the friars’ chapel, now empty, this Jewish woman paused and remarked to my priest friend, “You know, I don’t understand it, but this room seems so peaceful.”
- Occasionally, God may even choose to manifest his presence to animals. A colleague told me of a friend of his who had been a police officer. The cop and his partner, a Protestant, chased a suspect into a Catholic church. The cops released two K-9 dogs into the church to corner the suspect. Soon enough, the dogs started barking wildly, signalling that they had their man. The cops entered to find that their suspect had left through a side exit, but the dogs were seated in front of the tabernacle, still barking. The Protestant cop was bewildered and asked, somewhat rhetorically, “What is wrong with them?” The Catholic cop grinned at the dogs and said, “I’ll explain later. Let’s go!” He did explain later, and the Protestant eventually entered the Catholic Church.
In the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine are transubstantiated into the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. In appearance though, to what can be discerned by our five senses, the Eucharist seems to be bread and wine. But even though we cannot see, hear, smell, taste, or touch Christ in the Eucharist, we can know that he is there, in part through the small details of how we interact with the Eucharist.
The movie, The Song of Bernadette (1943), which told the story of the apparitions at Lourdes, includes the famous line: “For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.” But I think a lesser-known quote from that movie better captures the essence of how we relate to Christ in the Eucharist:
There was something about her that precluded laughter. Her exaltation was so genuine that the observer almost had the impression that he saw what the child saw.