At first glance, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi seems primarily an internal church feast. However, once upon a time (especially when societies were more religiously homogenous) that internal faith found external expression in public processions with the Eucharist. In some places (e.g., Poland), public expression was never lost; in others, like the United States, it is (re)asserting itself in various places.
It is good that we give external expression to our Eucharistic faith, because the Solemnity of Corpus Christi thrusts into bold relief some of the core problems that plague the modern world.
It seems to me that the core problem presented by the Eucharist is illuminated by this simple question: what is it? Is it really the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, true God and true man? Or are these believers deluded, confusing some unleavened bread with a Person? And how is this Jesus even “present” in this bread? Has its reality changed, and if so, how? Transubstantiation, as Catholics understand it, means that the “substance” of the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Protestants, rejecting transubstantiation, employ a variety of explanations that, for the most part, culminate in negating the reality of Jesus’s Presence. While some Lutherans maintain a Eucharistic theology that is similar to Catholic theology, even their thought is not completely reconcilable in all respects (which raises questions about what the German Bishops think German Protestants are “sharing” with their Catholic co-nationals when they propose intercommunion). Most Protestants, however, have reduced Jesus’s Presence to a “mystical” or “symbolic” reality that we should perhaps refer to as the Real Absence, as attested by the fact that, as one crosses the Protestant spectrum towards lower ecclesiastical polities, the frequency of Eucharistic celebration declines. In the Calvinist tradition, for example, the “Eucharist” is classically celebrated quarterly.
I want to focus on the concept “Real Presence.”
In his encyclical on the Eucharist Mysterium fidei, Bl. Paul VI wrote that “the way in which Christ becomes present in this Sacrament is through the conversion of the whole substance of the bread into His body and of the whole substance of the wine into His blood, a unique and truly wonderful conversion that the Catholic Church fittingly and properly calls transubstantiation.” The late pope insisted that this transformation was “ontological,” the Eucharist being “not what was there before, but something completely different; and not just in the estimation of Church belief but in reality” (no. 46, emphasis mine).
Two things deserve our comment. What is “fitting” about transubstantiation? And where does the change in the reality lie?
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