The Holy Eucharist
Featuring James Cardinal Gibbons/
March 16, 2010
The following chapter is reprinted from Cardinal Gibbons famous book, “the Faith of Our Fathers” (TAN Books, Rockford, IL 61105) which sold over 1.4 million copies in the first forty years after its first publication in 1876, and has been reprinted many times. This book delves into the historical background of virtually everything people find hard to understand about the Catholic faith, and it has been a great help to many converts.
Among the various dogmas of the Catholic Church there is none which rests on stronger Scriptural authority than the doctrine of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ on the Holy Eucharist.* So copious, indeed, and so clear are the passages of the new Testament which treat of this subject that I am at a loss to determine which to select, and find it difficult to compress them all within the compass of this short chapter.
The Evangelists do not always dwell upon the same mysteries of religion. Their practice is rather to supplement each other, so that one of them will mention what the others have omitted or have touched in a cursory way. But in regard to the Blessed Eucharist the sacred writers exhibit a marked deviation from this rule. We find that the four Evangelists, together with St. Paul, have written so explicitly and abundantly on this subject that one of them alone would be amply sufficient to prove the dogma without taking them collectively.
These five inspired writers gave the weight of their individual testimony to the doctrine of the Eucharist because they foresaw—or rather the Holy Ghost, speaking through them, foresaw—that this great mystery, which exacts so strong an exercise of our faith, and which bids us bow down our “understanding unto the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10.5), would meet with opposition in the course of time from those who would measure the infallible Word of God by the erring standard of their own judgement.
I shall select three classes of arguments from the New Testament which satisfactorily demonstrate the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. The first of these texts speaks of the promise of the Eucharist, the second of its institution, and the third of its use among the faithful.
To begin with the words of the promise. While Jesus was once preaching near the coast of the Sea of Galilee He was followed, as usual, by an immense multitude if persons, who were attracted to Him by the miracles which He wrought and the words of salvation which he spoke. Seeing that the people had no food, he multiplied five loaves and two fishes to such an extent as to supply the wants of five thousand men, besides women and children.
Our Lord considered the present a favorable occasion for speaking of the Sacrament of his Body and blood, which was to be distributed, not to a few thousands, but to millions of souls; not in one place, but everywhere; not at one time, but for all days, to the end of the world. “I am,” He says to His hearers, “the bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the desert and died…. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If any man eat of this bread he shall live forever, and the bread which I will give is my flesh for the life of the world. The Jews, therefore, disputed among themselves, saying: How can this man give us His Flesh to eat? Then Jesus said to them: Amen, amen, I say to you: Unless ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, ye shall not have life in you. He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood hath everlasting life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is meat indeed, and My blood is drink indeed.” (John 6.48-56)
If these words had fallen on your ears for the first time, and if you had been among the number of your Savior’s hearers on that occasion, would you not have been irresistibly led, by the noble simplicity of His words, to understand Him as speaking truly of His body and blood? For His language is not susceptible of any other interpretation.
When our Savior says to the Jews: “Your fathers did eat manna and died,…but he that eateth this (Eucharist) bread shall live forever,” He evidently wishes to affirm the superiority of the food which He would give, over the manna by which the children of Israel were nourished.
Now, if the Eucharist were merely commemorative bread and wine, instead of being superior, it would be really inferior to the manna; for the manna was supernatural, heavenly, miraculous food, while bread and wine are a natural, earthly food.
But the best and the most reliable interpreters of our Savior’s words are certainly the multitude and the disciples who are listening to Him. They all understood the import of his language precisely as it is explained by the Catholic Church. They believed that our Lord spoke literally of his body and blood. The Evangelist tells us that the Jews “disputed among themselves, saying: How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” Even his disciples, though avoiding the disrespectful language of the multitude, gave expression to their doubt in this milder form: “This saying is hard, and who can hear it?” (John 6.61) So much were they shocked at our Savior’s promise that “after this many of his disciples went back and walked no more with Him.” (John 6.67) They evidently implied, by their words and conduct, that they understood Jesus to have spoken literally of His flesh; for, had they interpreted His words in a figurative sense, it would not have been a hard saying, not have led them to abandon their Master.
But, perhaps, I shall be told that the disciples and the Jews who heard our Savior may have misinterpreted his meaning by taking His words in the literal acceptation, while He may have spoken in a figurative sense. This objection is easily disposed of. It sometimes happened, indeed, that our Savior was misunderstood by His hearers. On such occasions He always took care to remove from their mind the wrong impression they had formed by stating His meaning in simpler language. Thus, for instance, having told Nicodemus that unless a man be born again he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, and having observed that his meaning was not correctly apprehended by this disciple our Savior added: “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holt Ghost he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” (John 3) And again, when He warned His disciples against the leaven of the Pharisees, and finding that they had taken an erroneous meaning from his word, He immediately subjoined that they should beware of the doctrine of the Pharisees. (Matt.16)
But in the present instance does our Savior alter his language when He finds His words taken in the literal sense? Does He tell his hearers that He has spoken figuratively? Does He soften the tone of His expression? Far from weakening the force of His words He repeats what He said before, and in language more emphatic: “Amen, amen, I say unto you, Unless ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye shall not have life in you.”
When our Savior beheld the Jews and many of His disciples abandoning Him, turning to the chosen twelve, He said feelingly to them: “Will ye also go away? And Simon Peter answered Him: Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” (John 6.68,69) You, my dear reader, must also take your choice. Will you reply with the Jews, or with the disciples of little faith, or with Peter? Ah! Let some say with the unbelieving Jews: “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” Let others say with the unfaithful disciples: “This is a hard saying. Who can hear it?” But do you say with Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.”
So far I have dwelt on the words of the Promise. I shall now proceed to the words of the Institution, which are given in almost the same expressions by St. Matthew, St. Mark and St. Luke. In the Gospel according to St. Matthew we read the following narrative: “And while they were at supper, Jesus took bread, and blessed and broke and gave to His disciples and said: Take ye and eat. This is My body. And taking the chalice, He gave thanks and gave to them, saying: Drink ye all of this; for this is My blood of the New Testament, which shall be shed for many unto remission of sins.””(Matt. 26.26-28)
I beg you to recall to mind the former text relative to the Promise and to compare it with this. How admirably they fit together, like two links in a chain! How faithfully has Jesus fulfilled the Promise which he made! Could any idea be expressed in clearer terms than these: This is My body; this is My blood?
Why is the Catholic interpretation of these words rejected by Protestants? Is it because the text is in itself obscure and ambiguous? By no means; but simply because they do not comprehend how God could perform so stupendous a miracle as to give his body and blood for our spiritual nourishment.
Is, then, the power of the mercy of God to be measured by the narrow rule of the human understanding? Is the Almighty not permitted to do anything except what we can sanction by our reason? Is a thing to be declared impossible because we cannot see its possibility?
Has not God created the heavens and the earth out of nothing by the fiat of His word? What a mystery is this! Does he not hold this world in the midst of space? Does he not transform the tiny blade into nutritious grain? Did He not feed upwards of five thousand persons with five loaves and two fishes? What a mystery! Did He not rain down manna from heaven for forty years to feed the children of Israel in the desert? Did He not change rivers into blood in Egypt, and water into wine at the wedding of Cana? Does he not daily make devout souls the tabernacles of the Holy Ghost? And shall we have the hardihood to deny, in spite of our Lord’s plain declaration, that God, who works these wonders, is able to change bread and wine into His body and blood for the food of our souls?
You tell me it is a mystery above your comprehension. A mystery, indeed. A religion that rejects a revealed truth because it is incomprehensible contains in itself the seeds of dissolution and will end in rationalism. Is not everything around us a mystery? Are we not a mystery to ourselves? Explain to me how the blood circulates in your veins, how the soul animates and permeates the whole body, how the hand moves at the will of the soul. Explain to me the mystery of life and death.
Is not the Scripture full of incomprehensible mysteries? Do you not believe in the Trinity—a mystery not only above, but apparently contrary to reason? Do you not admit the Incarnation—that the helpless infant in Bethlehem was God? I understand why Rationalists, who admit nothing above their reason, reject the Real Presence; but that Bible Christians should reject it is to me incomprehensible.
But do those who reject the Catholic interpretation explain this text to their own satisfaction: “This is My Body, etc?” Alas! Here their burden begins. Only a few years after the early Reformers had rejected the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist no fewer than one hundred meanings were given to these words: “This is My body.” It is far easier to destroy than to rebuild.
Let me now offer you some additional reasons in favor of the Catholic or literal sense. According to a common rule observed in the interpretation of the Holy Scripture, we must always take the words in their literal signification, unless we have some special reason which obliges us to accept them in a figurative meaning. Now, in the present instance, far from being forced to employ the words above quoted in a figurative sense, every circumstance connected with the delivery of them obliges us to interpret them in their plain and literal acceptation.
To whom did our Savior address these words? At what time and under what circumstances did He speak? He was addressing his few chosen disciples, to whom He promised to speak in future, not in parables nor in obscure language, but in the words of simple truth. He uttered these words the night before His Passion. And when will a person use plainer speech than at the point of death?
These words: “This is My body; this is My blood,” embodied a new dogma of faith which all were obliged to believe, and a new law which all were obliged to practice. They were the last will and testament of our blessed Savior. What language should be plainer than that which contains an article of faith? What words should be more free from tropes and figures than those which enforce a Divine law? But, above all, where will you find any words more plain and unvarnished than those contained in a last will?
Now, if we understand these words in their plain and obvious, that is, in the Catholic, sense, no language can be more simple and intelligible. But if we depart from the Catholic interpretation, then it is impossible to attach to them any reasonable meaning.
We now arrive at the third class of Scripture texts which have reference to the use or reception of the Sacrament among the faithful.
When Jesus, as you remember, instituted the Eucharist at His last Supper He commanded His disciples and their successors to renew, till the end of time, in remembrance of him, the ceremony which He performed. What I have done, do ye also “for a commemoration of Me.” (Luke 22.19)
We have a very satisfactory means of ascertaining the Apostolic belief in the doctrine of the Eucharist by examining what the Apostles did in commemoration of our Lord. Did they bless and distribute mere bread and wine to the faithful, or did they consecrate as they believed, the body and blood of Jesus Christ? If they professed to give only bread and wine in memory of our Lord’s Supper, then the Catholic interpretation falls to the ground. If, on the contrary, we find the Apostles and their successors, from the first to the nineteenth century, professing to consecrate and dispense the body and blood of Christ, and doing so by virtue of the command of their Savior, then the Catholic interpretation alone is admissible.
Let St. Paul be our first witness. Represent yourself as a member of the primitive Christian congregation assembled in Corinth. About eighteen years after St. Matthew wrote his Gospel, a letter is read from the Apostle Paul, in which the following words occur: “The chalice of benediction which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? And the bread which we break, it is not the partaking of the body of the Lord?…For, I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night in which he was betrayed, took bread, and giving thanks, brake it, and said: Take and eat: this is My body which shall be delivered for you. This do for the commemoration of Me. In like manner also the chalice, after the supper, saying: This cup is the New Covenant in My blood. This do ye, as often as ye shall drink, for the commemoration of me. For, as often as ye shall eat this bread, and drink the cup, ye shall show the death of the Lord until He come. Therefore, whoever shall eat this bread, or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself; and so let him eat of that bread and drink of the chalice. For, he who eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgement to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord.” (1 Cor. 10.16, 11.23-29)
Could St. Paul express more clearly his belief in the Real presence than he has done here? The Apostle distinctly affirms that the chalice and bread which he and his fellow Apostles bless is a participation of the body and blood of Christ. And surely no one could be said to partake of that divine food by eating ordinary bread. Mark these words of the Apostle: whosoever shall take the Sacrament unworthily “shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.” What a heinous crime! For these words signify that he who receives the Sacrament unworthily shall be guilty of the sin of high treason, and of shedding the blood of his Lord in vain. But how could he be guilty of a crime so enormous, if he had taken in the Eucharist only a particle of bread and wine. Would a man be accused of homicide, in this commonwealth, if he were to offer violence to the statue or painting of the governor? Certainly not. In like manner, St. Paul would not be so unreasonable as to declare a man guilty tramping on the blood of his Savior by drinking in an unworthy manner a little wine in memory of Him.
Study also these words: “He who eateth and drinketh unworthily eateth and drinketh condemnation to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord.” The unworthy receiver is condemned for not recognizing or discerning in the Eucharist the body of the Lord. How could he be blamed for not discerning the body of the Lord, if there were only bread and wine before him? Hence, if the words of St. Paul are figuratively understood, they are distorted, forced and exaggerated terms, without meaning or truth. But, if they are taken literally, they are full of sense and of awful significance, and an eloquent commentary on the words I have quoted from the Evangelist.
The Fathers of the Church, without an exception, re-echo the language of the Apostle of the gentiles by proclaiming the Real Presence of our Lord in the Eucharist. I have counted the names of sixty-three Fathers and eminent Ecclesiastical writers flourishing between the first and sixth century all of whom proclaim the Real Presence—some by explaining the mystery, others by thanking God for his inestimable gift, and others by exhorting the faithful to its worthy reception. From such a host of witnesses I can select here only a few at random.
St. Ignatius, a disciple of St. Peter, speaking of a sect called Gnostics, says: “They abstain from the Eucharist and prayer, because they confess not that the Eucharist and prayer is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.”
St. Justin Martyr, in an apology to the Emperor Antoninus, writes in the second century: “We do not receive these things as common bread and drink; but as Jesus Christ our Savior was made flesh by the word of God, even so we have been taught that the Eucharist is both the flesh and the blood of the same incarnate Jesus.”
Origin (third century) writes: “If thou wilt go up with Christ to celebrate the Passover, He will give to thee that bread of benediction. His own body, and will vouchsafe to thee His own blood.”
St. Cyril, of Jerusalem (fourth century), instructing the Catechumens, observes: “He Himself having declared, This is My body, who shall dare to doubt henceforward? And He having said, This is My blood, who shall ever doubt, saying: This is not His blood? He once at Cana turned water into wine, which is akin to blood; and is He undeserving of belief when He turned wine into blood?” He seems to be arguing with modern unbelief.
St. John Chrysostom, who died in the beginning of the fifth century, preaching on the Eucharist, says: “If thou wert indeed incorporeal, He would have delivered to thee those same incorporeal gifts without covering. But since the soul is united to the body, He delivers to thee in things perceptible to the senses the things to be apprehended by the understanding. How many nowadays say: ‘Would that they could look upon His (Jesus’) form, His figure, His raiment, His shoes.’ Lo! Thou seest Him, touchest Him, eatest Him.”
St. Augustine (fifth century), addressing the newly-baptized, says: “I promised you a discourse wherein I would explain the sacrament of the Lord’s table, which sacrament you even now behold, and of which you were last night made partakers. You ought to know what you have received. The bread which you see on the altar, after being sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ. That chalice, after being sanctified by the word of God, is the blood of Christ.”
But why multiply authorities? At the present day every Christian communion throughout the world, with the sole exception of Protestants, proclaims its belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament.
The Nestorians and Eutychians, who separated from the Catholic Church in the fifth century, admit the corporeal presence of our Lord in the Eucharist. Such also is the faith of the Greek church, which seceded from us a thousand years ago, of the present Russian church, of the schismatic Copts, the Syrians, Chaldeans, Armenians, and, in short, of all oriental sects no longer in communion with the See of Rome.
*Given the context of James Cardinal Gibbons’ entire book, it is clear that by his use of the phrase “Real Presence” he is presuming the Catholic understanding of Transubstantiation.