Christian Unity and the Real Presence

I think it would be fair to say that at the root of the divisions that exist between Christians lies the issue of authority, or at least final authority. Protestants, with varying denominational qualifications, look to the Bible as their final source of authority; Orthodox appeal to Holy Tradition (which of course includes Scripture – the two are not separate); whilst Catholics follow the living voice of the Magisterium as authoritative interpreter of both Scripture and Tradition. This, in broad strokes, describes the means by which each tradition seeks to resolve doctrinal and moral issues in response to contemporary pressures and concerns, as well as elucidating the essence of the tradition itself.

Despite great inroads in ecumenicism over the last few decades, these differing positions on authority remain the fundamental barrier for full reconciliation, and I therefore have no intention of rehearsing any of the arguments involved. I would however like to take a look at something that is also of central importance to Christian life, and which is indirectly linked to the subject of authority – the Eucharist, and more specifically, the question of the Real Presence. It is my belief that a common understanding of what goes on in the Eucharist, and what the Real Presence is (and therefore is not) may provide a more fruitful approach to the question of authority and Christian unity*.

The Eucharist, to all Christians, whatever their theology, is a very important (and for most Christians, the most important) aspect of Christian life. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, rightly described the Eucharist as the ‘source and summit’ of the Church’s life and mission. It is the sacrament to which all the other sacraments are directed and derive their meaning from, and it is the place where we meet Jesus Christ in all His fullness. As Saint Paul said, whoever ‘eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord’ (1 Corinthians 11:27) – it is an important and serious matter. It is also a profound sign of unity. As Saint Augustine said:

The body of Christ cannot live but by the Spirit of Christ. It is for this that the Apostle Paul, expounding this bread, says: “One bread,” saith he, “we being many are one body.” O mystery of piety! O sign of unity! O bond of charity!

Johannes Evangelium, XXVI:13

            At this point though, I think I should state clearly what I mean by the Real Presence. By this term, I mean that on the altar, after consecration, Jesus Christ is fully, really, substantially present – body, blood, soul and divinity – and is so objectively, regardless of my feelings about the matter. He is not just spiritually present, nor is His presence dependent upon my faith, nor is it a matter of simply feeling closer to Jesus; it is an objective, corporeal (as well as spiritual!) presence. This is something that is clearly taught by the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox (despite the differing opinions about how that Presence may be formulated). It was also the constant teaching of the universal Church prior to the Reformation.

The way in which this connects with the issue of authority however, is to be found in the act of consecration. During the consecration, a priest, acting in persona Christi, effects a real change in the elements of bread and wine so that they are changed into the body and blood of our Lord. The question then has to be asked – who has the authority to effect this change? Could I, as a layman, simply say the words and perform the rite, and effect it? Absolutely not – it has to be an ordained priest. This then begs the question as to where priests get their authority, and whether ordination is a sacrament itself (i.e.; whether or not it produces a change in the one ordained). The authority to act in Christ’s person clearly must come from Christ Himself, and this indeed is witnessed to by His calling the apostles, bestowing upon them the grace to forgive sins, bind and loose, speak in His name, etc, and finally instituting the Eucharist in their presence at the Last Supper (c.f.; John 20:23; Matthew 16:16ff; Luke 10:16; Matthew 28:19-20; Luke 22:14-20).

What though separates an ordained priest from any other Christian, from the priesthood of all believers (c.f.; 1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 1:6)? With reference to the sacrament of Holy Orders, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that:

This sacrament configures the recipient to Christ by a special grace of the Holy Spirit, so that he may serve as Christ’s instrument for his Church. By ordination one is enabled to act as a representative of Christ, Head of the Church, in his triple office of priest, prophet, and king.

As in the case of Baptism and Confirmation this share in Christ’s office is granted once for all. The sacrament of Holy Orders, like the other two, confers an indelible spiritual character and cannot be repeated or conferred temporarily.

(CCC: 1581-1582)

            I.e.; the effect of ordination is to actually confer a permanent mark of grace upon the soul, setting the priest apart from the rest of the faithful, and this setting apart is wholly for the service of the rest of the Church – it is purely so that the priest may act as Christ’s representative and so, with His authority, effect the change in the Eucharist. So, it seems to me, if a particular church does not have this view of its ordained ministry – that it is a sacrament, and so confers a real change in the one ordained – then that church’s understanding of the Eucharist is deficient, and does not provide any challenge to proposals of lay presidency at Holy Communion.

This is not to denigrate the value and worth of the ministries of other churches, but simply to point out that if a church does not have a truly sacramental priesthood, then it is highly questionable as to whether Christ is really present on their altars. Members of a given church may well feel that they have the Real Presence, but if their ministers do not have the authority to consecrate the elements, then I am afraid He is not there, not in the sense I outlined above. It is certainly possible to enjoy a deep spiritual encounter with Jesus during any celebration of the Eucharist, but He will not be there fully and substantially unless there is a sacramental priesthood with the authority to speak the words of consecration in His name.

This is not a matter of utility; it is a matter of spiritual reality. If there is no essential difference between a minister and a lay person, then either anyone can consecrate the Eucharist, or said minister must be a validly ordained priest. The Catholic Church certainly has this sacramental understanding of its priesthood, and I am almost certain that the Orthodox do as well. The final question (and this is how I see the issue of Real Presence as connected to authority) would be – does your church (not just you, or some parishes that you know of) take this view? Does it believe in a sacramental priesthood? I really believe the only way to effectively recover Christian unity is by recovering a common sense of Christ’s substantial presence – body, blood, soul and divinity – in the Eucharist, and the Eucharist as being at the heart of Christian life. This means recovering a sense of the priesthood as a sacrament, which I also realise means undoing much that went on during the Reformation. However, given that that event was the cause of denominational proliferation in the first place, I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing.

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

(1 Corinthians 10:16-17)

            The Eucharist is intimately bound up with the Church. If the Body of Christ is to be one again, we must all share in the one bread, which is His body. There are not many bodies of Christ, only one; and so if we are to be one again, we must come to a common understanding of how He is present in the Eucharist, and how that presence is made manifest. Only then will we be able to share in that one bread which is His body again, and by partaking of Him together, truly become the one Body of Christ ourselves.

*I shall be focusing on Christian unity between the Catholic Church and the Protestant denominations, as Catholics and Orthodox already share the view outlined above regarding the Eucharist and priesthood, and that therefore authority does indeed remain the sole cause of division in the Catholic-Orthodox case, along with (sadly) deeply entrenched cultural antipathy.


4 thoughts on “Christian Unity and the Real Presence

  1. Pingback: Christian Unity and the Blessed Virgin Mary | Journey Towards Easter

  2. Pingback: Sacrifice | Journey Towards Easter

  3. Pingback: Discerning the Body | Journey Towards Easter

  4. Pingback: Corpus Christi: The Heart of the Faith | Journey Towards Easter

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