The central theme of Pope Saint John’s Paul II’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in America, is the encounter with the living Jesus Christ. As he points out, the Second Vatican Council identified a “manifold presence of Christ in the [sacred] liturgy,” and he insists that this presence should be a theme of constant preaching on the part of the Church. Liturgies are guaranteed encounters with the Living Christ because they spring from the will and power of God and not from our efforts. This manifold encounter with Jesus in the liturgy is central to the teaching, to the catechesis, and to the evangelization of Holy Mother Church.
The Vatican II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy states: “Christ is always present in his Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations.” It is within the celebration of the sacrifice of the Mass that Jesus Christ is made present in four distinct ways: through the Word, assembly, minister, and the Eucharist. This fourfold presence of Christ is not merely poetry or analogy, but reality. The four presences of Jesus in the liturgy are different kinds of presence, but each unites us to his heart. There is a transformative power that comes from these encounters with Jesus Christ; the transformation is life-changing and draws us deeper into the mysteries of Christ.
Christ is made present when the Word is proclaimed at Mass. When the Word is proclaimed, it is Christ himself who speaks. His power and voice aren’t bound by time and space like our own, but through his divine eternity we are formed by his words just as the crowds of Galilee were. As Mary sat at the feet of our Lord, hanging on his every Word, so too should the gathered assembly open their hearts and minds up to God’s revealed Word. The difficulty we experience in the modern world is that so much clamors for our attention. Distractedness during Mass pulls us away from an encounter with Christ in the Word. The remedy is simple: it is to turn the heart back toward the proclaimed Word and an encounter with the Living Christ.
“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20). The People of God gather as a liturgical assembly, in order to offer right praise and worship to God in the Sacrifice of the Mass. They gather in the name of Jesus Christ and are united in Christian charity, as a unified worshiping assembly.
The assembly has its origins in baptism, which unites men to Jesus and through Jesus to each other. It is grace that unites men to God and makes us his children and his friends.
Since God has decided to allow human beings to assist him in his work of salvation, we come to worship him as a people and a family. This unity is strengthened through the reception of hidden Jesus, who brings us into communion with himself, and so with the Father and the Son, and then through the Trinity in communion with our brothers and sisters. As Pope Pius XII wrote, “Christ our Lord wills the Church to live his own supernatural life, and by his divine power permeates his whole body and nourishes and sustains each of the members according to the place which they occupy in the body, in the same way as the vine nourishes and makes fruitful the branches which are joined to it.”
This gift from the heart of God is given special recognition in the Sacrifice of the Mass, especially in particular prayers found within the Roman Canon, which continually teaches us that the sacrifice is offered by Jesus Christ and by all men and women “through Him, with Him, and in Him.” We must gather in the name of Jesus and then go and live the life offered us through our union with Jesus. As we hear in one of the options for the dismissal at Mass, “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.”
“Christ is present in the celebrant who renews at the altar the one and only sacrifice of the Cross.” The minister of the Eucharistic celebration, at the consecration, speaks the words, “This is my body” and “This is my blood,” because he acts in persona Christi capitis—“in the person of Christ the head.” As the Catechism informs us, “in the ecclesial service of the ordained minister, it is Christ himself who is present to his Church as head of his body, shepherd of his flock, high priest of the redemptive sacrifice, teacher of truth.” The priests bind on earth, and Jesus binds in heaven. They speak his words and will to do what he did, while he accomplishes the reality. They fulfill the command he gave on the night of the Last Supper, “Do this is memory of me” (Lk 22:19). Because they act with his power and authority, and because he accomplishes his salvation through his priests, Christ is present when they celebrate the divine liturgy, enabling the people of God to share in the sacrifice according to their proper role and responsibility in the Mystical Body.
Pope St. John Paul II tells us that Jesus “is present ‘especially under the Eucharistic species.’ My predecessor Paul VI deemed it necessary to explain the uniqueness of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist, which ‘is called “real” not to exclude the idea that the others are “real” too, but rather to indicate presence par excellence, because it is substantial’. Under the species of bread and wine, ‘Christ is present, whole and entire in his physical “reality,” corporally present.’” Often in the history of the Church, the Church’s faith is clarified and explained only after some confusion and opposition has arisen. In response to error, recognizing that such-and-such a claim is false, the Church explains and defines the disputed points. This is the case with the Eucharist, when the Council of Trent (1547-1562) declared that Christ is truly, really, and substantially present in the Eucharist. These three terms are very important, and arose as the result of Protestant errors.
Saying that Jesus is truly present is in answer to the error of Ulrich Zwingli who taught that Jesus was only present as a reminder of himself, as one might say about a photograph, “that’s my son.” This is not the way that Jesus is present in the Eucharist. Rather the Eucharist is Jesus; he is truly present.
Saying that Jesus is really present is in response to other reformation assertions that Jesus is only present by faith, in other words, that the Eucharist is simply an object which stimulates faith in him; but Jesus is present whether we believe in him or not, whether we recognize him or not, whether we treat him with the love and adoration he deserves or we simply ignore him.
Saying that Jesus is substantially present is in answer to the error of Calvin, who said that Jesus is “present” only in the sense that he works through the Eucharist, just as he works through baptism. The Church uses the term substantially present to show that he is really here, as truly as a friend standing before us.
In the Holy Eucharist, our Lord Jesus is truly present, truly there; he is present sacramentally, that is, hidden under the appearances of bread and wine. He hides himself this way to allow us to approach him, and in order to reveal to us that he himself wishes to nourish our souls in the way that bread and wine nourish our bodies. He is the true bread from heaven, and wishes to be the food that strengthens us to Eternal Life.
Let us not simply meditate on these sacred realities and divine gifts from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, but let us allow them to take root in our lives and transform the way we live. Let us continually seek to refresh ourselves from the springs of salvation, and recognize with humble awe, more and more clearly, how Jesus continually calls and beckons us to approach him and be refreshed by his mercy. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, [then] I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me” (Rev 3:20).
This article originally appeared in The Catechetical Review, Issue 2.1, which may be freely accessed at Review.Catechetics.com. Reprinted with permission.
The Most Rev. James S. Wall is the fourth bishop of the Diocese of Gallup in New Mexico. He will be preaching our Parish Lenten Mission this Monday-Wednesday (March 11-13).
John Paul II, Ecclesia in America, art. 12.
Vatican Council II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, art. 7.
Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi, art. 55.
Ecclesia in America, art. 12.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1548.
Ecclesia in America, art. 12, quoting Pope Paul VI, Mysterium Fidei, art. 39.