I remember my Manila childhood days when the churches were always crowded on Sunday. All the church's bells were ringing during the consecration; passersby paused for a moment and reverently made the sign of the cross. As almost half of the attending parishioners had to stand along the side aisles or outside in the churchyard, yet they knelt to revere the presence of Christ. I saw a man in white suit placing his white handkerchief on the floor to protect his pants from dirt. A few women used pieces of cardboard as temporary kneeling pads. In the 1940's, you could count on your fingers those who did not kneel during the consecration. Of course, there were times when people were standing so close that it would be impossible for them to kneel.
Why do we have to genuflect when we are in the presence of the tabernacle or to make the sign of the cross and bow profoundly? And why do we have to behave properly, i.e. refrain from chatting, creating unnecessary noise and disturbances, etc. inside the church? Why do we have to dress appropriately when going to church? Why do we have to fast and be in a state of grace before receiving the Holy Communion?
Since childhood, I was brought up with the knowledge that the church is the house of God and when I visit him, I should show respect and reverence. When I took my first Holy Communion at the age of seven, I learned that the Jesus is present in the Host and in the Blessed Sacrament kept in the tabernacle. Since then I have never doubted the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Can we be a true Catholic if we don't believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist? No, this is one of the basic Catholic doctrines declared by the Council of Trent. Without accepting this doctrine, our Catholic faith could not be sustained. Our mass would be reduced to a drama or a mere symbolic re-enactment of the sacrifice of Our Lord. Receiving communion would then be merely taking a piece of wafer in our mouths.
I do not intend or nor am I qualified to explain the theological aspects of this doctrine but I truly believe what St. Matthew recorded: "Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, 'Take, eat; this is my body.' And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, 'Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.'" (Matthew 26:26-28). And these are words repeated by the priest in every consecration.
Regarding the true Body and Blood of Christ, St. Thomas Aquinas said, "…cannot be apprehended by the senses but only by faith, which relies on divine authority." Similarly, St. Cyril said, "Do not doubt whether this is true, but rather received the words of the Savior in faith, for since he is the truth, he cannot lie." This is a great mystery of our Catholic faith.
Sister Briege McKenna, the healing nun who helps in conducting retreats for priests, explained it in a simpler way: "No mystery is easy to believe, because it is a mystery. You're not supposed to believe it with your head - It's your heart. Faith is not seeing, it's believing, you believe it because Jesus said it."
Many non-Catholics consider the Eucharist as only symbols of the blood and flesh of Christ. Others regard it only as a remembrance of our Christ's last supper. As Catholics, however, we believe that in the consecration, the wine and bread are transformed into the blood and body of Christ, thus the real presence of Our Lord in the Hosts.
Moreover, the body of Christ continues to be present in the consecrated bread even after mass. Referred to as "Blessed Sacrament" and placed in the tabernacle, it is reserved for use as "viaticum" during the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, distribution to the sick, Eucharistic exposition and benediction, etc. Still fresh in my mind are the stories about heroic Christians sacrificing their lives in safeguarding the Blessed Sacrament during fire and from desecration during war or riots.
St. John's Gospel reminds us of our Lord's teaching:" Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink…" (John 6:53-57)
Every time we receive Holy Communion, we declare our faith on this truth. When the priest presents the Host saying, "Body of Christ," the "Amen" in our responds means, "Yes, it is the Body of Christ" because Christ is really present in the Eucharist.
1. "The Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharistic: Basic Questions and Answers" produced by the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
2. Catechism of the Catholic Church
by Ricardo Liong
January 15, 2007