Faith in the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist throughout the ages
The recent study by the Pew Research Center, which revealed that 76 percent of Catholics in the United States do not believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, leads us to wonder how the faith in such a crucial reality for all Catholic faithful could be lost. If Jesus is not present in the Eucharist, the whole Mass is nothing but theater.
In contrast to this lack of faith, the progressive maturity of the eucharistic devotion throughout the ages is simply amazing.
In the 11th century, the church paid particular attention to the theology of the real presence of Jesus in the sacrament, stating that he is fully present in each of the two species. As a consequence, it was decided to distribute communion under the species of bread alone.
Until then, the faithful were allowed to contemplate the blessed species during brief moments only. No one dared to look at them after acknowledging their condition as sinners — yet, they could see the Eucharist through a veil.
In 1201, the ringing of the altar bell at the moment of the elevation of the host was introduced, as a signal to invite the faithful to worship the sacrament. Since late in the 13th century, a bell has been tolled from the steeple with the same purpose, signaling those who were working out in the field, so they could kneel facing the church to worship Christ in the Eucharist together with the faithful present at the church.
About that same time, it was prescribed that priests, before the consecration, would raise the host at the same level of their chest. After consecration, the host would be elevated highly enough so everyone could watch it and worship the Lord. The devotion of contemplating Jesus present in the Eucharist was so intense, that people offered a stipend to the priest so he could hold the host up for a longer time. Many were pleased just by being able to take a quick glance at the elevated host. At several churches, it was not easy to spot the consecrated host lifted in front of the colorful background of the altarpiece, so a black veil was suspended between the altarpiece and the altar table.
The elevation of the host had an influence in the shape of the chasuble. It originally covered the arms through the hands of the priest. When raising his arms almost vertically, the chasuble interfered. The sleeves were trimmed down until they disappeared. The chasuble ceased being a piece of cloth, cut to fit the body, and became two pieces of rigid fabric sown together atop the shoulders.
The Eucharistic contemplation during the elevation led to the feast of Corpus Christi and the tradition of the exposition.
By the end of the Middle Ages, close to the 15th century, the practice of bowing down the head as a gesture of veneration was imposed. The faithful stopped looking at the host, so Pope St. Pius X granted an indulgence if, during elevation, the faithful prayed, “My Lord and my God.”
These are the same words exclaimed by the previously incredulous Thomas, after realizing that indeed, the risen Jesus Christ was present. Jesus answered him, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” (John 20:28-29) Words that become ours, affirming that we do believe in Christ and that, equally, we do believe him when he assures, “This is my body. This is my blood.”
Why are Catholics in this country not believing Jesus anymore? I still can’t find the answer. Yet, I strongly believe that the witness of the remaining few who still believe him, is pivotal to turning this faith crisis around.
Let us bear witness of our faith by conducting ourselves with utmost reverence before the majestic, mysterious, and real presence of the Lord in the Eucharist — never with the purpose of showing off, just by acting reverently and sincerely; may no one who sees us ever doubt that we conduct ourselves with the maximum respect toward the Blessed Sacrament, for indeed, Jesus is present.
Be passionate about our faith!
Read the Spanish version of this column.
Northwest Catholic - November 2019