Why do Catholics believe in Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist? And why do Protestants reject this?
Please first read the text introducing Theme 7 “The Holy Eucharist” (The Holy Eucharist, traditionally also called Holy Mass, and in particular parts III and IV. Then please also read the answer to question 20, also on this website. As already stated in these texts, the last time Jesus was with his disciples he spoke the mysterious words: “This is my body which will be given for you. This is the cup of my blood which will be shed for you and for many”. In his book “Kleines katholisches Glaubensbuch” (Small book of Catholic belief) the theologian Otto Hermann Pesch writes:
„First of all, the words confirm again: Present in this feast, in the Eucharistic celebration of thanksgiving, is Jesus’ self-giving into death, and this self giving is directed towards the Father in Heaven as well as towards mankind. For this reason, the Holy Mass (or: Holy Eucharist) used to be called the sacrifice of the New Covenant. Whereas in the Old Covenant where there used to be the sacrifice of the paschal lamb there now is Jesus’ self-giving to God the Father for humankind. Unlike the old sacrifices, Jesus’ sacrifice is once and for all, which is why the Mass is no new sacrifice and no repetition of the sacrifice on the cross, but a “realization”, a “making present”, and “actualization” of the one death of Jesus on the cross, which has become the sacrifice of the new covenant and has replaced the paschal lamb and all sacrifices of the old covenant.
But Jesus’ words are also mysterious in another respect. Jesus equates himself to the gifts he gives his disciples and which he asks them to give to others in his memory. Because this is my body - this is my blood : that means, this is I. How is this to be understood? History knows a whole range of attempts at finding an explanation. None of them can illuminate the mystery of the words completely, and neither are we able to do it. But we can point in the direction in which we can imagine equating Jesus with the gifts, or better: how we can imagine Christ’s presence in those gifts.
One thing is clear: This is not about any kind of magic. Neither do bread and wine externally change into the body and blood of Jesus, nor is Jesus in his earthly form later found in the bread and the wine. To this extent, the external shape of the bread and the wine - shape, colour, taste, components - are a sign of Christs presence. But how can a person equate himself with the signs that show is presence? Let’s think of a husband who gives his wife 25 roses every year on their wedding anniversary. What would this mean? The man would say to his wife: These roses contain the same expression of my love for you as on our Wedding day. These roses are my devotion to you, today as it was then. With this comparison we come very close to the mystery of Jesus’ words: Jesus is not present everywhere, he is personally present, invisible but truly, through his love; and this love is the same love as the one that caused him to go to his death for our sake, expressed with the same gifts as those he gave at the last supper.
There is one difference, and here our imagination fails us: even the most expressive sign human beings can think of does not eliminate the difference between the sign and the one giving it. The roses are not the man. And more importantly: the man could conceivably only pretend to love his wife - human signs are never entirely reliable. Neither is true for Jesus. His signs are perfectly dependable. Hypocrisy is not a possibility. And because he can no longer share space and time in our lives, he can eliminate the difference between sign and person, he can give his whole reality invisibly into the signs of his sacrifice. We can indeed hardly imagine this. We can only believe in Jesus words and in this faith delight in his nearness.
The presence of Christ, who died for us and was resurrected by God - this is […] the nearness of God himself that heals our lives. All our faith therefore comes together in the Holy Eucharist. We hear the message (readings), learn what it means for our lives (sermon), celebrate the remembrance of those events in which God came irrevocably close to us, the death and the resurrection of Jesus, experience his presence in the receiving of the gifts, are reminded of the consequences for our lives… This is why the Liturgical Constitution of the second Vatican Council (“Sacrosanctum Concilium”) states about the Eucharistic liturgy: “[…] the liturgy is the summit towards which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows. For the goal of apostolic endeavour is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise god in the midst of his Church, to take part in the Sacrifice and to eat the Lord’s supper.” (SC 10)
This does not mean that we always have to be in high spirits when we participate in the Mass. However the celebration of the Holy Eucharistic definitely always is a high point. Nowhere in the life of the Church and in Christian life are all aspects of the whole of the faith as united, nowhere can a faithful person come into the core of his or her Christian vocation as during the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. Mass. (Kleines katholisches Glaubensbuch [Topos Taschenbücher 539]. Kevelaar, 2009, P. 101-103.)
The Catholic Adult-Catechism of the German Bishops Conference (Katholischer Erwachsenen-Katechismus) says about the various challenges against the Catholic teachings about Christ’s presence in the Holy Eucharist:
„In the cause of its history the Church had to defend its belief in the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist on several occasions and to explain it in depth. Already during the first and the second Last Supper Controversy in the 9th and 11th centuries the Church had to defend itself against a purely spiritual and purely symbolic understanding of the Eucharist. On the other hand it also had to defend itself against a crude carnal misunderstanding similar to that of the people of Capernaum, who believed that in the Eucharist Christ could be received in the same manner as if one was eating normal bread (cf. John 6:52). Both misunderstandings were clarified by the IV. Lateran Council (1215) on the transubstantiation of bread and wine in the Eucharist. During the debates with the reformers in the 16th century the questions had to be answered again in a slightly different form. Unlike Zwingli who had a purely symbolic understanding, Luther firmly believed in the real presence of Jesus Christ’s body and blood in and among bread and wine (Large Catechism). But he rejected the Catholic teaching of transubstantiation because of the terminology difficulties associated with it and also denied the teaching on the continuation of Christ’s presence beyond the Eucharist, because in his view the Eucharist was consecrated for the consumption of the congregation. Calvin rejected even the presence in and among the bread and wine and taught that the Christ raised to Heaven during the Eucharist was present through the Holy Spirit. Only during the 20th century there has come about a certain common understanding among Lutherans and Reformers which resulted in a mutual fellowship of the pulpit and the Eucharist (Leuenberger Konkordie). An ecumenical rapprochement, if not full agreement, was also reached between Lutheran and the Catholic doctrine (“Das Herrenmahl” (=The Lord’s Supper); and in a wider ecumenic context: “The Lima Document”). However, there is still no consensus regarding the question of the continued presence of Jesus Christ. (The Catholic Adult-Catechism of the German Bishops Conference (Katholischer Erwachsenen-Katechismus) , Vol. 1, p. 349).