As a fundamentalist, and later as an evangelical, I took it for granted that the Catholic Church held to the most un-biblical, illogical and offensive beliefs about the Eucharist.
But there came a point when I began to wonder, “What do Catholics believe about the Eucharist?” This meant taking Catholic doctrine seriously, rather than mindlessly repeating anti-Catholic rhetoric from questionable sources.
I discovered that Irenaeus of Lyons, writing in the second century, stated, “Our way of thinking is attuned to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn confirms our way of thinking” (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1327). I read Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, which described the Eucharist as “the source and summit of the Christian life” (No. 11). And I saw that the Council of Trent had declared that “in the blessed sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, after the consecration of the bread and wine, our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and man, is truly, really, and substantially contained under the appearances of those perceivable realities” (Thirteenth Session, ch. 1).
So, I wondered, “Why do Catholics believe in the Real Presence?” I quickly learned the reasons are many and interrelated, but can be generally described as biblical, historical and theological. The biblical reasons were of primary interest to me and came in large part from the nagging suspicion that Jesus’ insistent, shocking words “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (Jn 6:55) were not metaphorical at all, as I believed as a Protestant. The larger context of John 6 — during the Passover (see v. 4) — and the striking escalation in Jesus’ teaching about His identity and the need to eat His flesh and drink His blood pointed to something far deeper, unsettling and astounding.
If Jesus had allowed some disciples to depart over a misunderstanding regarding metaphors (see Jn 6:66), what sort of teacher and Savior would He be? If the apostle John, writing his Gospel in the late first century, also failed to clarify Jesus’ intentions, what sort of apostle and Evangelist was he? And did it make sense that the Old Covenant could boast of manna — physical food given by miraculous means — but the New Covenant had a physical symbol only? No, it didn’t. In addition, the Catholic (and Orthodox) belief in the Sacrament of the Eucharist helped make sense of other passages of Scripture, such as Jesus’ words at the Last Supper — “Take and eat; this is my body” (Mt 26:26) — and St. Paul’s warning to the Christians at Corinth that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:27).
While the biblical evidence cracked the door, the historical evidence blew it open. I recall rather vividly standing in a bookstore reading a passage written by St. Ignatius of Antioch that was penned around A.D. 107, which renounced the Docetist heretics because “they abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ” (Letter to Smyrna, No. 7). Many other passages from many other writers followed, written over many centuries, each professing the same belief that the Eucharist is the true Body, Blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. In fact, no orthodox Christian interpreted the words of Jesus and Paul about the Eucharist in a metaphorical fashion until a thousand years after they were written.