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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

511 Can we do some theology today? Symbols are what put us in touch with what is truly Real.

Day 511 Monday August 9th 2021

Can we do some theology today?

Symbols are what put us in touch with what is truly Real.

We need to do some theology because the Blessed Sacrament has been in the news lately. A prominent social research organization has done a poll about what Catholics believe about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The polltakers report that almost 70% of Catholics in the USA think that the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is “merely symbolic.” In addition, the polling organization notes that this view is not in keeping with the official teaching of the Catholic Church.

As a Catholic theologian, I am puzzled by this survey. I doubt if the polltakers understand what the Church actually teaches about the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Based on their misunderstanding, the polltakers asked questions that forced Catholics to give answers that are misleading to say the least.

The Catholic Church, of course, teaches the “Real Presence of Christ” in the Eucharist. For a lot of modern Americans, however, to say that Christ is “really present” can only mean that Christ is “literally present” in the host at mass. This is not what the Church teaches, and it is certainly not what Catholics should believe.

Christ is not “literally present” in the Eucharist. “Literally present” would mean that, if one were to examine a consecrated host under a microscope (don’t do this!!!), we would see human cells. I guess this would mean skin cells, bone cells or muscle cells. No Catholic should believe anything as silly as this. And, according to the poll, apparently, Catholics don’t believe this. Certainly, the Church doesn’t teach that Christ is physically present in the Eucharist.

Christ is not “literally present” in the Eucharist.

Christ is “really present” in the Eucharist.

This will be confusing to anyone who lacks what I call the “sacramental imagination.” I suspect that the polltakers, in preparing their questions for their survey of Catholics, simply presumed that “real” can only mean “literal.” This is understandable. Under the influence of modern science, lots of people have come to believe that “real” can only mean “literal.” But this way of thinking leads to a rather superstitious understanding of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.

I mean no disrespect to science. I am only saying that science is very useful in our quest to know some things about the world and quite useless in our quest to know everything else.

In their report, the polltakers concluded that Catholics believe that the host is “merely symbolic” of Christ’s presence among us at mass. As I have said many times in the past, Catholics are not allowed to say “merely symbolic.”

A real symbol is not a mere marker or token. My mom’s wedding ring is a real symbol. The the letter my dad wrote me when I turned 21 years old and the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the alcove at the back of Saint Leo’s church are real symbols, not just tokens or markers like “men’s room” or “send.” Genuine symbols make present to us realities that cannot be present in merely physical ways.

Let me offer an example.

Some of you will remember Monsignor O’Hare. Jack was the pastor at St. Leo’s many years ago. I have Jack’s pix. (A pix is a little container that eucharistic ministers use to bring the Blessed Sacrament to those who can’t make it to mass). In one sense, Jack’s pix is just a piece of metal. It looks like a pillbox. But I never bring the host to you in Jack’s pix without feeling that “the old pro” is with us.

I brought the Blessed Sacrament to Marilyn Caselli before she died. Many of you will remember her. She was so good to us. We chatted a little and said a few prayers. Then I reached into my pocket and pulled out the pix.

“By the way, Marilyn, this is Jack’s pix.”

Marilyn couldn’t say many words at that point in her illness, but she lit up when I told her that I have brought the Blessed Sacrament in Monsignor O’Hare’s pix. I placed the pix, with the host within it, in her hand and then held her hands in mine for a moment. I think we can say that our Holy Communion was Real even before Marilyn received the host that day.

I am not saying that Monsignor O’Hare was physically present to Marilyn and me when I brought out his pix. But I certainly don’t mean that Jack’s presence was “merely symbolic.” He was a blessing to Marilyn and me when he was alive. He is blessing us still. I will never forget how Marilyn rejoiced when I told her it was Jack’s pix.

And of course, it is the Real Presence of the Risen Christ in the Eucharist that makes our real presence to one another at mass possible.

This is what I mean by the “sacramental imagination.” This is hard for some people to understand today because the modern world has impoverished our imaginations, at least in some respects.

You can see the problem in the confusion about the term “transubstantiation” in the poll about Catholics and the Eucharist.

The Council of Trent, back in the 1500s, said that transubstantiation was useful in our quest to understand how Christ is present in the Eucharist. (Although Trent never said that transubstantiation was the only way we can affirm the Real Presence). During mass, the host continues to look like bread. It crumbles like bread and gets stale like bread gets stale. Theologians like Thomas Aquinas called these characteristics of bread “accidents.” If you examine a host under a microscope (don’t do this!!!), I assure you, you will see wheat cells.

According to the theory, the accidents of the host stay the same. The host’s “substance” – what the host really is – is changed into the Body of Christ. The host continues to look like bread – even under a microscope. But it is really the Body of Christ.

I think this theory is ingenious.

The problem with this Medieval theory, however, is that the meaning of the word “substance” has changed. Today, because of modern chemistry, “substance” has come to mean the physical characteristics of an object. Sulphur dioxide is a substance. SO2 has physical characteristics that carbon dioxide (CO2) does not have. SO2 certainly smells different than CO2 This might lead some people to think that “transubstantiation” means that the wheat-cells in the host are changed into human bone or muscle cells – a different “substance” as chemists use this word today.

This is unfortunate. In fact, it is the opposite of what the bishops at the Council of Trent were trying to say. In the Eucharist, we have the Real Presence of Christ, not a literal or physical presence. The reality of the host changes, even though its physical characteristics do not.

The Psalm for today’s mass comes with a beautiful refrain.

R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.

This is a splendid example of what I am calling “the sacramental imagination.” The goodness of the Lord is not an abstraction. It is something we can “taste and see.” It’s like bread and wine – created things that we know a lot about here in Sonoma. But, of course, this must be understood symbolically, not literally. And when I say “symbolically,” I do not mean “merely symbolically.” As a Catholic, I am not allowed to say this.

Symbols are what put us in touch with what is truly Real.

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