For the last few weeks, Cardinal Nichols has been calling on the Government to engage in “differentiated thinking” when it comes to re-opening places of worship as part of the relaxation of the Covid-19 lockdown. This is because “what goes on in places of worship is quite different from one to another”. Specifically, he has called for Catholic churches to be opened for private prayer.
Catholic churches are indeed not meeting-houses for corporate worship, but temples of the “Real Presence” to which our devotions can be directed.
When we talk of the Real Presence, we mean that Our Lord himself is really, truly, present in the Blessed Sacrament – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. The repose of the most holy Eucharist in the tabernacles of Catholic churches is what makes them different from any other space – they are places where the Lord himself is “really present”.
This is one of the best attested and most ancient of Christian beliefs, and the plain teaching of Holy Scripture.
In Luke 22:19, we are told that the Lord “took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Many Protestants in the last few centuries have insisted on reading these words figuratively, but this makes much less sense of the words of the Gospel.
In Greek, pronouns (“I”, “she”, “this”, etc) have genders – masculine, feminine, or neuter – corresponding to the nouns to which they refer. The word here for “this”, touto, is a neuter pronoun. That means it should be referring to a neuter noun. The word for “bread”, however – artos – is masculine. That means that “this” is unlikely to be the “bread” Our Lord was holding in his hands (as the symbolic interpretation would demand), since their genders don’t correspond. Rather, he is referring to the only other noun in the phrase – soma (“body”) – which is, like touto, neuter. More literally, “this is my body” means “this is the body of me”.
Similarly, in John 6, the disciples who left Christ did so because they understood him to be saying that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:52). Our Lord could quite easily have corrected them if this were a misunderstanding, but instead he said: “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 … For my flesh is truly food, and my blood is truly drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (John 6:53-56).
Not only does he use the double expletive “Amen, amen”, which makes clear that he is affirming (not denying) what they are saying, but he shifts to even more visceral language: from phagō (“eat”) and soma (“body”) to trōgō (“gnaw”) and sarx (“flesh”). Moreover, he uses alēthēs (“truly”), typically used in connection with nouns that are literal and not metaphorical, such as when validating statements.
This means that either Our Lord was leading his faithless disciples further into a false interpretation of his words, a deceitfulness that contradicts the truth of his sinless perfection, or he was affirming that their understanding was correct.
The testimony of Holy Scripture therefore presents us with two options. We either run from the teaching of Our Lord like his unfaithful followers in the synagogue of Capernaum, or we humbly accept the mystery of Christ’s Real Presence, and receive and worship him in the glorious sacramental means by which he feeds and nourishes us in his Church.