Corpus Christi and the Modern World

At first glance, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi seems primarily an internal church feast. However, once upon a time (especially when societies were more religiously homogenous) that internal faith found external expression in public processions with the Eucharist. In some places (e.g., Poland), public expression was never lost; in others, like the United States, it is (re)asserting itself in various places.

It is good that we give external expression to our Eucharistic faith, because the Solemnity of Corpus Christi thrusts into bold relief some of the core problems that plague the modern world.

It seems to me that the core problem presented by the Eucharist is illuminated by this simple question: what is it? Is it really the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, true God and true man? Or are these believers deluded, confusing some unleavened bread with a Person? And how is this Jesus even “present” in this bread? Has its reality changed, and if so, how? Transubstantiation, as Catholics understand it, means that the “substance” of the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Protestants, rejecting transubstantiation, employ a variety of explanations that, for the most part, culminate in negating the reality of Jesus’s Presence. While some Lutherans maintain a Eucharistic theology that is similar to Catholic theology, even their thought is not completely reconcilable in all respects (which raises questions about what the German Bishops think German Protestants are “sharing” with their Catholic co-nationals when they propose intercommunion). Most Protestants, however, have reduced Jesus’s Presence to a “mystical” or “symbolic” reality that we should perhaps refer to as the Real Absence, as attested by the fact that, as one crosses the Protestant spectrum towards lower ecclesiastical polities, the frequency of Eucharistic celebration declines. In the Calvinist tradition, for example, the “Eucharist” is classically celebrated quarterly.

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I want to focus on the concept “Real Presence.”

In his encyclical on the Eucharist Mysterium fidei, Bl. Paul VI wrote that “the way in which Christ becomes present in this Sacrament is through the conversion of the whole substance of the bread into His body and of the whole substance of the wine into His blood, a unique and truly wonderful conversion that the Catholic Church fittingly and properly calls transubstantiation.” The late pope insisted that this transformation was “ontological,” the Eucharist being “not what was there before, but something completely different; and not just in the estimation of Church belief but in reality” (no. 46, emphasis mine).

Two things deserve our comment. What is “fitting” about transubstantiation? And where does the change in the reality lie?

We need the sacraments because of whom we are: bodily-spiritual creatures caught in space and time. (I acknowledge that the origins of my approach lie in the early fundamental sacramental theology of controversial theologians Karl Rahner and Edward Schillebeeckx, to which I have blended the personalism of Karol Wojtyła. Take what is salvageable and throw out the rest.) God is eternal and infinite: we are not. If God is to reveal himself to us, he has to do so on our terms, not because God is not omnipotent but because we are limited. A radio transmitter can broadcast across the entire radio spectrum, but it’s not particularly useful when it does not transmit on the frequency my little radio can pick up. It’s not that the transmitter is not capable; but the transmitter has to match the (limited) capacity of the receiver.

That’s why God became man. Jesus Christ, the sacrament of God’s Presence, makes the Eternal Father visible to man in a tangible and sensible form in space and time. Jesus is, as Schillebeeckx called it, “the sacrament of encounter with God.”

But, in becoming man, Jesus also takes on our human limitations, above all the limits of space and time. So how is he, who walked the roads of Palestine two thousand years ago, to be accessible to me, in space and time, in America in the twenty-first century? Jesus remains accessible and is present to us, in the Church, which extends across that space-time continuum, and in which Christ dwells with us “always, until the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20). And the Church reaches me, a bodily-spiritual creature, here and now in the seven sacraments.

Now, Jesus does not reveal himself to me as a proposition, a theory or an idea. The relationship Jesus seeks with us is personal: as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminded us regularly, Jesus is a Person, not a proposition. But the only proper way for persons to relate is as persons, not things. And human persons are, at least in this point in the salvation history of man on earth, bound to space and time.

So, in the Eucharist, Jesus meets us as a Person, not a thing. What we receive in the Eucharist is the Person of Jesus Christ, pure and simple. Christ is not a Person in bread (Lutheran consubstantiation, which Zwingli rightly derided as Luther’s “bread God”). He is even less the symbol or memory of a person (à la Zwingli and low Protestantism), so that instead of being in contact with another we get a picture postcard “thinking of you.” Even less so is Christ a word game, where Jesus’s Presence is so “mystical” (à la Calvin) that one really has to wonder what real contact this ethereal “presence” can have with flesh-and-blood people. No, Catholic transubstantiation gives us the encounter of Person to person, and that is why it is so “fitting.”

In the Eucharist, Jesus is really here. The man who was born in Bethlehem two millennia ago is the same Person who comes to me in New Jersey in 2018. Neither space nor time separates the Person of Christ and the person of the communicant. Jesus comes tangibly, concretely, on a given date in a given place, encountering me in the way I am as a person, whose knowledge comes from my senses, and who exists in place and time. That is “fitting” because the One who loves chooses to be accessible to the beloved as the beloved is.

And that means Jesus comes “body, blood, soul, and divinity.” Jesus does not say “this is a souvenir of me,” or “this is a reminder of me,” or “this is my spiritual presence.” He says “this is my body” and I take him at his word, because in this world human persons encounter other human persons through the reality of their incarnate bodies.

Which is why Corpus Christi is relevant to modernity.

Modern man, in fact, flees the body. He wants to say that how he loves sexually and how he gives life has nothing to do with the body. “Parenthood” in a world of artificial reproduction is as symbolic and ethereally anchored to the body as Jesus’s “Presence” is connected to the Eucharist in Calvin. There is some kind of “connection” but we are at a loss to explain it, even as we insist on the words, devoid of internal meaning. Calvinist ministers also repeat in their Communion services the words of institution, “this is my body,” even as they deny theologically what they say literally. It’s kind of like contemporary revisionist sexual ethics, which pays lip service to be “open to life” and “creative” while diligently employing and justifying contraception.

Modern man does not want real contact. He boasts of 20,000 “friends” he has never met on Facebook, but is probably hard pressed to identify many he sees. He keeps “contact” with people by occasionally talking to them asynchronously online, pretending that the occasionally synchronized monologues constitute a “conversation.” He is happy to have his imaginary “friend” as long as he does not have to reach out and touch somebody real. Modern man reminds us of the lament voiced by the Ghost of Christmas Past about little Ebenezer Scrooge, abandoned on Christmas Day at his boarding school, according to the 1984 George C. Scott adaptation. When Scrooge tries to rationalize that the lad had Ali Baba and the Sultan’s Groom, he is reminded that the boy lacks “a real child to talk to. Not a living person.”

Finally, Mysterium fidei reminds us that the change in the Eucharist is ontological: the change is in the bread and wine, not how WE think about the bread and wine. Even though transubstantiation is a miracle, grace builds on nature: even here, the Eucharist grounds us back in a realistic metaphysics. Reality is reality, even when transformed by grace. What was bread and wine have an objective new reality, not just a new meaning we attribute to them.

Consider how this compares with the modern mind that has warped the notion of marriage by insisting that marriage lacks an inherent internal reality (unity, sexual difference, permanence, and fruitfulness). Marriage is not something with an inherent reality but something to which meaning is attributed. For low church Protestantism (e.g., Baptists), the Eucharist even ceases to be a sacrament. It is an “ordinance,” something we do because God, who is almighty, orders us to “do this in memory of me,” with no more meaning than that, i.e., a form devoid of content. At least the classical Protestant reformation ran on the gases of faith in an almighty God: our agnostic world, having displaced almighty God, has instead apotheosized man into the maker of meaning. So, five judges can make “marriage” whatever they decree it is. The only problem: God, as maker of meaning according to the nominalism fashionable among early Protestants, was omniscient; man is not.

So, what we believe of the Eucharist tells us a lot about what we think of our modern world. If we think that reality is not inherent in the real world but is just meaning attributed to it from the outside, we can call a piece of bread “Jesus” and Adam and Steve “married.” If the body is irrelevant to that same reality, then we can have Jesus “mystically present” in bread for the Calvinist tradition, and parents “mystically present” because they paid for a child using another person’s gametes and still another’s incubating body. And if dissident “Catholic” theologians want to point out that Catholics accept contraception like their non-Catholic neighbors, perhaps we ought to ask whether it also goes hand-in-hand with the confusion about the Real Presence in our anemic catechesis.

Corpus Christi has a lot to say about the world we live in.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “The Last Supper” by Pascal Adolphe Dagnan-Bouveret (1852-1929).


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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