Shocked by survey results showing that the majority of Catholics don’t understand Church teaching on the Eucharist, the US bishops launched a Eucharistic Revival in 2022. This will lead up to a nationwide eucharistic congress in July of 2024. For that reason, 2024 is the perfect year for us to try to develop a better grasp of the Catholic understanding of Jesus’ Presence in the Blessed Sacrament.
Of course, the idea that the Son of God makes Himself present to us in the sacramental species of bread and wine is a marvelous mystery beyond our comprehension. But we should still try.
While every saint recognized by the Catholic Church has a devotion to the Blessed Sacrament (or he or she would not be declared a saint), few saints’ lives explain Catholic teaching on the Blessed Sacrament better than the great apostle, Saint Paul. His conversion is celebrated every year on January 25, making him one of the few saints with more than one feast day on the Church’s calendar. (His other feast day is June 29, which he shares with Saint Peter.)
Saul was a devout Jew, and he thought the claims of Christianity were blasphemous, so blasphemous that he asked for permission to hunt down Christians and take them to Jerusalem to be tried and condemned to death (see Acts 8:3). Chapter 9 of Acts describes Saul’s dramatic encounter with Jesus Christ as he was traveling on the road to Damascus. It explains how Saul was struck blind during the vision and had to be led into the city by his guards, as well as how a Christian follower named Ananias endangered his life (out of his obedience to Christ) by praying over the great persecutor of Christians. Instead of having Ananias arrested for praying in the name of Jesus, Saul was cured of his blindness and became a Christian.
But what does this experience have to do with Catholic teaching on the Eucharist?
The first similarity is that the Saul who traveled toward Damascus and the Saul who was miraculously healed looked exactly the same. After all, he was completely cured of his inability to see, with apparently no physical after effects. He did have witnesses—the soldiers who were with him—but they only heard a voice and didn’t see the vision that Saul claimed to have experienced.
Just as there were no outward signs of a transformation in Saul’s heart, so there are (usually) no outward signs of the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. While the Catechism of the Catholic Church (see particularly CCC, 1373-1375) explains the Catholic teaching about the Eucharist, God’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament will always remain a mystery of faith, not something we can test with a microscope, telescope, or some other random scientific instrument. Occasionally, God does perform a eucharistic miracle that we can see or touch. But the proof of the miracle in Saul’s heart came later, for example when he changed his name to Paul so that he might better reach Gentiles with the Gospel message.
Many years after his conversion, probably around the year 60 A.D., Paul traveled to Jerusalem. He did this even though he knew that his life would be in danger from angry Jewish leaders. A riot even broke out when his enemies circulated a false rumor that he had brought a Gentile into the Temple. Knowing that his life hung in the balance, Paul tried to calm the outraged crowd by relating his Damascus conversion experience again (see Acts, chapters 21 and 22). He repeated the words that Christ said to him—”Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” and “I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting”—along with Jesus’ instructions to go to Damascus.
Faced with the greatest opportunity of his life to preach the Gospel to Jews, Paul didn’t give his listeners a dry theology lesson. Instead, he shared a personal experience, his own encounter with Jesus Christ.
Every Catholic who has received the Blessed Sacrament should be able to do the same. Hopefully we can all describe the great peace we have experienced from time to time after receiving Communion at a Sunday Mass. We can explain how we went to a church to pray during a difficult time and felt God’s Presence in the Blessed Sacrament, bringing us wisdom, calm, clarity, a sense of fatherly comfort, or at least a new perspective on our problems. Fortunately, we do not need to travel to Syria to have an encounter with Jesus, as Paul did, because our Lord is as close as the nearest Catholic church.
Finally, all four Gospels include a description of the Last Supper. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke also describe what is commonly called the “institution narrative”, the sequence of events in which Jesus instituted the Eucharist.
In Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (probably written around 56 A.D.), he also recites the institution narrative, which he had not witnessed but which he had been taught. Paul relates that Jesus said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me (1 Cor 11:24).”
The words that Paul was taught to say as a Catholic priest in the first century are the same words that we hear at every Mass. His conversion event led him to recognize Jesus Christ as the Son of God, but it was only through prayer, study, and being taught by others that he was able to accept the mystery of the Eucharist and share it.
Like Saint Paul, we can recognize that Jesus’ Presence in the Blessed Sacrament is an invisible gift that can transform our lives if we allow Him to do so. We can share our personal experiences of God’s peace through the sacrament with other people. We can humbly attempt to better understand Church teaching by reading the Catechism or other Catholic books about the Eucharist. And we can be thankful that we didn’t need to be struck blind to find out that God loves us and comes to us in the Blessed Sacrament at every Mass.