When I was a graduate student in Belgium, I was privileged one day to sit in on a conference given by Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Brussels. He was commenting on the Eucharist and our lack of understanding of its full richness when he highlighted this contrast: if you stood outside a Catholic church today as people were coming out and asked them: “Was that a good Eucharist?”, almost everyone would answer on the basis of the homily and the music. If the homily was interesting and the music lively, most people would answer that it had been a good Eucharist. Now, he continued, if you had stood outside a Catholic church 60 or 70 years ago and asked: “Was that a good Mass today?” nobody would have even understood the question. They would have answered something to the effect of “Aren’t they all the same?”

Today our understanding of the Eucharist, in Catholic circles, and indeed in most Protestant and Anglican circles, is very much concentrated on three things: the Liturgy of the Word; the music; and communion. Moreover, in Catholic churches, we speak of the Real Presence only in reference to the last element, the presence of Christ in the bread and the wine.

While none of this is wrong – the Liturgy of the Word, the music, and communion are important – something is missing in this understanding. It misses the fact that the real presence is not just in the bread and wine, it is also in the Liturgy of the Word and in the salvific event that is recalled in the Eucharistic prayer, namely, the death and Resurrection of Jesus.

Most churchgoers already recognise that when the Scriptures are celebrated in a liturgical service God’s presence is made special, more physically tangible, than God’s normal presence everywhere or God’s presence inside our private prayer. The Word of God, when celebrated in a church is, like Christ’s presence in the consecrated bread and wine, also the real presence.

But there’s a further element that’s less understood: the Eucharist doesn’t just make a person present; it also makes an event present. We participate in the Eucharist not just to receive Christ in Communion, but also to participate in the major salvific event of his life, his death and resurrection.

What’s at issue here?

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