By Canon Gerry Conroy
Memory is a wonderful thing. Some people even say it is what makes us who we are. It links us to the past and has a great influence on the choices we make for the future. We all need that link to the past; without it we are adrift without any real firm anchor in our life. Sometimes the memories can be painful, sometimes joyful and not everyone is fortunate enough to find a balance in them. But I think when we try to live on our memories, we realise they are not enough. We also need something more tangible, we need something that is real and present to us now. Memories are important because they link us to other people, or important events in our life that help us define ourselves, but at least as important is the real presence with us now of those people that fill our memories. Anything else is only second best, a dilution of what we had.
The Church, when it speaks of the Eucharist, has always spoken of the real presence. It was never just about a memory or a symbol, it was never just about recalling something that happened 2000 years ago; it was always about something in the present, even if it was linked by our memories to something that really happened 2000 years ago. There have always been those who struggled to accept the real presence, what theologians speak of as ‘Transubstantiation’; even in Christ’s own life time people stopped following him because they found it too difficult a thing to accept. The pagan Romans couldn’t understand and accused the Christians of cannibalism. But these misunderstandings, these difficulties of people, even Christians, to properly understand, never stopped the Church from staying true to what Christ had left us and it has always insisted on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. As one sainted Bishop of Milan way back in the 300s said, ‘before the words of Christ the chalice is full of wine and water; but where the words of Christ have been operative it is made the Blood of Christ, which redeems the people.’
I sometimes ask myself if people have stopped attending Church because they have first lost belief in that real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. If it has been reduced for them to simply a memory or a symbol of something. I notice too, how in this pandemic we have newly recognised the importance of physical contact with those we love, how seeing them on a screen can emphasise for us the absence of people as much as anything else. We need their real presence. It makes our lives so much better.
In the Eucharist, Christ is again present with us, not only in the bread and wine, but it is he who speaks the words, it is God’s power that transforms these elements into the real presence of the one who died and rose from the dead to bring us life.
To remember that is a wonderful thing, but to be present at it is much better.
Ignatius of Antioch (110 AD)
The Gnostics abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that THE EUCHARIST IS THE FLESH OF OUR SAVIOUR JESUS CHRIST, flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in his goodness, raised up again.
St John Chrysostom (334-407AD)
Christ is present. The One [Christ] who prepared that [Holy Thursday] table is the very One who now prepares this [altar] table. For it is not a man who makes the SACRIFICIAL GIFTS BECOME the Body and Blood of Christ, but He that was crucified for us, Christ Himself. The priest stands there carrying out the action, but the power and the grace is of God, “THIS IS MY BODY,” he says. This statement TRANSFORMS the gifts.
St Ambrose (333-397AD)
You may perhaps say: “My bread is ordinary.” But that bread is bread before the words of the Sacraments; where the consecration has entered in, the bread becomes the flesh of Christ. And let us add this: How can what is bread be the Body of Christ? By the consecration. The consecration takes place by certain words; but whose words? Those of the Lord Jesus. Like all the rest of the things said beforehand, they are said by the priest; praises are referred to God, prayer of petition is offered for the people, for kings, for other persons; but when the time comes for the confection of the venerable Sacrament, then the priest uses not his own words but the words of Christ. Therefore it is the word of Christ that confects this Sacrament….Before it be consecrated it is bread; but where the words of Christ come in, it is the Body of Christ. Finally, hear Him saying: “All of you take and eat of this; for this is My Body.” And before the words of Christ the chalice is full of wine and water; but where the words of Christ have been operative it is made the Blood of Christ, which redeems the people.
The Lord left behind a pledge of this hope and strength for life’s journey in that sacrament of faith where natural elements refined by man are gloriously changed into His Body and Blood, providing a meal of brotherly solidarity and a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.
- Top of page: Brother priests Canon Gerry Conroy and Monsignor Paul Conroy concelebrate Mass in St Patrick’s Church, Dumbarton, with the late Archbishop Philip Tartaglia. Picture by Bill Heaney
- Canon Conroy is parish priest of St Patrick’s, Dumbarton.