For the 1.2 billion Catholics throughout the world, the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is both a mystery and a truth. It is a joy and an expression of love for many, and an obstacle for others who struggle to believe the Eucharist is anything more than symbolic.

Msgr. Richard Lavalley, pastor emeritus of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Winooski, recalled an experience while visiting college students when a young man asked, “If you discovered that the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was merely symbolic, would it affect your faith or life?”

“It would completely devastate me,” Msgr. Lavalley responded. The reason, he explained, is that it would force him to come to grips with the reality that “God loved me less than I thought he did. He only gave me a snapshot but not Himself.”

Msgr. Lavalley stressed that, “At the heart of Catholic faith is the belief that Jesus Christ is truly present in the Holy Eucharist. It is unique thing … it shows the tremendous love of our God.”

It is easy to understand and have faith in the Real Presence of Christ “if you have ever loved anyone — even just one person — in your life,” said Msgr. Lavalley. Then, we understand that “what is most important for a lover is union. Love seeks union always.”

Jesus said,” Msgr. Lavalley quoted from the Gospel of John: “I am the living bread that comes down from Heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world. … For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.”

“Why can’t we take Jesus at His word, that He wants to give Himself to us?” Msgr. Lavalley considered.

The Catholic Church teaches that because Jesus loves us, He gives Himself to us in the Eucharist as spiritual nourishment. In the celebration of Eucharist, bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit and the agency of the priest.

“The whole Christ is truly present – body, blood, soul and divinity – under the appearances of bread and wine, the glorified Christ who rose from the dead.” Because the faithful experience Eucharist with human senses, the bread and wine appear the same, but “they are actually the real body and blood of Jesus.”

The role of the priest in the consecration of the gifts of bread and wine requires prayer at the heart of everything, stressed Msgr. Peter Routhier, rector of The Cathedral of St. Joseph in Burlington, who shared memories of his priestly formation in Rome, the richness of liturgical celebrations in the Vatican and the prayerful, inspirational celebration of Eucharist in the welcoming community of the Church of St. Louis of the French.

“The liturgy the Church has given us is a beautiful liturgy,” Msgr. Routhier said. We must “pray it, not just do it.”

“Often, I make reference while preaching to the importance of receiving Christ in the Eucharist, to truly affirm one’s faith that this is Christ, that we need Him to live out our call to holiness, to truly fulfill our vocation in life and to truly experience with joy, hope and real faith Christ in the Eucharist,” he said. “Therefore, as a priest, it is essential for me in leading the community in prayer ‘in persona Christi’ that I truly pray the Mass so that it is a prayerful, beautiful, mystical celebration of the Body of Christ, the community of faith.”

For Josh Perry, director of the Office of Worship for the Diocese of Burlington, a pivotal moment of reflection on the Real Presence of Christ happened during Mass during his high school years.

Perry recalled, “During the consecration, time seemed to slow almost to a crawl, and I became very focused on the consecrated bread and the chalice. My sense of everything else around me dissipated. Rather than producing anxiety, which might be expected with such an experience, a profound sense of peace settled over me.”

Since that time, said Perry, “I have come to recognize the Real Presence in the Eucharist in a special way. For me, the Real Presence is the timelessness of God present in a world that is constantly changing and rushing by me. The Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist grounds me in faith amidst an uncertain and sometimes hostile world. When everything else is changing around me, I am reminded in the Eucharist that ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.’”

Church teaching on the Real Presence came from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

— Originally published in the Fall 2022 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.