Catholics believe that Jesus is really present in the Holy Eucharist. This makes our faith distinctive from many Christians who tend to reduce the Eucharist to a merely symbolic presence; and can’t bring themselves to affirm that a true change happens, that the bread and wine actually become the Body and Blood of Christ.
Why do we believe this? It’s really quite simple. Jesus said so, and we take his words seriously.
The story of the beginning of the Eucharist is told four times in the New Testament — in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians and in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Each account is a little different, but they all have the same basic elements: at the Last Supper, Jesus declared this bread and wine to be his Body and Blood, told them to eat and drink it, and commanded them to continue to do this in his memory.
The declaration is clear: “is” does not mean “represents” or “symbolizes.” “Is” simply means what is says. The commands to “eat” and “drink” and “do this” are not suggestions. Jesus clearly expected his words to be taken at face value.
But that’s not all. The Gospel of John has a lengthy account of the Last Supper but does not tell the story about Jesus giving his Body and Blood to eat and drink. But in John 6 he describes a time when Jesus gave a very controversial instruction in the synagogue at Capernaum. Here he tells his disciples, with others listening in, that “I am the living bread that came 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.”
When they quarrel about how he can do this, he becomes very explicit and graphic:
“Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven.”
You can’t get more explicit than that. Even his disciples found this a “hard saying,” and many turned away from him. It’s important to note here that Jesus did not say, ‘O come back. I’ll explain. I only meant it ‘symbolically’!” No, he knew they understood him properly, and found him unacceptable.
The Eucharist demands faith. Once we accept what he says as he said it, then we can begin to understand more and more deeply, and experience the meaning of his presence. But acceptance in faith has to come first.