Real Presence: What does it Mean and Why Does it Matter?

by Timothy P. O’Malley Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.Profiles in Catholicism



Mystery and Sacrament. This book takes up the doctrine of real presence and transubstantiation as requiring both knowing and loving. In modern language, these two doctrines are used interchangeably, yet they are two interrelated doctrines linked to the substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Meditating on these doctrines, one discovers the personal and thus healing presence of Jesus Christ in human history. Professing faith in Christ’s Eucharistic presence is not the result of a philosophical exercise but comes about through worshipping the hidden God under the species of bread and wine. These doctrines have implications for understanding who Jesus Christ is, the pedagogy by which God saves men and women through the Church, and how members of Christ’s Body may pursue holiness as creatures who are healed by eating and drinking the Body and Blood of Christ. In these two doctrines, we see how the prayerful contemplation of doctrine offers to us a way of life grounded in practice and how practice bears fruit in the development of doctrine. This book makes the argument over the course of five chapters.


In the first chapter, O’Malley clears the way for a study of the doctrine of real presence and transubstantiation. It begins with a pastoral problem identified in the Church, namely the declining belief in real presence and transubstantiation in US Catholicism. A retrieval of the doctrine of real presence and transubstantiation is necessary for responding to this pastoral problem. In the second chapter, O’Malley presents the scriptural foundation of Eucharistic presence. The Eucharistic doctrine of presence refers to God’s intimate dwelling with the human family first through Israel and later through the Church. God reveals in the scriptures what it means for God to be present to us, how we are present to God, and what this means for our presence to one another. The Eucharist, in the New Testament, is closely tied to the revelation of God’s intimate dwelling among men and women. In the third chapter, O’Malley turns to the development of the doctrine of real presence in the Fathers of the Church. The doctrine of real presence does not come forth at once but instead develops as the Church comes to understand what happens to the Eucharistic celebration. The doctrine of real presence is related to sacrifice and martyrdom, the materiality of salvation, the healing and sanctification of the senses through the sacraments, and the Church as a communion of sacrificial love.


In the fourth chapter, O’Malley undertakes a commentary of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Eucharistic sequence for the Feast of Corpus Christi, “Lauda sion.” Through a careful reading of this devotional hymn, O’Malley shows how transubstantiation that forms us to take up a posture toward the world inspired by the Eucharist. As creatures, we must make sense of a past, live in a present, and orient ourselves toward a future. Transubstantiation forms us to thin anew about what it means to live in time. It is not a purely technical explanation f Eucharistic presence but a way of inviting men and women to see their past, present and future as unfolding in the intimate presence of Jesus Christ. In the fifth chapter O’Malley turns to the adorers and visionaries of the Blessed Sacrament to see how reverent devotion to the Blessed Sacrament has transformed the lives of concrete persons. Listening to three medieval figures(Mechthild of Magdeburg, Mechchild of Hackeborn, and Gertrude the Great of Helfta, figures(Flannery O’Connor, Simone Weil, and Dorothy Day), we can see how real presence may form our senses to taste and see the sweetness of Christ in the Eucharist and therefore to love the presence of Christ made manifest in the neighbor.

This book was written during the period of quarantine for COVID-19, this quarantine included the cancellation of public Masses throughout the United States. Churches once full of communicants for a Sunday Mass were now empty except for a priest, an altar server, and a cantor. Ester came and went without communion. Among the faithful, there was a desire for the Eucharistic life that has not been felt for some time. Still, the Eucharistic Lord did not leave his children orphans. In the middle of this pandemic, Pope Francis stood in the empty piazza of St. Peter's Basilica at dusk during a steady rainstorm, lifted up a monstrance that held the Eucharistic species, and blessed the city of Rome and the entire world. It was a city and a world haunted by the shadow of death. Men and women were dying alone in hospitals in Rome, Milan and New York City. Social distancing meant that we were cut off from one another no longer able to see loved ones face to face. Weddings and funerals were cancelled. Time seemed to stop. There was death and darkness. And yet, with the raising of that monstrance on a bleak Friday in Rome, we recognized the feebleness of our senses. It seemed impossible, but even now in this valley of tears the Lord was present. Ie was but even now in this valley of tears the Lord was present. He was present in our families, in the sick and dying, and in health-care workers sacrificing their personal well-being and he remained substantially present in tabernacles in parishes throughout the world.


The substantial presence of Christ in what looks like bread and wine is an invitation for each of us to assume a posture of total gratitude, God gives not just bread and wine but his very flesh and blood. We receive this gift, recognizing anew the dignity that all of creation possesses. The Eucharistic doctrines of real presence and transubstantiation demand of each of is self-knowledge, the poverty of confessing that we are not God. And yet in adoring the presence of the God who is God, we do not leave behind our neighbor. Love is received so that love may be given. All who receive and are devoted to the Eucharist would be drawn to read this book.