As many readers will know, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is leading a three-year National Eucharistic Revival. It began with locally organized parish and diocesan events on the Feast of Corpus Christi, 2022. The coming year, 2024, will feature nationally organized events, culminating in the 10th National Eucharistic Congress—the first in eighty-nine years—to be held in Indianapolis July 17–24. The idea of the Revival was partly motivated by recent studies that seemed to reveal that a shockingly small percentage of Catholics actually believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Revival has, therefore, promoted the renewal of catechetical efforts in teaching eucharistic doctrine, emphasizing especially the unique, substantial presence of Christ.
In this regard, it is important to remember—though it may seem unrelated—that “the Eucharist commits us to the poor.” So says the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1397).
This corresponds to an ancient Christian intuition rooted in Scripture (see, for example, James 2:2–4). We find it already well developed in Justin Martyr, who, in his First Apology, famously describes the eucharistic celebration at Rome in the middle of the second century. He emphasizes that the “eucharistized bread and wine” are not received “as common bread nor common drink,” but are, “by transformation,” the “flesh and blood of Jesus,” the Word of God who became incarnate by taking on both flesh and blood “for our salvation.” Justin is very conscious that the “flesh and blood” of the Eucharist is not just an inert reality whose principal attraction is that it was miraculously produced. It is someone’s flesh and blood, that of the very “Logos” or “Word” or “Reason” of God, who took it on “for our salvation.” It is the body of someone who willed to suffer and die, and in that body he rose. Risen, he is present in his “flesh and blood.” In the story of this flesh and blood, we see God’s Reason displayed, the very “Rationale” of created reality. “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving,” and the celebration of the Eucharist is the Thanksgiving par excellence. Just as the Word of God became visible to us by taking on flesh and blood for our salvation, so, in being “eucharistized” (we could say, “thanksgiving-ized”), the transformed bread and wine make the very flesh and blood that the Word took on “for our salvation” visibly present again, making him, the foundation of reality revealed as mercy, present again.
At the same time, the poor and the vulnerable also rise to visibility. Justin adds that immediately following the Eucharist, “the wealthy come to the aid of the poor.” He mentions that the deacons take up a collection for the use of the presider, charged with the care of orphans and widows, the sick, the imprisoned, resident aliens, indeed “all those in need.” This, for Justin, is a matter of sheer gratitude. Formed in the gratitude for the gift we are celebrating, the needs of the poor are recovered from invisibility and distance. Eucharistic realism means we see the poor and vulnerable, just as we see the Real Presence. We learn to see as God’s merciful Reason sees. Whether Justin knew the Letter of James or not, he echoes its rebuke of those who would put the poorer members of the assembly in the least visible, lowest-status positions. In a homily, John Chrysostom also speaks of how the Eucharist ought to adjust our vision: “You have tasted the blood of the Lord, yet you do not recognize your brother.… God freed you from all your sins and invited you here, but you have not become more merciful.” Eucharistic realism is here short-circuited.
Justin’s theology was developed partly in reaction against the charge that Christians participated in “Thyestean banquets.” This phrase recalls the story of Atreus, who served his brother Thyestes a banquet consisting of the flesh of Thyestes’s own children in retaliation for Thyestes’s seduction of Atreus’s wife. Note, this is not just a generic charge of cannibalism. Atreus regarded his brother’s vulnerable and powerless children as totally dispensable. Justin distinguishes eucharistic realism from the grim realism of a world where power and status define reality and the poor and vulnerable are instrumentalized and rendered invisible—“eaten.” Justin is defending a different kind of realism, made present in a new kind of banquet where the vulnerable are not eaten but rise to visibility.
The Church’s continuing reflection on eucharistic presence is rooted in the sensibility to which Justin is an early witness. To be in continuity with Justin, eucharistic realism must make us see that mercy, not power, is the foundational reality worthy of worship. Justin avoids an overly physicalist understanding of the Eucharist, one that would make the flesh and blood of Christ an inert object like the flesh of the children served up in the myth of Atreus. The Eucharist is not to be understood as a thing at our disposal and under our power, together with the miracle which produces it.