Our reflection this week will focus on the Eucharist as the "real presence" of Jesus. Of course, as the Catechism reminds us, Jesus is present to us in so many ways: in the Scriptures, in all of the sacraments, in our prayers, in the poor and the sick and in each other.

But, in the Eucharist, this presence is special and unique. Not surprisingly, there have been many questions and controversies about this unique and special presence - not least about whom or what we receive in the Eucharist and how this can happen.

Our Catholic belief, shared by a number of other Christian traditions, is that when Jesus said, "This is my body....This is my blood," He meant what He said. Elsewhere in the Gospels, we also have this sense of a real presence: for example, when Jesus says, "The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh" (John 6: 51).

We can summarize our belief by saying that, in the Eucharist, we receive the Lord in a sacramental and a "substantial" way under the form of the consecrated and converted bread and wine.

Writing some 1,700 years ago about the Eucharist, St. Ambrose said: "Be convinced that this is not what nature has formed, but what the blessing has consecrated...for by the blessing, nature itself is changed." Later on, a more technical word was used to describe what happens to the bread and wine when they are blessed and consecrated and how they become the true body and blood of Jesus: "transubstantiation."

Rather like the word "consubstantial" that we use in the creed, transubstantiation is indeed a technical word and is actually several words in one: trans-substan-tiation!

"Trans," as in the words "transplant" or "transportation," implies a movement or dynamic from one place or reality to another. "Substantiation" refers to the substance of a thing - what it is. "Transubstantiation" means that the reality of the bread and wine, what they are, is moved or changed or converted into the body and blood of Christ, even though the appearance of the bread and wine appears to remain before our eyes.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in a homily to children who were making their First Communion, was asked by a child, "How do we know that Jesus is there when all we see is bread and wine?" The pope told the children to think of things like electricity, music, thinking or loving: "We cannot see them as such, yet know that they are there, and we can see their effects on us and others. The same is true with the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist."

Another tricky question is about who is actually present in the Eucharist. Do we really eat flesh and drink blood? Are we like cannibals, then - as many thought Christians were in the early days of the Church?

Look back to the words of Jesus mentioned above: "This is my body....This is my blood;" or, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you" (John 6:52). We have the truth of Jesus' words and we accept them in faith. We are not cannibals, of course, eating actual meat and blood as we understand it in everyday life; but we must not reduce the presence of the Lord to just some sort of vague metaphorical or spiritual presence, either.

Nor should we reduce the power and meaning of Jesus' words. Christ is really present in the Eucharist and we truly receive Him in the form of bread and wine: real food and real drink (John 6:53). In the Eucharist, we have the whole Christ (body, blood, soul and divinity), truly, really and substantially present and received in a sacramental way.

Incidentally, because of this presence of the whole of Christ in the Eucharist in this sacramental way, we do not receive more or less of our Lord depending on the size of the host! This is also why Christ can be present to us and yet present in many other churches and places, as well as in heaven, all at the same time.

Finally, this is why we receive the whole of our Lord whether we consume either the consecrated bread or wine. We usually receive both to give a fuller sign of who we receive and what we are celebrating, but the Lord is fully and wholly present in either.

This presence of Christ is also permanent. How and why? Well, God does not take back His words or promises. Once the bread and wine are consecrated and the words of Jesus are said ("This is my body..."), then that same Word of God abides.

This is why we reserve the sacrament in a special container called a tabernacle, and why we have adoration of the Eucharist: It is a great form of prayer and a way of celebrating and prolonging the encounter with the Lord that we experience at Mass.

As in previous weeks, let's finish with another verse of the Eucharist hymn written by St. Thomas Aquinas:

"Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived;

How says trusty hearing? That shall be believed:

What God's Son has told me, take for truth I do;

Truth Himself speaks truly, or there's nothing true!"

(Father Barratt is pastor of St. Ambrose parish in Latham. He holds a doctorate in theology and was a professor at St. John's Seminary in England before coming to the U.S. in 2004. His previous series for The Evangelist on the creed won a national journalism award; read that series and another on coming back to reconciliation under Specials: Religious Education at www.evangelist.org.)