The Real Presence

One of the pillars of Catholic doctrine is the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. According to this doctrine, at the consecration of the bread and wine during the Mass, although the appearances remain unchanged, the bread becomes the true Body, and the wine, the true Blood of Christ, who died on the cross for the salvation of all humanity. This is the common teaching of all the apostolic Churches, that is to say, those Churches which trace their origin back to the Church founded by Jesus Christ on the rock of Peter and the Apostles, promising to be with it all days until the end of time. Thus, the Real Presence is confessed not only by the Roman Church, but all the Orthodox Churches, the Ancient Oriental Churches, and the Oriental Catholic Churches. All of these Churches reserve the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, made present by the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, or the Mass, after the liturgical celebration itself, in order that Holy Communion may be brought to the sick and the dying.

Eucharistic Adoration

What is unique to the Roman Church, however, is the practice of Eucharistic Adoration,1 in which the Faithful visit the Church to pray before the Blessed Sacrament kept in the tabernacle. Such visits are private and individual, but there are times when Eucharistic Adoration is made a public, community event. At such times, the Blessed Sacrament is removed from the tabernacle and presented to the gaze of the Faithful, either exposed in a monstrance, or else, just in a closed ciborium, placed on the altar for the express purpose of its veneration, that the Faithful may adore Christ present in the consecrated Host. While the Faithful often come to pray to the Eucharistic Christ in the tabernacle, placing the Blessed Sacrament on the altar for the express purpose of Eucharistic Adoration gives added solemnity and formality to the practice.

Such practice is obviously not only legitimate, but also praiseworthy, and has much to recommend it, especially given the rejection by the churches of the Reformation of the doctrine of the Real Presence.2 This centuries-old practice of the Roman Church, however, developed and promoted especially since the Reformation as the decisive Catholic response to the denial of the Real Presence by the majority of the Reformers, has, unfortunately, an unforeseen, and certainly not intended, negative aspect or result. It is the purpose of these reflections to identify and to explain this unwanted negative consequence of devotion to the Eucharistic Christ in the Roman Church, and to propose a remedy for it.

Christ’s Teaching

The Gospel of John reports that Jesus told his disciples: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode in him” (Jn 14:23). Let us take careful note of Jesus’ words: He and his Father will come to the one who loves Jesus and keeps his word, that is to say, obeys Jesus; and they will make their abode in that person! Let us be sure that we understand fully Jesus’ promise: The Eternal Father and the Eternal Son will dwell in the person who keeps Jesus word! That is a statement that is as strong, startling, and unexpected, as it is clear and precise. St. Paul, as well, has something very important to say in this regard. It is so important to him, in fact, that he says it twice. He says, first: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16). Then, to make sure that his hearers have understood, he repeats: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” (1 Cor 6:19).

We learn, then, from Holy Scripture that the Holy Trinity—the living God, the Creator of all things, visible and invisible, as the Creed that we recite at Sunday Mass puts it—dwells within us, that we are the Temple in which he resides! This is, indeed, the teaching of the Catholic Church: the Holy Trinity dwells in us, in the center of our being. God comes to us in baptism to make us children of God, and to remain in us, and he will never leave us, unless we, ourselves, by sin, turn our back on him and send him away. But even should this terrible thing occur, he patiently waits for us to recognize our error, to repent of our deed, and ask his forgiveness for our sin. In such an instance, of course, we must confess our sin to a priest before receiving Holy Communion again, and then, as soon as we receive absolution, our Loving Father, the Eternal Son, our Savior, and the Holy Spirit come back to us to dwell again within us, to guide and protect us, just as they came to us in baptism.

Reception of Christ’s Teaching

So, God truly dwells within us. Jesus, St. Paul, and the Church, teaching authoritatively in the name of Christ, assure us of this. He is our constant companion through all the moments and events of our life. But the great question then is: how do we treat him, whom we carry with us in the depths of our soul? Are we grateful for his (Real!) Presence within us? Do we thank him for being with us? Do we even pay any attention at all to his loving Presence? Do we desire to be with him as he wishes to be with us? The usual answer, sadly, tragically, is “no.” Most, deplorably, are not even aware of the Presence of the Holy Trinity in the depths of their soul.

The second question is: whence comes this abysmal ignorance of the Divine Presence within us? The full answer is, doubtless, a complex one, but at least part of the reason, indeed, perhaps a major factor, for this ignorance is the emphasis on, and the universal practice of, Eucharistic Adoration in the Roman Church. The Faithful are taught, from their earliest age, that Christ is really present outside of themselves, in the Eucharistic Body of our Lord, made present by the consecration at Mass or Divine Liturgy, reserved in tabernacles all over the world and, at times, enthroned on the altar for Eucharistic Adoration. Unfortunately, however, this emphasis on the Real Presence of Christ outside of themselves in the tabernacle, has distracted the Faithful from the fact that they, themselves, are living tabernacles, and that not just Christ but, indeed, the Holy Trinity itself, is truly present deep within them.

Elizabeth of the Trinity

An instructive example of this forgetfulness conquered, this ignorance overcome, is found in Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity. She was born on July 18, 1880, and at the age of seven, lost her father when he suffered a heart attack at the age of 55. She made her First Communion in 1891, and she instinctively understood that Jesus had not just come to pay her a visit; rather he had come to live in her. Three years later, she recognized a vocation to Carmel. Her mother opposed her in this, but finally, when Elizabeth was 19, her mother agreed conditionally to her entering Carmel after she turned 21. About the same time, Elizabeth made the acquaintance of a Dominican, and when she asked his help in understanding her sense of a mysterious presence in the depth of her soul, the good friar explained to her that through baptism, the Holy Trinity itself—all three Divine Persons—come to dwell in the soul as permanent Companion and intimate Friend, thus making her a participant in the Divine Life, the very Life of God.

The explanations given by the Dominican were a revelation for Elizabeth, filling her with joy. From that moment on, Elizabeth was totally dedicated to serving and honoring this holy Presence, this sacred Guest of her soul. To express her complete, unreserved dedication to the Holy Trinity—her Divine Friend, Creator, and Savior—she took the name “Elizabeth of the Trinity” upon entering Carmel. She was not, however, destined to remain there long. A victim of Addison’s disease, for which there was no treatment at that time, she returned to God at the age of only 26 on November 9, 1906. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II on November 25, 1984.

We should note that Elizabeth had had the usual religious instruction given to children, in which somehow the knowledge of the Indwelling of the Holy Trinity in the soul of the baptized was lost. The real and permanent Divine Presence in the depths of the soul was not suitably stressed. It was mentioned, of course, but not given the attention that it deserved, so that afterwards, it was simply forgotten. As for the life of the soul—our union with God, and our life with him and in him—all emphasis was centered on the reception of Holy Communion, in which we truly receive Christ within us, who gives himself to us in the form of food and drink, to strengthen and deepen our union with him. But nothing in her religious upbringing brought home to Elizabeth the sublime reality that from the day of our baptism, the Triune God dwells uninterruptedly in us, that he is really present within us, and that we are, thus, in all truth living tabernacles of the Most High.

The Present Situation

In this regard, nothing has changed. Still today, the Faithful are taught to be aware of God outside of themselves, specifically: of Jesus present in the tabernacle; Jesus truly present on the altar after the consecration of the sacred Species; Jesus who truly gives himself to us as nourishment of our souls and our bodies when we receive him in Holy Communion. And if one asks the question, how long does the sacramental Christ remain in us after we receive Communion, the answer is often “until the sacred species itself is destroyed by the process of digestion, which is about ten minutes.” Really. That is, in fact, the explanation that was given to this writer when he was a teenager. The idea that the sacramental, material presence of Christ within was given to us in order to strengthen and to deepen the immaterial, continuous, and utterly real Divine Presence in our soul, was simply absent. To be sure, Holy Communion reinforced our deifying union with God, but it was understood as Jesus coming to visit us, and then leaving again. One simply did not conceive of God being continuously present inside us. True, we were taught of “sanctifying grace,” received in baptism and strengthened by the reception of Holy Communion, which made us friends of God. But, of the marvellous truth that he himself dwells in us permanently, little was taught, let alone stressed. Still today, if the matter is treated at all, it is in such a cursory fashion, that it makes no lasting impression on us, and we promptly forget it.

Of all the insults that we can give God, who loves us so much that he dwells within us throughout our life, one of the greatest is simply to ignore his Divine Presence within us, to treat him as if he weren’t even there. He dwells within us, not just to be a spectator of our life, as one would watch a film or a play. He wishes to be a participant in our life. He wants us to know that he is there—in us and for us. He wants us to turn to him often, to think of him often. He wants us to speak to him, who is the closest of all to us, who is our greatest Friend, who loves us more than we can ever imagine. He wants us to have a dialogue with him as he guides us through life, so that he can better help us to avoid the dangers that threaten us on our way; so that he can better assist us to live each day in his Presence, and to act according to his Holy Will; indeed, so that he can teach us to live each day, as Jesus himself would live it were he in our place. How can a father help a child as it grows, if the child is not aware of his presence? How can the Divine Guest of our soul efficaciously guide and direct us as he wishes, if we do not even recognize that he is there, that he dwells within us?

The general ignorance of God’s Real Presence within us is tragic. One often sees those who wish to feel closer to God and, perhaps, to address him more directly, go to a church or chapel where they can speak to Jesus present in the tabernacle; and one understands that such people are sadly ignorant of the fact that God is really present in them in the center of their soul, just as surely as Jesus is really present in the tabernacle. This ignorance is a serious hindrance to our spiritual development, and it most certainly gives our Adversary, Satan, who, as St. Peter tells us in his first Epistle, “goes about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he might devour” (1 Pet 5:8), much joy and satisfaction, for, as it renders us oblivious to the Divine Presence in us, it makes us more vulnerable to machinations and his attempts to lead us astray. It makes us less mindful of God, and less receptive to the graces that he sends us to avoid evil, and to do good. And as Pope Francis reminded us in his homily of April 11, 2014, in which he recalled Satan’s temptation of Jesus: “… we also are tempted, we also are subject to the attack of the demon. … This is the Christian life: a continuous struggle against evil.”3


We need to correct this very unfortunate situation, to cure this spiritual amnesia, which hampers our growth in union with God. But no one can do this except ourselves. No one can do it for us, because in the end, it depends entirely on us. We, ourselves, must change. We must learn to be truly attentive to God dwelling in us. Let us listen to the beautiful prayer of Elizabeth of the Trinity to God hidden in the depth of her soul: “O my God, Trinity whom I adore, help me to forget myself entirely in order to plant myself firmly in you. … May I never leave you alone. May I be wholly present to you, firmly rooted in Faith, adoring you and completely given over to your creative action. …” And there we have the key: if we truly wish to be firmly established in God, we must first of all forget ourselves. We cannot be occupied with God, as we should be, if we are continually occupied with ourselves and our affairs. He knows perfectly well what we need, and he will provide for us. Our care should be to never leave him alone and abandoned at the very center of our being, because our hearts are elsewhere.

We are used to dealing with things outside of ourselves, God included. Indeed, we have been taught to do so. But if we wish truly to adore God outside of ourselves, in the Blessed Sacrament, as well as in all of Creation, we should, first of all, love and honor him within ourselves where he patiently awaits us. Let us learn, then, not to keep him waiting. Let us resolve to correct our regrettable negligence of his presence within ourselves, by reminding ourselves throughout the day of God’s Indwelling, of his Real Presence in our souls. Let us ask him to help us. Let us turn to him often in adoration and thanksgiving. Let us begin by fixing certain moments each day where we leave our affairs aside and consciously turn to him dwelling in us, to adore him, to thank him for his Love and his patience with us, to thank him, above all, for his constant and faithful presence deep within ourselves. If we are faithful to this practice, it will gradually become a habit, indeed, a need, in which we find ourselves refreshed and strengthened by the moments that we spend with him. And we will find ourselves turning to him, more and more often, spontaneously, as to the one thing necessary. If we learn to live each day, each moment, with God who dwells in us—as Jesus promised, who is truly present deep within our souls—thinking of him, turning to him often with a word or two, we will inevitably notice a change in our relationship with him. We will gradually, slowly but surely, become more God-centered and less self-centered. And spending time with God, who dwells in us and loves us infinitely, will become the hidden joy of our life.

  1. Certain Catholic Oriental communities, in imitation of their Roman brethren, have adopted this practice, especially in the West, although it is unknown in their authentic tradition. 
  2. Among the major figures of the Reformation, Martin Luther was an exception. He defended the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, although he explained this presence in a manner different from that of the Roman Church. 
  3. Zenit news, Rome, April 11, 2014., S. Cernuzio. 
Fr. James Duncan, SJ About Fr. James Duncan, SJ

Fr. James Duncan, SJ, graduated from Seattle University in 1955, and then worked in air transport and tourism for several years in France, Switzerland, and Germany. He joined the Jesuits in Belgium, studied theology in Germany, lived at the Russian College in Rome from 1968 until 1978. He received a Licentiate in theology from the Pontifical University Gregorianum, was ordained a Byzantine Rite priest in 1972, and then earned his doctorate in Oriental Liturgy from Oriental Institute in 1980. He has taught theology in such places as Hong Kong, Moscow, Albania, and Lviv in the Ukraine, but has spent most of his life in Rome at the Gregorian and the Oriental Institute.


  1. Avatar Dana Cole says:

    I became acquainted with Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity in the late 50’s, when I read Pere Philipon’s book about her. This grace she had has been the guiding star of my life. I am finding more books written about her now and I buy any that I find. This devotion to the indwelling Trinity must be a necessary “medicine” during these times, when for several decades the Church has been so activist, but with such hollow results.

  2. Avatar John Soucy says:

    It does not seem that the author;s concept of Eucharistic Adoration and the Real Presence is in line with what Fr. John Hardon S. J. wrote about these things.

  3. Father Duncan, thank you for your paper on the Divine Real Presence . All devout catholics through the Sacrament of Baptism and the reception of the Body of Christ must meditate constantly on the Real Presence so that each one will love God and other persons . The Divine Real presence urges us to practice the greatest commandment

  4. Avatar Anonymous says:

    What a wonderful article. It makes such an important—but sensitive—point with great tact and care. Thank you, Father. (And my, what an interesting life you’ve been blessed with! ;-)


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