What the Early Church believed: The real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist
Editor’s Note: The following excerpt from the Catholic Answers website on the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is one of many articles that will be published by Catholic San Francisco Magazine as part of the U.S. Catholic Church’s Eucharistic Revival (eucharisticrevival.org) that began on June 19, 2022, on the feast of Corpus Christi, and continues through Pentecost 2025.
The doctrine of the Real Presence asserts that in the Holy Eucharist, Jesus is literally and wholly present—body and blood, soul and divinity—under the appearances of bread and wine. The Bible is forthright in declaring it (cf. 1 Cor. 10:16–17, 11:23–29; and, most forcefully, John 6:32–71). We can learn much about how early Christian writers—the Church Fathers in particular—understood these Scripture passages by examining their writings. They clearly interpreted these Scripture passages about the Eucharist literally.
St. Ignatius of Antioch was a child at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and had grown to maturity when the Apostles were preaching the Gospel. Here is what he wrote about the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist:
“I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ . . . and for drink I desire His blood, which is love incorruptible” (Letter to the Romans 7:3 [A.D. 110]).
“Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. . . .They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in His goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1 [A.D. 110]).
Some forty years later, Justin Martyr wrote:
“For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by Him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus” (First Apology 66 [A.D. 151]).
St. Irenaeus, who died in about A.D. 202 wrote:
“But what consistency is there in those who hold that the bread over which thanks have been given is the Body of their Lord, and the cup His Blood….For as the bread from the earth, receiving the invocation of God, is no longer common bread but the Eucharist, consisting of two elements, earthly and heavenly, so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible but have the hope of resurrection into eternity.” (Against Heresies: 4, 18, 4)
“[T]here is not a soul that can at all procure salvation, except it believe whilst it is in the flesh, so true is it that the flesh is the very condition on which salvation hinges. And since the soul is, in consequence of its salvation, chosen to the service of God, it is the flesh which actually renders it capable of such service. The flesh, indeed, is washed [in Baptism], in order that the soul may be cleansed . . . the flesh is shadowed with the imposition of hands [in Confirmation], that the soul also may be illuminated by the Spirit; the flesh feeds [in the Eucharist] on the body and blood of Christ, that the soul likewise may be filled with God” (The Resurrection of the Dead 8 [A.D. 210]).
“Formerly, in an obscure way, there was manna for food; now, however, in full view, there is the true food, the flesh of the Word of God, as He Himself says: ‘My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink’ [John 6:55]” (Homilies on Numbers 7:2 [A.D. 248]).
St. Cyprian of Carthage
“He [Paul] threatens, moreover, the stubborn and forward, and denounces them, saying, ‘Whosoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily, is guilty of the body and blood of the Lord’ [1 Cor. 11:27]. All these warnings being scorned and contemned—[lapsed Christians will often take Communion] before their sin is expiated, before Confession has been made of their crime, before their conscience has been purged by sacrifice and by the hand of the priest, before the offense of an angry and threatening Lord has been appeased, [and so] violence is done to His body and blood; and they sin now against their Lord more with their hand and mouth than when they denied their Lord” (The Lapsed 15–16 [A.D. 251]).
“Christ was carried in His own hands when, referring to His own body, he said, ‘This is my body’ [Matt. 26:26]. For he carried that body in His hands” (Explanations of the Psalms 33:1:10 [A.D. 405]).