Book Review:

"Real Presence: The Work of the Eucharist
by Nathan Mitchell"

Nathan Mitchell’s poetic mind turns out to be a fertile source for reflection on the poetic language we use for the Eucharist. Real Presence: The Work of the Eucharist (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1998) summarizes many a grand theme about the Eucharist in 135 sweeping pages. Those familiar with Mitchell’s Cult and Controversy already know him as a provocative writer on this most central theme to Catholic belief.

The book divides into three main parts. The opening chapter critiques the eucharistic theology of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The second reviews recent scholarship over the historical Jesus. The final chapter explores our understandings of "real presence." Bibliographic references offer further reading in two areas: Sundays in the absence of a priest and the eucharistic prayer.

At first these sections appear disjointed. Each contains helpful and well crafted matter, but the flow of the grand ideas interrelate only imaginatively. The first chapter opens new insights into the arrangement of the catechism’s material; the deceptive familiarity of the catechism’s presentation on the Eucharist conceals some rather surprising editorial decisions. Mitchell exposes these most insightfully. But when he switches to the Jesus seminar in chapter two, he disorients the reader who will still be wondering where the material promised in the book’s title is located. Even the two sections of the bibliography seem relationally interesting but not necessarily integral to the theme.

However, in the final chapter, when Mitchell lays open his topic, it becomes more evident why he is the man to write this particular book. Eucharistic presence, he argues, resembles creation more than change, sign more than appearance. It demands a poet’s grasp of reality. The author’s mastery of scholarship and the necessary interrelationship of Christology, liturgy, catechesis, and theology paints a landscape in which the believer comes to acknowledge the framework for his or her pastoral experience of communion with God and the church. The interrelationship of the book’s chapters becomes more apparent once the reader enters the very poetic world only in which the Eucharist can be grasped.

The reader seduced by the book’s title, who is looking for a simple pious reflection on transubstantiation, will be challenged to enter a milieu where Catholic belief opens up into wider venues -- all of them traditional and orthodox, though probably unfamiliar. Mitchell’s very helpful closing comments on the difference between transubstantiation and real presence will be an eye-opener to many who have never pondered the distinction.

In catechumenate ministry, a clear understanding of the Eucharist is absolutely essential. Catechists who form catechumens must have a firm hold on their own faith and of the church’s tradition. Those seeking baptism must accept the church’s faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This belief is so central to Catholicity that catechumenate ministers above all should be well versed in its themes. Mitchell’s book assumes the reader has some familiarity with Catholic history, resources, and expressions of belief. A knowledge of Latin will also help understand the fine points. Readers who lack the background for comprehending the arguments will want to acquire it; those familiar with other resources on the Eucharist will welcome Mitchell’s assessment and insight. Sadly, not everyone in catechumenate ministry will be able to follow all the arguments of this book, but they should feel challenged to continue their education on the Eucharist so they can present this mystery to catechumens and neophytes with confidence.

This article first appeared in Forum 16/2 (Summer 1999):7-8.

horizontal rule

Top of page