Transubstantiation is a well known and much maligned term, seen to be an attempt by Catholics to ‘explain away’ the Mystery of the Mass. In reality though, it was employed as a means to prevent belief in Christ’s Eucharistic presence devolving into anything less than an affirmation of full substantiality. The term was first used by Hildebert de Lavardin, Archbishop of Tours, in the 11th Century, and the manner of the change in the elements was officially described using the word ‘transubstantiation’ at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. The Council of Trent, over three hundred years later, and writing partially in response to Protestant criticisms of the doctrine, states that:
‘…by the consecration of the bread and of the wine, a conversion is made of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of His blood; which conversion is, by the holy Catholic Church, suitably and properly called Transubstantiation.’
13th Session, Chapter IV.
And the nature of what transubstantiation describes and preserves is further clarified when it is stated in the first canon of that same thirteenth session at Trent that:
‘…in the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist, are contained truly, really, and substantially, the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ’
I.e.; Our Lord does not just act on us more powerfully in the Eucharist than at other times, nor is He only present there spiritually, or in terms of His activity, and it is certainly not just a symbol to remind us of what has been done for us – Jesus Christ is really and substantially present in the consecrated species; the same Christ who walked in Galilee, and who rose up glorified into Heaven is there upon the altar. Clearly the manner of His presence is different, but it is the same Christ nonetheless. This is a great mystery, and the doctrine of transubstantiation exists to safeguard that mystery, not diminish it.
Furthermore, Trent’s enumerating the different aspects of Christ that are present in the Eucharist – His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity – is not to separate these aspects, to fragment Him into different parts in order to satisfy the needs of theologians for absolute technical precision. No, the precision of description employed here is again to make absolutely clear that it is all of Jesus that is present, and not just His divinity – the Incarnation, wherein human nature was wedded to the divine, is something for all time, not just for the term of Jesus’ earthly life.
Our Lord’s humanity and His divinity are hidden from us under the ‘accidents’ of bread and wine, and it is easier to understand that He may be there in a spiritual sense, as His divinity is in a sense always hidden from us; the presence of His humanity though, is harder to accept. Yet this is, and has always been from the beginning, the faith of the Church – it is not negotiable; the bread and the wine are no longer there other than in appearance; Our Lord is there instead. Incidentally, a recent publication in Nature Communications by researchers at the University of Vienna has found that it is possible to separate particles from their physical properties, so perhaps the doctrine of transubstantiation is not quite as out of the ordinary as we think.
Moreover, it is not just the glorified Christ that we see in the Mass – there is a two-fold consecration of the bread and the wine, representing the separation of His Body and blood in death, and therefore re-presenting His Sacrifice to the Father. The Body that is present is the glorified Body, but the glorified Christ we see is also the same One who suffered for us on the Cross, and perpetuates His Sacrifice in each Holy Mass – it is the true, living Body of the glorified Christ, who nonetheless retains the wounds on His hands, feet, and side, and whose soul is always disposed towards His Father in a spirit of true Charity. That is why, in order for us to unite ourselves more fully to His Sacrifice, we must imitate that same disposition in our souls – faithfulness, obedience, and love.
Having said all this, objections still remain, and these are regarding the manner of Jesus’ presence. Given that we believe He is really present in the Eucharist, in the way that the Council of Trent describes and makes clear, it is equally the case that He is not present in the same way as He is present in Heaven. Whilst tendencies towards a purely spiritual interpretation abound, tendencies towards an anthropomorphic interpretation also exist, and it is important to counter them as well, by distinguishing between the two ways in which Christ is wholly present. The Council of Trent again make this very clear:
‘For neither are these things mutually repugnant, that our Saviour Himself always sitteth at the right hand of the Father in heaven, according to the natural mode of existing, and that, nevertheless, He be, in many other places, sacramentally present to us in his own substance, by a manner of existing, which, though we can scarcely express it in words, yet can we, by the understanding illuminated by faith, conceive, and we ought most firmly to believe, to be possible unto God’
Section 13, Chapter I.
The salient part of this passage is that whilst Christ is present to the Father in Heaven, He is also ‘sacramentally present to us in his own substance’ upon altars across the world. We can say that Our Lord is naturally present as He is in Heaven, but sacramentally present in the Eucharist. Both are real, but only the natural presence is a local presence, in that it is restricted to one time, area, or dimension. In the Eucharist, His presence is indirectly local, insofar as it is by the dimensions of the elements that the presence is made known, but not essentially local, as He has not Himself been restricted by those dimensions. Or, to put it another way, in the consecration, Christ is not Himself changed, rather He effects a change in the elements to make Himself present there.
So, transubstantiation does not describe a process which in any way produces a local ‘extension’ of Our Lord – nothing happens to His Person when the consecration occurs. We can see this most clearly at the Last Supper, where He remained the same, and locally present at the head of the table, but nevertheless made Himself sacramentally present in the bread and wine consumed by the disciples. The sacramental presence is no less real, but it is different – Christ is really present ‘in’ the Host, or ‘in’ the Tabernacle, but He is not in them in the sense that His presence is contained or limited by the physical dimensions of the species.
Hence, when the Host is divided, Christ is not locally divided, and remains whole as He is in Heaven. When the accidents of the bread and wine are dissolved and digested within the communicant’s body, Christ is not corrupted in any way, but His sacramental presence there allows Him to be really, substantially received into the body and soul of the communicant. On the other hand though, we are not to profane the consecrated species, and we are to treat them with reverence, because regardless of the fact that whatever corruption occurs is to the accidents of the species, He is still there. The sacramental presence is not a veiled version of His local presence – it is just as real, and a means of Christ being as close to us as is possible in this life.
This latter point – that Christ deigns to appear to us in this humble way to be close to us, and commune with us at a level that is both spiritual and physical – is at the heart of all the technical discussion that goes on around the Mystery of the Mass. Meeting Our Lord sacramentally affords us a way of being incomparably close to Him, and of doing so in a manner that helps us to grow in both faith and charity. Faith, because His presence is invisible; charity because it is a real presence – Our Lord really comes to meet us there in His entirety. Angels, being purely spiritual, cannot encounter Christ as we do, and though it is a great mystery as to how this occurs, it is also a great privilege.
Mystery, Faith, Charity, Communion – these are all what Catholic doctrine, in the sessions of councils and the investigations of theologians, is designed to preserve. The mysteries of our faith are so subtle, and depend on such fine distinctions, that we need the supporting arms of doctrinal and dogmatic definition to prevent us from going astray in what we believe, and to get on with the essentially simple acts to which we have been called. The presence of Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist, and our communion with Him there, is the central mystery of the Church, the greatest source of divine Charity, and the beating heart of our Faith.
Thank God then for transubstantiation, for Trent, and for all those teachings of the Church which safeguard that mystery and give us the confidence that Our Lord truly is there with us, so that we may enter into the Mass and commune with Him without anxiety, without concern as to whether His presence is spiritual, a sign, or whatever, and simply embrace the river of Charity that pours from Him who is really present before us – so that we may simply worship Him in spirit and in truth.