Transubstantiation is perhaps one of the most confusing and misunderstood of all Catholic beliefs.
What Exactly is Transubstantiation?
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, the word transubstantiate means “to change into another substance.” As Catholics, we believe that the Eucharist, which is made of bread and wine, literally turns into the body and blood of Jesus Christ during Mass.
When explaining transubstantiation, Catholic theologians speak of the difference between “accident,” and “substance.” Accident and substance are philosophical ideas that come from the Greek philosopher Aristotle which describe the essential and non-essential properties of any given object.
A droplet of water, for example, is composed of hydrogen and oxygen. These qualities are essential to the water’s essence — they make up its substance. The fact that the water is clear, is an accident. The water’s clearness is not the water itself — it is non-essential to the essence of the water.
Let’s look at another example. Imagine you are holding a piece of bread. It is smooth and white. The smoothness is not the bread, rather it is an accidental characteristic of the bread. The bread’s essential substance remains the same whether the bread is smooth, rough, hard, or soft.
When transubstantiation occurs, it is like a great axe bears down upon the accidental and substantial properties of the bread and wine, and breaks the bond between them — the bread and wine’s substances are changed, while their accidental qualities remain the same. The substances of the bread and wine Catholics receive during Mass are actually the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The fact that they look, smell, and taste like bread and wine is simply happenstance.
Why do Catholics Believe in it?
Catholic belief in transubstantiation is based upon a mixture of both scripture and tradition. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, a 13th century Catholic theologian, “The presence of Christ’s true body and blood in this sacrament cannot be detected by sense, nor understanding, but by faith alone, which rests upon Divine authority.”
Catholics draw their belief in transubstantiation and the Eucharist from two main sources in the New Testament of the Bible.
The first, and most well known source comes from the Last Supper. According to Mark 14:22-25:
While they were eating, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take it; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.”
Catholics believe that this moment was when Christ instituted the Eucharist, and also when transubstantiation first occurred. In fact, the priest’s words during the consecration — the part of the Mass in which the bread and wine undergo their change — are based upon this very reading.
The second reading is out of John, chapter 6. According to John 6:51-70:
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us [his] flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.” These things he said while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.
Then many of his disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this, he said to them, “Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father.”
As a result of this, many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.
Perhaps the most significant line of this passage is the last one. Notice: what Jesus said was so shocking that some of his disciples actually threw up their hands and left — they stopped following him and went home. In response to his disciples’ concern, Jesus did not say, “Hey guys, I was kidding! I meant that all metaphorically.” Instead, he reaffirms his previous statement, and lets them go.
Transubstantiation truly is a shocking doctrine. It is unappealing to many, and some people even turn away from the church altogether on account of it. It is however, the most beautiful mystery that the Catholic church has to offer. According to Saint John Vianney, “If we really understood the Mass, we would die of joy. There is nothing so great as the Eucharist. If God had something more precious, He would have given it to us.”
Let’s talk! Catholics — is there anything you’d like to add about transubstantiation? Non-catholics — is there anything you still don’t understand/have a problem with? No question is a stupid question! Ask away!