Transubstantiation: A fundamental Catholic belief about the Eucharist

June 3, 2016

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Transubstantiation is a theological term derived from two Latin roots, trans (prefix), a preposition that means “over” or “across,” and substantia (root), a noun that means “substance.”  To transubstantiate is to change one substance into another.  The initial substance is bread and wine, and it changes into a new and different substance, the Body and Blood of Christ.  It is no longer bread, but the Body of Christ under the appearance of bread; and no longer wine, but the Blood of Christ under the appearance of wine.  The physical appearance and chemical composition remain unchanged, but the substance is entirely changed.

This belief is firmly grounded in Sacred Scripture, particularly the words of Jesus at the Last Supper.  “Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’  Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood’” (Mt 26:26-28; see also Mk 14:22-24 and Lk 22:19-20).  During the Bread of Life Discourse (Jn 6:22-59), Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven … and the bread that I will give is my flesh” (Jn 6:51).

St. Paul further reflected on the words of Jesus.  He asked, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?  The bread we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16).   He also provided the earliest written account of the Institution of the Eucharist (1 Cor 11:23-26), written around 56 AD, well before the gospels written sometime between 68 and 100 AD.

This transformation happens by the power of God to whom the Eucharistic Prayer is addressed and through the action of the Holy Spirit who is called down over the offerings at the Epiclesis before the Words of Institution.  The Consecration is the moment when this takes place, yet the entire Eucharistic Prayer is consecratory.

EucharistWheatTransubstantiation only occurs within the context of a valid Mass with a properly ordained priest who is serving in persona Christi, in the person of Christ.  The priest must be in union with the Church and in line with Apostolic Succession.  The priest pronounces the words, but their power and grace are God’s (St. John Chrysostom).

Historically, transubstantiation was first taught by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, and reaffirmed, clarified, and strengthened at the Council of Constance in 1415 and the Council of Trent in 1551.  Trent was the Catholic Counterreformation in response to Protestant reformers such as Calvin and Zwingli who denied transubstantiation entirely and Luther who proposed consubstantiation.  Trent declared that in the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist, “the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained” (Trent, 1551; Catechism, No. 1374).

There are several things that transubstantiation is expressly not.  It is not consubstantiation, the Reformation teaching that the bread and wine are simultaneously both bread and wine and the Body and Blood of Christ.  Transubstantiation is also not “transsymbolization,” that the bread and wine are symbols or reminders of the Body and Blood of Christ, or “transignification,” that the consecrated bread and wine come to have new significance or meaning.

The fullness of the true presence of Christ is in each form of the Eucharist, the Blessed Sacrament alone, the Precious Blood alone, or both together.

There are many other forms of the presence of Christ, particularly in the Word, the people, and the priest, all which are “real,” “but because it is presence in the fullest sense:  that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present” (Pope Paul VI, Mysterium fidei, No. 39).

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About Father Michael Van Sloun

Father Michael A. Van Sloun is the pastor of Saint Bartholomew of Wayzata, MN. Ministerial interests include weekly Bible study, articles on theological topics, religious photography, retreats on Cross spirituality, and pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Italy, Greece and Turkey.

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