How can I explain transubstantiation?

Photo: Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret’s “The Last Supper”
Father Cal Christiansen

Father Cal Christiansen is pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Mountlake Terrace

Q: The other day I was trying to explain the eucharistic doctrine of transubstantiation to a coworker who is not Catholic, and I’m afraid she was more confused by the end of our conversation than when we started! How can I explain this doctrine to non-Catholics in a way that they can understand?

A: When the disciples sat down with Jesus at the Last Supper, they were preparing to celebrate the Jewish Passover with him. Jesus, however, had something more in mind.

“While they were eating, 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 of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.’” (Matthew 26:26-28)

Something happened at that last meal that Jesus celebrated with his disciples, something that had never happened before: Ordinary bread and wine were transformed into the body and blood of Jesus, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. I’m sure the disciples didn’t fully understand what had just happened, nor what would happen when they went on to celebrate “Last Suppers” with the early Christian community.

Yet they believed and had faith in the Lord’s words, even though they didn’t fully understand them.

For Catholics today, not much has changed. We believe that at every Mass, bread and wine become Jesus — his body, blood, soul and divinity — even though we can’t fully understand how it happens. The miracle of the Eucharist is a mystery, something that human reason and intelligence can never fully grasp.

However, our Catholic faith is a reasonable one, and we can’t simply leave this mystery a complete mystery; we have to do our best to make sense of it, albeit incompletely. This is why transubstantiation is such an important term for us to understand in explaining to others what we believe about the Eucharist.

Transubstantiation is a Scholastic term that attempts to explain how bread and wine can become the body and blood of the Lord without losing their exterior appearance. While the word was first used in the 11th century by Hildebert of Lavardin, the archbishop of Tours, it was at the Council of Trent (1545–1563) that it became authoritative church teaching.

The Council of Trent declared: “Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change 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. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.” (CCC 1376)

In order to understand what all of this means, we need to understand the medieval concepts of accidents and substance. Accidents are the exterior, physical parts or qualities of something (like the fingers, hair and feet of a person). Substance is the eternal invisible quality of something (human being).

Think of the life of a human person: Our exterior dimensions are in constant flux; we all look much different now than when we were born. What remains unchanged is who we are at our core — a distinct human being.

In other words, our accidents change, but our substance remains the same.

With the Eucharist, it’s just the opposite. While the accidents of the bread and wine (taste, texture, appearance) do not change, the substance (the essential “bread-ness” and “wine-ness”) does change. It still looks, feels and tastes like bread and wine, but it has truly become Jesus. This is what the Catholic Church means by transubstantiation.

At the end of the day, transubstantiation is a philosophical term used by the church to describe a miracle, the mystery of the Eucharist. Like the apostles, we have faith in the Lord’s words, that he meant what he said; but, also like the apostles, we will never fully understand those words.

May God’s blessing be with you today and always!