Basic questions and answers: questions three and four
During this Week of Weeks, we celebrate on Holy Thursday the greatest gift of the Lord: the Holy Eucharist. It is called “the mystery of faith” because it is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, no. 11, Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1324). The Eucharist is so vital to the Christian life because it contains the whole good of the church, Christ himself. In his encyclical letter, Redemptor Hominis, no. 81, Pope John Paul II calls the Eucharist “a Sacrifice-Sacrament, a Communion-Sacrament, and a Presence-Sacrament.” During this holy time we reflect upon the Church’s teaching about the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist.
Sections 3 and 4 of the bishop’s document, focus on this central topic of the text: How is Christ present in the Holy Eucharist?
Since the Eucharist is the center of the Christian life, the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, continually seeks to understand this mystery more fully (Eucharisicum Mysterium, no. 1). Precisely because the Holy Eucharist is a mystery, it has challenged the reflection of great theologians throughout the centuries. The Council of Trent (Session XIII) dogmatically defined the Eucharist in 1551.
The American bishops provide a good catechetical explanation in this document, issued on June 15, 2001.
“In the celebration of the Eucharist, the glorified Christ becomes present under the appearances of bread and wine in a way that is unique, a way that is uniquely suited to the Eucharist.”
St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotelian philosophy, calls this wondrous change that takes place at the consecration of the Mass “transubstantiation.” In his Credo of the People of God (June 30, 1968), Pope Paul VI states that this term “is appropriately and justly” used to indicate the hidden conversion of the substances of bread and wine.
Pope Paul continues in his Credo to state that “any theological explanation intent on arriving at some understanding of this mystery, if it is to be in accordance with Catholic faith, must maintain, without ambiguity, that in the order of reality, which exists independently of the human mind, the bread and wine cease to exist after the consecration. From then on, therefore, the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus, under the sacramental appearances of bread and wine, are truly presented before us for our adoration.” Thus, in number 4, the American bishops note that the whole Christ is present in the Holy Eucharist “Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.” They state that “in the Eucharist the bread ceases to be bread in substance, and becomes the Body of Christ, while the wine ceases to be wine in substance, and becomes the Blood of Christ.” The appearances of bread and wine remain after transubstantiation as sacred sacramental signs that indicate the new Reality they contain.
We Catholics believe that Jesus Christ is truly, really and substantially present in the Holy Eucharist (Council of Trent, Session XIII, Canon 1).
Our faith, liturgical celebrations, and eucharistic devotional practices flow from this pivotal doctrine. How blessed we are by this tremendous gift of Jesus to his s and to each of us personally! How well we are provided for by our Lord and Savior who did not leave us abandoned after the Last Supper and after Calvary, but provided a way for us to encounter the Christ of Holy Thursday and Good Friday in his glorified state here and now today through the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
May we celebrate with gratitude this Holy Thursday the great gift Jesus Christ gave us on that first Holy Thursday, his presence for all time in the Holy Eucharist!
Bishop Robert J. Baker
3. When the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, why do they still look and taste like bread and wine?
In the celebration of the Eucharist, the glorified Christ becomes present under the appearances of bread and wine in a way that is unique, a way that is uniquely suited to the Eucharist. In the Church’s traditional theological language, in the act of consecration during the Eucharist the “substance” of the bread and wine is changed by the power of the Holy Spirit into the “substance” of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. At the same time, the “accidents” or appearances of bread and wine remain. “Substance” and “accident” are here used as philosophical terms that have been adapted by great medieval theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas in their efforts to understand and explain the faith. Such terms are used to convey the fact that what appears to be bread and wine in every way (at the level of “accidents” or physical attributes — that is, what can be seen, touched, tasted, or measured) in fact is now the Body and Blood of Christ (at the level of “substance” or deepest reality). This change at the level of substance from bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ is called “transubstantiation.” According to Catholic faith, we can speak of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist because this transubstantiation has occurred (cf. Catechism, no. 1376).
This is a great mystery of our faith — we can only know it from Christ’s teaching given us in the Scriptures and in the Tradition of the Church. Every other change that occurs in the world involves a change in accidents or characteristics. Sometimes the accidents change while the substance remains the same. For example, when a child reaches adulthood, the characteristics of the human person change in many ways, but the adult remains the same person —the same substance. At other times, the substance and the accidents both change. For example, when a person eats an apple, the apple is incorporated into the body of that person — is changed into the body of that person. When this change of substance occurs, however, the accidents or characteristics of the apple do not remain. As the apple is changed into the body of the person, it takes on the accidents or characteristics of the body of that person. Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is unique in that, even though the consecrated bread and wine truly are in substance the Body and Blood of Christ, they have none of the accidents or characteristics of a human body, but only those of bread and wine.
4. Does the bread cease to be bread and the wine cease to be wine?
Yes. In order for the whole Christ to be present —body, blood, soul, and divinity — the bread and wine cannot remain, but must give way so that his glorified Body and Blood may be present. Thus in the Eucharist the bread ceases to be bread in substance, and becomes the Body of Christ, while the wine ceases to be wine in substance, and becomes the Blood of Christ. As St. Thomas Aquinas observed, Christ is not quoted as saying, “This bread is my body,” but “This is my body” (Summa Theologiae, III q. 78, a. 5).