“This saying is hard; who can accept it?” St. John recounts the skepticism of “many of his disciples who were listening” to the words of Jesus as he declares himself to be the living Bread come down from heaven, his flesh given for the life of the world. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they rightly asked; so John introduces the mystery of the Eucharist in the Discourse on the Bread of Life in Chapter 6 of his Gospel.
The recent Pew Research Center survey on religious belief in the United States understandably made headlines in Catholic media, indicating that only 31% of those identifying as Catholic believe in transubstantiation: that the elements truly and wholly become the body and blood of Jesus.
Sixty-nine percent of Catholics hold the mistaken idea that the bread and wine used at Mass are merely symbols of the body and blood of Christ. Further, they believe that this is what the Catholic Church teaches — a doubling down on the error, but in a way potentially hopeful because they think they are reflecting their Church’s teaching.
Let’s correct the record, then, and ask the survey results to follow: When the words of Jesus at the Last Supper are spoken by a validly ordained priest at Mass — “This is my Body, this is my Blood” — then “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. The Eucharistic presence of Christ begins at the moment of the consecration and endures as long as the Eucharistic species subsist. Christ is present whole and entire in each of the species and whole and entire in each of their parts” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1376-77).
“Transubstantiation” is not a common word, but then, the eucharistic miracle is not a common phenomenon. The “substance” of a thing is what it truly is in itself; from the Latin, this reality “stands beneath” and endures through all the incidental factors (the “accidents” in philosophical terms) that affect how that reality is perceived. Regardless of its size, color, placement in place or time, etc., it remains the same thing in itself.
Transubstantiation simply means that the “whatness” of the bread and wine are completely changed in the Eucharist: despite all the appearances and any investigation that the physical science could conduct, faith reveals that bread and wine exist no longer; this is now the risen Jesus, truly, personally, corporeally present.
While eucharistic miracles like Lanciano and Orvieto have confirmed this reality visibly, the Real Presence is no different when all we experience through our senses the bread and wine.
Long before the Pew Research Center, people struggled with accepting this belief. From John’s Gospel above, to French theologian Berengar in the 11th century, to Protestant beliefs that Jesus was present only in symbol or along with the bread and wine, to ideas like “transignification” current around the time of Vatican II, these and many other false ideas of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist have been held.
Today’s situation is hardly surprising with strong trends of materialism, the credence given to measurement and verifiability as the boundary of the real, skepticism about objective truth and growing secularism.
St. Paul VI responded to the concern in his day with his 1965 encyclical “Mysterium Fidei.” Well worth reading in its entirety, the late pope’s focus on the ways Christ is present is relevant here. Jesus is truly present in his body, the Church, gathered in prayer and in works of mercy (see Matthew 18:20, 25:40); when the Scriptures are proclaimed; in the priest who acts in the person of Christ at Mass.
“But there is another way in which Christ is present in His Church, a way that surpasses all the others. It is His presence in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. … This presence is called ‘real’ not to exclude the idea that the others are ‘real’ too, but rather to indicate presence par excellence, because it is substantial, and through it Christ becomes present whole and entire, God and man.
… Nothing remains of the bread and the wine except for the species — beneath which Christ is present whole and entire in His physical ‘reality,’ corporeally present, although not in the manner in which bodies are in a place” (see “Mysterium Fidei,” No. 35-46).
“Know that I am with you always, until the end of the age.” The last recorded words of Jesus in Matthew present this paradox: The farewell Gift of Christ, his “going-away present,” was to stay with us, as the Emmaus disciples had begged (Matthew 28:20; Luke 24:29).
But if this is so, it sounds like the Church is asking us to believe that a miracle takes place. This is a hard saying — more than one could hope for in a lonely and hurting world. This would mean that Jesus is not only a memory, an historical founder, but as personally present here and now as I am with my dearest friend in our closest moments, and that I am to believe it on faith, without scientific proof. Such a change of one thing to another — only God could do something like that.