Father Anthony E. Marques, Special to The Catholic Virginian
According to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, only 31% of Catholics in the United States believe that, “during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus.”
This low percentage of belief is alarming because the Eucharist occupies a central place in the Catholic faith. A review of the Church’s sophisticated doctrine of the Eucharist, developed over the course of centuries, provides a way to understand the reality of this sacrament.
The Church believes the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ — and not just an ordinary sign or symbol — because Jesus himself says this: “Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my Body… Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this is the chalice of my Blood.”
Over time, the Church has clarified how Christ is present in the Eucharistic species —the consecrated bread and wine. Lateran Council IV (1215) employed the term “transubstantiation” to explain the change of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ that takes place at the consecration of the Mass.
The Council of Trent (1545– 1563) developed this doctrine further: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and man, is really, truly and substantially contained in the Blessed Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist under the outward appearances of sensible things.” That is why the Church speaks of Christ’s “Real Presence” in the Eucharist.
The eucharistic body of Christ is the historical body of Christ — that which was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered and died on the Cross, and was raised from the dead — but present in a supernatural way.
Owing to Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension, the body of Christ acquired supernatural characteristics, while retaining its natural ones. For this reason, the Council of Trent taught that Christ is in heaven, according to his natural mode of existence, and at the same time present in the Eucharist, according to his supernatural mode of existence.
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) explained that the supernatural presence of Christ in the Eucharist is that of a substance. By “substance,” Thomas meant that the essence of Christ — his body and blood, soul and divinity — is present in each particle of the consecrated bread or in each drop of the consecrated wine.
Thomas distinguished the substance of Christ’s body from its “accidents” — that is, the body of Christ in its natural mode of existence (occupying space), which is in heaven. The substance of Christ’s body exists in relationship to its accidents — never apart from them — even though the accidents themselves are not present in the Eucharist. In this sacrament, the accidents of bread and wine replace the accidents of Christ’s body: his tissue, bones, and cells.
As the term “transubstantiation” suggests, only the substance of the bread and wine is changed during the Eucharistic consecration — not the accidents. The accidents of bread and wine enable the body and blood of Christ to be consumed, an indication that the Eucharist is meant for spiritual nourishment.
By way of analogy, the essence of water is contained in each molecule of water. Whether there is a drop of water or a gallon of it, either quantity contains the essence of water. Therefore, the substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist means that his body is not divided when the consecrated bread is broken, nor is his blood divided when the consecrated wine is poured. The essence of Christ is always present.
The Eucharist is the actual body of Christ. More precisely, it is the body of Christ present in a supernatural rather than a natural way. The supernatural way is no less real than the natural way, even though it lies beyond our normal, sensory perception.
St. Thomas Aquinas eloquently professed this eucharistic faith in “Tantum ergo,” the hymn he composed for the feast of Corpus Christi (established in 1264). This chant is traditionally sung when the Eucharist is exposed for adoration: “Therefore, this sacrament let us venerate while bowed… may faith supply what the senses lack.”
Father Marques is rector of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Richmond.