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Tuesday, July 9, 2024

The Council of Trent and the Mystery of Transubstantiation

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The Council of Trent and the Mystery of Transubstantiation

“This is my body, which is given for you (...) This is the chalice, the new testament in my blood, which shall be shed for you (Luke 22, 19-20)”.

These are the key-words of the most mysterious and fascinating holy sacrament of the Church. By the pronouncement of the words spoken by Jesus Christ Himself on the night of the Last Supper, made by validly ordained priests, the gifts present on the altar – the bread and the wine – are truly transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Christian faith clearly affirms that “Christ is truly, really, and substantially present under the consecrated species in His Divinity and Humanity, with Body and Soul, in Flesh and Blood.”[i] How is such a thing possible?

eblast promptNo matter how much we try to understand this, we must acknowledge our limitations in the rational comprehension of such divine mysteries. Prudently, the Roman Catechism (1566) states that “to explain this mystery is extremely difficult.”[ii] For what God offers us is not so much a speculative theory spectacularly illustrated through manifestations of His supernatural divine power, but rather a stumbling block, a mystery that is both fundamental and challenging to the Christian faith. This is evident from a discussion, recounted in chapter 6 of the Gospel of John, which took place in the synagogue in Capernaum. During this discussion, Jesus made the following statements:

“For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, abideth in me, and I in him” (John 6:56-57).

As a result, many of His disciples began to question, “This saying is hard, and who can hear it?” (John 6:61). What followed reveals the tremendous magnitude of this mystery:

“After this many of his disciples went back; and walked no more with him” (John 6:67).

Besides acknowledging the depths of such a divine mystery, we must also note and meditate on the fact that the Holy Eucharist is God’s remedy for the post-lapsarian state of man. If by consuming the forbidden fruit from the tree in the midst of Eden, the proto-parents Adam and Eve fell from grace and were exiled from Paradise, by consuming the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, believers are re-admitted to the heavenly Jerusalem represented by the Church. Thus, a reckless act of eating, committed under the temptation of the devil, is corrected by another act of eating, with profound meanings and salvific effects. For by eating God, we enter into the deepest possible communion, very concrete, very real, both bodily and spiritually, with our Creator, of all.

The question remains: how is it possible for bread to transform into the Body of God, and wine into His Blood? A substantial answer to this very difficult issue is provided by Saint Ambrose of Milan through his explanations in the famous catechetical lectures on the Sacraments:

“Perhaps you will say, ‘I see something else, how is it that you assert that I receive the Body of Christ’? And this is the point which remains for us to prove. And what evidence shall we make use of? Let us prove that this is not what nature made, but what the blessing consecrated, and the power of blessing is greater than that of nature, because by blessing nature itself is changed. (...) But if the blessing of man had such power (as we can see in the case of the prophets – n.n.) as to change nature, what are we to say of that divine consecration where the very words of the Lord and Saviour operate? For that sacrament which you receive is made what it is by the word of Christ. But if the word of Elijah had such power as to bring down fire from heaven, shall not the word of Christ have power to change the nature of the elements? You read concerning the making of the whole world: He spoke and they were made, He commanded and they were created. Shall not the word of Christ, which was able to make out of nothing that which was not, be able to change things which already are into what they were not? For it is not less to give a new nature to things than to change them.”[iii]

Pointing to two key elements, the divine word and the blessing, Saint Ambrose shows us the source of this miraculous transformation: the power of God. While this answer may be sufficient for a believer, those with doubts and uncertainties might not be satisfied. Without claiming to fully elucidate the divine mystery, the Council of Trent expressed in the most profound way the highest degree of understanding that the human mind can reach on such a matter.

“But since Christ, our Redeemer, has said that that is truly His own body which He offered under the species of bread [cf. Matt. 26:26ff.; Mark 14:22ff.; Luke 22:19 ff.; 1 Cor. 11:23 ff.], it has always been a matter of conviction in the Church of God, and now this holy Synod declares it again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine a conversion takes place of the whole substance of 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 conversion is appropriately and properly called transubstantiation by the Catholic Church [can. 2].”[iv]

Using the terminology of scholastic philosophy, within the context in which Doctors of the Church such as Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Bonaventure shone, the Council of Trent outlines the only path we can tread without the risk of error. Thus, first, we must reflect on the distinction between the particular individuated through “accidents” and substance (or essence).

If we read the texts of the Old Testament, we will already find a close relationship between the Eucharist and the rites described there. Assimilating all these events and meanings from the Old Testament world, our Lord Jesus Christ instituted the Eucharist, giving a new, substantial, and profoundly significant meaning to the blessing of bread and wine.

Bread and wine – like any other element of the visible world – exist due to the combination of two metaphysical principles: in Aristotelian terms, matter and form (i.e., essence). To be more explicit, let me draw attention to a single point: although we perceive many particular, concrete loaves of bread, which differ from one another more or less in appearance, weight, etc., we accept that behind this plurality there is a single “idea,” a single “genus” to which all bakery products with certain particularities belong. Therefore, we distinguish between the material bread, the one we primarily see, and the substantial bread (or the essence of “bread”) which we come to know – as Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches us following Aristotle – only through an intellectual operation called “abstraction.” What the Council of Trent tells us is precisely this: although the external, material, “accidental” aspects of the bread and wine remain unchanged, through divine intervention their substance, their essence, is replaced by the Body and Blood of the Savior. The act of this replacement is called, in the language consecrated by the Council of Trent, transubstantiation (because the substances of the bread and wine are replaced by the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ).

For someone less familiar with Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy, these speculative notions may seem difficult to grasp. Therefore, there is another way to reflect on this mystery; by asking ourselves: why did God choose bread and wine as the materials through which He is offered to us most profoundly for communion? Why did He not choose – for example – simple water and fried fish? Or any other common drink and any other common food?

If we read the texts of the Old Testament, we will already find a close relationship between the Eucharist and the rites described there. In gratitude to the Creator, bread and wine are offered by the chosen people as a sacrifice among the first fruits of the earth. In the context of the Exodus, they acquire meanings related to this epochal historical event: the unleavened bread that Israel eats during the celebration of the Jewish Passover commemorates the departure from Egypt, and the manna received in the wilderness reminds the chosen people that they live by the bread of the Word of God. Even the “daily bread” is the fruit of the Promised Land and a symbol of God’s goodwill towards His promises. At the same time, the “chalice of benediction” (1 Corinthians 10:16) at the end of the Jewish Passover feast adds an eschatological dimension to the festive joy of the wine, related to the Messianic expectation of the reconstruction of Jerusalem. Assimilating all these events and meanings from the Old Testament world, our Lord Jesus Christ instituted the Eucharist, giving a new, substantial, and profoundly significant meaning to the blessing of bread and wine.

This is why the irreverent and sacrilegious manner in which Holy Communion is offered and received are the gravest sins of the Church since the Second Vatican Council.

In addition to these clarifications, we can find other fruitful meanings by reflecting on the symbolism that wheat (from which bread is made) and grapes (from which wine is made) have had since ancient times. First of all, both wheat and grapes have always been considered symbols of the members of the human community. In some of the old hagiographic texts, it is said that the martyrs are “the chosen ears” for the granary of the living God, or that the grapes are the elements that together make up the entire vine – a symbol of the chosen people. The Bible is full of such metaphors and comparisons. At the same time, we see that we do not consume these fruits directly, but their most valuable extract. Bread is made from flour, which is obtained after the wheat has been ground, and wine is obtained after the grapes have been crushed in the press.

If we start from the premise that what we receive in Holy Communion is the real Body and Blood of the Risen Savior, we must understand that this is the Body and Blood in the state after the Resurrection. To join the King of our hearts in the Kingdom of Heaven, we must crush ourselves, practice asceticism (primarily through the renunciation of sins and vices) to extract from our bodies and souls what is best, purest, and most refined.

In fact, to go deeper, we must acknowledge that original sin disastrously altered human nature: our body was burdened with the mortal “flesh” (gr. sarx) that makes us mortal, and the soul itself was burdened with elements that are not immortal, such as all those disordered affections that, taken together, constitute “concupiscence.” To (re)gain the status of citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, we must be purified, cleansed of these burdensome elements. This is achieved not so much through our own efforts, which are always precarious, but especially through the intervention of God Himself, who offers us the possibility of resembling Him through what nourishes us: His Body and Blood.

This is why it is absolutely obligatory for any Christian who wishes to approach the Holy Eucharist to purify himself of mortal sins: to be clean and ready to receive such heavenly gifts. This is why the irreverent and sacrilegious manner in which Holy Communion is offered and received are the gravest sins of the Church since the Second Vatican Council. Additionally, the understanding of the Holy Eucharist as a kind of “magic talisman” that can make those in a state of grave sin automatically holy must be firmly opposed by priests. Not everyone can receive Communion under any conditions. Unrepentant public sinners can never ever be admitted to Holy Communion. If necessary, they should be publicly rebutted. Those who are guilty of the sin of scandal cannot receive Holy Communion without serious repentance. There are traditional teachings of the Church recorded both in Holy Scripture and in official documents and catechisms. We must insist on all these under the guidance of clerics devoted to Holy Tradition so that we may truly advance on the path of holiness.

Sancta Maria auxilium Christianorum, ora pro nobis!

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[i] The quote was taken from the article “Theology and Spirituality of the Mass” on the website of the Fraternity of Saint Pius X: [Accessed: 22 June 2024].

[ii] Catechism of the Council of Trent for Parish Priests, Issued by Order of Pope Pius V, Translate into English with Notes by John A. McHugh, O.P., and Charles J. Callan, O.P., Tenth Printing, 1947, New York: Joseph Wagner Inc., p. 238.

[iii] Saint Ambrose, De mysteriis (On the Mysteries), chapter 9, sections 50 & 52: [Accessed: 22 June 2024].

[iv] Denzinger, 1642/877: “Quoniam autem Christus redemptor noster corpus suum 1d, quod sub specie panis offerebat (cf. Mattew 26:26ss; Mark 14:22ss; Luke 22:19s; 1 Corinthians 11:24ss), vere esse dixit, ideo persuasum semper in Ecclesia Dei fuit, idque nunc denuo sancta haec Synodus declarat: per consecrationem panis et vini conversionem fieri totius substantiae panis in substantiam corporis Christi Domini nostri, et totius substantiae vini in substantiam sanguinis ejus. quae conversio convenienter et proprie a sancta catholica Ecclesia transsubstantiatio est appellata (can.2).” The full Latin text is available here: [Accessed: 22 June 2024].

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Last modified on Tuesday, July 9, 2024
Robert Lazu Kmita | Remnant Columnist, Romania

A Catholic father of seven and a grandfather of two, Robert Lazu Kmita is a writer with a PhD in Philosophy. His first novel, The Island without Seasons, was published by Os Justi Press in 2023.