After treating the subject of the Abiding Presence, another essential dogma of the Catholic Faith naturally presents itself for consideration, and that is Transubstantiation.
This rather formidable word began to be used during the controversies on the Eucharist against Berengarius, early in the eleventh century, and is now the term which the Church has employed, from about the twelfth century, to express the manner in which the Abiding Presence of Our Lord is effected. She holds that by the words of Consecration, pronounced in the Mass, the whole substance of the bread and wine are changed into the Body of Jesus Christ, and the whole substance of the wine into His Blood.
Thus, Transubstantiation means the total change of one substance into another. It is a term very much abused and ridiculed, because it is not properly understood. And yet the meaning of the word is not difficult to apprehend, and may be illustrated by a number of examples taken from the pages of Holy Writ.
When Moses and Aaron went into the presence of Pharao to demand, in God's name, the release of the Chosen People from Egypt, which the king refused to grant, Aaron took his rod before Pharao and his servants, and it was turned into a serpent (Exod. vii. 10). This was a real transubstantiation, or change of the substance of a rod into the substance of a serpent.
Similarly, as further proof of their Divine mission to Pharao for the same purpose, when the king hardened his heart and refused to let the Israelites go forth, Moses and Aaron struck the waters of the river and they were turned into blood (Exod. vii. 20).
At the marriage feast of Cana, Our Saviour truly effected transubstantiation of the water into wine, changing the substance of the former into the substance of the latter (John ii. 9).
We ourselves may be considered as living instances of the same; for, day by day, we partake of food of many kinds, and it is by the process of the conversion of these substances into the substance of our being, that we are enabled to grow in health and strength, and persevere in life.
So, too, was it at the Last Supper. When Our, Lord for the first time uttered the words of Consecration, He effected this marvellous change in the bread and wine, and then told His Apostles to do in like manner, giving to them and their successors to the end of time the ineffable power of changing these elements into His own Body and Blood. This is what we term Transubstantiation.
Heretics have arisen who maintained that Our Lord's Body was merely united to the bread, as the human nature was united to the Divinity, in the Incarnation ; in such a supposition there was no transubstantiation, no change of the substance of the elements, which this term must imply : it was merely consubstantiation, as they named it. Such heretical teaching the Church, of course, has always condemned, and we must heartily accept the decree of the Council of Trent, which says (Sess. XIII. 2): "If anyone shall say that in the most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist there remains the substance of bread and of wine, together with the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and shall deny that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood, the species only of bread and wine remaining— which conversion the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation — let him be anathema." Here we find this expressive term formally adopted by the Church, to show forth her doctrine and teaching of the real and substantial presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist, without anything else, save only the accidents or appearances of the bread and wine.
If objectors say that the term is unscriptural, never found in the pages of Holy Writ, we may say the same of other terms which nevertheless are familiar to us, as expressions of the faith and belief of the Church. For instance, we do not find in Scripture the specific words Trinity or Incarnation. But if the names be not there, at least the dogmas designated by them are expressly taught in the Written Word, and are to be firmly held by us. Thus is it also with the word Transubstantiation, which the Council declares most aptly conveys the Church's teaching in regard to the Real Presence, the most fitting term by which that Presence can be verbally expressed.
Of the bread and wine the species alone remain after the Consecration; should these species become corrupt, or in any way suffer material change, then the Body and Blood of Our Lord are no longer present beneath them ; for, it was only bread and wine that He consecrated—under their species alone, therefore, does He remain ; as soon as these cease to be the accidents of bread and wine, there ceases to be present under them the substance of Our Lord's Body and Blood. Hence the law of the Church, that the particles be frequently renewed on the Altar, so that there may be no danger of the corruption of the species, or of any other dishonour being- offered, through the dampness of the climate, or of a particular tabernacle, where sacred particles are reserved.
Transubstantiation thus contains three distinct points of faith, namely :—
1. After the Consecration, the substance of bread and wine is no longer on the Altar, but absolutely ceases to be, though their appearances or accidents remain.
2. Another substance begins to be and replaces the former one, namely the substance of Our Lord's Body and Blood, under those same species or appearances.
3. This is effected by the conversion of the whole substance of the bread and wine into the substance of Our Lord's real Body and Blood. These three truths we must accept and hold against all men.
Objections to the mystery of Transubstantiation are sometimes raised, and one of them in the minds of non-Catholics religiously inclined, is this : while they don't deny the possibility of it (for they fully admit that to God all things are possible), they ask : Would God do such a thing? Would Our Lord so lower His Majesty and Sanctity, as to place Himself in the Holy Eucharist, thereby exposing Himself to insults and indignities of every kind at the hands of evil men? Can we imagine Him allowing such familiarity and freedom of intercourse as must exist, when the Faithful are allowed and even urged to receive Him so frequently, when they bear Him about in procession, and expose Him to public view in Benediction, and so forth ? To answer this objection, which really distresses the minds of some, it is enough to remember what Our Lord actually submitted to at the time of His Passion. Therein He was mocked and reviled in His bodily form, He was ill-treated and dragged about from court to court, scourged and spit upon, being finally condemned to an ignominious death on the Cross. All this and more He exposed Himself to, by becoming man in the Incarnation. His yearning love for us led Him to submit to such outrages, while living on the earth. Will His love for us be less in the Memorial of His Passion, which He leaves in our midst by
This omnipotent power of God is exercised daily by His priests, acting as His visible ministers at the Altar, as the unworthy instruments of His choice, offering the sacrifice in His name and by His authority.
Catholics have no need to be reminded that they cannot fathom the depths of this heavenly mystery. Their duty is to humble themselves before the revelation God has given them of it, adore the great gift herein bestowed, and make what reparation they can for the insults that are daily offered to It. S. Thomas of Aquin, the poet of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, says ;—
" Thee prostrate I adore, the Deity that lies Beneath those humble veils, concealed from human eyes; My heart doth wholly yield, subjected to Thy sway, For, contemplating Thee, it wholly faints away." [Adoro Te, Trans, by Aylward.]
Let us make these sentiments our own ; they will be a real act of faith in the deep mystery of Transubstantiation.