Catholic Korner: The Eucharist, the Real Presence, and Transubstantiation

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My friend Travis recently wrote of questions with the doctrine of Transubstantiation. Travis asked for responses from Protestants and Catholics and instead of writing a comment that wouldn’t be read by anyone except Travis, I thought this would be a great topic for Catholic Korner. Transubstantiation itself cannot be covered without discussing the entire Eucharist, so this may be a lengthy response.

Some definitions

The Eucharist: This is what is commonly referred to as “communion” or “The Lord’s Supper”. The Eucharist is one of seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church. The Sacrament was instituted on Holy Thursday (or Maundy Thursday), the day before Christ’s crucifixion, in an upper room of a house in Jerusalem during which was thought to be a simple Passover feast (Matthew 26:20–30; Mark 14:17–26; Luke 22:14-23; John 13:21–30; 1 Corinthians 11:23–26 ).

The Real Presence: This describes the truth that when we receive communion–in any form as all Christians believe, at least partially, in the Real Presence–Christ is literally present with us. Catholics maintain that He is fully present “body and blood, soul and divinity”, something that has been maintained since the beginnings of the Church. The difference between Catholics and Protestants falls upon the question as to the actual presence of Christ’s body and blood in the species (the actual bread and wine) of the Eucharist. Protestants acknowledge that Christ is there with us, but do not differentiate His presence at the Eucharist from His divine presence anywhere else. This is where the rather scientific sounding doctrine of Transubstantiation comes into the picture.

What Transubstantiation is not and does not do

It is not a literal turning of bread into flesh or wine into blood. You will not look upon the bread and suddenly say “Ewwwwwwww!!!” once it has been consecrated. You will not taste blood in your mouth. Catholics are not cannibals; Cannibals are people who eat real and literal human flesh.

Transubstantiation does not provide Salvation nor does it remove sin. The same can be said for the entire Sacrament of the Eucharist, of which Transubstantiation is a description of form. The fact that receiving communion does not remove sin is evident in the fact that one must be free of sin when receiving, either having taken the Sacrament of Reconciliation prior to Mass (for mortal sins) or through the act of penance at the beginning of Mass (for venial sins). The effects of the Eucharist in relation to Salvation are the same as those of anything we do short of accepting the grace freely offered by Jesus on the Cross. The Eucharist is us participating in and cooperating with our Salvation as opposed to receiving Christ’s gift then sitting around and saying, “Well, I’m all good, the rest of you suckers have fun in Hell.”

What Transubstantiation is

When a priest or Bishop consecrates the species during the Eucharistic prayers, the species is turned into the body (the bread) and blood (the wine) of Christ while retaining its form as bread and wine. How is Christ able to turn into something that still looks and tastes like bread and wine? Well, how was Christ able to take a few loaves a bread and a few fish and feed 5000 people? This is the fundamental lesson that Christ was attempting to teach to the unbelieving Jews throughout John 6. Do not question nor doubt what I can do.

What about the Last Supper?

Travis has asked about how to reconcile this doctrine with the fact that Jesus was sitting before the Apostles at the Last Supper and standing before the Jews in John 6, so how could He be referring to His own living body when He said “eat my flesh” and “drink my blood”. The Jews asked the same thing, again and again, only to be repeatedly told by Jesus that He meant what He was saying and was not speaking symbolically. It is hard when we use the term “literally” because, when reason prevails, we are not literally eating flesh and blood. This is the Eucharistic Mystery. C.S. Lewis said “The command, after all, was, ‘Take and eat’, NOT take and understand.” But it is also important to recognize the difference between Jesus alive and the events at Calvary. Do this in memory of me. This is my blood poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. This is mystery from mystery as the Eucharist is the realization of the Paschal Mystery. In death, Jesus took the place of the lamb of the Passover feast: He became the sacraficial lamb, He became manna from heaven.

Why does it matter?

Is the issue of Transubstantiation important enough to drive Catholics and Protestants apart? It shouldn’t be. Catholics often use the wrong language when describing the Eucharist, usually sticking by the term “literally” too closely while not focusing on the mysteries and the whole of Scriptural backing for this doctrine. Transubstantiation is and should be a very minor issue as it does not contradict any of the basic tenets of faith that we share.

A Protestant friend has raised the issue of non-Catholics receiving the Eucharist at Mass. It is important to understand that there are many reasons that non-Catholics should not receive communion in a Catholic Church:

– It would demonstrate a lack of honesty with oneself and the Church to receive communion under false pretenses. If you do not believe the consecration of the priest meant anything, if you do not believe that you are experiencing anything different than what you experience in any Protestant church, if you reject many of the other doctrines of the Church in which you are asking to take part of the most blessed function, then why would you want to receive communion under these circumstances? Why participate in something for which you reject the effects?

– As I mentioned, the Eucharist must only be received when completely free of sin. However, Protestants reject this very premise. If you do not believe that you can be even temporarily free of the effects of sin, as demanded by the Sacrament, then how can you honestly receive the Sacrament? Again, you would be receiving under false pretenses. Why? This is in no way an attack on my friend or Protestants; I understand his point but it can be likened to a liberal registering as a Republican, a hunter joining PETA, or me, a person who hates guns, joining the NRA. It would be participation based upon a lie and unfair to oneself or the true members of those groups. They are not rejecting us, we are rejecting ourselves based upon our beliefs.

In conclusion, Christ did not just want us to be with Him when receiving communion. He wanted Himself to be with us in a real and tangible way. This is why he told us that we must eat His flesh and drink His blood. It is not enough to believe that he is kind of with us and maybe somewhere in the room. We genuflect to Him as He is right there in front of us as our King. We accept Him, again and again, in memory of Him as He commanded. We are never personally closer to Him than at this time.

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