St. Thomas and Transubstantiation

Author: LOR


L’Osservatore Romano

There are words that express what needs to be said with such precision that we cannot do without them once we havediscovered them. At the Council of Nicea the heretics' subtleties were cut short by the insertion in the Symbol of the statement that the Word is consubstantial with the Father. Equivocations about Jesus Christ's real presence in the Eucharist were eliminated at the Council of Trent by canonization of the transubstantiation to designate the wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the body of Christ and the whole substance of the wine into his blood. Use of this word was not new. It was in current use a century before Saint Thomas, because it was perfectly adapted to the traditional doctrine that was being defended.

Transubstantiation means the change of one substance into another substance. Some have feared that it might not be able to be understood by a modern mind. This does little honour to the modern mind. The idea of substance is one of the primordial notions possessed by every man and of which he constantly makes use. I cannot say that I feel cold without perceiving myself as a permanent subject, a substance, affected by this unpleasant condition.

And when it is a question of the substance of bread and wine, we only have to know what all know, when they distinguish bread and wine from other things. I might add that I have found Professor Marcuse using this very term transubstantiation in its true sense, and I think that this should be sufficient guarantee of its modernity (The One Dimensional Mail, 1968).

St. Thomas shows us in a wonderful way how the key of the mystery of the Eucharist is in transubstantiation. The term does not dispel the mystery, because the divine operation is too sublime and too secret in this sacrament for us to be able to understand it, but it suffices to prevent non-believers from declaring that the Church's doctrine is impossible (Contra Gentes, 63).

The fact is that this doctrine does raise many difficulties for human reason. For example: Christ ascended into heaven; his return to earth is something reserved for the end of time. How can his body be also in the Eucharist, and not only on one occasion, but at the same time on so many altars and in innumerable tabernacles? Not only that, but also in an invisible fashion, while the bread and the wine appear to remain unchanged?

As Newman said, a thousand difficulties do not make a doubt. It is beautiful to see how St. Thomas sets out the objections with all their force, and humbly, firmly and fervently attaches himself to Christ's words. "The fact that the body and the blood of Christ are in this sacrament", he tells us, "cannot be perceived with the senses or with the understanding; it can be perceived only by faith, which is founded on divine authority". Then, with St. Cyril and with the Church, he repeats the text from St. Luke: "This is my body, which will be given for you", and comments, "Do not doubt that this is true, but receive the Saviour's word with faith, for he is the truth; he does not lie" (S. Th. q 75, a. 1).

Let us see how he poses the question:How did the body of Christ, which was not in the host, begin to be there; how did the blood of Christ, which was not in the chalice, begin to be there?

He answers: for a body to be where it formerly was not, there is need either for that body to come from somewhere else, or for it to be the term of a change occurring on the spot. A fire does not exist in a house where it is not brought in from the outside or where it is not produced inside. He resolutely goes on: Christ's body did not come from outside the Eucharist, as if it were carried there from another place. In fact he remains where he was and does not leave heaven; moreover, he could not betake himself into many places at the same time. Therefore it is the other possibility that occurs. This body of Christ becomes present there subsequent to a change. What change? The change ofthe substance that was there before, the substance of the bread. When Christ said, "This is my body ", it was if he had said, This, which is still bread, I change into my body. One substance has been changed into another substance. The bread has been changed into Christ's body. It is a real transubstantiation: "The body of Christ cannot begin to be in this sacrament unless the change of the substance of the bread be effected".

No other example exists of such a radical change. The whole reality of the substance of the bread has beentransformedand has become this body of Christ, which already existed but which was not yet the term of this change.

No created powercould cause such a profound change of the whole being of a substance. But the divine power, the cause of all being, has this power over the whole of being.

Therefore, after this event, there is no longer bread, because it has beenentirely transformed. My senses continue to perceive what they perceived before, because what hasbeen changedis only thebread's substance, not the sense appearances which signified it, namely extension, colour etc. But the reality whichthese appearances or accidents hide from us, is the body of Christ, into whichthe bread has been changed. That marvel that is effected on one altar is effected on all the altars on earth, as the sun movesin its course.

It is not the body of Christ that is multiplied, for that is unique and always the same, and the constant term of all the transubstantiations. What is multiplied is Christ's presence, corresponding with the number of species consecrated.

After the consecration Christ is where the bread was; but he is not there inthe way that the bread was. The latter was there not only in its own substance, but also in its extension, its form, its colour; which qualities remain after the consecration, as the appearances of the bread which is no longer there. Christ's body is wherever the substance of the bread was, because it was into his body that the substance of the bread was changed. In virtue of the transubstantiation and in accordance with the words uttered, it is only the substance of Christ's body which is present; Christ's body is in fact there not according to the requirements of its own dimensions, but in another manner, which is the manner in which substance is present. But this substance of the body of Christ is the substance of a living body and of the body of God; it follows, therefore, by concomitance, as we say, that Christ's body, having been made present by the consecration of the host, is present with the blood, the soul and the divinity of Christ. Similarly, Christ's blood, having been rendered present by the consecration over the chalice, is present with the body, the soul and the divinity of Christ.

On the one hand, therefore, Jesus Christ is in the Eucharist as he is in heaven, withhis glorious body, his blessed soul, and his divinity; on the other hand, he is notthere in the same way that he is in heaven; he does not occupy space there according to the extension of his body, but his presence is limited to the dimensionof the eucharistic species, since it is the bread that was there that has been transubstantiated, and he is whole and entire in every part of the species, since the substance of the bread was wholly andentirely in every part of that bread.

The great invisible miracle that has transformed the bread into the body of Christ, and that has transformed the wine into his blood, gives a solid and coherent explanation of the real presence.

Saint Thomas undoubtedly also made use of principles from his philosophy for his exposition. But the basis is provided and imposed by Scripture.

The Eucharist is above all a remembrance of the Passion and a sacrifice. But the real presence of the victim is necessary, and it is that, as it is presented to us, which makes easy the understanding of' the sacrifice.

By virtue of the double consecration, Jesus Christ presents this mystical separation of his body and his blood to his Father as the sacrament of his bloody Passion. Thus Saint Thomas’ Eucharistic treatises marvellously illustrate the Church's teaching, which, as we are reminded by the encyclical MysteriumFidei, says that "through the Eucharistic mystery the sacrifice of the Cross, accomplished once on the Cross, is represented in a wonderful way, and is recalled to our memories, and that its saving power is applied for the remission of sins which we commit every day" (A.A.S. 57, 1965, 759).  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
3 April 1969, page 7

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