Heart of the Mass: Transubstantiation

Editorial, January 2011

The heart of Catholic worship of God is located in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The one thing Catholics are commanded to do each week is to attend Mass on Sunday and to take part in the divine worship. The main event in salvation history was the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, both God and Man, on the cross on Calvary more than two thousand years ago. We Catholics believe that the Mass is the sacramental re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary. So the sacrifice of the Mass is not a new or different sacrifice; it is the same sacrifice presented now in an unbloody manner through the consecration of the bread and wine when an ordained priest repeats the words of Christ over the bread, “This is my body,” and over the wine, “This is the cup of my blood.”

When the priest says those words something miraculous happens. The bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ as he is now gloriously reigning in heaven. Christ now becomes physically present on the altar under the appearances of bread and wine. A substantial change has taken place, which the Catholic Church calls “transubstantiation.” This means that the substance of bread and wine has been changed into the substance of Jesus Christ, but the accidents of quantity and quality—weight, color, size, smell, taste—remain the same. The miraculous change therefore is not observable by the senses and cannot be detected in any scientific laboratory. The reason for this is that substance itself means what a thing is and is not detectable by the senses, but only by the mind. Thus a change of substance is not observable by the senses.

Transubstantiation makes Christ really and truly present—body, blood, soul and divinity—under the appearances of bread and wine. Since Christ is there and he is God almighty, the sacrament is worthy of adoration. That is why we genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament; we adore it in the tabernacle and in the monstrance at Benediction. Jesus remains present under the appearances of bread and wine as long as they remain bread and wine. It is an enduring presence which Catholics call “the Real Presence.”

This miraculous change of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ is the most important event in all of Catholic worship. Our churches and basilicas are built around it—it is the center of focus. Priests spend eight years of training to prepare for celebrating Mass. The Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the tabernacle and a light burns constantly before it as a reminder to all of the presence of Christ. Because of his presence, the space in a Catholic church is very different from the space in a Protestant church or a synagogue or a mosque. In those buildings there is no physical presence of God. When a Catholic makes a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, he knows that Jesus is present there in a way he is not present outside the church in mountains, valleys, oceans and in the distant stars.

In this regard Catholic faith is different from that of Luther and Calvin. Luther held a theory of “consubstantiation,” which means that the substance of bread and wine is not changed at the Eucharist, but Christ becomes present “with” the bread and wine, though only while the community is assembled. For him two substances are present in the bread and wine—Christ and the bread and wine. For him, there is no change of one substance into another. So he held that Christ is present in the “use,” but not after the service is over. Therefore he rejected the tabernacle, monstrance, the Real Presence and reservation of the Eucharist.

Calvin rejected Luther’s view and taught that there is no change at all in the Eucharist. What happens, according to him, is that the bread and wine remain unchanged, but the Holy Spirit raises the mind of the worshiper to think of Christ in heaven at the right hand of the Father, for he is only there and no place else. So for him Christ is not really present under the appearances of bread and wine.

Many Catholics do not understand what the Mass is and why it is so important. That is probably why so many Catholics do not attend Mass on Sunday. It is important for us priests to know what the Church teaches about the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and to explain it to our people.

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ About Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ, is editor emeritus of HPR, having served as editor for over 30 years. He is the author of the best selling Fundamentals of Catholicism (three volumes) and of the popular introduction to the Scripture, Inside the Bible.