Transubstantiation: Long Word, Short Lesson

In 2019, something happened that gave a lot of Catholics a wake-up call. Pew Research announced that nearly 70% of self-described Catholics believed the bread and wine used in Communion are only symbols of Christ, rather than His Body and Blood. 

For those who believe the Eucharist is truly the Body of Blood of Christ, it’s a good time to pause and ask: can we explain why the Eucharist is more than just a symbol? How can it be that something that looks and tastes just like bread and wine is really the Body and Blood of Christ?

It all comes down to one word: transubstantiation. 

You may have heard that word before, but aren’t sure exactly what it means. So here’s a simple way to explain it. 

First let’s look at the word itself. It’s made of two parts: the prefix “trans-”, which means across or through, and the word “substance.” So literally, the word “transubstantiation” means “through a substance” (or across a substance, from one substance to another). 

But what do we mean by “substance”? In this context, a substance basically means a “thing.” Each and every substance (thing) has certain characteristics. Take a chair, for example. A chair is a thing with four legs, a flat surface to sit on, and a back part sticking up. When you see a chair, you automatically recognize these characteristics and know that this thing is a chair. 

Now what if the chair was a different color? Would it still be a chair? Yes. There are some characteristics of a chair that can change, but it wouldn’t change the fact that this thing is a chair. These characteristics that change are called “accidents.” You could have a big chair next to a small chair, but they’re both chairs. You could take a brown chair and paint it yellow, but it’s still a chair. You could turn it upside down and it’s still a chair. 

So here we have the difference between a substance and an accident. A substance is what a thing is (a chair). An accident is a characteristic of a thing that can change without changing what the thing is (size, color, etc.). 

Usually we see accidents change but not the substance. But the Eucharist is different. In the Eucharist, the substance changes but not the accidents. It still has the same size, shape, color and taste of bread and wine — but it’s not bread and wine anymore. What happened was transubstantiation. The accidents are the same, but the substance has changed. We have faith in the words of Jesus that the words “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood” really mean that. 

You can think about all this the next time you’re at Mass. When the priest prays the words of consecration, reflect on this great mystery of the Eucharist. Ask God to help you see this sacrament with the eyes of faith, and he will surely do so. 

May we all grow in gratitude for the gift of Christ in the Eucharist. Have a blessed July, and see you next month! 

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