Transubstantiation may be the fanciest word that I ever use with somewhat regularity. I was not sure about the wisdom of writing my article on this word because it’s a little technical, but then I remembered that I taught this word to some first- and second-graders one summer, so if they can handle, so can we.
This word began to be used by Catholic theologians in the 1200’s, especially St. Thomas Aquinas, to describe what happens when the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus at Mass. Up until this time, theologians did not have a word for what happens, because what happens at Mass does not happen anywhere else: one thing is changed into another without the appearance changing. Because this had never been a part of our human experience, there was no word to describe it. The word “transformation” gets at the idea, but transformation simply refers to the visual form of something; the form or image of something is changed. Catholics wanted to have a word to describe the events of Mass in a more exact way.
As I wrote last week, Catholics have always reflected on the question from scripture, “How can this man give us his body to eat?” Some ask this question in disbelief; some ask it in faith. The Church wanted to help us understand Jesus’ gift of the Eucharist to us in a fuller way. So, someone had to invent a new term! Transubstantiation is the word that theologians began to use to describe what happens when the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus. The substance (what something is) of the bread and wine is changed into the substance of body and blood, while there is no change in the shape, size, color, taste, or location of the object itself. If somebody has a gluten intolerance, he or she will still have the same effects from consuming the Eucharist. Consuming too much of the Blood of Christ will also have the same effect as drinking too much wine. (Every once in a great while, God also changes the shape and appearance of the Eucharist into that of body and blood. This is the topic for a future column.)
Some Christians did not like the use of this new term because it seemed overly technical, and they thought that people with strong faith should not worry about technicalities. However, the Church disagreed and officially adopted this term at the Council of Trent (1545-1563) to describe what happens during the Consecration at Mass. If you care to read it, here is what the Council declared:
“But since Christ our Redeemer declared that to be truly His own body which He offered under the form of bread, it has, therefore, always been a firm belief in the Church of God, and this holy council now declares it anew, that by the consecration of the bread and wine a change is brought about of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ Our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of His Blood. This change the holy Catholic Church properly and appropriately calls transubstantiation.”
It really is an awesome belief – that when we receive the Eucharist at Mass, we receive the entirety of God into our bodies and into our hearts. This makes us, for a few minutes, real tabernacles, just as we find in every Catholic Church. We carry God within us as we leave Mass and go out into the world. Tabernacles are usually embellished with gold plating and beautiful artwork to show the beauty of Jesus who dwells inside. We should be the same. Our actions and whole way of being should be impacted by Who we carry inside of us. How can we be better tabernacles for Jesus?
 Quote taken from The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, trans. By Reverend H.J. Schroeder. (Tan Books: Charlotte, North Carolina. 1978.)