A couple weeks later I was able to speak with the director of religious education for that parish, a man who was also a convert and an acquaintance through our daughters. He laughed at my question about Catholics being cannibals. Evidently lots of people think it, but most are too polite to say anything about it. Not me
He explained that the term Transubstantiation dates back to the time of Thomas Aquinas, whom I remembered from my History of Christianity class at Guilford. Then it clicked for me.
Essentially, according to Aristotle, whose philosophical work was a major source for Aquinas as he undertook his great theological work, an object has two parts: its substance and its accident. The accident of the bread and wine (or the “species”), in the consecration, remain the same – that is, the physical nature of the host, if you were to examine them under a microscope, would still be bread (wheat flour, no yeast) and wine (grape, fermented). They retain the taste and other sensory elements of their original accidental nature. But the substance – that is-ness of the object, is transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ.
It’s a hard concept to try to explain. But I’d heard of substance and accident before – not in my religion classes, but in a lit class. “Think of what makes a tree a tree,” said my professor. “The isness of the tree.” The particulars that make it recognizable as a pine or an oak, a willow or a poplar, those particulars are the accident. The essential “treeness” is the substance.
Aha. Transubstantiation. But, having been taught for nearly forty years that the Lord’ Supper, Communion, is merely a symbolic remembrance of the Last Supper, a commemoration of the sufferings He foretold at that last Passover, it was still a difficult concept to grasp.
Well, said my friend, let’s look at the Gospel of John, chapter 6. Starting at verse 26, Jesus begins His discourse on His identity as the Bread of Life. I’d always been taught this was a metaphorical reality, not literal. But look at v. 41:
“The Jews therefore were grumbling about Him, because He said ‘I am the bread that came down out of heaven.’”
Well, it was hard for them to accept that He was the Messiah, right? That’s what they were complaining about.. Wasn’t it? Look at v. 52:
The Jews therefore began to argue with one another, saying ‘How can this man give us His flesh to eat?’”
Already they were beginning to take Him not metaphorically, but literally And verses 53-58:
…Truly, truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life… for My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink.. He who eats this bread shall live forever.
Now, Jesus taught this very publicly, in the synagogue in Capernaum. It wasn’t some secret, cultic teaching shared only with the Twelve, it was something He had laid wide open before everyone following Him and thinking about following Him. And it was such a difficult idea for them, that “many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.” It wasn’t just the Jewish officials who had difficulty with this, it was His disciples (remember, by this point He had many disciples, and the Twelve were distinguished from all the other followers). Some abandoned Him because of it.
If Jesus had been speaking only symbolically or metaphorically, nobody would have been offended. Instead, everyone – the Jews and the disciples – understood Jesus to be speaking literally. And He never corrected their literal understanding or offered any alternative explanation, as He did with parables and other difficult teachings His disciples did not understand.
I have since learned that the Church taught this essential doctrine, also known as the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, from its very earliest days. Even after the Reformation, the change to a symbolic interpretation of the Lord’s supper came about well after the major splits of Lutheranism and Anglicanism and seems to have been developed to further distance these rebel groups from Rome – not as primary objections to the teachings of Rome. In fact, the Anglicans/Episcopalians and the Lutherans today teach a doctrine called consubstantiation, that the Real Presence of Christ co-exists side by side with the substances of bread and wine. With, but separate.
I knew that the Holy Spirit had revealed something powerful and totally unexpected into me in that first Mass about Christ’s Real Presence, and this Scriptural evidence, unaddressed by my former Protestant pastors, was compelling. The historical evidence of the Church’s adherence to this doctrine for more than 1500 years up to and including the early years of the Protestant Reformation was even more so. Again I thought: if the Catholic Church was right about that one, essential point, then I was willing to bet the farm that they were going to be right on the money about everything else. Or if not, it really didn’t matter to me: I simply had to become Catholic.