A most frequent misunderstanding by non-Catholics centers on the view of the Bread and the Wine. By request, this is to explain briefly what the Catholic Church teaches about transubstantiation. That is the word for the Catholic belief that according to the gospel of John chapter 6 and Jesus’ institution of the Last Supper in Luke 22, His words are to be taken literally not symbolically in the inspired biblical record.
To have a level playing field, I will define terms:
Catholics use the term Eucharist for what Protestants call The Lord’s Supper or Communion or The Breaking of Bread. It is a Greek word meaning “Thanksgiving.” It takes place at Mass which is what the Catholics call their worship gathering. Through the Eucharist they offer thanksgiving for Jesus’ finished sacrifice on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins.
The host is what Catholics call the bread. It is usually in the form of a white, unleavened, pure wheat wafer. Real wine, not grape juice, is served in a cup called a chalice. After the host is consecrated and blessed by the priest, any of the host that is undistributed during the Eucharist is reserved in an enclosed boxlike receptacle called the Tabernacle which is usually located behind or to the side of the altar. The Blessed Sacrament, as the host is called, remains consecrated and transubstantiated and is used to distribute to shut-ins or displayed reverently at Eucharistic devotions called Benediction and Adoration.
The nitty-gritty of understanding the Eucharist
Some have misunderstood that the bread and wine at the Eucharist is supposed to taste or feel different after the priest consecrates it. Others are horrified that Catholics actually believe they are eating flesh and blood. (In the biblical record of John chapter 6 that is precisely why some of those who were already His disciples left Him.)
The Eucharist is the source and summit of Catholic faith; it is critical how we understand and believe it. As a personal word, I spent a lifetime taking Communion or the Lord’s Supper reverently, but I thought, and was taught, and I in turn taught, that it was only a symbol simply to remind us every so often of what Jesus sacrificed for us on the cross. I never questioned that interpretation.
Sometimes the host was in the form of tiny soda cracker squares, or a crumbled, unleavened Matzo sheet, or even ordinary white leavened bread sliced into little squares and passed around to the congregation. Sometimes an entire loaf of unsliced bread is offered, from which pieces are broken off to consume. Little thimble-like plastic glasses filled with grape juice often accompany it. The traditions for Communion vary among denominational churches and non-affiliated evangelical churches. In non-denominational groups it is likely to be open communion: the pastor invites everyone “who truly has accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Savior” to partake. Baptism was not a prerequisite except in certain denominations or more liturgical churches. Nor was confession of our sins a requirement before taking Communion.
As an evangelical, I don’t recall ever hearing a sermon explicitly explaining the meaning of the apostle Paul’s warning of spiritual guilt and even physical judgment by illness or physical death, if someone “does not judge the body rightly” or “eats the bread and drinks the cup in an unworthy manner” or “does not examine himself” (1 Cor. 11:23-34).
Non-Catholic Christian friends are sometimes offended because they are not invited or allowed to receive the Eucharist when visiting a Catholic Mass. Is the Church discriminatory or elitist by not welcoming all Christians to the Table of the Lord? Even impolite? Better that the Catholic Church is misunderstood than to contribute to the guilt of someone who believes that what he is receiving is only a symbol and therefore would “eat in an unworthy manner” to his own judgment. The proper response when one receives the host from the priest is “Amen” which means that one agrees with what the Catholic Church teaches about the transubstantiation of the elements. To receive the host without that conviction contributes to a person’s hypocrisy and would incur guilt.
What an eye-opener it was for me when I read chapter 6 of John’s gospel again in light of the inspired literalness of Scripture! Taken in context, is there any question that those who originally heard His words knew exactly that He meant—that they were literally to eat His body and drink His blood “or you have no life in you”? He repeated it several times for emphasis; it so offended some of His disciples that many left Him. Notice that Jesus did not call them back to explain that they simply misunderstood Him.
What part of Jesus’ declaration in the Upper Room “This is My body….” in Luke 22 don’t we understand? I admit that I used to take both of the above passages as metaphors, as I did Jesus’ several declarations of “I am…” in the gospels. It can be documented that the Church taught the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist since the days of the apostles and the early church. It has always been a Sacrament—never a symbol.
Do Catholics believe that the bread and wine change their original appearance after consecration by a priest? Formerly I thought that is what the Catholic Church believes. It doesn’t. I researched this thoroughly from their official teachings because it is the cornerstone of Catholic faith. I have a lot to learn yet, but the following is what I understand the Church teaches about the Eucharist.
All matter has two aspects: its substance and its appearance. The substance is what the thing is in and of itself "deep down inside," so to speak. Its appearance is what we can perceive with our five senses and by applying the scientific method. When the priest by his delegated ecclesial authority consecrates the bread and wine, their appearance remains exactly the same, but their substance changes. The "breadness" and "wineness" disappear; in their places are Christ's body and blood. We do not expect to see any visible change, nor can any high-powered microscope detect a change. This is not magic; it is a mystery of our Christian faith.
Can transubstantiation, as this is called, be proved scientifically? No. Do I taste flesh and blood when I receive the Eucharist? No. Although the consecrated bread is no longer bread, when you swallow it, it acts in your body as though it were still bread. For instance, if someone is allergic to wheat-based food, he may have a reaction to it. If you were to drink quantities of consecrated wine, you would get drunk. If someone with a cold or flu virus leaves germs on the chalice, someone might become ill even though the germs are in contact with the blood of Christ. In the consecration, bacteria and viruses are not transubstantiated.
The Sacrament of the Eucharist is like the large, sparkling gem set in the midst of the Seven Sacraments of the Church. The symbolism I settled for previously because I didn’t recognize the full biblical truth pales in comparison to the wonder of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It is truly “Wonder Bread!” No, Jesus is not sacrificed again at each Mass as some who are misinformed have accused the Church. His sacrifice is a finished work but is “re-presented,” made present to us now in real time in an “unbloody manner” not as it was the first time at