Recently, a good friend going through the RCIA process wrote to me about “transubstantiation.” He is scientifically trained and spoke of someone who could trace food through DNA found in the digestive system.  Could we do the same thing with Jesus through the Eucharist?  He suggested, I am sure correctly, that he is not alone in this kind of question concerning the real presence. He thought I could share this response on the blog, so here it is.


I will not be able to trace the DNA of Jesus through the digestive tract and I will not be able to “prove” he is there in any scientific way.  Yes, this will require faith, but it is not a blind faith or one without explanation.

Let’s deal with the very technical term – transubstantiation.   The first thing to know is that the Church is ready to allow it still to be a mystery.  It never says the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ by transubstantiation – the Church says that is the best explanation of what happened.  Luther hated the term and still believed in real presence based solely on the biblical evidence. Transubstantiation is a philosophical explanation of what happens.  A substance is what the actual thing (called res which is Latin for thing) is.  You and I are substances, something that is identified as an actual thing in the world and thinking of it as something else would be wrong.  Transubstantiation then says it was once one thing and now is another.  An “accident” is a property of the thing but does not define it.  You and I are things in the world and we have been this substance our entire life.  Yet, all these other things such as height, weight and in my case hair color have changed in us. Yet, the fact that they change and we are still who we are shows those aspects do not make us the substance.  In this case, we say the appearance, the taste, even the alcoholic content of the bread and wine are accidents while the true res of the substance is Jesus Christ.  The bread and wine have become a new substance – thus transubstantiation.

Yet, that is admittedly a descriptive term of what we believe happens.  What we do hold without ambiguity is that Jesus is truly and really present in the Eucharist.  Our best evidence to back up what we hold in faith is the scriptural witness.  It is remarkably consistent as in three Gospels (There is no Eucharistic narrative of the Last Supper in John, yet there is an assent to the reality of Christ’s presence in John 6 where he says You must eat, better translated gnaw, my flesh and drink my blood if you are to have eternal life.) and significantly in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians which predates the Gospels by some ten to twenty years.  This suggests that there was never a time when the community of believers who participated in the Eucharist did not believe that Christ was truly present.  Those who knew Jesus, who shared this meal with him, who had every opportunity to ask, “What did you mean by that?” had no doubt that the intention of Jesus was to truly share himself for the forgiveness of sins and to fulfill the promise to be with them always (Mt28:20).  And when the Risen Lord appeared in Luke’s Gospel on the Road to Emmaus, the two wandering disciples finally recognize him in the Breaking of the Bread, another pointer to the disciples’ belief that he would be truly found there.

Jesus had a desire not to live in the past tense but to remain with us.  That is why the consecration is said to come from the epiclesis, the calling down of the Holy Spirit for he said that he would send his spirit with us to remain with us.  Then he made this memorial of himself in the Eucharist.  Memorial and memory are very different things in our journalistic understanding than what Ancient people knew.  For them, memory wasn’t a faint echo of things past, but a re-presentation of what occurred.  To remember the passion and death of Jesus is for it to be alive to us now.  If the cross is to have redemptive power, this great cosmic event, its power cannot be limited to a time and place.  When we pray in the Memorial Acclamation that ‘We proclaim the death of the Lord,” we speak of that sense that he and his saving action are truly present in the Eucharist.

I would also point to the effects of Eucharist although that is something you have not fully shared as a Catholic.  But there is a personal effect that is, for me, profound and deep each time I receive and there is a communal effect in which the worshipping body becomes the Body of Christ and all their divisions melt away when the richest, poorest and smartest, dumbest are all bestowed the gift of God.  That actual transformation (We say the Eucharist makes the Church) could not be created I believe by a mere symbol.  I cannot be more eloquent than what your experience would be.  It is one that I pray we will be able to share together one day.

I know this is not completely appealing to your scientifically trained mind and you are not alone in your musings. However, we should be aware of never limiting the ability of Christ’s love to reach and transform us. If he could do this, give himself in the gift of the Eucharist, wouldn’t he?

I hope this little rambling helped.  To answer your question for a resource finally, let me send you to a fine explanation by the Catholic Bishops of the US –