By Ashley Crane
Catechetical School Instructor for the SJV Lay Division
St. Thomas Aquinas is probably best known for his impressive theological works, but during his life he also composed beautiful prayers and hymns that we still sing in the Church today. Among these is his Adoro te devote, often known under the English title “Godhead Here in Hiding,” a translation into English by the 19th-century English poet and Jesuit priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins.
This hymn is a sublime meditation on the Eucharist, the “sum and summary of our faith” (CCC 1327). It begins with the lines: “Godhead here in hiding whom I do adore / Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more.” These lines profess a profound faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, although this presence is inaccessible to our physical senses. In its poetry the hymn expresses a truth St. Thomas explores at great length in his theological works: the dogma of transubstantiation, by which Jesus becomes truly present in the Eucharist.
What does transubstantiation mean?
The words of consecration spoken by a priest over bread and wine at Mass bring about a change that the Church calls transubstantiation. The word itself describes exactly what is changing: from the Latin trans, meaning “change,” and substantia, meaning “substance.” This means that the change that takes place concerns the substance of the bread and wine.
Substance refers to the essence or nature of something, the most fundamental level of the reality of the thing, what makes it what it is. Thus, transubstantiation means that the bread and wine cease absolutely to be bread and wine and are changed by the power of the Holy Spirit into Jesus Christ: body, blood, soul and divinity. This miracle is a total change of the substance of the bread and wine, but not of their physical characteristics — their accidents or species. While substance is what a thing is, the accidents or species are the ways in which we perceive the thing by use of our senses — how it looks, feels, tastes, etc. After the consecration, all the physical characteristics of bread and wine remain, but their substance or nature has truly been changed. Although what we see and taste appears to our senses as bread and wine (and affects our body as bread and wine would), it is no longer bread and wine but actually Jesus: really, truly, substantially present.
Transubstantiation and the Real Presence
While “substantially present” might not sound all that impressive to modern ears, the magnitude of this miracle cannot be overstated. Jesus is just as perfectly, gloriously and powerfully present in the Eucharist as he is in heaven. Consider these words from the Council of Trent:
“In the first place, the holy synod teaches, and openly and simply professes, that, in the sacred sacrament of the holy Eucharist, after the consecration of the bread and wine, our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and man, is truly, really, and substantially contained under the species of those sensible things. For neither are these things mutually repugnant, that our Saviour Himself ever sitteth at the right hand of the Father in heaven, according to the natural mode of existing, and that, nevertheless, He be, in many other places, sacramentally present unto us in his own substance, by that manner of existing, which, though we can scarcely express it in words, we yet can, by the understanding illuminated by faith, suppose, and ought most faithfully to believe, to be possible unto God”
(Council of Trent, Session 13, “Decree concerning the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist,” chapter 1).
The only difference between Jesus’ presence in heaven and his presence in the Eucharist is the mode or manner of that presence. In Heaven, he is present “according to the natural mode of existing,” that is, under his own proper species or physical characteristics. In the Eucharist, he is present in a mysterious, sacramental manner under “the species of those sensible things,” that is, under the species or the physical characteristics of bread and wine.
This is why Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist is referred to as his “Real Presence.” Although Jesus is certainly present to us in many ways — in the other sacraments, in prayer, in Scripture, in his people gathered together in his name and so on — his presence in the Eucharist is categorically different from any other way that he is present to us here on earth.
Jesus is fully present under both species
Both the bread and the wine are totally changed into the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ such that Christ is fully present under both species. Because his body and blood are united in his resurrected, glorified body, they are not separated in the Eucharist. And because the Son has taken to himself our human nature and united it forever to his divine nature in the Incarnation, the Eucharist is the fullness of his humanity as well as his divinity. We receive the fullness of Christ whether we receive both the host and the chalice, or only under one species.
In the same way, even a very small piece of a host or a drop of the precious blood contains the fullness of Christ. This is also why we must take the greatest care when we receive in the hand that no crumb should break off the host and be dropped, and why the vessels used for communion are purified with care and reverence afterward.
Jesus becomes present instantly at the moment of the consecration, and he remains present “as long as the Eucharistic species subsist” (CCC 1377). This means that the Real Presence of Christ remains for as long as the physical characteristics of bread or wine remain in the species. At the point where the species are broken down such that they can no longer be said to have the accidents of bread and wine, then it is no longer the Eucharist, and Christ is no longer substantially present (although certainly still present to us in a different way, as one of the fruits of the Eucharist is union with Christ).
Why does this matter so much?
Both transubstantiation and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist are taught by the Church as truths of the highest degree of certainty — they are truths contained in divine revelation and authoritatively defined by the Magisterium of the Church. So, these teachings are vitally important to every single Catholic first of all because they are true, and by virtue of our dignity as human persons we are all “bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth [we] come to know, and to hold fast to it” (Dignitatis humanae, 1).
Second, knowing and reflecting on these truths helps us to be more open to the graces that flow from the Eucharist. The more we reflect on the nature of the change brought about in the bread and wine at the consecration and the reality of Christ’s presence in this sacrament, the more we will be inspired to strive to receive the Eucharist worthily — and be transformed by our reception of it.
Additionally, this doctrine of transubstantiation matters to each of us personally because we each have a share in the Church’s mission to preach the gospel. Our Baptism and Confirmation confer on every single one of us the obligation and the privilege to proclaim the good news that in the Eucharist, Jesus Christ is in fact with us “always, to the close of the age,” as he promised (Mt 28:20). We share this good news first of all through our own reverence and love for the Eucharist, and then also by helping others understand what the Church actually teaches about the Eucharist.
Truth himself speaks truly
The most important realities go beyond what our physical senses are capable of perceiving. St. Thomas proclaims in the second verse of his great hymn: “Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived; / How says trusty hearing? That shall be believed / What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do; / Truth himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.”
What our senses tell us about the Eucharist — the look and feel and taste of bread and wine — is by no means the full story. Under the species of bread and wine, and beyond the reach of our physical senses, is Christ himself: whole and entire, body, blood, soul and divinity. We know this with certainty because he himself has told us it is so: “This is my body” and “This is my blood.” Let us pray with St. Thomas, “This faith each day deeper be my holding of / Daily make me harder hope and dearer love.”