The debate over Transubstantiation and the Eucharist was one of the fiercest of the Protestant Reformation.
All Protestants believed that the Catholic Church was wrong to insist on the truth of transubstantiation but none of them could agree would was actually the truth instead. Divisions quickly emerged between Martin Luther who believed in a sacramental union, Ulrich Zwingli who believed the Eucharist was purely symbolic, and every opinion inbetween — including Calvin and Cramner.
The Catholic Church stated their belief at the Council of Trent in 1551, defending the consensus of the Church as it developed throughout the Patristic and Medieval periods. This is quick summary version (with lots of lovely quotes) of what they declared.
What is the Eucharist?
1. “In the first place, the holy Synod teaches, and openly and simply professes, that, in the august 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.”
This is possible because while Christ sits at the right hand of God in Heaven, “according to the natural mode of existing”, he can also be “in many other places, sacramentally present to us in his own substance”. This is certainly possible for God and is the teaching of “all our forefathers”.
Why Did Christ Make the Eucharist?
2. Christ “instituted this Sacrament, in which He poured forth as it were the riches of divine love towards man” so that the Eucharist would be:
- a remembrace, “to venerate His memory” and “show forth His death until He comes to judge the world.”
- the “spiritual food of souls, whereby” He feeds and strengthens “those who live with His life.”
- an “antidote, whereby we may be freed from daily faults [venial sins] and be preserved from mortal sins.”
- a “pledge of our glory to come, and everlasting happiness”
- a “symbol of that one body whereof He is the head, and to which He would fain have us as members be united by the closest bond of faith, hope, and charity…”
How is the Eucharist a Sacrament?
3. Like all sacraments, the Eucharist “is a visible form of an invisible grace”. It is different from the other sacraments though because while they give “power of sanctifying when one uses them”, the Eucharist actually “is the Author Himself of sanctity.”
While the bread is the Body and the wine the Blood “by the force of the words”, “Christ whole and entire”, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, is actually present under both the bread and wine. This is because there is a “natural connexion and concomitancy” which unites “the parts of Christ our Lord, who hath risen now from the dead”, including His soul and His divinity, “on account of the admirable hypostatical union”.
[NB: You can’t have one bit of Christ without the other because He is a person, not a box of Bertie’s Every Flavour Jelly Beans.]
4. This conversion, “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” is “suitably and properly called Transubstantiation.”
How should we treat the Eucharist?
5. All Christians should “render in veneration the worship of latria, which is due to the true God, to this most holy sacrament” because the same God is “present therein”. It is right that “this sublime and venerable sacrament be, with special veneration and solemnity, celebrated” on the Feast of Corpus Christi “and that it be borne reverently and with honour in processions through the streets” as a joy to believers and a witness to unbelievers.
6. Both the custom of keeping the Eucharist in the sanctuary which “is so ancient that even… the Council of Nicaea recognised” it, and of “carrying the sacred Eucharist itself to the sick” are to be retained.
How should we receive the Eucharist?
7. The Eucharist should be approached and received with “great reverence and holiness”
“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.” (1 Co 11:27-29)
No one who is conscious of “mortal sin, how contrite soever he may seem to himself, ought to approach to the sacred Eucharist without previous sacramental confession.”
8. There are three ways to receive the Eucharist:
- “Sacramentally only”, when someone receives the Eucharist, but in a state of sin so that it has no effect. [NB: Judas received the first ever Eucharist this way; hence the betraying Christ and whatnot.]
- “Spiritually only”, when someone doesn’t receive the sacrament itself but desires to and so receives its benefits.
- “Both sacramentally and spiritually”, when someone receives both the physical sacrament and it’s benefits.
“[A]s to the reception of the sacrament”, the laity “should receive the communion from priests” but priests “should communicate themselves”. This is “an apostolical tradition” and is to be retained.
Why Should We Receive the Eucharist?
The Church, “with true fatherly affection admonishes, exhorts, begs, and beseeches, through the bowels of the mercy of our God, that all and each of those who bear the Christian name would now at length agree and be of one mind” about the Eucharist. Such agreement is important because it is a:
- “sign of unity”
- “bond of charity”
- “symbol of concord”
The Eucharist is nothing less than the “exceeding love of our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave His own beloved soul as the price of our salvation, and gave us His own flesh to eat”.
The Church begs that all Christians would “believe and venerate these sacred mysteries of His body and blood with such constancy and firmness of faith, with such devotion of soul, with such piety and worship” so that all Christians would be able to frequently receive the Eucharist worthily — in order that they may:
- receive the “life of the soul and perpetual health of the mind”
- be “invigorated by the strength“ of the Eucharist
- “arrive at their heavenly country”
There, the Council reminds us, they will “eat, without any veil, that same bread of angels which they now eat under sacred veils.”