Roman Catholic Christians share with most Christians the faith that Jesus Christ, on the night he was betrayed, ate a final or last supper with his Apostles. This final meal was also the celebration of the Jewish Passover or Feast of the Unleavened Bread which commemorated the passing over of the Jews from the death in slavery to the Egyptians to life in the Promised Land.
Christians differ in the meaning this Last Supper has to them and the Church today. Catholic Christians together with other historical Christian Churches (e.g., Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Christians, Lutherans, Anglicans and some Episcopalians, etc.) believe the literal words of Jesus - that the bread and wine are truly his body and blood. Other later Christian Churches profess a mere symbolic meaning to the words of Jesus.
The faith of the Catholic Church is based on both a fundamental principle of hermeneutics and the constant faith of the Church from Apostolic times.
The Catholic Church teaches that the first principle of hermeneutics--the science of the translation and interpretation of the Bible--is the literal meaning of the text.
The first writer of the New Testament was the apostle Paul. His Letter to the Corinthians was written as early as 56 AD, earlier than the first Gospel, Mark's, written about 64 AD. Paul was also not an eyewitness to what he wrote but testifies to his source.
The next New Testament text in chronological order would have been Mark's Gospel. Written about 64 AD, in Rome, Mark, not an eyewitness, probably heard the account of the Last Supper he recorded from the Apostle Peter.
The third account of the Last Supper could be Matthew's. Matthew, the tax collector Levi, was an eyewitness to the meal. He was one of the twelve Apostles. Matthew probably wrote his Gospel in the 70's.
Luke's account of the Last Supper, written from the standpoint of a Gentile convert and a non-eyewitness, probably heard the details of the Last Supper from Paul. Luke was a traveling companion of Paul. Luke also wrote in the 70's.
The beloved disciple, John, the last of the New Testament writers, wrote his Gospel in the 90's. John was an eyewitness to the events of the Last Supper (Jn 6:30-68).
Hence Catholic Christian belief in the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist rests upon the literal meaning of the words of the Last Supper as recorded by the Evangelists and Paul.
The uniformity of expression across the first four authors affirms the literalness. Belief in the real presence demands faith--the basis of new life as called for by Christ throughout scripture. But faith in signs conferring what they signify is the basis also for the Incarnation--appearances belying true meaning. The true significance of the real presence is sealed in John's gospel. Five times in different expressions, Jesus confirmed the reality of what he means.
The best way a person can make a clear literal point is repetition of the same message in different ways. Jesus did this. Those around him clearly understood what he was saying--cannibalism and the drinking of blood--both forbidden by Mosaic Law.
Had these disciples mistaken the meaning of Jesus' words, Jesus would surely have known and corrected them. He didn't. They had clearly understood his meaning--Jesus' flesh was to be really eaten; his blood to be really drunk.
Non believers often respond that even at the Last Supper, the apostles did not sense that they had flesh in their hands and blood in their cup. But Jesus is God. The creative literalness of the words: "This is my body; this is my blood" must be believed. God cannot lie. And God can turn bread into flesh and wine into blood without the appearances of bread and wine changing.
Medieval philosophers and theologians called this expression of Divine Truth and Creative Power "transubstantiation". Yes, God can change the substance of any created matter while the appearances remain unchanged. And this demands faith.
Paul confirms elsewhere in his letters the reality of the real presence.
The persuasion of the Church from Apostolic times about the objective reality of these words of Christ is clear from many documents.
Irenaeus (Asia Minor, 140 - 202), Tertullian (Rome, 160 - 220), Cyprian (Carthage, 200 - 258) are just a few of the earliest who attest to the objective reality of the words of Christ.
In the Church in Alexandria, Athanasius (293 - 373) and Cyril (376 - 444) equally attest to the literal meaning of the words of Christ at the Last Supper.
In the Church in Palestine, Cyril (Jerusalem, 315 - 387) and Epiphanius (Salamis, 367 - 403) also affirm in their teaching the same reality.
Unanimity is found across the universal church until the 11th century. Berengar (Tours, France, 1000 - 1088) was one of the first to deny the real presence by arguing that Christ is not physically present, but only symbolically.
The Council of Rome (a local council), 1079, taught against Berengar that the Eucharist is truly the body and blood of Christ.
By the 16th century, some Reformers (excluding Luther) also taught that Christ's presence in the Eucharist was only figurative or metaphorical. Since there were other opinions being taught as truth (figurative presence and metaphorical presence) a teaching authority (see Chapter 5) had to be appealed to discern error from the truth. The way of the Church was to follow the model of Acts 15.
The Council of Trent (1545 - 1563) defined the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the Eucharist as both the continuing sacrifice of Christ and a real sacrament. The institution of the Eucharist as sacrament was contained in the words "Do this in remembrance of me."
The Mass: Synagogue Service and Last Supper
Roman Catholic Christians celebrate the Eucharist in the liturgical act called the Mass. The word Mass comes from the Latin missa ("sent"). It was taken from the formula for dismissing the congregation: Ite missa est ("Go, the Eucharist has been sent forth") referring to the ancient custom of sending consecrated bread from the bishop's Mass to the sick and to the other churches.
The Mass contains two parts: the liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The Liturgy of the Word is a copy of the Jewish synagogue service of the first century: readings from Scripture followed by responses from the congregation often from the Book of Psalms. The Liturgy of the Eucharist is a reenactment of the Last Supper. A celebrant does what Christ did: take bread and wine and say the same words Christ said and then share the now consecrated bread and wine with the congregation.
Roman Catholics believe that the bread and wine become the real Body and Blood of Jesus Christ and remain such until the elements are entirely consumed. The Body and Blood not consumed at one Eucharist are reserved for the next celebration of the Eucharist and venerated as the Body and Blood of Jesus.
Remembrance: One Sacrifice--Calvary--Continued
Roman Catholic Christians take the word of God seriously and seek to remember Christ in the Last Supper "as often as" possible. And in doing this proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.
Catholic Christians also believe that there is only one sacrifice, Jesus', but following the command "as often as" to proclaim the death of the Lord, the sacrifice of Christ is made physically present to every Christian in all places in every age. The Eucharist makes the atemporal aphysical actions of Christ's redeeming action truly present to us always and everywhere. This is incarnational.
Following the word of God, Catholics also know that Christ is not and cannot be resacrificed. This has never been the teaching of the Catholic Church.
The constant faith of the Church from the Apostolic Fathers attests to the fact that the Mass was the one Sacrifice of Calvary made present to the faithful.
The 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this statement explicitly.
The Roman Catholic Church through history approached her faith life with the clarification of language. That is, she translated the essentials of revealed faith into the vocabulary of living language.
Transubstantiation reflects Roman Catholic faith in the literalness of the words of the Bible.
Jesus (omnipotent God) said: "This is my body; this is my blood." And again Jesus said: "I am the bread of life;" "My flesh is true food; my blood is true drink;" "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood ...;" etc.
Roman Catholics take Jesus at His word: the bread is his body; the wine is his blood.
From the Apostles at the Last Supper until today, the bread and wine of Eucharist looks and feels and tastes like bread and wine in the eating and drinking.
Similar to all of God's Word, faith is essential. Faith in what? In the words of Jesus even though the bread does not look, feel, taste like flesh; even though the wine does not look, feel, taste like blood.
Medieval philosophers and theologians sought simply to label this simple biblical faith: Jesus said that bread is his body and wine is his blood even though it did not appear to change into visible flesh and blood.
Transubstantiation means the substance part of the bread and wine elements changes; but the accidental parts--sight, taste, smell, touch--do not. Catholics believe that since Jesus said it and He is God, he can do it. They believe! "Transubstantiation" merely labels it.
In everyday life, it is not at all uncommon to believe in things man cannot perceive by the senses: wind, electricity, love, peace, etc. All the more when Jesus says it.
By Paul Flanagan and Robert Schihl.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture texts are taken from the New American Bible with Revised New Testament and Revised Psalms © 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
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Last Updated: July 23, 2004