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Aug 21, 2019

Where Did the Term ‘Transubstantiation’ Come From?

Nicholas LaBanca

A few years back, on the feast of Corpus Christi, I remember listening to an astounding homily during Mass from my former pastor. The story he relayed to the congregation in this homily has stuck with me, and has a particular relevance to the situation American Catholics find themselves in currently. About halfway through, he told us a story from his days in the college seminary, back in the early 1970’s:

“We were going up for Communion in the line and the priest who was giving out Communion in our line—dropped a host—and said to the seminarian, ‘Pick it up. It’s yours.’” 

“Did he or anyone else in charge of the seminary think that that seminarian’s belief in Jesus’ Real Presence, and his love for Our Lord in Holy Communion, was enhanced by ‘Pick it up. It’s yours’?” 

“What a struggle during that time—and this time—to maintain our belief that after the Consecration there is neither bread nor wine upon the altar, but the Son of God. The change in substance is not imaginary or symbolic or allegorical. That change actually happens.”

A Walk through History

We as Catholics, and not just in the United States, have a major problem on our hands. The past few generations have been woefully catechized, let alone evangelized, leading in part to the decline of religious fervor and practice among our peers and family members across the board, particularly in regards to the Real Presence of our Lord Jesus in the Eucharist. But what the story above should tell us is that this deterioration of faith has been years in the making. There is a bright side to this, however. 

Thankfully, the Church has been around much longer than four decades. We have nearly 2,000 years of Church teaching to delve into and explore. And it has never been easier to do so in this “information age” we live in.

Let’s take a look at the wisdom of the Church through the ages, from Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, to the teachings of the Magisterium and reflections of the great saints. What do we as Catholics actually believe when it comes to the change that takes place at the consecration of the Eucharist? Let’s take a walk through history as we explore what the Church has for centuries called “transubstantiation”. 

Who and What Teach ‘Transubstantiation’?

First, we must understand how the Church actually defines “transubstantiation”. It is a term which attempts to define how the bread and wine offered become the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord. We see from the Gospels that Jesus’ command to eat his Body and drink his Blood is a “hard saying” (John 6:60), but we cannot ignore the fact that Jesus’ words are at the very heart of the Christian life. Even though many walk away at his words, many also stay with Jesus, knowing that he has the words of eternal life (see John 6:68). Truly, unless we eat his Flesh and drink his Blood, we have no life within us (see John 6:53).

The Catechism

The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes it clear that Christ comes to us in a most intimate and tangible way each time we partake of Holy Communion:

“‘Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us,’ is present in many ways to his Church … most especially in the Eucharistic species.

“In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist ‘the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.’ ‘This presence is called ‘real’… it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present.’

“It is by the conversion of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood that Christ becomes present in this sacrament. The Church Fathers strongly affirmed the faith of the Church in the efficacy of the Word of Christ and of the action of the Holy Spirit to bring about this conversion. Thus St. John Chrysostom declares:

‘It is not man that causes the things offered to become the Body and Blood of Christ, but he who was crucified for us, Christ himself. The priest, in the role of Christ, pronounces these words, but their power and grace are God’s. This is my body, he says. This word transforms the things offered’” (CCC 1373-1375).

A Fitting and Proper Term

The actual word “transubstantiation” does not actually appear in the quoted sections above, but this passage does imply that a “change” or “conversion” of the substance of bread and wine takes place at each Holy Mass. It’s important to note that while the Eastern Catholic Churches (and Eastern Orthodox) don’t use the term “transubstantiation”, they do believe in the Real Presence the same way as Latin Catholics do. Also important to understand is that just because the term was more or less coined around medieval times, this does not mean the teaching of the Real Presence did not exist before then. We can plainly see that it most certainly did, as we can sift through the evidence dating back to apostolic times. 

Perhaps the Church was not able to explain the change that occurs precisely in the early centuries, but the same can be said for basic Christology, (i.e. Christ’s human and divine natures). Over time, people started using more nuanced language to describe a number of Church teachings. That which concerns the Real Presence of the Eucharist is no different. The Catechism continues, quoting the Council of Trent:

“Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change 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. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation” (CCC 1376).

The Didache

From the earliest days of the Church, Christians did not see the Eucharist as mere food, or as a representation of Christ. Instead, as has always been the case, they saw the Eucharist as the actual Body and Blood of Christ. Those words from the Last Supper “This is My Body” (Luke 22:19) rang through the ears of the apostles and their earliest successors. This is readily apparent in the Didache, or “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”. This instruction, dated between 50-70 A.D. (which would be during the lifetime of some of the apostles), explicitly discussed the Eucharist. Pay close attention to the language used when describing the Holy Mass:

“On the Lord’s Day of the Lord come together, break bread and hold Eucharist [Eucharist translating, of course, to “thanksgiving”], after confessing your transgressions that your sacrifice may be pure; But let none who has a quarrel with his fellow join in your meeting until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice be not defiled. For this is that sacrifice spoken by the Lord, ‘In every place and time offer me a pure sacrifice, for I am a great king,’ says the Lord, ‘and my name is wonderful among the heathen’” (Chapter 14).

Always a Sacrifice

Some may contend that the opening words here signal something more akin to a modest meal, instead of a Eucharistic liturgy. However, looking at the opening of the citation which clearly refers to the Sunday assembly, and as the entire selection uses the same terminology of other sections of the Didache (chapters 9 and 10), we are seeing something much more elaborate and meaningful than a type of “grace” before meals.

Also, look closely at the last line of the selection. It’s basically a direct quote of Malachi 1:11. Why would the early Christians call this a sacrifice if it wasn’t just that? We see the word “sacrifice” used four times. Can a mere symbol truly be a sacrifice? No. In order for a sacrifice to take place, there must be belief in the Real Presence. This is why we refer to our gathering each Sunday as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Obviously, the author of the Didache was careful about being true to the clear biblical teaching on the Eucharist by citing Malachi.

The Evolution of Terms

Keep in mind that this was in the first century. As noted above, over time, the language used by the Church became more clear and developed. We mentioned the two natures of Christ earlier, but let’s briefly consider another doctrinal development that was more precisely defined over time: the Holy Trinity.

The Church Fathers had to formulate the term “Trinity”. They had to compose definitions. Numerous heresies proclaimed errors teaching that Christ was not God, that the Holy Spirit was not God, that Christ was two persons, that Christ was not really human, and so on. Jesus and the Gospel writers indeed taught about the Trinity, but Christians had to later formulate a term and a definition. The same thing happened with the term “transubstantiation” and its definition.

As always, Scripture illuminated the path when the Church Fathers made such definitions. Christ’s clear words in the Gospels are “This is My Body”! He didn’t say “this is My Body and bread together”. He didn’t say “this is My Body spiritually present with this bread. And he certainly didn’t say “This is a mere symbol of My Body.” Instead, he made it clear that what he was holding was his Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. The early Christians, apostles included, may have thought, “How does what was once bread become Christ’s Body? What is this process that takes place to effect such a change?”

St. Justin Martyr

Therefore, we see the early Church Fathers attempting to formulate terms for what has happened after the consecration at Holy Mass. St. Justin Martyr makes it obvious in his First Apology, that what we eat at Communion is not bread of any sort:

“Not as common bread or common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nourished, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus” (First Apology, Chapter 66).

Keep in mind that St. Justin Martyr had direct contact with the disciples of St. John the Apostle, such as St. Ignatius of Antioch. This is a second generation disciple of the author of the Gospels. Already the foundation has been laid for a formulation of the term “transubstantiation”, just as the foundation was laid for the formulation of the term “Holy Trinity” by other first and second generation disciples of the apostles.

St. Cyril

We can also look at what St. Cyril of Jerusalem in his Mystagogic Catechesis says in the year 350 regarding the substance of what was once bread completely changing during the Sacrifice of the Mass:

“Do not, therefore, regard the bread and wine as simply that, for they are, according to the Master’s declaration, the body and blood of Christ. Even though the senses suggest to you the other, let faith make you firm. Do not judge in this matter by taste, but be fully assured by faith” (Lecture 22:6).

St. Cyril later uses the word metaballo, which is Greek for “change” or “transform” when speaking of the “substantial change” in the elements of bread and wine during the Mass. This is the same word St. Justin uses when talking of “the change” in his First Apology. [I am in debt to James T. Connor’s wonderful work The Hidden Manna in making these connections.] When explaining the epiclesis, which is the moment the priest prays that God may send down his Holy Spirit upon the gifts on the altar, St. Cyril writes the following, again with similar language:

“When we have sanctified ourselves through these spiritual hymns, we beg God, the Lover of mankind, to send the Holy Spirit upon what has been sent forth, so that he may make the bread the Body of Christ and the wine the Blood of Christ; for whatever the Holy Spirit touches is sanctified and changed [Greek: metabebletai]” (Lecture 23:7).

St. Ambrose

We can also look to St. Ambrose of Milan in 397, who also refines his terminology, well before the eleventh century when the term “transubstantiation” was first used (my emphases):

“Perhaps you will say, ‘I see something else, how is it that you assert that I receive the Body of Christ?’ … Let us prove that this is not what nature made, but what the blessing consecrated, and the power of blessing is greater than that of nature, because by blessing nature itself is changed. … For that sacrament which you receive is made what it is by the word of Christ. But if the word of Elijah had such power as to bring down fire from heaven, shall not the word of Christ have power to change the nature of the elements? …

Why do you seek the order of nature in the Body of Christ, seeing that the Lord Jesus himself was born of a Virgin, not according to nature? It is the true Flesh of Christ which was crucified and buried, this is then truly the Sacrament of His Body. The Lord Jesus Himself proclaims: ‘This Is My Body.’ before the blessing of the heavenly words another nature is spoken of, after the consecration the Body is signified. He Himself speaks of His Blood. Before the consecration it has another name, after it is called Blood” (On the Mysteries, Chapter 9).

St. Gregory of Nyssa

Then we have St. Gregory of Nyssa who wrote this very technical formulation around the year 381 in his work The Great Catechism:

“As the Word Himself said, ‘This is my Body’… He shares himself with every believer through that Flesh whose material being comes from bread and wine… in order to bring it about that, by communion with the Immortal, man may share in incorruption. He gives these things through the power of the blessing by which he transelements [Greek- metastoikeiosas] the nature of the visible things” (The Great Catechism, Chapter 37).

“Transelement” should sound somewhat familiar to us. Does one really think that such a thought process came out of a vacuum and not from the traditions of the apostles and the clear teaching of Christ? Let’s see just what this Greek word really means, as we find in O’Connor’s treatment:

“The Word’s assimilation of the Eucharistic elements to himself—an assimilation by which his Body and Blood—is described by the forceful Greek word ‘metastoikeiosas’, transelementation. It actually means a restructuring of the elements, since the Greek ‘stoikeia’ means ‘fundamental elements or principles’” (O’Conner, 35-36).

Sts. Chrystostom, Damascene, & Aquinas

And then we see words like “transforming” used by St. John Chrysostom and St. John Damascene to describe the change happening in the Eucharist. The belief in the Real Presence, specifically formulated as transubstantiation has its roots right out of the Bible and in apostolic Tradition.

This has been reaffirmed again and again, from great minds such as St. Thomas Aquinas down to the popes of modern times. In his Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharist, Sarcramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict XVI beautifully explains why the change that takes place at the consecration is so vital and relevant to us in the present day:

“The Eucharist draws us into Jesus’ act of self-oblation. More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving. Jesus draws us into himself. The substantial conversion of bread and wine into his body and blood introduces within creation the principle of a radical change, a sort of ‘nuclear fission,’ to use an image familiar to us today, which penetrates to the heart of all being, a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all (cf. 1 Cor. 15:28)” (SC 11).

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict’s words bring us full circle. What was started in the upper room at the Last Supper, when Jesus “carried himself in his own hands”, now takes place on our altars regularly, each and every day. When the priest in the person of Christ, by his words, transubstantiates simple bread and wine into the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord Jesus we find heaven on earth.

This teaching is biblical, apostolic, current, and ancient. But most important of all, this encounter with our Lord is real. May our Lord enflame our hearts evermore so that our desire to receive him in the Eucharist will lead to our continued salvation and sanctification. 

Do you know of any other sources from official Church teaching, popes, or saints, reaffirming that the Eucharist is the Real Presence of Christ? Let us know in the comments at the bottom of the page.

You May Also Like:

A Quick Primer on Transubstantiation

Early Church Fathers Upholding Transubstantiation in Their Own Words

Toward Recovering a Love for the Eucharist

About Nicholas LaBanca

Nicholas is a cradle Catholic and hopes to give a unique perspective on life in the Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney, and St. Athanasius of Alexandria.

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