It’s an accusation almost as old as Christianity itself. In fact, in the second century, St. Justin Martyr wrote against the idea. It’s the accusation that Catholics are cannibals. As crazy as it seems, this accusation is still alive and well. Recently, on the Twitter account for ACS, I debated with an atheist about this very issue. He used one document posted on the Vatican website about Holy Eucharist, and said that proves Catholics are cannibals. He absolutely refused to accept my explanations and elaborations on the topic. So let us examine exactly what Catholic believe about the Holy Eucharist. I know we have looked at this issue before, but it won’t hurt to give it another look.
For most Christians, the Lord’s Supper is nothing more than a symbolic meal celebrated to remember what Jesus said and did during the Last Supper. For Catholics, however, Holy Communion is much more. For us, the bread and wine (not grape juice) is actually the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ. We believe that we are literally consuming Christ’s body and blood during Holy Communion. But is this really cannibalism?
The answer is most definitely no. Cannibalism usually involves consuming another human being who is deceased, and metabolizing his/her body and blood. This is not what happens at Holy Communion. During Holy Communion we do not eat a dead man. Sure, Jesus died on the cross; but He also resurrected. Jesus is not dead, but alive in heaven. He has a glorified body, and can thus be at all places at once. So it is possible for Jesus to be literally present in the Eucharist during every Mass at all times. I should also point out the fact that the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ is not metabolized. The accidents of bread and wine are metabolized, but not the substance.
This is, essentially, what Transubstantiation is. During the consecration at the Sacrifice of the Mass, the essence of bread and wine are changed into the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ. The accidents of bread and wine, however, remain. What are the accidents? They are the size, weight, shape, color, taste, etc. of the object(s) in question. In this case, bread and wine. The accidents do not change, but the substance (what makes any one thing what it is) does change. This is what happens at the consecration. The substance of bread and wine are changed into the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ.
What proof do we have of this? Just look at what Jesus says in the gospels during the Last Supper! He says, “This is my body.” He then says, “This is my blood.” Nowhere do we see Jesus saying that the bread and wine are symbols of His body and blood. He says they are actually His body and blood!
Furthermore, Jesus orders the Apostles to “do this in remembrance of me”. Since only the Twelve were present during the Last Supper, only they were given the authority and privilege of consecrating the elements of bread and wine into the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. Hence, only those who have received ordination by a legitimate successor of the Apostles can consecrate the bread and wine.
In John 6, Jesus says that His flesh is true food, and His blood is true drink. He tells the people present to eat His flesh and drink His blood. When the Jews and His disciples take Him literally, Jesus tells them to “gnaw” or “munch” on His flesh. Then many of Jesus’ disciples leave. Does He then say, “Wait, wait! I didn’t mean to literally eat my flesh and drink my blood. I was speaking metaphorically!”
No, Jesus simply reaffirmed what He had previously said. We should also take notice that Paul (1 Cor. 11:27) uses the terminology of homicide for those who “eat and drink” the body and blood of the Lord “unworthily”. If the bread and wine were simply symbols of Jesus’ body and blood, then how could consuming the body and blood of Jesus unworthily be equivalent to murder? The fact is, that the bread and wine must really be the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ!
It is true that Catholics believe that the Holy Eucharist is a sacrifice. It is not true, however, that Catholics believe Jesus is sacrificed again at Mass. Our belief in what happens at Mass is akin to the Orthodox Jewish belief about what happens during each and every Passover. Because God is infinite everything happens at the exact same time for Him. God has no past or future. He does not experience time. How could He, when it is God who invented time! God has only a present. He is an eternal presence. This being the case, everything happens at the same time for God. So, when an Orthodox Jew here in 2013 celebrated the Passover, in a mystical sense, he was celebrating the Passover of 2013 at the same time as Moses and the Hebrews celebrated the very first Passover!
This is called anamnesis. It is exactly what we believe happens at Mass. We are celebrating the Sacrifice of the Mass at the exact same time that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross. So, it isn’t that Catholics believe Jesus dies again. We believe that we are “mystically” transported back to the time that Jesus died. Or, if you like, Jesus’ sacrifice is made present for us every time we celebrate the Mass!
Now you might ask how a mere man can have the power to consecrate the bread and wine into Jesus’ body, blood, soul, and divinity? Well, we call it in persona Christi capitalis. That is Latin for “In the person of Christ”. Since Jesus gave the Apostles the power to change the bread and wine, and then He commanded them to celebrate it in memory of Him, the Apostles had to pass on this power. As Jesus said, the gates of hell can not prevail against the Church. (Mt. 16) And Jesus will be with the Church until the end of the world. (Mt. 28) So, what He commanded must continue to be done. So there must successors to the Apostles. These are the clergy of the Catholic Church.
What happens is Jesus works through the priest to effect the change. Whenever a priest administers a sacrament, he is acting in persona Christi. Since consecrating the bread and wine at Mass is the main function of the priest, this is called in persona Christi capitalis.
It is wonderful that we have a Lord who desired to become one of us, and live among us. Even more wonderful that He then decided to die for us. But Jesus did better than even this! He decided to remain among us always. Sure, He is disguised under the appearances (accidents) of bread and wine, but He is still there. Hallelujah!
Peace in Christ,
David J. Pollard
American Catholic Solidarity