Reflections on Eucharist: "I Believe All the Son of God Has Spoken" (Part 2)

2nd Advent Sermon of Pontifical Household Preacher

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 12, 2004 ( Here is a translation of the second Advent sermon, delivered Friday to the Pope and officials of the Roman Curia, by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher for the Pontifical Household.

Part 1 of this sermon appeared Friday in ZENIT.

* * *

Second Sermon
«I Believe All the Son of God Has Spoken»

2. Transubstantiation and Transignification

Without using the term, this stanza of the hymn encloses the doctrine of transubstantiation, that is, as defined by the Council of Trent, the «admirable and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread and of the whole substance of wine in the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.»[12]

Is it possible today to render this philosophical term comprehensible, outside of the small circle of specialists? I tried it once in a television broadcast on the Gospel, giving an example which I hope will not be irreverent. When seeing a lady come out of the hairdresser’s with a totally new hairdo, one spontaneously exclaims: «What a transformation!» No one dreams of exclaiming «What transubstantiation!» Rightly so, changed in fact are the form and external aspect, but not the profound being and the personality. If she was intelligent before, she is still so now; if she was not so before, she is not so now. The appearances have changed, but not the substance.

The exact opposite happens in the Eucharist: The substance changes, but not the appearances. The bread is transubstantiated, but not (at least in this sense) transformed; the appearances in fact (form, taste, color, weight) remain as before, while the profound reality is changed, it has become the body of Christ. Jesus’ promise heard at the beginning has been realized: «The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.»

In recent times, theology has pursued this same attempt to translate the concept of transubstantiation into modern language, with very different instrumentation and earnestness, appealing to existential categories of transignification and transfinalization. With these words is designated: «the divine act (not human) in which the substance (that is, the meaning and the power) of a religious sign is transformed with the personal revelation of God.»[13]

The attempt stems from the conviction that the Eucharist is not just one thing, but also an action, a sign. It is «the act with which Christ associates the Church with himself in his eternal worship of the Father» and that «to concentrate only on the substance of the bread and of the body of Christ risks reducing everything to a cosmological miracle, deprived of any fixed religious setting.»[14]

As always, the attempt did not succeed at first. In some authors (not in all) these new perspectives, more than explaining transubstantiation, ended by replacing it. In this connection, in the encyclical «Mysterium Fidei» Paul VI disapproves of the terms «transignification» and «transfinalization»; more precisely, he disapproved, he wrote, «of those who limit themselves to use only these terms, without also making use of the word ‘transubstantiation.'»

In reality, the Pope himself makes one understand, in the very same encyclical, how these new concepts may be useful if they seek to bring to light new and current aspects and implications of the concept of transubstantiation without attempting to replace it. «As a result of transubstantiation,» he wrote, «the species of bread and wine undoubtedly take on a new signification and a new finality, for they are no longer ordinary bread and wine but instead a sign of something sacred and a sign of spiritual food; but they take on this new signification, this new finality, precisely because they contain a new ‘reality’ which we can rightly call ontological.»[15]

He, himself, expressed this with greater clarity in a homily for the Solemnity of Corpus Domini when he was archbishop of Milan: «Christ wished to choose this sacred symbol of human life, which bread is, to make an even more sacred symbol of himself. He has transubstantiated it, but has not taken away its expressive power; rather, he has elevated this expressive power to a new meaning, a higher meaning, a mystical, religious, divine meaning. He has made a ladder for an ascent that transcends the natural level. As a sound becomes a voice, and as a voice becomes word, thought, truth; so the sign of the bread has passed from its humble and pious being, to signify a mystery; it has become a sacrament, it has acquired the power to demonstrate the body of Christ present.»[16]

Catholic theology has sought to reflect again and study more deeply the concept of transignification and transfinalization in light of Paul VI’s reservations. If the changing of the meaning and end of the bread and wine also entails a change of substance, as called for by fidelity to the term transubstantiation, it depends, one notes, on the concept one has of substance. It has changed profoundly in modern physics and philosophy, as Pope Paul VI himself took into account when he specified that in Eucharistic usage the philosophical terms «are not tied to a certain form of culture, or to a particular phase of scientific progress …, but present that which the human mind perceives of reality in the universal and necessary experience.»[17]

This seems to allow one to take into consideration what common sense intends today by «the substance» of a thing. «From this point of view,» writes Tillard, «substance is that which the intelligence intuits or recognizes under the ensemble of appearances and of that which strikes the senses. Now before the anaphora, to the question ‘what is that thing on the table?’ the believer responds: It is bread. Afterward the anaphora responds: It is the body of Christ, true bread of life.’ … The bread has not only changed its destination and end. For the believer’s intelligence, even if nothing has changed physically, it is no longer what it was at first: it has become the body of Christ. His profound being — Scholasticism and Trent say the substance — is changed. … Bread and wine remain food, but it is no longer substantially the same nutriment. Christ is there to communicate himself, under a sacramental way of being.»[18]

Perhaps, despite these efforts, one has not arrived yet at an ideal solution that responds to all the exigencies, but one cannot give up the effort to «inculturate» faith in the Eucharist in today’s world, as the Fathers of the Church and St. Thomas Aquinas did, each in their own time and culture. The next Synod of Bishops on «The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church» should make a precious contribution in this direction. In fact, it is not possible to maintain the understanding of the Eucharist alive and new in the Church of today if we remain at the stage of theological reflection attained many centuries ago, as if exegesis, biblical theology, the ecumenical movement and dogmatic theology itself had not contributed in the meantime anything new in this field. Moreover, in addressing the new attempts to explain the Eucharistic mystery we must apply the principle of discernment indicated by the Apostle: «test everything; hold fast what is good» (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

3. Mystery of Faith

We will now look at the response of the author of the hymn who invites us to cry out with him the truth enunciated. It is condensed in one word: I believe! «Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius.» At the end of the consecration of the chalice (in the old Roman Missal, specifically in the middle of it) resounds the exclamation: «Mysterium fidei!» Mystery of faith!

Faith is necessary if the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is to be not only «real» but also «personal,» namely, from person to person. It is one thing «to be» and another «to be present.» Without faith, Christ is in the Eucharist but he is not so for me. Presence implies one who is present and one
to whom one is present; it implies reciprocal communication, the exchange between two free subjects, who notice one another. It is much more, therefore, than simply being in a certain place. At the time that Jesus was present physically on earth, there was already faith; otherwise, as the Gospel itself repeats so many times — his presence would serve for nothing but condemnation: «Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Capernaum!»

«All those who saw the Lord Jesus Christ according to his humanity,» admonished Francis of Assisi, «and did not see or believe, according to the Spirit and the divinity, that He is the true Son of God, were condemned; and so now all those who see the sacrament of the body of Christ, which is consecrated through the words of the Lord on the altar by the hands of the priest under the species of bread and wine, and do not see and do not believe according to the Spirit and the divinity, that it is truly the most holy body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, are condemned.»[19] «Do not open wide the mouth but the heart,» St. Augustine said. «We are not nourished by what we see, but by what we believe.»[20]

But what exactly does the exclamation «Mysterium fidei» mean in the Mass? Not that which is indicated in current language and which is an inaccessible truth to human reason and knowable only by revelation (mystery of the Trinity, mystery of the Incarnation …), but, more concretely, the sacred sign, the sacrament (as the «divine mysteries» in the work of Cabasilas). (In the Spanish translation of the new Missal, the expression is rendered as: «Este es el sacramento de nuestra fe»: This is the sacrament of our faith.) Not only does it indicate something that cannot be understood, but also «that which one never finishes understanding.»

With the expression «Mystery of faith,» they probably wished to affirm at the beginning that «the Eucharist contains and unveils all the economy of the redemption.»[21] It updates the whole Christian mystery. «Every time that the memorial of this sacrifice is celebrated,» says a prayer of the Gelasian Sacramentary still in use today, «the work of our redemption is accomplished.»[22] «Mysterium fidei! … When the priest recites or chants these words, all present,» John Paul II notes in his encyclical, «acclaim: ‘We announce your death, O Lord, and we proclaim your resurrection, until you come in glory.'»[23]

Not only is the entire history of salvation present in the Eucharist, but also the Trinity which is its author. The Father so loved the world that he gave his Only-begotten Son to save it; the Son so loved men as to give up his life for them; Father and Son willed to unite men so intimately to themselves that they infused the Holy Spirit in them, so that their own life would dwell in their hearts. And the Mass is all this!

A fruit of the Year of the Eucharist expected by the Pope, we said last time, is to reawaken wonder before the Eucharistic mystery. «You alone, my God, be responsible for this enormity, which is too great for me.» So Paul Claudel, a poet, expressed his wonder before the Eucharist.[24] The most serious danger risked is to grow accustomed to the Eucharist, to take it for granted and therefore to trivialize it. Every so often, even among us, one hears the cry of John the Baptist: «Among you stands one whom you do not know!» (John 1:26). We are rightly horrified at the news of violated tabernacles, ciboria stolen for abominable ends. Perhaps, of them, Jesus repeats what he said of his executioners: «They know not what they do,» but that which most saddens him is, perhaps, the coldness of his own. To them — that is, to us — he repeats the words of the Psalm: «It is not an enemy who taunts me — then I could bear it …; but it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend» (Psalm 54[55]:13-14). In the revelations to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, Jesus did not lament so much the sins of the atheists of the time, as he did the indifference and coldness of souls consecrated to him.

The Lord made use of a nonbelieving woman to make me understand what one should prove who takes the Eucharist seriously. I gave her a book to read on this argument, seeing her interested in the religious problem, although she was an atheist. After a week, she returned the book to me saying: «You have not put a book in my hands but a bomb … do you realize the enormity of the thing? Absorbing what is written here, it would be enough to open one’s eyes to discover that there is altogether another world around us; that the blood of a man who died 2,000 years ago saves all of us. Do you know that, when I read it, my legs were trembling and every now and then I had to stop reading and get up. If it is true, it changes everything.»

In listening to her, along with the joy of seeing that the seed had not been sown in vain, I felt a great sense of humiliation and shame. I had received Communion a few minutes before, but my legs were not trembling. That atheist was not all wrong who said one day to a believing friend: «If I could believe that the Son of God is really in that host, as you say, I think I would fall down on my knees and never get up.»

We end with the final stanza of another Eucharistic hymn, the Sacris Solemniis, written for the morning office of the feast of Corpus Domini and also attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas. They are exclamations that express all the wonder of the believer before the mystery. If those who hear them have the echo of Caesar Frank’s famous melody in their ears, all the more will they have the power to project the spirit of the infinity of God:

Panis angelicus fit panis hominum
Dat panis caelicus figuris terminum.
O res mirabilis: manducat Dominum
Pauper, servus, et humilis.

The bread of angels becomes bread of men
The heavenly bread puts an end to appearances
O wonderful mystery: the humble and poor servant
nourishes himself on his Lord!

— — —

[12] Denzinger, no. 1652.

[13] J.M. Powers, «Teologia eucaristica,» Brescia 1969, p. 220.

[14] Ibid. p. 225.

[15] «Mysterium Fidei,» 46.

[16] Cardinal G.B. Montini, «Pane celeste e vita sociale,» in Rivista diocesana milanese, 1959, pp. 428 ss, reproduced in «Il Gesú di Paolo VI,» edited by Levi, Milan, Mondadori 1985, p. 189.

[17] «Mysterium Fidei,» 24.

[18] J.M.R. Tillard, in «Eucharistia. Encyclopédie de l’Eucharistie,» by M. Brouard, du Cerf, Paris, 2002, pp. 407.

[19] St. Francis, «Ammonizioni,» I (FF, 142).

[20] St. Augustine, «Sermo» 112, 5 (PL 38, 645)

[21] Cfr. M. Righetti, «Storia liturgica,» III, Milan 1966, p. 396 (the explanation is by B. Botte).

[22] See Prayer of the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time.

[23] Encyclical «Ecclesia de Eucharistia,» 5.

[24] P. Claudel, «Hymne du Saint Sacrement, in Oeuvre poétique complète,» Paris 1967, p. 402: «Soyez tout seul, ^ mon Dieu, car pour moi ce n’est pas mon affaire, responsable de cette énormité.»

[Translation by ZENIT]

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