The Eucharist in the Council of Trent

Author: José A. Sayes

The Eucharist in the Council of Trent

José A. Sayes

Reflection: Year of the Eucharist

Luther said that he recognized the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist as explicit in Christ's words at the Institution; but he did not accept the term "transubstantiation", which he perceived as an interference by philosophy and human reason. Luther's "allergy" to reason is well known.

Consequently, he also rejected the sacrificial character of the Eucharist, recalling that the sacrifice that Christ offered on the Cross is unique and cannot be repeated.

Theology today

There is no doubt that contemporary theology has recovered the biblical concept of memorial. It had been neglected after the Council of Trent, for in the anxiety to respond to Protestantism, Post-Tridentine theology developed a definition of sacrifice as applied to the Eucharist, which it interpreted as being a sacrifice independent of the sacrifice of the Cross.
As stated, the notion of "memorial" made it possible to recover in the Letter to the Hebrews the assertion that Christ's sacrifice was one and definitive, and to explain that this same sacrifice becomes present on the altar.

The term "transubstantiation", however, presents greater difficulties and has given rise to much perplexity at the level of faith. Does not the concept of substance correspond to a philosophy, by now superseded? So why not use more personal and relational concepts?
The truth, on the contrary, is that the new theories, developed with this end in view, were not only unconvincing but were rejected, especially by Paul VI.

It does not suffice to state that there has been a change of meaning or of relations, saying that all that remains is still only natural food. And according to this new theory, the non-believer who understands only the natural meaning of food would be eating and drinking no more than bread and wine.

But the Church has always maintained that non-believers also eat the Body and Blood of Christ since there is no other objective reality in it than that of the Body and Blood of Christ, in such a way that only the species of the bread and wine endure.

The elegance of Trent

Contrary to current tendencies in the interpretation of Trent, an objective study of the Acts immediately shows that Trent maintained sobriety and fine elegance in the exposition of its doctrine. Yet very few have studied these proceedings.

The Council's abstention, for example, from the use of the term accidentes when speaking of transubstantiation deserves attention because it did not consider its doctrine to be scholastic. It preferred, instead, to use the term species.

And if the Council used the term substantia, it did so for two reasons: a) because it is present in the tradition of St Ambrose and Faustus of Riez, passing through Councils such as the Fourth Lateran; b) because it was therefore used, well before the advent of hylomorphism in the scholastics.

Throughout the discussion of the Eucharistic sacrifice, the majority of the Fathers accepted the sacrificial character of the Eucharist. The fact remains that the Council did not espouse the theories that explained this by following hypotheses such as that of representation or of virtual immolation.

Although Tapper, Chancellor of the University of Louvain, did not formulate his proposition at Trent, it was he who initiated a post-conciliar current that explained the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist, not to make the sacrifice of the Cross present but to affirm a new definition of sacrifice: in the Eucharist Christ attains a new way of being, such that he remains caught at the very moment in which he offers himself.

Thus, the Eucharist is a sacrifice independent of the sacrifice on the Cross.

Trent did not take this route. Theologians of the intellectual level of Cajetan had already maintained the continuity of the sacrifice of the Cross with the Eucharist, and people of the stature of Laínez and Carranza defended this same principle at Trent.

Furthermore, when the time came for the decision, the Fathers were not unanimous in their opinions. But the Council did have at its disposal a tradition concerning the theme that unified the opinion of all and obviously, it opted for this.

The Church's tradition was the following: the Eucharist is the memorial of the sacrifice of the Cross, which it makes present among us; the Eucharist makes present Christ's sacrifice on the Cross and the memory of him lives on among us (Denz., 1739-41).

The concept of repraesentatio should therefore be combined with that of memorial. The Catechism of Trent (1566) says "instauratur", "makes himself present once again".

The role of theology

The role of theology should consist only of clarifying faith. But the contemporary theologian, through ignorance of the importance of Scripture and Tradition, often prefers to satisfy the modern mindset. There are other cultural and social pressures, moreover, which induce the theologian to do so.

I have often met theologians who ask me: what is this substance?

Today, it is understood as meaning solely material reality, its physical dimensions and the sense that human beings attribute to it.

Substance, however, is not the ultimate physical basis of things but rather the ontological subsistence that God has infused in them through creation. By virtue of this they are distinct from God and are not set against anything.

This substance can be perceived in all the things that surround me. From the pencil I am holding I perceive, through my mind, that it is something (aliquid, a being, a substance) and, since it possesses specific physical traits, I call it a pencil. Otherwise, if I were not aware that things existed I would neither be able to talk about them nor to give them a name.
The first fact about them that I can understand is that they are something, a being or substance: this is the key to realistic knowledge. Animals, through their senses, perceive the physical dimension alone, but they do not properly know that things exist.

Besides, if there is a concept in our philosophy that we cannot overlook, it is that of substance, not only since we believe in creation that enables things to subsist, but because we have a common awareness of it.

Transubstantiation is due to the fact that God intervenes in the Eucharist with his creative power. We do not consider this a miracle, because a miracle requires the working of a tangible sign.

However, Christ intervenes here with the same creative force that he used in working his miracles. St John, who places the multiplication of the loaves in chapter six of his Gospel, says of Eucharistic doctrine: the One who works the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves is the One who says he gives his body to be eaten.

With reference to the Eucharistic sacrifice, the concept of memorial is crucial. But not even this is a magic or irrational concept. The key to everything is to be found in the Letter to the Hebrews, which presents Christ's sacrifice as unique, definitive and eternal.

Christ offers himself to the Father on the Cross and the Father accepts him and raises him. Thus, Christ enters the heavenly shrine with his Body and his Blood, where he continues his offering for us before the Father as victim and eternal priest.

What occurs in the Eucharist is that Christ, the heavenly and glorious victim, becomes present on the altar under the appearances [of bread and wine]. And Christ, the eternal priest, makes the celebrant partake in his offering.

Consequently, we have on the altar the same victim and the same priest who offered themselves [sic] on the Cross, and who are eternally perpetuated in heaven. The Eucharist is possible thanks to the Resurrection.

The true Temple of Christ

Before concluding, I would like to mention another aspect of the Eucharist that seems to me to be fundamental.

Yahweh's temple in Jerusalem is no longer standing: it was destroyed by the Romans. On its site, the Arabs have built two mosques. If the Jews wanted to rebuild it, there would be a world war.

We Christians, however, know that the temple is no longer there but in the Eucharist. Indeed, when Christ said that he would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, he was referring, as St John says (cf. Jn 2:21), to the shrine of his risen Body present in the Eucharist.

This presence is not the same as Christ's presence in the other sacraments in which he makes himself present through his grace or, in other words, his love. Here in the Eucharist he is present with his body, soul and divinity, as the Council of Trent recalls (cf. Denz., 1654).

Yet there is something more: the Christ present in the Eucharist is the risen Christ who gives us his Spirit. Let us not forget that in Palestine Christ had not yet bestowed his Spirit, for he had not yet risen (cf. Jn 7:39). Nevertheless, his presence is far more effective in the Eucharist than it was in Palestine.

On the day when, starting with the theologians and priests, we all begin to pray by ourselves before the tabernacle, the Church and the world will change.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
23 February 2005, page 5

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