On the Thursday before Easter, more than two billion Christians worldwide observe the Eucharist, a special ritual that commemorates the Last Supper – a meal hosted by Jesus Christ for his friends 2,000 years ago, the night before he was arrested and crucified. During the meal, according to the Gospels, Christ said to his gathered disciples, that – like the bread broken and wine poured out – his body would be broken and his blood poured out for the sake of his people. Jesus invited his followers to enact this meal whenever they gathered to remember his sacrifice.
This early Christian practice assumed importance and has come to symbolise the core message of Christianity – that Christ sacrificed himself for the sake of humanity.
As a theological dogma, the Roman Catholic Church affirms that when the priest consecrates the bread broken and wine shared during the Eucharist ceases to be bread and wine and becomes the real presence of Christ. This is known as “Transubstantiation” within the Roman Catholic Church – affirmed by the following statement from the Council of Trent in the 1560s
By the consecration of the bread and of the wine, a conversion is made 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; which conversion is, by the holy Catholic Church, suitably and properly called Transubstantiation.
But over 2,000 years of church history, this doctrine has been at the centre of several schisms. Most of the Protestant churches reject the doctrine of Transubstantiation but retain some understanding of the Eucharist as an occasion where Christ’s presence becomes real and tangible along with the bread and wine – but not actual flesh and blood. Meanwhile, most Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians consider the Eucharist simply as memorial meal or an opportunity to experience spiritual communion with Christ.
The official line of the Roman Catholic Church is that majority of Catholics, subscribe – in principle at least – to the view of Transubstantiation as a core doctrinal teaching. But, most recently, PEW research findings published in 2010 suggested that about 52% of all respondents thought that bread and wine used for Communion are symbols. This raises doubts as to whether even Catholics really believe in the bread and wine really becoming the body and blood of Jesus – let alone understand the doctrine. Transubstantiation as a philosophical concept has also been under close scrutiny for many centuries.
On the back of these observations let me offer two thoughts. Firstly, due to the significant decline in religious adherence among millennials, the grasp and relevance of this central Catholic teaching is becoming seemingly less relevant. Even among those who attend the church either regularly or less frequently, there is lack of clear understanding on the teaching of the church regarding Transubstantiation.
This could be partly to do with the general change in social worldview and the shift towards a greater understanding of science and embrace of technological innovation. Much of the Western world, particularly Europe and America, has become far more secular – something that is reflected in falling religious adherence.
But with the shifting of global Christian populations – and the rise of South America, Asia and Africa as centres of Roman Catholicism – issues about belief and practice are addressed from a deep-rooted pre-Christian religious and cultural perspective. From my ongoing anthropological research in these contexts, it seems clear that the way belief is conceived among Christian communities is not based on discussion around essence and substance (as in philosophical or theological) rather on a more personal encounter with the divine through rituals performed within a community of believers. So, congregations give importance to the communal dimension of the Eucharist as a memorial ritual where one can encounter Christ.
Pope Francis I – unlike his predecessors – has not directly advocated the doctrine of Transubstantiation. Keeping to his South American theological roots, Pope Francis has called for Catholics to consider the Eucharist as an encounter with Christ – an occasion where Christ makes himself available to the community through an act of remembrance. Its an opportunity to be transformed to carry out the work of Christ. The focus here is not on dogma but the action that flows from it. This is very different from the hard-core theological dogma of the Roman Catholic Church.
This is very much in line with Pope Francis’s ecumenical and inter-religious initiatives over the past five years. He has consistently spoken about Holy Communion as a “sacrament” – emphasising the communal element rather than the mystery.
The Eucharist is the summit of God’s saving action: the Lord Jesus, by becoming bread broken for us, pours upon us all of His mercy and His love, so as to renew our hearts, our lives, and our way of relating with Him and with the brethren.
Through this teaching in the 2014 Encyclical, Pope Francis has departed from the traditional line of who can receive or participate in Eucharist and called for a more inclusive openness to our understanding and practice of Eucharist (including non-Catholics to be able to take communion), and not to make it into an exclusive practice.
This approach has been popular among Catholics however upsetting the traditionalist Catholics, including the previous pope, Benedict.
The debate around Transubstantiation within the Roman Catholic Church will no doubt continue – but by signalling that he is willing to welcome anyone and share the Eucharist with others, Pope Francis may have charted a different path by opening up the Eucharist to non-Catholics and those who have been traditionally excluded. He is clearly moving away from the idea of the Eucharist as a directly “supernatural” experience and more towards a unifying sacrament.