Since the Archdiocese of Port of Spain has determined there will be no distribution of the Blood of Christ with the threat of COVID-19, there have been many comments via social media questioning the level of faith and the transubstantiation which occurs during the Eucharist. Fr Robert Christo, Vicar for Communications, clarifies the Church teaching on transubstantiation.
The Roman Catholic theologian, St Thomas Aquinas, may have used existing philosophical terms as ‘accidents’ and ‘substance’ to describe fairly complex concepts regarding the outer appearances of the Eucharist and its physical characteristics but its relevance regarding the serious threat of the COVID-19 is applicable today.
Simply put, Aquinas describes ‘substance’ as that which makes a thing what it is. For example, a chair might be yellow or red or any other colour—yet it is still a chair. That’s because the substance of a chair is independent of its external accidents.
On the other hand, Aquinas describes ‘accidents’ as the physical external characteristics of a thing. Thus, the red colour associated with a chair is an accident (its ‘chairness’—the red colour is not the chair). The same would be true for its feel, size and so on.
During transubstantiation—and this is what we are called to believe in as the actual miracle—the substance of bread and wine is totally replaced with the “substance of Jesus Christ—the Real presence, the True Being, while the ‘accidents’ (outer appearances) of bread and wine remain. Therefore, the accidents remain and retain their natural properties which may have negative effects.
Therefore, if one chemically analyses the Blessed Sacrament or the Precious Blood, all that will be found are the accidents, and those will be the accidents of bread and wine (i.e. its “breadness and wineness”).
While the substance of the bread and wine is transformed into the substance (being) of the Body and Blood of Christ and we know that there is no bread and there is no wine because the ‘substance’ of Jesus has replaced the substance of bread and wine, the accidents (outer appearances) remain unchanged. This explains why the Eucharist still looks and tastes like bread and wine, still having the accidents of flour and alcohol respectively.
Thus those of the faithful who drink from the common chalice and are challenged with allergies, cold symptoms and/or alcohol consumption may still experience negative effects. This is the reason why some believe that recovering alcoholics and victims of any orally transmitted ailments ought not to participate in the communion chalice since there are risks, albeit small, of viral transmission from saliva of carriers from a common vessel.
It must also be remembered that in our Church teaching, either of the species is full unto itself, thus the absence of the wine Blood of Christ does not weaken the host, the Body of Christ.
Today, with the imminent and serious threat of COVID-19, amidst the absence of any reported vaccine and the rising cases of reported deaths globally—the decision of the Church to desist in the sharing of the communion chalice (which is still open to natural negative effects) is most prudent at this time. As such, this situation should not pose a challenge to our faith but provide an opportunity to truly deepen our understanding of it.