What is transubstantiation?


Transubstantiation is what takes place in the Mass when the bread and wine become the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. It is basically a way of explaining how the change from “bread” to “Jesus” takes place. In transubstantiation, the accidents of the bread and wine remain the same while the substance of the bread and wine are changed.

Of course, in order to understand this, you have to know what “accidents” and “substance” is. The accidents are those properties of a thing that the senses perceive. What it looks like, smells like, tastes like, sounds like, feels like — these properties are the accidents of a thing. They are not the thing itself, but merely the perceptible qualities or characteristics of the thing. The substance, however, is the thing itself, or the essence of the thing.

So, take for example the bread used in Mass. The accidents of it are: roundness, whiteness, crispiness, bread-like smell, bread-like taste. The substance of it is: “bread.”

In every case in the universe but one, when the substance changes, the accidents of it change too, since the accidents are attached to the substance. For example, when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, the change in substance from “caterpillar” to “butterfly” also results in a change in the accidents or outward appearance, from fuzzy, long, and multi-legged to multi-colored and winged.

Only in the transubstantiation of the Eucharistic elements do the accidents remain even though the substance changes. Maybe an illustration will be helpful. I saw a magic trick once where a man in a black costume stood in the middle of the stage. Some assistants pulled up a curtain around him. There was smoke and flashes of light. When they dropped the curtain to the floor there stood a woman in the same black costume. Transubstantiation is sort of like that. The “costume” of bread is suspended (“in mid air” so to speak) while the underlying substance (or thing that wears the costume) is changed.

I hope that helps you to make sense of this mystery. If you would like to read more about transubstantiation, I highly suggest Chapter 18 from Frank (“F.J.”) Sheed’s book Theology for Beginners. Sheed is a master at explaining complex mysteries in an accessible way.

Peace of Christ to you,

Nicholas Hardesty,
WIMM Board Member
Director of Religious Education, Blessed Mother Catholic Church
Feel free to email your questions to

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