A flesh-and-blood test of faith

Transubstantiation has always been a difficult concept to come to grips with.

Even many of Jesus’s first listeners left in disbelief upon hearing the words: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”

The Roman Catholic Church has always insisted on a literal interpretation of these words, despite sceptics’ complaints that they defy logic and reason.

This means that once consecrated by a priest during mass, bread is no longer bread and wine is no longer wine, but flesh and blood of Christ.
The transformation is called “transubstantiation”, or the doctrine of the “Real Presence”.

As the late pope John Paul II noted in a message introducing the current Year of the Eucharist, the mystery of the Real Presence is a central concept of Catholicism that makes “strong demands on a believer’s faith”.

Yet there is a less philosophical consequence of transubstantiation that people may find even more baffling: the Eucharistic miracle.

Here, it is not merely the case of something looking, tasting or feeling like bread and wine but actually being another substance altogether. It is a case of consecrated bread and wine actually becoming “real” flesh and blood.

Such “tangible” manifestations of Jesus’s presence were the subject of a recent conference and exhibition held at the pope’s Regina Apostolorum University in Rome.

Organised by academics running the university’s master in science and faith, the conference sought to focus the attention of both religious people and scientists on the more than 200 Eucharistic miracles that have officially been recorded over the past 2 000 years.

Like all miracles, Eucharistic miracles involve God-willed contraventions of the laws of nature.

What sets them apart from others is “the active role of those that are involved”, notes Gianluca Casagrande, a historian and lecturer at the Regina Apostolorum.

“Free will plays a major role in Eucharistic miracles because they are usually born from the interaction between a person and his faith,” Casagrande said.

A constant in Eucharistic miracles is the presence of clergymen or atheists who doubt Jesus’s Real Presence.

This is the case, for instance, of the most famous of them all—the so-called Miracle of Bolsena.

Here, a priest from Bohemia, while travelling on a pilgrimage to Rome in 1263, stopped at a church in the central Italian town of Bolsena.

He was sceptical about the Eucharist, but had his doubts quickly dispelled when, while celebrating holy Mass in a local church, he noticed that blood had suddenly started to seep from the consecrated bread and trickle over his hands.

Confused, the priest at first tried to hide the blood, but then interrupted the service and asked to be taken to the neighbouring city of Orvieto, where pope Urban IV was residing at the time.

Though the fabric bearing the spots of blood is still reverently enshrined and exhibited in the Cathedral of Orvieto, the Bolsena miracle is largely based on popular tradition, rather than on factual evidence.

Its importance, however, is beyond dispute. And even non-believers should take note.

As Casagrande points out, Bolsena played a major role in promoting the feast of Corpus Christi, established by pope Urban IV and which this year falls on May 26.

The miracle has also inspired invaluable works of art, notably Raphael’s 1512 fresco The Mass at Bolsena, while its capacity to attract scores of visitors to the area convinced pope Urban IV to order the building of the Orvieto cathedral—a majestic mix of Romanesque and Gothic styles that make the building one of the most beautiful in the world.

Paradoxically, a Eucharistic miracle that has been subjected to far more scientific scrutiny than that of Bolsena took place as much as 500 years earlier in Lanciano, another town in central Italy.

Dated back to the middle of the eighth century, the Lanciano miracle also involves a monk, this time from the Middle East, who also had doubts about the Eucharist. Unlike Bolsena, however, the Lanciano miracle involves not only blood, but flesh as well.

The preserved tissue and dried-up liquid, whose state of conservation has baffled scientists to this day, were first examined in 1970 by Edoardo Linoli of Italy, a professor of anatomy and pathological histology, and of chemistry and clinical microscopy.

According to Linoli, whose findings were later endorsed by the World Health Organisation, both the flesh and blood he examined belong to the human species.—Sapa-DPA