Notes On Transubstantiation

by by Patrick Madden

illustration by by Allison Grosso

For the tiny children, it’s a tiny snack or a deprivation thereof. For the older children, it’s a proud act of parental mimicry. For the teenagers, it’s a quiet, habitual set of motions, perhaps accompanied by vague notions of scriptural significance but usually more replete with mental meanderings. And for the adults, a staggering range of beliefs and attitudes abound. But abound in silence. Expectation and performance of what the moment should be stifles any honest acknowledgement of what will transpire.

And so we move through the motions again and again. And the motions calm us in the midst of our frenzied lives. The music lulls; the sanctuary is warm; the congregation speaks as one. And even if we don’t believe, even if the bread remains bread, even if we glance about seeking others who share our doubt, a ritual is somehow soothing.

Transitioning from ritual participation as a child to participation as an adult has filled me with more honest curiosity than spiritual ardor. Who in the sanctuary believes what? Who of the somber-souled, quietly-chewing individuals around me even regularly questions or ponders what they believe? Exactly when in the service, in those more literal denominations, does the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ? Exactly who in my own Congregational Church is even aware that our doctrine claims the bread and wine to be a metaphor of remembrance rather than a literal transformation? Do the deacons buy the loaf of bread from the same place every week? What brand of grape juice is that? Welch’s? What would it mean to accidentally step on a consecrated wafer? What would it mean to purposefully step on a consecrated wafer?

I didn’t anticipate these inquiries to lead me straight to Greenville, Rhode Island.


In the middle ages. . .

Each church selected a single baker. This baker alone concocted the bread to be used in the Eucharist. This baker worked in solitude and used a special oven, designed to preserve the ritual surrounding the unique baking process. This baker was often mandated to fast or meditate while baking. As of a charter in 1406, this baker could not be female. This baker was busy.

As congregations grew larger and money scarcer, this baker simply couldn’t handle the strain. Certain orders of nuns began large-scale wafer-baking efforts in order to raise revenue for their individual churches.

But even the nuns with their holy bake sales couldn’t manage in the end. The masses at mass amassed, and mass marketing eventually rendered moot the efforts of bakers and nuns. The bread of the Lord passed swiftly into the arms of machines.

Today, the Cavanaugh Company in Greenville, Rhode Island holds an 80-percent market share in the US, Canada, Australia, and England on communion wafer manufacturing. It has been called the “Microsoft of altar bread.”


The family-owned commercial bakery operates 24 hours a day. It churns out 25 million wafers a week. Cavanaugh bread is made from pure flour and water, “untouched by human hands” and “sealed minutes after baking,” according to their website. In other words, the ingredients are mixed, cooked, and packaged in tubes like Ritz crackers all by a whirring jumble of mechanical extremities.

Primarily purchased by Catholics, Cavanaugh wafers are available to and requested by a veritable maelstrom of denominational leaders, and even occasionally by the laity.

“Cavanaugh wafers don’t crumb, and I don’t like fragments of our Lord scattering all over the floor,” says the Episcopal Reverend Bob Dietel from Washington.

Rev. Dietel might have been joking. But then again he might not have been, making sanctuary janitorial duties quite delicate. Or rendering the church mice that much holier.

According to Brian Cavanaugh, current head of management, sales, and marketing, the Second Vatican Council of 1962 expanded the company’s horizons. As of the 16th century Council of Trent (which convened, among other things, to solidify Catholic dogma), communion wafers took the form of paper-thin white sheets, baked to dissolve on the tongue. In 1962, however, the Vatican Council decided to make communion bread a little more bread-like. And the Cavanaughs provided.

Wafers with sealed edges that don’t crumb and aren’t too shiny. Wafers imprinted with religious icons that aren’t too tacky. Wafers that are unleavened but still retain a bread-like appearance. Wafers that can be easily broken into smaller wedges or distributed individually. Whole wheat wafers for those diet-conscious or color-concerned parishioners.

The Cavanaughs have a machine and a price for all of these things. Call toll-free at 1-800-635-0568, or order online.


Brian Cavanaugh is very straightforward with the Boston Globe about his product: “When it leaves here, it’s flour and water. It’s a baked good. And not a very good tasting one. But when you receive communion, uh, you know, it’s totally different. It is a transformation. We don’t do it. It’s done during the mass.”

He’s also straightforward about sales trends:

“When times are rough, more people seem to go to church.”

Sales have spiked intermittently throughout the current economic recession, with a five percent increase this year.

Sales spiked 10 percent after September 11, 2001.


Perhaps in the face of hardship, we return to faith in things we cannot see. The possibility that Christ himself is present in the bread before us is the possibility of transcendence. Of a way out and a way beyond.

Or perhaps in times of strife, we revert to the familiar, cling to the soothing. As His body is broken, as the bread dissolves, we stand uncertain. We chew and sip and glance and eke out a prayer. But doubts take wing on hymnal refrains, lost amid the creak of wooden pews. Our bodies and hearts remember this; our minds need not be troubled.


Just as the manufacture of communion bread has adjusted to modernity, so too has discourse surrounding transubstantiation morphed in form and rhetoric:

A GREAT DEBATE ABOUT THE EUCHARIST: Featuring “RachelKH” (junior Member:, posting on December 15th, 2011 and “Fr. Vincent Serpa” (senior member with 3,682 posts:, posting on Dec. 22nd, 2011.

rachelkh [Subject: Eucharist????????]: Please explain the Eucharist – we say and believe it is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ – ok – but if we tested the regular Blessed Eucharist, it would not contain the DNA of Jesus, right? So how can we believe it is physically the Body and Blood??? My very smart teenager wants this answered and I’m not up to it. Thank you!

fr. vincent serpa [Re: Eucharist????????]: Hi, If we could detect his DNA in the Eucharist, there would be no need for us to believe. There is nothing that is in any way measurable about the Eucharist that changes when it becomes the Body of Christ. The Apostles had to take what He said on faith—and did so because they loved Him. So we must take the mystery of the Eucharist on faith as well–and for the same reason!

A collision, then.

A lurch at the grafting of new on old, of machine on sacrament, of forum on faith.

A sigh of relief, then. Because consternation comes easy when its subjects are newfangled, pixilated, generational.

A distraction, then. The how of sacrament; the where of discourse; the when of heavenly transformation.

A furrowed brow, now, at the realization: we are further from meaningful inquiry than when we began. If we assume the Lord inhabits with equal ease a medieval loaf as a Cavanaugh construction, then the pause the latter provides begs attention.

PATRICK MADDEN B’14 sweeps up the crumbs.