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The Eucharist: What Do Catholics Believe?

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Additional Photo: Jonathan Bennett

Many Christians are unfamiliar with the term "Eucharist," yet as the quote from St. Augustine below demonstrates that the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ was of greatest importance to the earliest Christians. Essentially what many Christians now call "communion," the early Church called "Eucharist," which in Greek means thanksgiving. The Eucharist is the partaking of Jesus' body and blood with other believers. The Eucharist worship service consists of many parts that emulate parts of an actual meal, such as taking the bread, breaking the bread, distributing the bread, and eating the bread, although the Eucharistic meal is not an ordinary meal, but a heavenly banquet.

It is an excellent thing that the Punic Christians call baptism itself nothing else but "salvation" and the sacrament of Christ's Body nothing else but "life." Whence does this derive, except from an ancient, and I suppose, Apostolic Tradition, by which the Churches of Christ hold inherently that without Baptism and participation in the Table of the Lord it is impossible for any man to attain either to the kingdom of God or to salvation and life eternal. This is the witness of Scripture too.
St. Augustine, De Peccatorum Remissione et de Baptismo Parvulorum, AD 412

The Eucharist is also called the Lord's Supper, Divine Liturgy, or the Mass. The word "Mass" is derived from the Latin word meaning "to dismiss" or "send forth," which appears at the conclusion of the Western Eucharistic service. Jesus instituted the Eucharist in the New Testament when he blessed bread and wine, assuring his disciples that the elements are his body and blood (see Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:19-20, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). Jesus even said that the teaching that his followers must eat his flesh and drink his blood caused many to stop following Him (John 6:52-66). Since the beginning of the Church, Christians have been meeting regularly to celebrate the same Eucharistic meal. St. Justin Martyr (AD 150) speaks of weekly Sunday Eucharist, when Christians, by "transformation," consumed Christ's body and blood. The Eucharist has been the "main event" at Christian worship services since the earliest times, which surprises many people whose churches have relegated communion to a once-a-quarter activity, if that often. The basic themes of the Eucharist are:

Trinitarian context- In the Eucharist we pray to the Father in Thanksgiving. We call upon the Holy Spirit to sanctify the bread and wine, and sanctify us (called the epiclesis). We also experience the real objective presence of Christ through the Eucharist, asking that the elements become his body and blood (through The Words of Institution).

Christ's Presence / Transubstantiation- When Jesus said, "This is my body..." and "this is my blood," the early followers of Christ believed that Jesus was truly present with them when they took Eucharist, that they were consuming Christ himself in some way. Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyons, Ambrose of Milan, and many others speak of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. When we receive communion, we truly encounter Christ, partaking of his body and blood. The Catholic Catechism states it like this:

By the consecration the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ is brought about. Under the consecrated species of bread and wine Christ himself, living and glorious, is present in a true, real, and substantial manner: his Body and his Blood, with his soul and his divinity (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1413)

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This may sound a little confusing to modern ears because the official Catholic definition has been shaped by a medieval understanding of Aristotelianism. Essentially, the Church teaches that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ in substance, while the incidentals (or accidents), the physical characteristics of bread and wine, remain. This means that what you see, feel, and touch will seem to be bread and wine, while in reality, they are actually the body and blood of Christ. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (AD 350) describes this mystery similarly:

Do not, therefore, regard the bread and wine as simply that, for they are, according to the Master's declaration, the Body and Blood of Christ. Even though the senses suggest to you the other, let faith make you firm (Catechetical Lectures 22:6, 9)

Blessed Sacrament, photographed by Jonathan Bennett

Once the bread and wine are properly consecrated, by a validly ordained priest, we receive the certainty of Christ's presence. In other words, the presence of Christ is not dependent on subjective belief on our part, or the moral worthiness of the priest (God does the action, not a man). While Catholics use the term transubstantiation to describe the conversion of the elements into the body and blood, Eastern Orthodox Christians use other terms, including transformation, although they too affirm nothing less than a conversion of the elements into the body and blood of Christ. How this happens is ultimately a mystery, but a mystery based on the promises of Christ, to be experienced by faith. While the terms describing the change are technical, recently some Catholic leaders have asserted that transubstantiation is the Catholic way of describing the mystical and Real change using limited human language, as opposed to being a term narrowly scientifically and philosophically describing the change. So while transubstantiation still correctly describes the change, the term does not exclude the Eastern definitions (1).

Some might wonder why some of the early Christians called the bread and wine "symbols" or "figures" of Christ's body and blood. Some modern readers have used this in support of their view that the Eucharist is simply a memorial meal, a mental recollection of the death of Jesus. However, context is important when analyzing the early Church Fathers' use of the words "symbol" and "figure." In the ancient world, in part due to the influence of Platonism, a symbol was seen as substantially and inextricably connected to the reality that it symbolized. The Greek word for symbol literally means "thrown together," signifying the overlapping of a symbol with the universal reality it symbolizes. Thus, in calling the bread and wine symbols (or in Latin, "figures"), the Church Fathers believed in the true sacramental presence of Christ in the bread and wine, as opposed to a simple psychological recollection. In modern western society, because of the influence of Nominalism and the Enlightenment, we often say, "that's just a symbol" implying a disconnectedness between symbol and reality. Such was not the ancient mindset.

Gratitude - The early Christians used "Eucharist" as the primary word to describe their most important rite. Thus, at the heart of Christian experience is being thankful. During the Eucharist, we express our gratitude for what God has done for us. We offer gifts, created within space and time (bread and wine), and ourselves, up to God as signs of our gratitude for his redemption of mankind. If we take this seriously, it naturally leads us to become more thankful for all the blessings in our lives: family, friends, food, etc. So, at the end of the Mass, when we go forth, "to love and serve the Lord," we are truly equipped to better love our neighbors. At the end of the Mass when we say "thanks be to God," we should mean it with all of our hearts, for we have just given thanks to God for his perfect love for us, and for all the little blessings he has given us. Additionally, we are called to ponder and share this gratitude throughout the week.

Remembrance- Jesus said, "Do this in remembrance of me." The Greek word for remembrance, anamnesis, does not imply simple psychological recollection. Enlightenment rationalistic assumptions have clouded many an interpretation of Jesus' words here. The word anamnesis, as it was often used in ancient times, means to bring the past into the present and the present into the past. In the Eucharist, we truly experience Christ's life, death, and resurrection, and Christ is made present to us, and we are made present to Him. This is far more dynamic than merely remembering something.

Sacrifice- The Church recognizes the Mass as a sacrifice that is presented to God, in which Christ's one time sacrifice for sins is made present or emulated. The gospel accounts of the Last Supper speak of the Eucharist's sacrificial nature. At the Last Supper, Jesus connects the holy meal to his sacrifice, i.e. giving up his body, and spilling his blood, on behalf of humanity in his sacrificial death. The prophet Malachi speaks of a pure sacrifice (offering) that all nations offer to the Lord:

For from the rising of the sun, even to its setting, my name is great among the nations; And everywhere they bring sacrifice to my name, and a pure offering; For great is my name among the nations, says the LORD of hosts (Malachi 1:11, NAB).

Priest at Communion, photographed by David Bennett

According to St. Irenaeus (AD 180) and other early Christian writers, the Eucharist is the pure sacrifice the prophet Malachi speaks of. While the doctrine has been subject to mischaracterization and exaggeration by opponents, nonetheless, the Church, East and West, teaches that the Eucharist has a clear sacrificial character. Again we must emphasize: the sacrifice offered in the Eucharist is not a new and separate sacrifice from Christ's one sacrifice on the cross. Rather, the re-presentation of the sacrifice partakes in the one, universal sacrifice of Jesus, offered once and for all. Thus the early Fathers called the Eucharistic sacrifice the "unbloody sacrifice." We also offer up our sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving to God through our prayers during the Eucharist.

Penitence- The Eucharist is certainly a celebration, and, as we shall see below, medicine for our souls. However, the Church has universally believed that in order to partake of Christ's body and blood, we first be in a state of grace. St. Cyprian (AD 251) attests to this practice when he writes:

You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of devils; you cannot be partakers of the Lord's table and of the table of devils...All these warnings being scorned and contemned, before their sin is expiated, before confession has been made of their crime, before their conscience has been purged in the ceremony and by the hand of the priest, before the offence against an angry and threatening Lord has been appeased, they do violence to His body and blood; and they sin now against their Lord more with their hand and mouth than when they denied their Lord. (Treatise III: On the Lapsed, 15, 16)

In the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, mortal sins, grave sins done with full deliberation, are to be confessed to a priest prior to receiving the sacrament. This has biblical precedence. St. Paul speaks of those who partake of communion to their damnation, demonstrating the importance of worthily receiving Christ's body and blood. Remember that receiving the body and blood of Christ is a sacred honor, and just as we do not use the good china for every meal, there is no need to simply receive the body and blood of Christ because they are offered to us. Personal introspection, contrition, and (when necessary) the sacrament of reconciliation are all required to partake of the Eucharist worthily. To be free of mortal sin is to be in a "state of grace." Proper respect for Christ's sacred body and blood demands that we receive Him worthily.

Transformation and Sanctification- The early Christians often called the Eucharist the medicine of immortality, the food and drink by which one was rendered immortal. Some Eastern Orthodox theologians refer to the Eucharist as a "divine blood transfusion." By truly encountering Christ in the Eucharist, we sacramentally become transformed into his image. In ancient and modern Eastern Eucharistic liturgies, the sanctifying aspect of the Eucharist is expressed clearly when the priest says, "Holy Things for Holy People!" In one of his homilies, St. Ephraim the Syrian (d. AD 373) writes, "one particle from [the Eucharistic host's] crumbs is able to sanctify thousands and thousands, and is sufficient to afford life to those who eat of it" (Homilies 4:4). Such is the transforming power of the Eucharist!

Spiritual Banquet- The Eucharist is a spiritual banquet or heavenly meal. Even though the Eucharist resembles a common meal, it is something deeper and more profound. In this heavenly meal, heaven meets earth and earth meets heaven, and we encounter our Lord in a "uniquely intense" way (see John Paul II's Encyclical Letter Ecclesia De Eucharistia). It is during the Eucharist, the spiritual banquet, that we partake of the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ. St. John records the words of Jesus that explain the importance of partaking of the Bread of Life:

I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh..." So Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; 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 (John 6:48-51; 52-55, RSV)

Liturgical/Historical (Communal)- The Eucharist is a celebration and sacrament in which we collectively come to the table to meet Christ. We are supposed to put aside our individual differences and grudges before we partake, and in this way, we affirm our ultimate unity in Christ as his body on earth. In fact, the original intention of "passing of the peace" during the early Eucharistic services was to allow squabbling Christians a chance to reconcile with one another (thus, making peace with one another). This is because in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, rich or poor, and so forth.

The Eucharist is indeed the "work of the people" as the word liturgy means. Thus, all people in full communion with Christ and His Church, in a state of grace, are permitted to receive Christ's body and blood. The Catholic Church allows all Catholic and Orthodox Christians (including those in non-Chalcedonian Churches, e.g. Coptic Christians) in a state of grace to commune; Usually Orthodox Churches do not return the favor, but some will.

In addition to being a sign of unity and community among those living on earth, the Eucharist is a celebration that is above history, where past meets future, and where heaven meets earth. This includes those deceased to us, alive as saints with God. When we worship at Mass, we worship with all the angels and saints.

Worship-Based- Ultimately, the best way to learn about the Eucharist is to visit a Eucharistic service. Simply speculating about Eucharistic theology misses the point. Visit a Eucharistic service, and pray and participate in the service to the point you are able. However, be respectful to both Christ and the parish you are visiting by not taking communion unless you are permitted!! Remember Protestants may not commune in Catholic Churches. Orthodox Christians may do so under certain circumstances. My overall point is that worshiping with the angels and saints in a Eucharistic service is a grand miracle, and something to experience, not simply read about.

Eucharist Frequently Asked Questions

1. Why Can't Protestants Receive Communion in Catholic Churches?
As the question suggests, Protestants are not supposed to receive communion in Catholic parishes. This communion policy may seem unfair to many Protestants who desire communion when visiting Catholic parishes. However, the reason Protestants are not permitted to receive boils down to the differences in Catholic and Protestant beliefs about communion. For Catholics, the Eucharist is both a symbol of unity, and truly the body and blood of Christ. Thus, the Eucharist is more than just a memorial meal. If you receive Catholic communion without believing that the sacrament is truly the body and blood of Christ, you risk receiving unworthily, and possibly do so to your condemnation. Additionally, since Protestants are not able to receive the sacrament of reconciliation, they are not able to be properly disposed to receive Catholic Holy Communion. Until Catholics and Protestants are closer to full communion, and agree on what is happening at the consecration of the bread and wine, Protestants will not be allowed to receive communion in a Catholic Church. Ultimately, this is a matter of respecting the differences between Catholic and Protestant beliefs and practices (and thus respect for Catholic and Protestants). Also, if a Protestant wishes to receive Catholic communion, nothing is stopping him or her from actually becoming Catholic. However, in obedience to Christ's prayer for unity, we should always pray for the unification of all Christians, and welcome Protestants at our services. Protestants are allowed to participate at Catholic Mass through prayer, listening to the Scriptures, and hearing the Word of God proclaimed in the homily.

2. Why Aren't Catholics Allowed to Receive Communion in Protestant Churches?
Just as Protestants are not supposed to receive communion in Catholic parishes, the Catholic Church does not permit Catholics to receive communion in Protestant churches. The reasons for both prohibitions are very similar. Even though attending a Protestant communion service may provide spiritual benefits, these services are not, from a Catholic standpoint, valid Eucharists. Catholics believe that the Eucharist is a real, defined reality (even if ultimately a mystery), in which the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. In order for the Eucharist to be valid, the celebrant must be properly ordained and intend to celebrate a Eucharist. Thus, Protestant churches do not have proper Eucharists, because they do not ordain their ministers the way Catholics do, and do not believe in the Catholic Teaching about the Eucharist. Of course, most Protestants would agree, because most of them do not agree with Catholic Eucharistic theology anyway, and probably would be offended if a Catholic implied that Catholic and Protestant Eucharistic services and theology were identical. So, when a Catholic receives communion at a Protestant church, he or she is tacitly suggesting that there is no difference between Catholic and Protestant Eucharistic theologies, which is not true. This is disrespectful to both Catholic and Protestant beliefs. However, there is nothing stopping a Catholic from attending a Protestant communion service, so long as he or she does not receive communion, and is not attending the Protestant service in place of a Catholic service (Catholics are expected to attend Mass every Sunday, or Saturday evening, and on holy days of obligation).

Related to both questions: basically, the prohibition against intercommunion with Protestants is merely a recognition of the current reality, which is that Catholics and Protestants do not have the degree of unity necessary to share communion at this point in time.

1. See the Anglican/Roman Catholic Joint Declaration on the Eucharist, footnote two, which explains transubstantiation in this manner.

Last updated on 04-24-2010

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