The Holy Eucharist is unique among the sacraments. Even the variety of names by which it is called emphasizes the central position which it occupies in Catholic Christianity. It is the Blessed Sacrament, the Lords Supper, the Holy of Holies, the Table of the Lord, the Body and Blood of Christ, the Sacrifice of the Mass, Holy Communion, the Sacrament of the Altar, Viaticum, and the Real Presence to mention only a few of the titles by which the Church has identified this central Mystery of Faith.
Yet among the names that have come down to us, the most favored is the Eucharist, from the Greek word Eucharistia, which means Thanksgiving. It appears already in the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch (died 107 A.D.) and St. Justin, Martyr (died 165 A.D.).
We may say there are three cardinal mysteries of the Christian religion, namely, the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Eucharist. Among these the Eucharist implies the other two, since without the Trinity there would have been no Incarnation, and without the Incarnation there would have been no Eucharist.
Our purpose here is mainly to consider the Eucharist as a sacrament that is a visible sign instituted by Christ, which effectively produces the grace it signifies. Yet in reflecting on the Eucharist as a sacrament, we must keep in mind what Pope John Paul II said in the first encyclical he wrote as Bishop of Rome.
The Church lives by the Eucharist, by the fullness of this sacrament, the stupendous content and meaning of which have often been expressed in the Churchs magisterium from the most distant times down to our own days
Indeed, the Eucharist is the ineffable sacrament! The essential commitment and, above all, the visible grace and source of supernatural strength for the Church as the People of God is to persevere and advance constantly in Eucharistic life and Eucharistic piety, and to develop spiritually in the climate of the Eucharist
With all the greater reason, then, it is not permissible for us, in thought, life, or action to take away from this truly most Holy Sacrament its full magnitude and its essential meaning
It is at one and the same time a sacrifice-sacrament, a communion-sacrament, and a Presence-sacrament (The Redeemer of Man, IV, 20).
Consequently, although the Eucharist is one sacrament, it is a sacrament in three distinctive ways as sacrifice, communion, and Presence. We shall examine each of these in sequence, while seeing how each one relates to the other two.
Eucharist as Sacrifice Sacrament
The most serious challenge to the Catholic faith in the Eucharist was the claim that the Mass is not a real but merely a symbolic sacrifice.
To defend this basic Eucharistic mystery, the Council of Trent made a series of definitions. Originally drafted as negative anathemas, they may be reduced to the following positive affirmation of faith.
The Mass is a true and proper sacrifice which is offered to God.
By the words, Do this in commemoration of me (Luke 22:19; I Corinthians 11:24), Christ made the apostles priests. Moreover, He decreed that they and other priests should offer His Body and Blood.
The Sacrifice of the Mass is not merely an offering of praise and thanksgiving, or simply a memorial of the sacrifice on the Cross. It is a propitiatory sacrifice which is offered for the living and dead, for the remission of sins and punishment due to sin, as satisfaction for sin and for other necessities.
The Sacrifice of the Mass in no way detracts from the sacrifice which Christ offered on the Cross (Council of Trent, Session XXII, September 17, 1562).
Volumes of teaching by the Churchs magisterium have been written since the Council of Trent. There has also been a remarkable development of doctrine in a deeper understanding of the Mass. For our purpose, there are especially two questions that need to be briefly answered: 1) How is the Sacrifice of the Mass related to the sacrifice of the Cross? 2) How is the Mass a true sacrifice?
Relation of the Mass to Calvary. In order to see how the Mass is related to Calvary, we must immediately distinguish between the actual Redemption of the world and the communication of Christs redemptive graces to a sinful human race.
On the Cross, Christ really redeemed the human family. He is the one true Mediator between God and an estranged humanity. On the Cross, He merited all the graces that the world would need to be reconciled with an offended God.
When He died, the separation of His blood from His body caused the separation of His human soul from the body, which caused His death. He willed to die in the deepest sense of the word. He chose to die. In His own words, He laid down His life for the salvation of a sinful mankind.
But His physical death on Calvary was not to be an automatic redemption of a sin-laden world. It would not exclude the need for us to appropriate the merits He gained on the Cross; nor would it exclude the need for our voluntary cooperation with the graces merited by the Saviors shedding of His blood.
The key to seeing the relation between Calvary and the Mass is the fact that the same identical Jesus Christ now glorified is present on the altar at Mass as He was present in His mortal humanity on the Cross.
Since it is the same Jesus, we must say He continues in the Mass what He did on Calvary except that now in the Mass, He is no longer mortal or capable of suffering in His physical person. On Calvary He was, by His own choice, capable of suffering and dying. What He did then was to gain the blessings of our redemption. What He does now in the Mass is apply these blessings to the constant spiritual needs of a sinful, suffering humanity.
Before we look more closely at the Mass as a sacrifice of propitiation and petition, we should make plain that it is first and foremost, a sacrifice of praise (adoration) and thanksgiving. No less than He did on Calvary, in the Mass Jesus continues to offer Himself to the heavenly Father. Since the highest form of honor to God is sacrifice, the Mass is a continuation of Christs sacrifice of praise and gratitude to God the Father. But, whereas on Calvary, this sacrificial adoration was bloody, causing Christs physical death by crucifixion, in the Mass the same Jesus is now sacrificing Himself in an unbloody manner because He is now glorified, immortal, and incapable of suffering or dying in His own physical person.
We now turn from the Mass as a sacrifice of adoration and thanks (referring to God), to the Mass as a sacrifice of propitiation and petition (referring to us).
Notice we use two words, propitiation and petition. They are not the same.
The Mass is the most powerful means we have to obtain propitiation for sin. This occurs in different ways.
Through the Mass, Gods mercy makes reparation for the want of divine love that we have shown by committing sin.
Through the Mass, Gods mercy removes the guilt of repented venial sins and moves the sinner estranged from Him to return to God.
Through the Mass, Gods mercy remits more or less of the punishment still due on earth to forgiven sins.
Through the Mass, Gods mercy also remits more or less of the punishment which the souls in purgatory have to undergo before entering heaven.
The Mass is a powerful means of petition to God for the graces that we and others need in our pilgrimage through life.
Graces are necessary for the mind to know what is Gods will and how it should be fulfilled.
Graces are necessary for the will to desire what pleases God, to choose what He wants us to do, and to sustain our choice by loving Him above all things.
In both ways, as a means of propitiation and petition, the Mass is a sacrament. It confers the graces needed from Gods mercy to expiate the sins of the past and the graces needed from Gods bounty to obtain His blessings for the future.
The Mass a True Sacrifice. Since the first century of her existence, the Church has considered the Mass a sacrifice. The earliest manual of the liturgy (before 90 A.D.) has this directive for the attendance of Sunday Mass.
On the Lords own day, assemble in common to break bread and offer thanks. But first confess your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure. However, no one quarreling with his brother may join your meeting until they are reconciled; your sacrifice must not be defiled (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, 14).
Why is the Mass a true sacrifice? Because in the Mass the same Jesus Christ who offered Himself on Calvary now offers Himself on the altar. The Priest is the same, the Victim is the same, and the end or purpose is the same.
The Priest is the same Jesus Christ whose sacred person the ordained priest represents and in whose Name he offers the Eucharistic Sacrifice.
The Victim is the same, namely the Savior in His human nature, with His true Body and Blood, and His human free will. Only the manner of offering is different. On the Cross, the sacrifice was bloody; in the Mass it is unbloody because Christ is now in His glorified state. But the heart of sacrifice is the voluntary, total offering of oneself to God. Christ makes this voluntary offering in every Mass, signified by the separate consecration of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of the Redeemer.
The end or purpose is the same, namely to give glory to God, to thank Him, to obtain His mercy, and to ask Him for our needs. But, as we have seen, whereas on Calvary Christ merited our salvation, it is mainly through the Mass that He now dispenses the riches of His saving grace.
Eucharist as Communion Sacrament
The biblical foundation for Holy Communion is what Christ Himself did at the Last Supper. As narrated by St. Matthew, Jesus first offered the apostles what He was about to change, then changed the bread and wine, and then gave them Communion.
And while they were at supper, Jesus took bread and blessed and broke and gave it to His disciples and said, Take you and eat, this is my Body. And taking the chalice He gave thanks and gave it to them saying, Drink you all of this. For this is my Blood of the New Testament which shall be shed for many unto remission of sins (Matthew 26:26-28).
St. John, who does not give us the narrative of the institution of the Eucharist, devotes a whole chapter to Christs promise of giving His followers His own flesh to eat and His own blood to drink. What Christ emphasizes is the absolute necessity of being nourished by His Body and Blood if the supernatural life received at Baptism is to be sustained.
I tell you most solemnly, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you will not have life in you. Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life and I shall raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in Him. As I, who am sent by the living Father, myself draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will draw life from me. This is the bread come down from heaven; not like the bread our ancestors ate. They are dead, but anyone who eats this bread will live forever (John 6: 53-58).
Throughout the gospels and St. Paul, Christ uses words like take, eat, drink, always clearly indicating that the Eucharist is to be taken into the mouth and consumed. No less, and far more, than material food and drink are necessary to sustain the natural life of the body, so Holy Communion must be received to support and nourish the supernatural life of the soul.
Effects of Holy Communion. Since the earliest times, the benefits of receiving the Body and Blood of Christ were spelled out to encourage frequent, even daily, Holy Communion.
Thus, St. Cyril of Jerusalem (died 387) said that reception of the Eucharist makes the Christian a Christbearer and one body and one blood with Him (Catecheses, 4,3). St. John Chrysostom (died 407) speaks of a mixing of the Body of Christ with our body,
in order to show the great love that He has for us. He mixed Himself with us, and joined His Body with us, so that we might become one like a bread connected with the body (Homily 46,3). These and other comparisons of how Communion unites the recipient with Christ are based on Christs own teaching, and St. Pauls statement that, the bread which we break, is it not the partaking of the Body of the Lord? For we, being many, are one bread, all that partake of this bread (I Corinthians 10:16-17).
So, too, the Church officially teaches that Every effect which bodily food and bodily drink produce in our corporeal life, by preserving this life, increasing this life, healing this life, and satisfying this life is also produced by this Sacrament in the spiritual life (Council of Florence, November 22, 1439). Thus:
Holy Communion preserves the supernatural life of the soul by giving the communicant supernatural strength to resist temptation, and by weakening the power of concupiscence. It reinforces the ability of our free will to withstand the assaults of the devil. In a formal definition, the Church calls Holy Communion an antidote by which we are preserved from grievous sins (Council of Trent, October 11, 1551).
Holy Communion increases the life of grace already present by vitalizing our supernatural life and strengthening the virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit we possess. To be emphasized, however, is that the main effect of Communion is not to remit sin. In fact, a person in conscious mortal sin commits a sacrilege by going to Communion.
Holy Communion cures the spiritual diseases of the soul by cleansing it of venial sins and the temporal punishment due to sin. No less than serving as an antidote to protect the soul from mortal sins, Communion is an antidote by which we are freed from our daily venial sins (Council of Trent, October 11, 1551). The remission of venial sins and of the temporal sufferings due to sin takes place immediately by reason of the acts of perfect love of God, which are awakened by the reception of the Eucharist. The extent of this remission depends on the intensity of our charity when receiving Communion.
Holy Communion gives us a spiritual joy in the service of Christ, in defending His cause, in performing the duties of our state of life, and in making the sacrifices required of us in imitating the life of our Savior.
On Christs own promise, Holy Communion is a pledge of heavenly glory and of our bodily resurrection from the dead (John 6:55). St. Irenaeus (died 202) simply declared that, when our bodies partake of the Eucharist, they are no longer corruptible as they have the hope of eternal resurrection (Against the Heresies, IV, 18,5).
Reception of the Eucharist. We may distinguish four stages in the Churchs history on the frequency of receiving Holy Communion. In the early centuries, the Eucharist was received often, even daily. By the early Middle Ages, neglect of the Sacrament caused a general council of the Church to pass a law that is still in effect. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 A.D. decreed that on reaching the age of discretion, every Catholic should receive Holy Communion after having gone to the Sacrament of Penance.
In the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent repeated the foregoing decree and condemned anyone who denies that each and every one of Christs faithful of both sexes is bound, when he reaches the age of reason, to receive Communion at least every year during the Paschal season according to the command of holy Mother Church (October 11, 1551).
With the rise of Jansenism in the seventeenth century, reception of Communion reached an all time low. One result was that people were known not to make their First Communion until they were dying. All the while, however, zealous apostles of the Eucharist, like Saints Ignatius Loyola, Vincent de Paul and Alphonsus Liguori, were urging the faithful to receive as often as possible. In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius says, we should praise the reception of the Most Holy Sacrament once a year, and what is much better once a month, and much better still every eight days, always with the requisite and due dispositions (Rules for Thinking with the Church, 3).
Finally in 1905, Pope St. Pius X issued his famous decree on frequent communion, and it has made Eucharistic history. The pope said:
Frequent and daily Communion, as a thing most earnestly desired by Christ our Lord and by the Catholic Church, should be open to all the faithful of whatever rank and condition of life; so that no one who is in the state of grace, and who approaches the holy table with a right and devout intention, can lawfully be hindered from receiving
A right intention consists in this: that he who approaches the holy table should do so, not out of routine or vainglory or human respect, but for the purpose of pleasing God, of being more closely united with Him by charity, and of seeking this divine remedy for his weaknesses and defects (December 20, 1905).
The new Code of Canon Law builds on this legislation of St. Pius X and even permits reception twice a day. According to the Code, A person who has received the Most Holy Eucharist may receive it again on the same day only within a Eucharistic celebration in which that person participates (Canon 917).
Eucharist as Presence Sacrament
Although we have reserved our reflections on the Real presence for the end, we could just as well have begun with the Eucharist as Presence-Sacrament. The reason is that logically, the Mass and Holy Communion derive all their meaning from the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
As we did before, so here again we shall draw on the irreversible teaching of the Council of Trent about the Real Presence. The original doctrine is worded in the form of anathemas. What follows is a summary list of these dogmas expressed in positive terms.
The Body and Blood of Christ together with the soul and divinity of Christ and therefore the whole Christ, is truly, really, and substantially contained in the sacrament of the most Holy Eucharist.
By that wonderful and extraordinary change, called transubstantiation, the whole substance of the bread is changed into Christs Body, and the whole substance of the wine is changed into His blood, so that only the species properties of bread and wine remain.
In the venerable sacrament of the Eucharist, the whole Christ is contained under each species, and under each and every portion of either species when it is divided up.
After the consecration, the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ are present in the marvelous sacrament of the Eucharist. They are present not only in the use of the sacrament while it is being received, but also before and after. Consequently, the true Body and Blood of the Lord remain in the consecrated hosts or particles that are kept or left over after Communion.
Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, is to be adored in the holy sacrament of the Eucharist with the worship due to God and including external worship. The Blessed Sacrament is therefore to be honored with extraordinary festive celebrations, solemnly carried from place to place in processions, and is to be publicly exposed for the peoples adoration.
The Holy Eucharist is to be kept in a sacred place (Council of Trent, October 11, 1551).
It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the foregoing definitions of the Catholic Church on the Real Presence. No doubt, their doctrinal substance had been part of the Churchs faith since the time of Christ. But the clear and simple expression of this faith in the sixteenth century marked a turning point in Catholic devotions to Jesus Christ, now present on earth no less than He was visibly present in first-century Palestine.
Transubstantiation. To identify what takes place in the consecration at Mass, the Church has come to employ the term transubstantiation (trans = change, substantiation = of substance). Because of its importance for understanding the Real Presence, this term deserves some explanation.
There are two kinds of changes which things can naturally undergo. They are called accidental and substantial changes. In an accidental change, something remains substantially the same, but its accidental or non-essential properties are transformed. Thus when a block of marble is carved into a statue, the marble remains marble, but its shape and form are changed.
In a substantial change, the former substance ceases to exist and becomes something else. Thus, when food is eaten, its substance is changed; it becomes part of the organism which consumes the food.
In transubstantiation there is a unique substantial change. The essence or substance of bread and wine ceases to exist, while the accidents or sensibly perceptible properties of bread and wine remain. This kind of change has no counterpart in nature; it belongs to the supernatural order.
What actually occurs? The substance of what was bread and wine is replaced by the living Christ. Although the external qualities of bread and wine remain, their substance is no longer on the altar. It is now the whole Christ, divinity and humanity, soul and body, and all the bodily qualities that make Christ, Christ.
In his historic encyclical The Mystery of Faith, Paul VI goes into great detail to show that transubstantiation produces a unique presence of Jesus Christ on earth. The pope analyzes six ways in which the Savior is present and active in the world of human beings, but they are not the Real Presence. The Real Presence is unique because it contains Christ Himself. Moreover, this presence is called Real because it is the presence by which Christ, the God-Man is wholly and entirely present (Mysterium Fidei, September 3, 1965).
Worship of the Holy Eucharist. There has been a remarkable development of doctrine on the Real Presence. Already in the infant Church, the faithful did not doubt that by the words of consecration by the priest, what had been bread is now the living Christ. However, as certain theories began to emerge that called the Real Presence into question, two things happened. The Churchs magisterium began to express her Eucharistic faith in even sharper and clearer terms; and the Churchs saints began to foster devotion to the living Christ who is present in our midst in the Blessed Sacrament.
The classic expression of faith in the Real Presence was drafted by Pope Gregory VII in a Eucharistic Creed that leaves no room for compromise.
I believe in my heart and openly profess that the bread and wine placed upon the altar are, by the mystery of the sacred prayer and the words of the Redeemer, substantially changed into the true and life-giving flesh and blood of Jesus Christ our Lord, and that after the consecration there is present the true body of Christ which was born of the Virgin and offered up for the salvation of the world, being hung on the cross and now sits at the right hand of the Father, and there is present the true blood of Christ which flowed from His side. They are present not only by means of a sign and of the efficacy of the sacrament, but also in the very reality and truth of their nature and substance (Council of Rome, February 11, 1079).
Long before this famous profession of faith, the Holy Eucharist had been worshipped by the faithful. But the adoration of the Real Presence for prolonged periods of time did not become widespread until about the beginning of the thirteenth century. The immediate occasion for this practice was the great devotion to the Blessed Sacrament of the Belgian Augustinian nun, St. Juliana of Mont Cornillon (1193-1258).
St. Juliana urged the bishop of Liege to institute a feast in honor of the Real Presence. The bishop ordered such a feast for his diocese in 1246. On September 8, 1264, the Belgian Pope, Urban IV, established the feast of Corpus Christi and ordered St. Thomas Aquinas to compose its Divine Office. Three of our best known Eucharistic hymns are part of this Divine Office, namely Pange Lingua, which closes with the two verses of Tantum Ergo; Sacris Solemniis, which closes with the two verses of Panis Angelicus; and Verbum Supernum, which closes with the two verses of O Salutaris Hostia.
No less than eleven canons of the new Code of Canon Law deal with the Reservation and Veneration of the Most Holy Eucharist. They cover every significant aspect of Catholic veneration of the Holy Eucharist.
The Sacrament is to be reserved in every cathedral, parish church and church or oratory of a religious institute or society of apostolic life (Canon 934).
The church should be open to the faithful, at least some hours each day so that they are able to spend some time in prayer before the Most Blessed Sacrament (Canon 937).
The tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved should be situated in a distinguished place in the church or oratory, a place which is conspicuous, suitably adorned, and conducive to prayer (Canon 938).
In one country after another, adoration of the Holy Eucharist has developed beyond anything seen in previous generations. Groups have been formed among the laity for this purpose. Some are local organizations associated with a single parish church or public oratory. Others reach out across the nation and even to other countries. Their common denominator is an intense desire to profess ones faith in Christs Real Presence in the Eucharist, and to pray for the desperate help that people need in todays convulsive society.
Modern popes have not only supported this renewed devotion to the Eucharist, but have done all they could to set the example for bishops to follow. Thus Pope John Paul II established the daily exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in St. Peters Basilica. Every day, Monday through Friday, the Blessed Sacrament has been exposed all day, from Latin Mass in the morning until Italian Vespers in the evening. Two Sisters are in adoration in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in St. Peters. Pilgrims to Rome join in their prayers before the Holy Eucharist.
When the Perpetual Eucharistic Exposition opened, Pope John Paul II composed a prayer of which the following are significant quotations.
Lord, stay with us.
These words were spoken for the first time by the disciples at Emmaus. In the course of the centuries, they have been spoken infinite times, by the lips of so many of your disciples and confessors, O Christ.
As Bishop of Rome and first servant of this temple, which stands on the place of St. Peters martyrdom, I speak the same words today.
Stay! That we may meet you in prayer of adoration and thanksgiving, in prayer of expiation and petition, to which all those who visit this basilica are invited.
Stay! You who are at one and the same time veiled in the Eucharistic mystery of faith, and also revealed under the species of bread and wine, which you have assumed in this Sacrament.
The Eucharist is at the same time a constant announcement of your second coming and the sign of the final Advent, and also of the expectation of the whole Church.
Every day and every hour we wish to adore you, veiled under the species of bread and wine, to renew hope of the call to glory which you began with your glorified body at the Fathers right hand.
May the unworthy successor of Peter in the Roman See and all those who take part in the adoration of your Eucharistic Presence attest with every visit of theirs, and make ring out again the truth contained in the apostles words: Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you. Amen.
In one diocese after another, bishops have encouraged the adoration of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament by the faithful. In a world that is groping in darkness, the Church is telling people that Christ, the light of the world and the power of salvation is on earth to teach us and strengthen us on the road to heaven. All we need is to believe that He is here and ready to provide us with what we need.
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