edited by Russell Shaw
The Greek verb eucharistein, from which the term “Eucharist” is derived, means to give thanks or to grant a favor. In Catholic theology, Eucharist designates the sacrament instituted by Christ at the Last Supper. There he gave thanks, consecrated the bread and wine, and gave his Body and Blood as spiritual nourishment to his Apostles. Descriptions of Christ’s action can be found in Matthew 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24, Luke 22:19-20, and 1 Corinthians 11:23-25. Matthew’s account closely resembles that of Mark, while Luke’s seems to depend on Paul’s description.
Christ’s action at the Last Supper was a fulfillment of the promise he had made previously, as recorded in St. John’s Gospel: “I myself am the living bread come down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread he shall live forever: the bread I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world. . . . For my flesh is real food and my blood real drink. The man who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (Jn 6:51-56).
Doctrine of the Eucharist
The Eucharist is at once a mystery, a sacrament, a sacrifice, a memorial, and a meal, and it was regarded as such very early in the history of the Church. St. Justin (died 165) was one of the earliest apologists to divulge the “secret” of the Christian liturgy. After describing the confection of the Eucharist and its distribution by the deacons at the Sunday Liturgy, he says: “And this food is called among us the Eucharist. . . . For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these, but … we have been taught that this food . . . is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh” (First Apology, 65-a67).
Previously, St. Ignatius of Antioch (died 130) had stated that the Docetists held aloof from the reception of the Eucharist “because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ” (Letter to the Smyrneans, 7). St. Augustine (died 430), asserted very clearly the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist: “The bread which you see on the altar, once it is sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ. And that chalice, or rather what the chalice contains, once it is sanctified by the word of God, is the blood of Christ” (Sermon 227).
Other names were used, but less frequently, to designate this sacrament: for example, the Lord’s supper, table of the Lord, breaking of the bread, the unbloody sacrifice, and agape. St. Thomas Aquinas stated that the Eucharist has a threefold significance: (1) in relation to the past, it is the memorial of the Passion and death of Christ and is called the “Sacrifice”; (2) in relation to the present, it is the source of unity among the faithful and is called “Communion”; and (3) in relation to the future, it signifies the pathway to heaven and is called “Viaticum” (Summa Theologiae, I-II, 73, 4). This same teaching is summarized by St. Thomas in the Eucharistic prayer O Sacrum Convivium: “O Sacred Banquet, in which Christ becomes our food, the memory of his passion is celebrated, the soul is filled with grace and a pledge of future glory is given to us.”
As a sacrament instituted by Christ, the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ truly present under the appearances of bread and wine for the spiritual nourishment of the faithful. The Catholic doctrine on the Eucharist, officially stated by Lateran Council IV (1215), was expressed even more fully by the Council of Trent against the Protestant Reformers: “Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation” (Denzinger-Schönmetzer, 1642).
The most obvious thing about the Eucharist is that it is food and drink, a sacred meal taken at the altar, the table of the Lord. Like all the other sacraments, the Eucharist effects what it signifies, namely, spiritual nourishment through an increase of sanctifying grace. It differs from the other sacraments, however, because it contains Christ himself substantially, whereas the other sacraments contain a certain instrumental power that is a share of Christ’s power (cf. Summa Theologiae, III, 65, 3). In other words, the sacrament of the Eucharist is completed by the very words of Consecration, whereas the other sacraments are completed by the application of the matter for the sanctification of the recipient (cf. Summa Theologiae, III, 73, 1, ad 3).
As regards the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ, St. Thomas Aquinas treats this at great length, and his doctrine was generally accepted by the Church (cf. Summa Theologiae, III, 75-77). In the administration of the sacraments, the recitation of the sacramental formula makes the material of the sacrament (e.g., the water of Baptism or the chrism of Confirmation) an instrument of divine grace; but in the Eucharist the formula (i.e., the words of Consecration) produces a transformation in the substance itself. Thus, the water of Baptism and the chrism of Confirmation remain what they are, but the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.
This constitutes the mystery of the sacrament of the Eucharist, and it is truly a mysterium tremendum. St. Thomas Aquinas points out that it is just as credible that the accidental properties of bread and wine can remain in the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist as it is that God could form a human body in the womb of the Virgin Mary without the semen of a man (Summa Theologiae, III, 77, 1). And in the Adoro Te he exclaims: “Sight, touch, and taste in thee are each deceived; / The ear alone most safely is believed: / I believe all the Son of God has spoken, / Than truth’s own word there is no truer token. / . . . / God only on the cross lay hid from view; / But here lies hid at once the manhood too, / And I, in both professing my belief, / Make the same prayer as the repentant thief.”
In his sermon for the feast of the Ascension, Pope St. Leo says: “Our Redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments.” The Christ who is present under the appearances of bread and wine is the glorified Christ, and he is present there in Body, Blood, soul, and divinity. The words of Consecration are spoken by the celebrant of the Mass in persona Christi: “This is my body,” “This is my blood.” Instantaneously Christ is present, and, indeed, he remains present as long as the Species of bread or wine remains. Rightly does the celebrant of the Mass proclaim after the Consecration, Mysterium fidei. St. Bonaventure says: “There is no difficulty about Christ’s presence as in a sign, but that he is truly present in the Eucharist as he is in heaven, this is most difficult. Therefore to believe this is especially meritorious” (Opera Omnia, IV, 217).
St. Augustine asserts that “what since the days of antiquity was preached and believed throughout the whole Church with true Catholic faith is true, even if it is proved by no argument, explained by no words” (Contra Julianum).
From Trent to the Present
The opposition of the Protestant Reformers to the Eucharist concentrated on two basic Catholic doctrines: the Real Presence and the Sacrifice of the Mass. Both were defended by the Council of Trent (session thirteen, October, 1551, and session twenty-two, September, 1562).
Unlike the French and Swiss Protestants, Luther did not deny the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but he explained it in his own way. He is reported to have said, “I don’t care whether this be against nature, so long as it is not against faith.” However, he did reject transubstantiation and the enduring presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species outside of Mass. He believed in the Real Presence only at the moment that the Passion and death of Christ are proclaimed and at the reception of Communion; nor did he consider the Mass to be a true sacrifice.
It took twenty years and twenty-five sessions for the Council of Trent to complete its work on the theology of the Eucharist. It reaffirmed the faith of the Church in the real and enduring presence of Christ in the Eucharist as long as the appearances of bread and wine remain. In so doing, it necessarily had to proclaim the change of the substance of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, using the expression “transubstantiation.” Concerning the Mass as a sacrifice, the Council declared that at the Last Supper Jesus gave his Body and Blood to his disciples under the appearances of bread and wine; then he told them, “Do this in memory of me,” thus establishing a new priesthood and a sacrifice that will last until the end of time.
The definitive statements of the Council of Trent prevailed until modern times. However, by the time the Second Vatican Council convened, the stage was set for discussions on the theology of the Eucharist. Of the various remote factors that contributed to the debates, one should acknowledge the research of the faculty of theology at Tübingen, the liturgical movement initiated by Dom Prosper Guéranger, and the decree on frequent Communion issued by Pope St. Pius X. Then, in 1947, Pope Pius XII issued his encyclical on the liturgy Mediator Dei, in which he called for greater participation in the Mass and the reception of Communion at Mass. At the same time, he marked the distinction between the ordained priesthood and the priesthood of the laity, the importance of personal prayer as well as public, liturgical prayer, and the validity of the celebration of private Masses.
On December 4, 1963, the Second Vatican Council issued its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, in which the following paragraph gave rise to renewed interest and discussion of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist: “Christ is always present in his Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of his minister . . . but especially under the Eucharistic species. By his power, he is present in the sacraments, so that when a man baptizes, it is Christ himself who baptizes. He is present in his word, since it is he himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. He is present, finally, when the Church prays and sings, for he promised: ‘Where two or three are gathered together for my sake, there I am in the midst of them’ (Mt 18:20)” (7).
This prompted some theologians to discuss the presence of Christ in the Eucharist by starting with a consideration of his presence in the community. New terms were introduced with the intention of replacing transubstantiation, for example, “transignification” and “transfinalization.” If applied literally to the Eucharist, these words meant that, without any change in their physical reality, the bread and wine become the signs in which Christ gives himself as food.
The detailed and complicated discussions on the Eucharist led to the publication of the encyclical Mysterium Fidei by Pope Paul VI on September 12, 1965. This was followed in 1967 by the publication of Eucharisticum Mysterium by the Sacred Congregation of Rites and the Consilium for the implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. While expressing appreciation for the recent discussion, the document states that “the Mass, the Lord’s Supper, is at the same time and inseparably: a sacrifice in which the Sacrifice of the Cross is perpetuated; a memorial of the death and resurrection of the Lord . . . ; a sacred banquet in which . . . the People of God share the benefits of the Paschal Sacrifice” (3). The interior reality of the Eucharist is not only sanctifying grace, as in the other sacraments; it is Christ himself, Body and Blood, soul and divinity. That is why the words of Christ at the Last Supper must be taken literally: “This, my body, take and eat” and “This, my blood, drink it.”
Moreover, “the mystery of the Eucharist should therefore be considered in all its fullness, not only in the celebration of Mass but also in devotion to the sacred species which remain after Mass and are reserved to extend the grace of the sacrifice” (Eucharisticum Mysterium, 3). From the earliest days of the Church, the Eucharist has been reserved for veneration and for Viaticum. In Mysterium Fidei Pope Paul VI repeated the Church’s teaching on the permanent presence of Christ in the Eucharist: “It is not allowable . . . to propose and to act on the opinion according to which Christ the Lord is no longer present in the consecrated hosts left after the celebration of the sacrifice of the Mass is ended” (11).
Effects of the Eucharist
Each of the seven sacraments produces effects in the recipient that also are symbolized by the sacrament. Thus, through the baptismal washing the Christian is born again into the new life in Christ (CCC 1262-1274); through chrismation at Confirmation the candidate receives strength from the Holy Spirit to witness to Christ by word and deed (CCC 1302-1308). The Eucharist, however, is unique because it contains Christ himself, “the living bread that came down from heaven” (Jn 6:51). As a result, its first effect is to unite the recipient to Christ, as Jesus promised: “The man who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (Jn 6:56).
It is the teaching of the Church that “all the effects which material food and drink have on the life of our body, maintaining and increasing life, restoring health and bringing pleasure, all these effects this sacrament has on our spiritual life” (Denzinger-Schönmetzer, 698). In other words, the Eucharist preserves and increases habitual grace in the recipient; it has the power to remit venial sins and to fortify one against mortal sins; it is a source of spiritual joy to devout souls.
There is also a social, or communitarian, aspect to the Eucharist, and this is especially evident in the relationship between the Eucharist and the Church. Jesus prayed for this at the Last Supper: “I do not pray for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their word, that all may be one as you, Father, are in me, and I in you” (Jn 17:20-21). The People of God are united in one faith and one Baptism; they are also united in Christ through the Eucharist, as St. Paul teaches: “Because the loaf of bread is one, we, many though we are, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Cor 10:17).
The Eucharist is thus the source for making the Church a community of believers, the People of God, and for perfecting the Church as the city of God, the new Jerusalem. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council expressed similar sentiments in Sacrosanctum Concilium (47-48):
At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross through the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a bond of charity, a paschal banquet in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.
The Church, therefore, earnestly desires that Christ’s faithful, when present at this mystery of faith, should not be there as strangers or silent spectators. On the contrary, through a good understanding of the rites and prayers, they should take part in the sacred action, conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration. They should be instructed by God’s word, and be nourished at the table of the Lord’s Body. They should give thanks to God. Offering the immaculate victim, not only through the hands of the priest but also together with him, they should learn to offer themselves. Through Christ, the Mediator, they should be drawn day by day into ever more perfect union with God and with each other so that finally God may be all in all.
More recently, in the apostolic letter Orientale Lumen (May 2, 1995), Pope John Paul II spoke of the relationship of the Eucharist to the communio, which is the Church: “In the Eucharist, the Church’s inner nature is revealed, a community of those summoned to the synaxis to celebrate the gift of the One who is offering and offered: participating in the Holy Mysteries, they become ‘kinsmen’ of Christ, anticipating the experience of divinization in the now inseparable bond linking divinity and humanity in Christ” (10).
--Jordan Aumann, O.P.
Excerpt from Our Sunday Visitor's Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine, edited by Russell Shaw. Copyright © 1997 Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc. All rights reserved. Order here.