10 things you didn't know about the Eucharist

Yes, there’s a lot you know about the Eucharist — the Blessed Sacrament, holy Communion — but have you ever heard of these 10 fun facts about it?

1. Feast day

The solemnity of Corpus Christi — the feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ — is a holy day of obligation. While it’s prescribed as such in the general law of the Church, it’s not observed as one in the United States. It, along with the Epiphany, is transferred to a Sunday. (Also not observed as holy days of obligation in America are the solemnities of St. Joseph, March 19, and Sts. Peter and Paul, June 29).

2. Origins

The feast originated in Liège, Belgium, in 1246 and was extended throughout the Church in the West a little later by Pope Urban IV. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) wrote the Liturgy of the Hours for it. And St. Juliana of Liège, also known as St. Juliana of Cornillon (see sidebar), played a key role in getting the feast established.

Yes, you’ve heard of Aquinas but, as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out in a general audience in 2010: “She [St. Juliana] is little known, but the Church is deeply indebted to her, not only because of the holiness of her life but also because, with her great fervor, she contributed to the institution of one of the most important solemn liturgies of the year: Corpus Christi.”

3. Consecration customs

It was during that period that the priest began elevating the host and chalice at Mass after the consecration. Back then, people received holy Communion infrequently but at least they could see the host and cup. And, yes, that seems to be when the custom of ringing a bell at the elevation came into practice. At some churches, it was the tower bell that was rung. The use of a hand bell apparently began in England.

One more item from the 13th century. That was when churches began placing the host in a monstrance to be exposed on the altar. And they started carrying it in a procession in the church or out through the streets as part of the Corpus Christi celebrations.

4. Early Christians speak

As you may know from modern-day RCIA practices, in the very early days of the Church those in the congregation who had not yet been baptized left Mass before the consecration. It was the apologist St. Justin (d. 165), among others, who spilled the beans on what came next, describing what was what and who did this or that.

Needless to say, that didn’t mean the people could really understand what happens to the bread and wine. (Neither can we!). He wrote: “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.”

5. Word choice

Here’s one you probably know: the word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek for “thanksgiving.” Why that word? It has its origin in Jesus’ giving thanks at the Last Supper (Mt 26:27). In our own time, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says the sacrament is called “Eucharist, because it is an action of thanksgiving to God. The Greek word eucharistein and eulogein recall the Jewish blessings that proclaim — especially during a meal — God’s works: creation, redemption and sanctification” (No. 1328).

6. Names

The Eucharist has a lot of other names, too. The breaking of the bread, Eucharistic assembly, memorial of the Lord’s passion and resurrection, Holy Sacrifice, Holy and Divine Liturgy, holy Mass, Sacred Mysteries, Most Blessed Sacrament and holy Communion.

And, perhaps nowadays in our own parish, we refer to as “the Saturday evening” or “the 9 o’clock.” As in, “This weekend I’m going to ... ”

There’s no mention of those in the Catechism.

Nor is there a paragraph about coffee and donuts following in the parish hall.

7. Parts of the prayer

The Mass’ Eucharistic prayer is divided into distinct parts:

A prayer of thanks, including the preface. The acclamation (the Sanctus; Holy, Holy, Holy). The epiclesis, an invocation of the Holy Spirit. (Here the priest puts his hand over the bread and wine.) The institution narrative and consecration.

The memorial acclamation. (For example, one begins “When we eat this bread ...”) The anamnesis, focusing on Christ’s passion, resurrection and ascension.

The oblation, an offering from us: “Therefore as we celebrate the memorial of his death and resurrection, we offer you, Lord, the bread of life and the chalice of salvation, giving thanks that you have held us worthy to be in your presence and minister to you” (Eucharistic Prayer II). Intercessions, when the priest, in our name, prays for and with all the Church.

And the concluding doxology (“through him, with him, and in him) to which the congregation responds “Amen.”

8. Gluten content

Yes, the host must be made of wheat, but there are extremely low-gluten hosts for those who have celiac disease.

In 2012 the U.S. bishops wrote: “Given the serious health risk for those suffering gluten intolerance, it is important for pastors and other Church leaders not only to be aware of the reality, but prepared to address the situation of Catholics with celiac disease who come to parishes and seek to receive holy Communion in a safe, sensitive and compassionate manner.”

You can read more at tinyurl.com/CeliacCommunion.

9. First Communion

St. Pius X (1835-1914) lowered the age limit for first holy Communion. When he was elected pope in 1903, children didn’t receive until they were as old as 14. He dropped it down to the “age of reason,” or about 7.

10. How often?

OK, one last quick one. How many times in a single day can you receive holy Communion? Two, provided the second reception is in the context of a Mass and not a Communion service. But Communion given as viaticum may be received at any time. Viaticum is Communion given to one who is in danger of death.

Let’s end with one of the concluding lines from St. John Paul II’s Ecclesia de Eucharistia (“On the Eucharist and its relationship to the Church”), the last of his 14 encyclicals, which was published two years before his death:

“In the humble signs of bread and wine, changed into his body and blood, Christ walks beside us as our strength and our food for the journey, and he enables us to become, for everyone, witnesses of hope” (No. 62).

Bill Dodds writes from Washington.

Pope Benedict on St. Juliana of Liège
During his general audience on Nov. 17, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI shared with the Church the importance of St. Juliana and her role in establishing the feast of Corpus Christi. He said: