An excerpt from 'The Gift of Faith'
Edited by then Bishop Donald W. Wuerl, Thomas Comerford Lawler, and Ronald Lawler, O.F.M. Cap. (Reference: Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1322-1405; 1536-1589)
The Eucharist is at the very heart of the Church’s life. In the Eucharist Christ Himself is present to His people in the paschal mystery. Rich in symbolism and richer in reality, the Eucharist bears within itself the whole reality of Christ, and mediates to us His saving work.
"At the Last Supper, on the night He was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic Sacrifices of His Body and Blood. He did this to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the centuries 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 sign of unity, a bond of charity, a paschal banquet in which Christ is received, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us" (SC 47).…
1. What is the Holy Eucharist?
The Eucharist is a sacrament, a sacrifice, and a sacred banquet. Under the appearance of bread and wine our Savior Jesus Christ is entirely present in this sacrament, body and blood, soul and divinity. In this sacrament He offers Himself in sacrifice to the Father, and is received as spiritual nourishment.
The word "Eucharist" means thanksgiving. Our Lord in a most special way gave thanks to the Father as He offered it. Moreover, the Eucharistic sacrifice is the most excellent means we have of expressing our thanks to God.
2. Why is the Eucharist the center of Catholic life?
The Eucharist is the center of Catholic life precisely because Christ is the center of all our life. In this sacrament Christ gives Himself totally, that we might share His life and be bound together in His mystical body.
"No Christian community can be built up unless it has its basis and center in the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharist" (PO 6). "For the Most Blessed Eucharist contains the Church’s entire spiritual wealth, that is, Christ Himself, our Passover and living bread" (PO 5).
3. Was the Eucharist foreshadowed in the Old Testament?
Yes. In every age God taught mankind to hope for salvation. But in the divine plan salvation was to be achieved only by the sacrifice Christ offered of Himself upon the cross, a sacrifice that is made present now in all places through the sacrifice of the Mass. The sacrifices of the old law could not of themselves bring salvation, but they could and did foreshadow the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
The Eucharist as sacrifice was symbolized in a special way in the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb, at the time God was about to lead His people from the slavery of Egypt and guide them toward the promised land. The Eucharist was represented by the manna given to sustain the people of God as they wandered through the desert to the homeland that God planned to give them.
4. When did Christ institute the Eucharist?
Jesus Christ instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper which He celebrated with His apostles the night before He died for us. "He took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take and eat, this is My body’ " (Matt. 26.26). Taking a cup of wine, he said: "This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood" (Luke 22.20). Finally, he commanded the apostles to do as He had done: that in every place bread might become His body, and wine His blood, and that through His priests He might offer in every place the perfect sacrifice to the Father. "Do this in remembrance of Me" (1 Cor. 11.24).
By offering this first Eucharistic sacrifice at the time of the paschal feast, Jesus indicated the fulfillment of the promises symbolized by the first Passover. Through the sacrifice of the cross, referred to and made symbolically and really present at this sacrificial meal, He redeemed the whole human race from the slavery of sin and made it possible for all to come to the Promised Land of heaven.
5. Was the Eucharist celebrated in the early Church?
Yes. In describing the life of the early Church, Christian writers of that time gave special attention to the Eucharist. For the Eucharist was the community’s essential celebration. It signified, and kept most real, the presence of Christ in the community.
St. Luke says of the first Christians in Jerusalem: they "devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2.42).
6. Why is the Mass called a true sacrifice?
A sacrifice is the offering of a victim by a priest to God alone, to acknowledge his divine sovereignty and to obtain his mercy. Now the Mass is called a true sacrifice because in it our High Priest, Jesus, truly offers Himself totally to the Father. Jesus does not rise and die again every time the Eucharistic liturgy is enacted, but His one sacrifice is made present to all in every celebration of the Mass. At Mass, as on the cross, Jesus is the chief priest; and the ministerial priest serves as His instrument. It is He who is the Victim, freely offering Himself as He did on the cross, freely offering the suffering and death He endured for us.
But in the Mass His Church joins Him in the sacrifice. With Him, in obedience to Him, the Church also performs the role of priest and victim, making a total offering of itself together with Him.
7. Why do we call the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist a "real presence"?
Jesus is present to the Church in many ways. He is with the Church as she believes, prays, and does works of mercy. He is present in the activity of bishops and priests of the Church when they preach God’s word, govern His people, and administer His sacraments. All these presences of Jesus are of course real. But in speaking of the "real presence" in the Eucharist we are recalling that this is the fullest and most rich presence of Jesus. Jesus is present in many ways by His action, care, and power; but the Eucharist is Jesus. He is totally present wherever the Eucharist is present. He is present with all His humanity and all His divinity.
Obviously Jesus does not take on a new miniature body to be present in the Eucharist. He has but one body, the body that once hung on the cross and is now at the right hand of the Father. What changes is not Jesus, or His glorious condition, but the number of places in which He is present. When bread is changed into His body, the one body of the Lord begins to be really present where there had been bread.
"Instructed in these matters and certain in faith that what seems to be bread is not bread — though it tastes like it — but rather the Body of Christ, and that what seems to be wine is not wine — though it seems so to the taste — but the Blood of Christ … strengthen your heart by receiving this Bread as spiritual food and gladden the countenance of your soul" (St. Cyril of Jerusalem).
8. To whom is the Eucharistic sacrifice offered?
Because the Eucharist, which makes really present the sacrifice of the cross, is the supreme act of worship, it can be offered only to God.
9. For whom is the Eucharistic sacrifice offered?
At every Mass the chief priest is Christ, and His ministerial priest must share Christ’s universal saving purpose. Every Mass is offered for the salvation of all, the living and the dead.
Often the faithful ask that a Mass be offered for a special intention; for example, for one who has died, for some spiritual or temporal need, or for giving thanks to the Lord. When Mass is said for a special intention, it is in truth only a plea that part of the fruits of Christ’s sacrifice might favor an intention for which one has special concern.
When a financial offering is made with the request that Mass be said for such a special intention, this is to be understood as an expression of a desire to make a sacrifice of their own, joining that small sacrifice to the Eucharistic sacrifice. By this they also contribute in a particular way to the needs of the Church and the sustenance of its ministers.
10. What is meant by Holy Communion?
Holy Communion is a sacrament in which the faithful receive Jesus as the Bread of life, as spiritual food. The Mass is both a sacrifice and a sacred banquet; Jesus is offered to the Father, and He is received as the nourishing strength of His people. Communion unites us more closely with Jesus Himself, and unites us also with all of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Sometimes Catholics receive Communion under the form of bread alone; sometimes they receive it under the forms of both bread and wine. In either case, one receives the whole Christ.
11. Have we a duty to receive Communion?
Yes. Jesus Himself stressed that we must receive Communion to come to everlasting life. "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, you have no life in you" (John 6.53).
The divine precept does not indicate how often one should receive Communion. The Church commands the faithful to receive Communion at least once a year, ordinarily during the paschal season. The Church also speaks of the duty to receive Communion when one is in danger of death. But one who loves Christ naturally wishes to deepen his friendship with Him by frequent reception of this sacrament.
12. Is Christ’s presence in the Eucharist lasting?
Yes. The change that occurs when Christ becomes sacramentally present in the Eucharist is an enduring change. After the consecration Jesus remains bodily present as long as the appearance of bread and wine remains.
13. What are the conditions for lawful reception of Communion?
To receive the sacrament of Communion worthily one must be a baptized Catholic in the state of grace and believe what the Church teaches about this sacrament. One conscious of having committed a mortal sin must make a sacramental confession before approaching the sacrament. One must also receive Communion with an upright intention, for example, out of love for Christ or in a desire to grow in grace and in unity with all His Mystical Body. One should not receive Communion simply because others are receiving it. The Church also directs us to abstain from food and drink (except for water and medicine) for at least one hour before Communion.
If one who has sinned gravely has a pressing need to receive the Eucharist and has no opportunity to confess, one should first make an act of perfect contrition, an act which includes in it a promise to confess as soon as possible. One who deliberately received Communion while in a state of mortal sin would commit a grave sin of sacrilege.
"Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord" (1 Cor. 11.27).
Reception of the Eucharist together signifies unity in faith and union with one another in the family of faith. Catholics and non-Catholic Christians are regrettably separated in many ways. For this reason non-Catholics could not be admitted to Communion in the Catholic Church except in exceptional circumstances. The local Catholic bishop is to pass judgment in each case.
14. What special gifts of God are symbolized and brought about by the Eucharist?
We receive the Eucharist under the appearance of basic, elemental foods, bread and wine. And the sacrament brings about spiritually the nourishment it symbolizes, for in it Christ provides us richly with all that we need for healing and nourishment in the life of grace. Bread and wine are also symbols of unity: the family of God is to be gathered into one by the power of the Eucharist, as many grains of wheat are gathered to make bread and many grapes are brought together to make wine. Moreover, this basic food is received as food for the pilgrim journey we make toward eternal life, and it gives us the grace and strength to come to that life.
"I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst…. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed" (John 6.34, 55).
"Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (1 Cor. 10.17).
"I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If a man eats of this bread, he will live forever" (John 6.51).
15. What is the general structure of the Mass?
The Mass contains a liturgy of the Word and a liturgy of the Eucharist.
The liturgy of the Word begins with a greeting, a penitential rite, and prayers that prepare one to hear the words of God in readings from Holy Scripture. These readings are ordinarily followed by a homily, which explains and applies the word of God to our lives, and on Sundays and great feasts by a communal act of faith.
In the liturgy of the Eucharist gifts of bread and wine (and often other gifts as well) are made; these symbolize the gift of our whole being to the Lord, and our desire to receive Him entirely. In the Eucharistic prayer the words of Christ Himself at the Last Supper are spoken in His name by the priest; Jesus makes present His whole being, and renews the one sacrifice of the cross in the midst of His people. We are called upon to remember God’s great saving deeds as these realities are made sacramentally present. All express their inward participation in Christ’s sacrifice by the solemn "Amen" at the end of the Eucharistic prayer. Then the Communion rite begins with the Lord’s Prayer, and other prayers preparing us to receive the Lord in Communion. Afterwards there is a time for quiet prayer, or a brief prayer in common, and for a solemn blessing, after which the people are dismissed.
Sacred music often adorns the Mass. Some of the prayers of the Mass are often sung, and hymns are frequently offered.
Though the essential elements of the Mass are present wherever Mass is offered, there are a number of "rites" in the Church. In the western, or "Latin," part of the Church the Roman rite is used; in the Eastern Churches united with Rome other rites, rooted in ancient practices, are used.
16. Should Christ be worshipped in the Eucharist?
Yes. At the consecration of the Mass Christ becomes present to us. There He offers Himself to the Father, renewing in our midst the saving sacrifice of the cross. He remains permanently with us in this sacrament. Wherever the sacrament is, there is the Christ who is our Lord and God; hence He is ever to be worshipped in this mystery.
Such worship is expressed in many ways in Catholic devotion: in genuflections, in worship of Him at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament or in private visits to the Blessed Sacrament, in Eucharistic processions of the Feast of Corpus Christi or at times of the Forty Hours Devotion. In some dioceses and religious communities perpetual adoration is maintained before the Blessed Sacrament. All these forms of worship are appropriate responses to the immense gift of Christ’s presence in our midst under the appearances of bread and wine.
Words to Remember…
• "Take, eat, this is My body…. This is My blood of the covenant" (Matt. 26.27-28).
• Jesus at the Last Supper changed bread and wine into His own body and blood, and commanded the apostles to do what He had done.
• At Mass, Christ through His priests changes bread and wine into His body and blood, and makes the sacrifice He once offered on the cross present for us.
• To receive Communion worthily is to have the sure hope of eternal life; we receive it worthily if we are in the state of grace and have faith in the Eucharist.
• We worship Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, for He remains there always as our Savior and our Friend.
• "The Blessed Sacrament contains the Church’s entire spiritual wealth, that is, Christ Himself" (PO 5); hence this sacrament is the source of all the Church’s life and activity.
Excerpt from The Gift of Faith, A Question and Answer Version of The Teaching of Christ, edited by Bishop Donald W. Wuerl, Thomas Comerford Lawler, and Ronald Lawler, O.F.M. Cap. Copyright © 1986, 2001 by Bishop Donald W. Wuerl, Thomas Comerford Lawler, and Ronald Lawler, O.F.M. Cap. All rights reserved.