What is the Eucharist?

Last Supper by Juan de Juanes, c. 1560

The institution of the Eucharist is shown in this painting of the Last Supper by Juan de Juanes, c. 1560

In Catholic practice and belief, the Eucharist — also called “Holy Communion” — is the highest form of worship, and has been from the earliest time of the Church to today.   Lumen Gentium, a document of Vatican II, calls it the “fount and apex of the Christian life.”  The “Liturgy of the Eucharist” takes up the latter half of every Catholic Mass throughout the world.

So what is it?  Why is it so important?

Let’s begin with Scripture, with one of the best-attested  and earliest-written passages in the New Testament.

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St. Paul, leader of the first generation of Christians, says in the First Letter to the Corinthians:

…I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, 

that the Lord Jesus,

on the night he was handed over,
took bread,

and, after he had given thanks,

broke it and said,

This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

In the same way also the cup, after supper,

saying,

This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.

The story is also told in three of the four Gospels.  Likely the earliest is St. Mark’s account:

While they were eating,

he took bread,

said the blessing,

broke it, and gave it to them, and said,

Take it; this is my body.”  

Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them,

and they all drank from it.  

He said to them,

This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many…”

The “direct quotes” of Jesus Christ in these Bible passages are taken literally by Catholics, though we do not claim to understand exactly how it all works.

Here is what we do understand.  At the Last Supper (“on the night he was handed over,”) Jesus took the unleavened Passover bread and told his friends “This is my body.”   He took the Passover wine, in a chalice, and said to them “This is my blood,” and/or “This is the new covenant in my blood,” before giving it to them to share.

We take this man, who healed the sick and raised the dead with a word, at his word:

  • When he gave to them to eat that stuff that looked and tasted like bread, it was — really was — his Body.
  • When he handed them the chalice, redolent with wine’s fragrance, the contents of that cup were — really were — his Blood.

We hear this man, who made Peter to walk to him on the water with a command, and trust that we can obey his command:

  • If he tells the Church, “Do this in remembrance of me,” then the Church can and must “do this.”  
Pope Benedict XVI elevates the host

Pope Benedict XVI celebrates the Liturgy of the Eucharist in 2007

And so the Church has, and does.  In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, a priest (acting in the place of Christ, as we understand Christ was asking his apostles to do) takes bread, blesses it, and quotes Jesus’s words “This is My Body.” He takes wine, blesses it, and quotes Jesus’s words that declare it is His Blood.  We believe that by commanding this, Jesus has made it — somehow — so it can be so, and is.

We believe that in every Eucharist the Church does what Jesus was doing — or rather, that Jesus does it, through the actions of the priest who does as Jesus commands.  From the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 1410):

It is Christ himself, the eternal high priest of the New Covenant who, acting through the ministry of the priests, offers the Eucharistic sacrifice. And it is the same Christ, really present under the species of bread and wine, who is the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice. 

Each Eucharist isn’t a repeating of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, nor is it a new sacrifice every time.  Rather, it’s one and the same “Holy Sacrifice,” because (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1330)

it makes present the one sacrifice of Christ the Savior and includes the Church’s offering.

Our “offering” is ourselves, as well as the material gifts we’ve brought with us to help support the Church, and the bread and wine that our support helps provide; we offer all that as part of the Eucharistic liturgy at Mass.

Jesus was anticipating the cross when he instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper; we are memorializing it when we participate in the Eucharist at Mass.  From the Catechism, paragraph 1323:

This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout 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 sign of unity, 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.'”

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“The Eucharist,” also called “The Blessed Sacrament,” is that blessed stuff.  It appears to the senses exactly like simple unleavened bread and like wine in a cup, not very different from its appearance before the Eucharistic blessing.  But we don’t call it “bread” and “wine” anymore, unless we’re careless with our language, because we believe that on a level that’s more real than things we can touch and see, it’s not bread and wine any longer.

(If in writing and speaking we want to refer to the stuff-that-looks-like-bread-but-isn’t, you may hear us call it the “Host.”  If we have to refer to the stuff-that-looks-like-wine-but-isn’t, we call it the “Precious Blood” or else we may say “the chalice” or “the cup.”)

When we receive Communion, we receive the Eucharist:  we are given some of the Host or some of the Precious Blood or both (depending on local practice and circumstances), and we consume it, believing that in doing so we are — really — eating and drinking the Body and Blood of the Lord, for the simple reason that He commanded us to.

traditional "solar" monstrance

traditional “solar” monstrance

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The Eucharist is usually reserved after Mass, in the form of leftover blessed Hosts, in a special closed container in the Church called a tabernacle.  Between Masses, it is fitting to pray and reflect before the tabernacle, and to direct our prayers to the Lord, because we believe He is really there.   At some times, a blessed Host is placed in a special display stand, called a “monstrance” (from a Latin word meaning “to show”) which allows it to be seen and adored by the faithful:  this practice is called Eucharistic Adoration.

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To read more about the Eucharist, see the article “The Sacrament of the Eucharist,” part of a section in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that explains the celebration of the seven sacraments.

Do all Popes become Saints after their death?

The short answer is no, not all Popes became Saints after their death. In total, there have been 265 Popes, including Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Of those 265 Popes, less than a third (78) are Saints, most of these in the early centuries of the Church; many were martyrs.  A further eleven have been named blessed (an intermediate step toward Sainthood), with Pope John Paul II’s recent beatification.

In 1588, the modern Sainthood process the Vatican now follows, began.  When Pius X, who died in 1914, was made a Saint in 1954, he was the first Pope so honored in almost 400 years. Pope John Paul II received his blessed recognition exactly six years and 29 days following his death largely due to the papal exemption (waived by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) that five years must pass between a person’s death and the opening of his or her Sainthood cause.

Does the Pope go to Confession?

Short answer:  yes.

Papal infallibility only applies to declarations regarding Church doctrine.  An infallible statement is usually made in response to doctrinal questions or disagreements, and they are very rarely made.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) is celebrated by any Catholic seeking forgiveness for mortal sins.  The graces received through the Sacrament of Reconciliation are necessary to help us from committing those sins again.  No human is “above” celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation because we all sin and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).  It is a humbling experience to admit to another person (and to God) that you have messed up and need His grace and mercy to be reconciled with Christ and His Church.

Who was the first pope?

The first pope was St. Peter. Christ sets the stage for Simon Peter as the first vicar, the visible and earthly head of the Church in Matthew 16:13-20. Christ accentuated Peter’s precedence among the Apostles, when, after Peter had recognized Him as the Messias, He promised that he would be head of His flock.

While journeying along with His Apostles, Jesus asks them: “Whom do men say that the Son of man is?” The Apostles answered: “Some John the Baptist, and other some Elias, and others Jeremias, or one of the prophets”. Jesus said to them: “But whom do you say that I am?” Simon said: “Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God”. And Jesus answering said to him: “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to thee: That thou art Peter [Kipha, a rock], and upon this rock [Kipha] I will build my church [ekklesian], and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven”. Matthew 16:13-20

Although all the Apostles as a group were given the power “to bind and to loose” in Mt 18:18, St. Peter received this power individually at the time he was given the “keys.” His authority is demonstrated several times through Scripture, including the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 in which the assembly fell silent after Peter spoke, settling a serious doctrinal dispute. His name is mentioned 191 times, which is more than all the rest of the Apostles combined {about 130 times}. After Peter, the most frequently mentioned Apostle is John, whose name appears 48 times.

Peter is conspicuously involved in all the Church’s important firsts:

  • he led the meeting which elected the first successor to an Apostle {Acts 1:13-26},
  • he preached the first sermon at Pentecost {Acts 2:14},
  • received the first converts {Acts 2:41}
  • performed the first miracle after Pentecost {Acts 3:6-7}
  • inflicted the first punishment upon Ananias and Saphira {Acts 5:1-11}
  • excommunicated the first heretic, Simon the magician {Acts 8:21}
  • the first Apostle to raise a person from the dead {Acts 9:36-41}
  • received the revelation to admit Gentiles into the Church {Acts 10:9-16}
  • and commanded the first Gentile converts be baptized {Acts 10:44-48}

Even in Galatians 1:18-19 Saint Paul goes to stay with Peter in Jerusalem after his conversion, staying with him for 15 days. In contrast, he only visits James very briefly during this time.

See more examples in Mt 19:27, Mk 8:29, Lk 12:41, Jn 6:69, Lk 9:32, Mk 16:7, Acts 2:37, Mt 10:1-4, Mk 3:16-19, Lk 6:14-16, Acts 1:13

 

Why is the authority that Jesus vested in Peter handed down to successors?

Here’s a quick Biblical reason why the current Pope continues to exercise Peter’s authority:

In Isaiah 22, King Hezekiah has discovered that his household steward Shebna has been stealing money from the King. The obvious evidence is the pricey tomb Shebna has built for himself:

“What have you to do here and whom have you here, that you have hewn here a tomb for yourself, you who hew a tomb on the height, and carve a habitation for yourself in the rock?”

The King banishes his corrupt chief steward:

“Behold, the LORD will hurl you away violently, O you strong man. He will seize firm hold on you, and whirl you round and round, and throw you like a ball into a wide land; there you shall die, and there shall be your splendid chariots, you shame of your master’s house.”

And makes a new one of Eliakim. He dresses him in the official clothes:

I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah.”

And gives him the key to the Kingdom, the House of David:

“And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open…and he will become a throne of honor to his father’s house.”

Of course, if Eliakim dies or falls out of royal favor, the King will get himself another prime minister–it’s not a one-time status unique to Eliakim.

Centuries later, Jesus borrows from this scene of a King authorizing his #1 official when he tells Peter:

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

So Peter is entrusted with the keys not to an earthly kingdom, but the Kingdom of Heaven. And being a holder of the King’s keys, when Peter dies or retires, a new prime minister will take his place.