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?
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…I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you,
that the Lord Jesus,
on the night he was handed over,
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,
“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.
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.
- 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.”
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.
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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.