FAQ About the Eucharist & the Mass
What is the Eucharist?
The Eucharist is an inexhaustible mystery that can be spoken about in many ways... but simply stated, the Eucharist is Jesus Christ. As Catholics, we believe that the host (wheat bread) and the wine (grape wine) consecrated by a Catholic priest (who invokes the Holy Spirit and repeats the words of Jesus from the Last Supper) actually become the Body and Blood (and soul and divinity) of our Lord Jesus Christ. These consecrated elements, now truly the Body and Blood of Jesus, is the food which nourishes us in our spiritual life... just as a hamburger or green beans nourish us in our physical life. This is why one of the early Church fathers, Clement of Alexandria wrote:
“‘Eat my flesh,’ [Jesus] says, ‘and drink my blood.’ The Lord supplies us with these intimate nutrients, he delivers over his flesh and pours out his blood, and nothing is lacking for the growth of his children” (The Instructor of Children 1:6:43:3, AD 191).
See! Even the early Church believed what Catholics today believe, namely, that the Eucharist is the spiritual food which Jesus gives to His followers so that they may be nourished on their path towards holiness. Okay, so at this point some of you might be thinking that what has been said so far seems rather incredible and even a bit unbelievable. Hopefully this isn’t the case, but if it is, hang in there…the next section is just for you.
Why does the Catholic Church teach that the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus is really and actually present in the Eucharist?
The Church teaches this because this is what her Lord, Jesus of Nazareth, taught. From the time of Jesus and His apostles through today Christ has proclaimed via His Church that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” but that “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day” (John 6:53-54, NAB).
Before proceeding a brief comment is in order. The following is an explanation of the Eucharist and the belief of the Catholic Church. To outsiders, that is, to people who live outside the realm of Catholic faith, what will be said may be hard to believe or grasp. Even some Catholics may find it hard to believe. But this really should not come as a surprise; even at the time of Jesus many of his followers found his sayings to be difficult to accept (John 6:60, NAB). Faith is true, but it has never been easy. And this difficulty of faith is especially apparent to those of us who grew up and live in our secularized, post-Catholic society of today. In some sense, it is inevitable that many people today find Catholic belief in the Eucharist difficult to accept: we have been taught through the past five centuries to think and to see reality in this “un-Catholic” way!
And yet, despite these challenges, belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist has not subsided. As any faithful Catholic will tell you, part of growing in the Christian faith is learning to see things anew, that is, learning to see things how they really are. And as the Council of Trent stated, “our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is truly, really and substantially contained under the perceptible species of bread and wine.” This is reality for God has told us so. It is our job, then, to begin to live and see in accordance with this reality. If anything should subside perhaps it is our lack of faith.
So back to the original question: why does the Church teach that the bread and wine become the body and blood (and soul and divinity) of the historical Jesus of Nazareth upon consecration? Briefly, the Church teaches this because Jesus taught this through His words and actions as recorded in sacred Scripture and because this is the unanimous testimony of early Christian writers regarding the Eucharist. As such, let us take a look at both.
In the 6th chapter of the Gospel of St. John, Jesus said some challenging words:
“…I am the bread of life” (John 6:35, NAB).
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (6:51, NAB).
“…I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day” (John 6:53-54, NAB).
In this famous “Bread of Life” discourse, Jesus explicitly stated to his followers that they must “eat his flesh and drink his blood” as the above verses illustrate. St. John tells us that in response to this message, “many of his disciples who were listening said, ‘This saying is hard; who can accept it?’” and that Jesus allowed them to leave (John 6:60, 66). As mentioned previously, even in Jesus’ day, faith was not easy, but certainly it was and still is true. Unfortunately, many of His followers left Him due to the difficulty of accepting Christ’s words, and yet Jesus would not change what he said or meant to accommodate them. And this is the same position that the Catholic Church has had ever since: “unless you eat the flesh…and drink [the] blood, you do not have life within you.”
Another passage from Scripture which sheds light on the Church’s teaching is found in St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. He writes, “For 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. Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. …For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Corinthians 11:23-27, 29, NAB).
Catholics have always seen in these verses further confirmation of their faith in the fact that the Eucharist is Jesus Christ. When St. Paul recounts the Last Supper he states that Jesus took the bread, gave thanks over it, broke it, and then said, “this is my body.” What is his body? “This”; the broken bread! And the same is true of the wine! Wine=blood just as bread=body according to St. Paul. And he further goes on to say that anyone who eats or drinks without discerning Jesus in the bread and wine is not in full communion with the faith (i.e., eats and drinks judgment on himself) because the Eucharist really is Jesus. This last statement implies the fact that the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is an objective truth and not merely a subjective opinion.
And this objective truth is exactly the same sentiment held by the early Church fathers. As you can see from their writings below, the early Christian church clearly believed and taught the truth that the Eucharist is Jesus Christ: body, blood, soul, and divinity.
“Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God…. They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins ad which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes” (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2-7:1, AD 11).
“We call this food Eucharist, and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration and is thereby living as Christ enjoined. For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus” (St. Justin Martyr, First Apology 66, AD 151).
“I promised you, who have now been baptized, a sermon in which I would explain the sacrament of the Lord’s Table…. That this bread which you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ. That chalice, or rather, what is in that chalice, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the blood of Christ” (St. Augustine, Sermons 227, AD 411).
So, to make a long story short, the Church teaches that the Eucharist really is Jesus because a) Scripture teaches this, b) the early Church believed and taught this, and c) it is true; our Lord told us!
What are other names for the Eucharist?
- The Lord’s Supper
- The Breaking of Bread
- The Memorial of the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection
- The Holy Sacrifice
- Holy Communion
- The Blessed Sacrament
- Bread from Heaven
- Medicine of Immortality
Who can receive the Eucharist?
Catholics, who are in a state of grace (i.e., are not conscious of any grave mortal sin and have gone to confession since their last mortal sin), believe in transubstantiation (i.e., that the bread and wine transform, mysteriously, into the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus), have observed the 1 hour required fast (i.e., no food or drink other than water and/or medication) prior to receiving the Eucharist unless they are elderly, ill, or there are good grounds for not having observed the fast (being a 22 year old guy who is hungry probably is not a good reason!), and are in full communion with the Church (i.e., have not been excommunicated). For those Christians who are not in full communion with the Church (i.e., separated Protestant brothers and sisters), the Church asks that they respect Catholic belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and abstain from communion unless in danger of death or out of grave necessity in which case the bishop may give approval. And as for non-Christians, the Church asks that they also respect Catholic belief and teaching on the Eucharist and abstain from participation in the sacrament although the Church does encourage them to pray for themselves and the whole human family. For more details about the Church’s teaching on who can receive communion, please click here.
How often should I receive the Eucharist?
As frequently as possible! Actually, the Church prescribes that Catholics receive the Eucharist at least once per year (during Easter) but recommends that Catholics partake of the sacrament as frequently as possible (not to exceed two times per day). After all, if the Eucharist really is what the Church believes, why wouldn’t a person want to receive Christ daily or at least as often as possible?
What are the effects of receiving the Eucharist?
Just as is the case with all of the sacraments, the Eucharist instills the very life of God into the recipient. In other words, they bring grace to the grace needy. Specifically though, the Church teaches that the effects of the Eucharist are four-fold:
- Our relationship (union) with Christ is deepened
- The supernatural, divine life, in the recipient is increased, strengthening him/her to live a holy, loving, self-sacrificing Christian life
- The recipient is separated from sin (venial sin is forgiven and the recipient is preserved from mortal sin)
- The recipient is united more firmly to other members of the Church and as such the Church grows in unity
How can I get more information about Mass times?
Where can I get more information about the Eucharist?
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