Topic 22: The Eucharist (II)

The Holy Mass makes present, in the Church’s daily liturgical life, the one sacrifice of our redemption. The Mass is a true and proper sacrifice because it makes sacramentally present the one, perfect and definitive sacrifice of the Cross. The faithful can and should participate in the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice. The desire to receive Holy Communion should always be present in Christians: what food produces in the body for the good of physical life, the Eucharist produces in the soul.

Sacrificial dimension of the Holy Mass

    The Holy Mass is a sacrifice in the proper sense of this word, and in a singular manner. This sacrifice is “new” in comparison with the sacrifices of the natural religions and the ritual sacrifices of the Old Testament. The Holy Mass is a sacrifice because it re-presents (that is, it makes present), in the liturgical celebration of the Church and in our own time, the one sacrifice of our redemption. The Mass is the memorial of this sacrifice and applies the fruit of Christ’s self-giving on the Cross (cf. Catechism, 1362-1367).

    Every time she celebrates the Eucharist, the Church is called to accept the gift which Christ offers her. In this way, the Church participates in the sacrifice of her Lord, offering herself with him to the Father for the salvation of the world. We can therefore affirm that the Holy Mass is the sacrifice of Christ and of the Church.

    Let us look more closely at these two aspects (sacrifice of Christ and sacrifice of the Church) of the Eucharistic Mystery.

    As we have just noted, the Holy Mass is a true and proper sacrifice because of its direct relationship – one of sacramental identity – with the one, perfect and definitive sacrifice of the Cross.[1] This relationship was instituted by Christ during the Last Supper. At this moment, our Lord gave to the Apostles, under the species or appearances of bread and wine, his Body offered in sacrifice and his Blood poured out in remission of sins. With this action, Christ anticipated in the memorial rite what happened a short time later at Golgotha. Since then the Church, under the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, has never ceased to fulfil Christ’s command to repeat this rite: “Do this in remembrance of me [as my memorial]” (Lk 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24-25). Thus the Church “proclaims” (makes present by word and sacrament) our Lord’s death (i.e. his sacrifice: cf. Eph 5:2; Heb 9:26), “until he comes again” (hence, the Eucharist also announces Christ’s glorious Resurrection and Ascension) (cf. 1 Cor 11:26).

    This proclamation, which is a sacramental proclamation of Christ’s Paschal Mystery, is of a very special efficacy. This is because the Eucharist not only represents Christ’s redemptive sacrifice in signs or figures, but because in this sacrament his sacrifice is also truly made present. The Person and the salvific event commemorated are truly alive and existing. The Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses this as follows: “The Eucharist is the memorial of Christ’s Passover, the making present and the sacramental offering of his unique sacrifice, in the liturgy of the Church which is his Body” (no. 1362).

    Therefore, when the Church celebrates the Eucharist, through the consecration of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, the same sacrificial Victim at Golgotha is made present, now glorious: the same Priest, Jesus Christ; the same act of sacrificial offering (the original offering of the Cross) inseparably united to the sacramental presence of Christ. This offering remains ever present in the risen and glorious Christ.[2] Only the external manifestation of this self-offering changes. On Calvary, this manifestation occurs in the Passion and Death on the Cross. In the Mass, this takes place through the memorial-sacrament: the double consecration of the bread and wine in the context of the Eucharistic Prayer. Thus, the Eucharist brings about a sacramental image of Christ’s immolation on the Cross.

    The Eucharist, sacrifice of Christ and of the Church

    The Holy Mass is the sacrifice of Christ and of the Church, because every time the Eucharistic Mystery is celebrated, the Church participates in the sacrifice of her Lord. In these moments, she enters into communion with Christ – with his sacrificial offering to the Father – and with the goods of the Redemption He has obtained for us. The entire Church offers herself and is offered in Christ, to the Father, by the Holy Spirit. This truth regarding the Church’s own sacrifice is affirmed by the living Tradition of the Church, both in the texts of the liturgy as well as in the teachings of the Fathers of the Church and the Magisterium (cf. Catechism, 1368-1370). The foundation of this doctrine is to be found in the principle of union and cooperation between Christ and the members of his Body. The Second Vatican Council clearly speaks of this union, in describing the liturgy as “this great work wherein God is perfectly glorified and men are sanctified. The Church is His beloved Bride who calls to her Lord, and through Him offers worship to the Eternal Father” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7).

    The participation of the Church – the hierarchically structured People of God – in the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice is rooted in Jesus’ own command: “Do this in remembrance of me [as a memorial of me]”, and is reflected in the liturgical formula memores... offerimus... [tibi Pater]... gratias agentes... hoc sacrificium: “as we celebrate the memorial…we offer... to you, Father... giving thanks... this sacrifice,” frequently used in the Eucharistic Prayers of the Ancient Church,[3] and likewise present in today’s Eucharistic Prayers.[4]

    As the texts of the Eucharistic liturgy testify, the faithful are not mere spectators of an act of worship carried out by the priest celebrant. All of the faithful can and should participate in the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice, because by virtue of Baptism they have been incorporated into Christ and form part of “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people…” (1 Pet 2:9). That is, the faithful belong to the new People of God in Christ, which our Lord himself continues to gather around Himself, so that from one end of the earth to the other, this people may offer a perfect sacrifice to his name (cf. Mal 1:10-11). The faithful offer not only the spiritual worship of the sacrifice of their own actions and of their entire life, but also – in Christ and with Christ – the pure, holy and immaculate Victim that is our Lord himself. This sacrifice of the Church in the Holy Mass, along with that of Christ, involves the exercise of the common priesthood of the faithful.

    The Church, in union with Christ, not only offers the Eucharistic sacrifice, but she herself is also offered in Him, since as the Body of Christ and Spouse of Christ, the Church is inseparably united to her Head and Spouse.

    The Eucharistic liturgy itself does not fail to express the Church’s participation, through the action of the Holy Spirit, in Christ’s sacrifice: “Look, we pray, upon the oblation of your Church and, recognizing the sacrificial Victim by whose death you willed to reconcile us to yourself, grant that we, who are nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son and filled with his Holy Spirit, may become one body, one spirit in Christ… May he make of us an eternal offering...”[5] In a similar way, the Church asks in Eucharistic Prayer IV: “Look, O Lord, upon the Sacrifice which you yourself have provided for your Church, and grant in your loving kindness to all who partake of this one Bread and one Chalice that, gathered into one body by the Holy Spirit, they may truly become a living sacrifice in Christ to the praise of your glory.”

    The participation of the faithful in the Holy Mass consists primarily in interiorly uniting themselves with the sacrifice of Christ, made present on the altar through the ministry of the priest celebrant.

    This participation on the part of the members of the Church is of fundamental importance for the Christian life. All the faithful are called to participate in the Holy Mass by exercising their royal priesthood. They do so with the intention of offering their own lives without stain of sin to the Father, with Christ, the immaculate Victim, in a spiritual sacrifice, bringing to Him, with filial love and thanksgiving, all that they have received from Him.

    The faithful should see to it that the Holy Mass is truly the centre and root of their interior life,[6] by ordering their whole day, their work and all their actions towards it. This Eucharistic dimension of their lives is a key manifestation of the “priestly soul” possessed by all the baptized.

    Aims and fruits of the Holy Mass

    The Holy Mass, insofar as it is a sacramental re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice, has the same ends as the sacrifice of the Cross.[7] These ends are: that of latria (praise and adoration to God the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit); the eucharistic end (thanksgiving to God for creation and redemption); the propitiatory end (reparation to God for our sins); and that of impetration(petition to God for his gifts and graces). These four ends are expressed in the various prayers that form part of the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist, and especially in the Gloria, the Creed, the various parts of the Anaphora or Eucharistic Prayer (Preface, Sanctus, Epiclesis, Anamnesis, Intercessions, Final Doxology), the Lord’s Prayer, and the prayers proper to each Mass: Collect, Prayer over the Gifts, Prayer after Communion.

    The term “fruits of the Mass” refers to the effects which the saving power of the Cross, made present in the Eucharistic sacrifice, generates in persons when they freely accept this in faith, hope and love for the Redeemer. These fruits fundamentally involve a growth in sanctifying grace and a more intense conformation of the person to Christ, according to the specific way the Eucharist offers us these gifts.

    Such fruits of holiness are not present identically in all those who participate in the Eucharistic sacrifice; they will be greater or lesser according to the way each person takes part in the liturgical celebration, and in the measure of his or her faith and devotion. Therefore, the following share in the fruits of the Holy Mass in different ways: the whole Church; the priest who celebrates and those who, united with him, take part in the Eucharistic celebration; those who, without participating in the Mass, are spiritually united with the priest who celebrates; and those for whom the Mass is applied, who may be living or deceased.[8]

    When a priest receives a stipend to apply the fruits of the Mass for a specific intention, he is gravely obliged to do so.[9]

    The Eucharist, the Paschal Banquet of the Church

    “The Holy Eucharist is the paschal banquet in as much as Christ sacramentally makes present his Passover [Christ’s passing from this world to the Father through his Passion, Death, Resurrection and glorious Ascension],[10] and gives us his Body and Blood, offered as food and drink, uniting us to himself and to one another in his sacrifice” (Compendium, 287).

    “The Mass is at the same time, and inseparably, the sacrificial memorial in which the sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated and the sacred banquet of communion with the Lord's body and blood. But the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice is wholly directed toward the intimate union of the faithful with Christ through communion. To receive communion is to receive Christ himself who has offered himself for us” (Catechism, 1382).

    Holy Communion, commanded by Christ (“Take, eat..., Drink of it, all of you...”: Mt 26:26-28; cf. Mk 14:22-24; Lk 22:14-20; 1 Cor 11:23-26), is part of the fundamental structure of the Eucharistic celebration. Christ’s self-giving as food for mankind only attains its full meaning when He is received by the faithful as the food of eternal life. Only through this reception of our Lord’s Body and Blood does the memorial instituted by Christ come to true realization.[11] Therefore, the Church strongly recommends sacramental communion to all those who take part in the Eucharistic celebration and who are properly disposed to receive the Blessed Sacrament worthily.[12]

    When promising us the Eucharist, Jesus said that this nourishment is not only useful, but necessary for his disciples: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (Jn 6:53).

    Just as natural food keeps us alive and gives us strength to live an earthly life, in a similar way the Eucharist sustains the Christian’s life in Christ, received in Baptism. The Body and Blood of Christ gives his followers the strength needed to be faithful to our Lord on earth, until reaching the Father in Heaven. Communion, therefore, is not an element that can be added to the Christian life at one’s own discretion; it is not just for a select number of the faithful who are particularly committed to the Church’s mission. Rather, sacramental communion is a vital necessity for everyone: only those who are nourished by the very life of Christ can live in Christ and spread his Gospel.

    The desire to receive Holy Communion should always be present in Christians, just as the will to attain the ultimate goal of our life should be permanent. This desire to receive Communion, whether explicit or at least implicit, is necessary to attain salvation.

    Moreover, the reception of Communion is in fact necessary, with the necessity of an ecclesiastical precept, for all Christians who have the use of reason: “The Church obliges the faithful . . . prepared by the sacrament of Reconciliation, to receive the Eucharist at least once a year, if possible during the Easter season” (Catechism, 1389). This ecclesiastical precept is only a minimum, which will not always be sufficient to develop an authentic Christian life. Hence the Church herself “strongly encourages the faithful to receive the holy Eucharist on Sundays and feast days, or more often still, even daily” (Catechism,1389).

    The ordinary ministers of Holy Communion are the bishop, the priest and the deacon.[13] An acolyte is a permanent extraordinary minister of Communion.[14] Other faithful may be extraordinary ministers of communion when the local Ordinary gives them this task, when it is judged necessary for the pastoral benefit of the faithful and no priest, deacon or acolyte is available.[15]

    “It is not licit for the faithful ‘to take . . . by themselves . . . and, still less, to hand . . . from one to another’ the sacred host or the sacred chalice.”[16] With regard to this norm, we should keep in mind that Communion serves as a sacred sign; this sign should show that the Eucharist is a gift of God to man. Hence, in the distribution of the Eucharist in normal circumstances, a distinction should be made between the minister who dispenses the Gift, offered by Christ himself, and the subject who receives it with gratitude, in faith and in love.

    Proper Dispositions for receiving Holy Communion

    To receive Holy Communion worthily it is necessary to be in the grace of God. “Whoever . . . eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner,” proclaims St. Paul, “will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor 11:27-29). Therefore, no one should approach the Holy Eucharist with the awareness of mortal sin, however contrite he may think himself to be, without first going to sacramental confession (cf. Catechism, 1385).[17]

    The fruitful reception of Communion requires, in addition to being in God’s grace, a serious effort to receive our Lord with the greatest possible devotion: preparation (both in the moments immediately before Communion, as well as at more remote moments); an attitude of recollection; acts of love and reparation, of adoration, of humility, of thanksgiving, etc.

    Dispositions of the body:

    —Inner reverence before the Holy Eucharist should also be reflected in the body. The Church mandates a fast before Communion. For the faithful of the Latin rite, this fast consists in abstaining from all food and drink (except water or medicine) one hour before Communion (cf. Code of Canon Law, can. 919 § 1). Care should also be taken to ensure –

    among other aspects – cleanliness of body, proper dress, as well as gestures of veneration which show respect and love for our Lord, present in the Blessed Sacrament (cf. Catechism, 1387).

    —The traditional way of receiving Holy Communion in the Latin rite (the fruit of faith, love and the centuries-old piety of the Church) is on the knees and in the mouth. The reasons that gave rise to this pious and very ancient custom are still fully valid. It is also possible to receive communion standing and, in some dioceses, it is permitted – never imposed – to receive communion in the hand.[18]

    The Church’s precept to receive Communion is obligatory from the use of reason. It is important to prepare very well and not delay the First Communion of children: “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Mk 10:14).[19]

    In order to be able to receive First Communion, children must have a knowledge of the principal mysteries of the faith, according to their capacity, and be able to distinguish the Eucharistic bread from common bread. “It is primarily the duty of parents and those who take the place of parents, as well as the duty of pastors, to take care that children who have reached the use of reason are prepared properly and, after they have made sacramental confession, are refreshed with this divine food as soon as possible” (Code of Canon Law, can. 914).

    Effects of Holy Communion

    What food produces in the body for the good of our physical life, the Eucharist produces in the soul, in an infinitely more sublime way, for the good of our spiritual life. But while food becomes absorbed into our own body, in receiving Holy Communion it is we who become transformed in Christ. As St. Augustine sensed our Lord saying to him: “nor shalt thou convert Me, like the food of thy flesh into thee, but thou shalt be converted into Me.”[20] Through the Eucharist the new life in Christ, begun in the believer with Baptism (cf. Rom 6:3-4; Gal 3:27-28), can mature and grow to its fullness (cf. Eph 4:13), enabling Christians to attain the ideal described by St. Paul: “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).[21]

    The Eucharist therefore configures us to Christ, makes us sharers in the person and mission of the Son, identifies us with Christ’s intentions and feelings, and gives us the strength to love as Christ asks us to love (cf. Jn 13:34-35). The Eucharist produces these effects so as to enkindle all the men and women of our time with the fire of divine love that Christ came to bring to earth (cf. Lk 12:49). All of these fruits should be manifested in our lives: “If we have been renewed by receiving our Lord's body, we should show it. Let us pray that our thoughts be sincere, full of peace, self-giving and service. Let us pray that we be true and clear in what we say – the right thing at the right time – so as to console and help and especially bring God's light to others. Let us pray that our actions be consistent and effective and right, so that they give off ‘the good fragrance of Christ’ [cf. 2 Cor 2:15], evoking his way of doing things.”[22]

    Through Holy Communion, God grants us an increase in grace and the virtues. He also forgives venial sins, removes temporal punishment, preserves us from future mortal sins, and grants perseverance in doing good. In short, God draws us closer to Him (cf. Catechism, 1394-1395). However, the Eucharist was not instituted for the forgiveness of mortal sins; this action is specific to the sacrament of Confession (cf. Catechism, 1395).

    The Eucharist brings about the unity of all the faithful, which is the unity of the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ (cf. Catechism, 1396).

    The Eucharist is a pledge and guarantee of future glory, that is, of the future resurrection and of eternal and blessed life with the one God in three divine persons, with the angels and all the saints (cf. Catechism, 1419).

    Worship of the Eucharist outside Holy Mass

    Faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist has led the Church to offer the worship of latria (that is, the adoration due to God) to the Blessed Sacrament, both during the liturgy of the Mass (which is why the Church has indicated that we kneel or make a profound bow before the consecrated species) and also outside of the Eucharistic celebration. The Church fosters this worship outside of Mass by taking the greatest care of the consecrated hosts in the tabernacle, by presenting them to the faithful for solemn veneration, and by carrying them in procession (cf.Catechism, 1378).

    The Holy Eucharist is kept in a tabernacle of the Church:[23]

    – In order to be able to give Holy Communion to the sick and to other faithful who are unable to participate in Holy Mass.

    – Moreover, so that the Church may be able to worship God Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament (in a special way during the Exposition of the Holy Eucharist, at Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament, in the Procession with the Blessed Sacrament on the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, etc.).

    – And so that the faithful might always be able to adore Christ in the Blessed Sacrament with frequent visits. In this regard, St. John Paul II writes: “The Church and the world have a great need of Eucharistic worship. Jesus waits for us in this sacrament of love. Let us be generous with our time in going to meet Him in adoration and in contemplation that is full of faith and ready to make reparation for the great faults and crimes of the world. Let our adoration never cease.”[24]

    There are two great liturgical feasts (solemnities) on which this Sacred Mystery is celebrated in a special way: Holy Thursday (commemorating the institution of the Eucharist and Holy Orders) and the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ (particularly directed to adoration and contemplation of our Lord in the Eucharist).

    Basic Bibliography

    Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1356-1405.

    Recommended Reading

    Saint John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (17 April 2003).

    Pope Benedict XVI, Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (22 February 2007).

    Pope Francis, Catechesis on the Holy Mass (November 2017 – April 2018).

    Saint Josemaría Escrivá, Homily The Eucharist, Mystery of Faith and Love, in Christ Is Passing By, 83-94; Homily On the Feast of Corpus Christi, ibid, 150-161.

    [1] The Catechism expresses this clearly: “The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice” (1367).

    [2] Cf. Catechism, 1085.

    [3] Cf. Eucharistic Prayer of the Apostolic Tradition of Saint Hippolytus; Anaphora of Addai and Mari; Anaphora of Saint Mark.

    [4] Cf. Roman Missal, Eucharistic Prayer I (Unde et memores and Supra quae); Eucharistic Prayer III (Memores igitur; Respice, quaesumus and Ipse nos tibi); similar expressions are found in Eucharistic Prayers II and IV.

    [5] Roman Missal, Eucharistic Prayer III.

    [6] Cf. Saint Josemaría, Christ Is Passing By, 87.

    [7] This identity of ends is based not only on the intention of the Church celebrating the Mass, but above all on the sacramental presence of Christ himself: in Him, the ends for which He offered his life to the Father are still present and operative (cf. Rom 8:34; Heb 7:25).

    [8] The offering or “‘application” of the Mass for a specific intention, of which we are speaking (a special prayer of intercession) does not mean that salvation is transmitted in a kind of automatic process; grace does not come to the faithful automatically, but rather in the measure of their union with God through faith, hope and love.

    [9] Cf. Code of Canon Law, canons. 945-958. With this particular intention for a Mass, the priest celebrant does not exclude the other members of the Church, nor the whole of humanity, from the blessings of the Eucharistic sacrifice. Rather, he simply keep in mind some of the faithful in a special way.

    [10] The term Passover comes from the Hebrew and originally means “passage” or “transit.” In the Book of Exodus, where the first Hebrew Passover is narrated (cf. Ex 12:1-14 and Ex 12:21-27), this term is linked to the verb “to pass over,” to the passage of the Lord and of his angel on the night of the Chosen People’s liberation (when the Jewish people celebrated the Passover Supper), and to the “passage” of the People of God from the slavery of Egypt to the freedom of the promised land.

    [11] This truth does not mean that without the Communion of all those present, the celebration of the Eucharist is invalid; nor that all must receive Communion under both species; such Communion is necessary only for the priest celebrant.

    [12] Cf. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 80; St John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 16; Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, 81-83; 88-89.

    [13] Cf. Code of Canon Law, can. 910; General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 92-94.

    [14] Cf. Code of Canon Law, can. 910 § 2; General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 98; Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, 154-160.

    [15] Cf. Code of Canon Law, can. 910 § 2, and can. 230 § 3; General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 100 and 162; Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, 88.

    [16] Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, 94; cf. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 160.

    [17] With regard to the situation of divorced persons who have remarried civilly (or of Christians living together irregularly), the Church considers that “they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God's law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists” (Catechism, 1650). However, if they repent and receive the sacrament of Penance, they can again have access to Communion; apart from this situation, however, we should keep in mind that sacramental absolution “can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children's upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they ‘take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples’” (Saint John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 84). On this question, see also the indications given by Pope Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, 29, and by Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 296-306.

    [18] Cf. Saint John Paul II, Letter Dominicae Cenae, 11; General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 161; Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, 92.

    [19] Cf. Saint Pius X, Quam Singulari, I: Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, 3530; Code of Canon Law, can. 913-914; Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, 87.

    [20] Saint Augustine, Confessions, 7, 10: CSEL 38/1, 157; English translation online at Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

    [21] It is clear that if the salvific effects of the Eucharist are not attained at once in their fullness, “it is due to a defect not on the part of Christ’s power, but on the part of man’s devotion” (Saint Thomas Aquinas, S.Th., III, q. 79, a. 5, ad 3; online text at New Advent).

    [22] Saint Josemaría, Christ Is Passing By, 156.

    [23] Cf. Saint Paul VI, Mysterium fidei, 56; Saint John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 29; Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, 129-145; Pope Benedict XVI, Sacramentum caritatis, 66-69.

    [24] Saint John Paul II, Dominicae Cenae, 3.