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The Eucharist

The word “mass” is of uncertain origin, but may be a derivative of the Latin verb mitto, mittere = to send, dispatch, release, or the noun missio, -onis (f) = a sending off, letting go, discharge. The idea was either that when the Lord’s Supper was to be observed, those of the congregation not participating were to withdraw or leave, or that after the Eucharist the faithful were “dismissed” or sent forth into the world.

A.        The Doctrine of Transubstantiation

The RCC affirms the doctrine of transubstantiation, according to which the bread and wine are literally transformed or converted into the literal/physical body and blood of Christ. This "miracle" occurs on either of two occasions:

“In the epiclesis, the Church asks the Father to send his Holy Spirit (or the power of his blessing) on the bread and wine, so that by his power they may become the body and blood of Jesus Christ and so that those who take part in the Eucharist may be one body and one spirit. . . . In the institution narrative [when the priest speaks the words of blessing or consecration: "Hoc est corpus meum" ("This is my body")], the power of the words and the action of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit, make sacramentally present under the species of bread and wine Christ’s body and blood, his sacrifice offered on the cross once for all” (CC, 1353).

Drawing on Aristotelian philosophy, Rome distinguishes between the “substance” of a thing, i.e., its essence, and the “accidents” or external, physical features and appearance. The latter remains as bread and wine while the former is miraculously transformed into another substance.

The debate over the eucharist erupted with the publication of a treatise by Paschasius Radbertus (De corpore et sanguine domini; “concerning the body and blood of the Lord”), abbot of the monastery at Corbie (842-53), in which he asserted that a miracle of divine omnipotence occurs in the elements, a creative act, as it were. In essence, God effects or creates in the substance of the bread and wine the very flesh and blood of Jesus. Although he did not employ the term Transubstantiation, he defended the idea (the word itself first appeared in 1140 in a work by the man who would become Pope Alexander III). The flesh and blood present in the elements are the same in which Christ was born, crucified, buried and raised. The change is an internal mystery, hence the elements retain their natural physical properties such as taste and smell. But why, if the bread and wine are truly the body and blood of Christ, don’t they look and smell and taste like it? Two reasons were given:

·      The first reason, originally articulated by Ambrose in the fifth century, is known as horror cruoris, i.e., “the horror of blood.” Since God knew that humans could not bear the thought, much less the taste, of blood and flesh in their mouths, he miraculously retains the natural properties of the bread and wine.

·      Second, if the bread and wine actually looked and tasted like flesh and blood, what need would there be for faith on the part of the recipient? They are, in point of fact, flesh and blood, but that is something only faith can perceive. Thus, the miracle of transubstantiation was designed by God as a test and demonstration of faith.

Radbertus also appealed to stories of alleged miraculous phenomena associated with the eucharist to gain the support of the people. For example, he argued that the bread on the altar was often seen in the shape of a lamb or a little child; when the priest stretched out his hand to break the bread, an angel descended from heaven with a knife, slaughtered the lamb or the child, and let its blood run into a cup!

Objections came from Rabanus and Ratramnus of Corbie (d. 868), both of whom insisted that the elements were symbolic of the body and blood of Christ and that partaking of the Lord's Supper involved no more than an experience of spiritual union of the believer with the mystical body of Christ. The dispute persisted into the Scholastic period where the doctrine of Radbertus eventually won the day.

The Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation was officially made a dogma of the church by Pope Innocent III at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.

"The body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine, the bread transubstantiated into the body and the wine into the blood by divine power. . . . And this sacrament no one can in any case administer except a priest who has been properly ordained."

There was a corresponding move to withdraw the cup from the laity: (1) to avoid chances of spilling the “blood” of Christ (regarded as a sacrilege); (2) because the “whole” Christ is present in both elements (and withholding the cup would teach this to the laity); (3) it enhanced the unique spiritual privilege and authority of the priesthood above the laity.

Thomas Aquinas said of the Eucharist:

“This sacrament is not only a sacrament but also a sacrifice. For inasmuch as in it is represented the passion of Christ whereby he offered himself a victim to God, . . . it has the nature of a sacrifice. Inasmuch as in it grace is truly conferred invisibly under a visible form it has the nature of a sacrament. Thus it benefits those who receive it both as a sacrament and as a sacrifice. . . . But others that do not receive it derive benefit from it as a sacrifice inasmuch as it is offered for their salvation” (Summa Theologiae, III.79:7).

The Council of Trent (16th century) issued the following declarations concerning the sacrament of the Eucharist:

"If any one shall deny that the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and, therefore, entire Christ, are truly, really, and substantially contained in the Sacrament of the most holy Eucharist; and shall say that He is only in it as in a sign or in a figure, or virtually, let him be accursed. . . . If any one shall say that the substance of the bread and wine remains in the Sacrament of the most holy Eucharist, together with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ; and shall deny that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the blood, the outward forms of the bread and wine still remaining, which conversion the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation, let him be accursed" (Session 13, Canons 1-2).

The CC says this of transubstantiation:

“It is by the conversion of the bread and wine in Christ’s body and blood that Christ becomes present in this sacrament” (CC, 1375).

“The Eucharistic presence of Christ begins at the moment of the consecration and endures as long as the Eucharistic species subsist. Christ is present whole and entire in each of the species and whole and entire in each of their parts, in such a way that the breaking of the bread does not divide Christ” (1377).

Biblical texts to which Rome appeals include Mt. 26:26-29; John 6:43-70; 1 Cor. 10:16.

B.        The Eucharist as a Sacrifice

The Council of Trent issued the following declarations concerning the sacrifice of the Mass:

"And since in this divine sacrifice, which is performed in the Mass, the same Christ is contained, and is bloodlessly immolated, who once offered Himself bloodily upon the Cross; and the holy council teaches that this sacrifice is propitiatory [emphasis mine], and that by its means, if we approach God contrite and penitent, with a true heart, and a right faith, and with fear and reverence, we may obtain mercy, and grow in seasonable succour. For the Lord, appeased by the oblation of this sacrifice [emphasis mine], granting grace and the gift of repentance, remits even great crimes and sins. There is one and the same victim, and the same person, who now offers by the ministry of the priests, who then offered Himself upon the Cross; the mode of offering only being different. And the fruits of that bloody offering are truly most abundantly received through this offering, so far is it from derogating in any way from the former. Wherefore, it is properly offered according to the tradition of the Apostles, not only for the sins, punishments, satisfactions, and other wants of the living, but also for the dead in Christ, who are not yet fully purged" (Session 22, chp. 2).

"If any one shall say that the sacrifice of the Mass is only a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, or a bare commemoration of the sacrifice made upon the Cross, and that it is not propitiatory, or that it profits only the receiver, and that it ought not to be offered for the living and the dead for their sins, pains, satisfactions, and other wants -- let him be accursed" (Session 22, Canon 3).

Does Rome teach that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is “repeated” in the eucharist? Much depends on the meaning of the word “repeated”. Here is what the CC says:

“At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again . . .” (CC, 1322; emphasis mine).

“The Holy Sacrifice, because it makes present the one sacrifice of Christ the Savior and includes the Church’s offering” (CC, 1330; emphasis mine).

“When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, she commemorates Christ’s Passover, and it is made present: the sacrifice Christ offered once for all on the cross remains ever present. ‘As often as the sacrifice of the Cross by which Christ our Pasch has been sacrificed is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried out” (CC, 1364; emphasis mine).

“The Eucharist is thus a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross, because it is its memorial and because it applies its fruit” (CC, 1366; emphasis in original).

“The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice” (CC, 1367).

Q: “Does the RC doctrine of the Eucharist undermine or question the sufficiency or finality of the redemptive work of Christ on the cross?”

Peter Kreeft writes:

“Christ offered himself once for all on the Cross. He said, ‘It is finished’ (Jn. 19:30). The Eucharist does not repeat this sacrifice, but re-presents it to the Father. The sacrifice that was accomplished on Calvary is offered again in each Mass. It can be offered now only because ‘it is finished’, perfected, ‘a perfect offering” (Catholic Christianity, 326-27).

So, too, writes Alan Schreck:

“The Catholic church has never [!] taught that in the Mass Jesus is ‘re-sacrificed’ or offered up to suffer again. The Catholic Mass is called a sacrifice because it ‘re-presents,’ ‘re-enacts,’ or presents once again before us, the one sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. Jesus Christ was sacrificed once, but God, in his mercy, makes present to us once again the one sacrifice of Christ through the Mass so that we human beings can enter more deeply into the reality and significance of that sacrifice. . . . What Jesus did in the past – his death on the cross – is present to God. God can make this sacrifice present to us when Christians gather to celebrate the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist in his memory. Therefore, Catholic Christians believe that Jesus is not ‘re-sacrificed’ in the Mass, but that his one sacrifice on Calvary is made real and present to us by God, so that we can enter into this central mystery of our faith in a new way” (133-34).

Are Kreeft and Schreck providing us with an accurate interpretation of Trent and the Catechism?

C.        The Eucharist and the Dead in Christ

According to the CC,

“The Eucharistic sacrifice is also offered for the faithful departed who ‘have died in Christ but are not yet wholly purified,’ so that they may be able to enter into the light and peace of Christ” (CC, 1371).

D.        The Worship of the Eucharist

Catholics genuflect or bow in the presence of the eucharist “as a sign of adoration of the Lord” (CC, 1378). Again,

“The Catholic Church has always offered and still offers to the sacrament of the Eucharist the cult of adoration, not only during Mass, but also outside of it, reserving the consecrated hosts with the utmost care, exposing them to the solemn veneration of the faithful, and carrying them in procession” (CC, 1378).

E.         The Necessity of the Eucharist

While encouraging the faithful to receive the eucharist daily, all Catholics are required to take the eucharist at least once a year, preferably at Easter.

F.         Effects of the Eucharist

Among the many fruits of the eucharist, these are of special note:

“The principal fruit of receiving the Eucharist in Holy Communion is an intimate union with Christ Jesus” (CC, 1391).

“What material food produces in our bodily life, Holy Communion wonderfully achieves in our spiritual life. Communion . . . preserves, increases, and renews the life of grace received at Baptism” (CC, 1392).

“Holy Communion separates us from sin. The body of Christ we receive in Holy Communion is ‘given up for us,’ and the blood we drink ‘shed for the many for the forgiveness of sins.’ For this reason the Eucharist cannot unite us to Christ without at the same time cleansing us from past sins and preserving us from future sins” (CC, 1393).

The Eucharist strengthens our charity and “this living charity wipes away venial sins” (CC, 1394).

“By the same charity that it enkindles in us, the Eucharist preserves us from future mortal sins. . . . The Eucharist is not ordered to the forgiveness of mortal sins – that is proper to the sacrament of Reconciliation [i.e., penance]. The Eucharist is properly the sacrament of those who are in full communion with the Church” (CC, 1395).