Communion Rite

Today’s column takes up some more key points in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal which are not new but have perhaps still not been taken on board as fully as they might.

The first of these concerns bread for communion. The General Instruction, not surprisingly, stipulates that it must be made only from wheat and, according to long tradition, unleavened. But in the midst of these descriptors is one requiring the bread for the Eucharist to be “recently made”. I wonder how “recently made” the bread used for communion in the average parish actually is.

The document goes on to say that it should “truly have the appearance of food”, and “be made in such a way that the Priest at Mass with the people is truly able to break it into parts and distribute these to at least some of the faithful”.

Hosts are more convenience, some will say, so why bother with breaking bread? It has to do with the sacramental sign. These signs open up the mysterious and wonderful action of God in our midst. That is why we want to make our signs strong – so that they will bear the weight of the mystery they contain.

The gesture of breaking the bread and sharing it with the assembly is a powerful sign of the unity of all in the one bread. In fact, so important was this considered to be in apostolic times that they did not use terms like “communion” or “Eucharist”, but “the breaking of the bread”.

It is for the same reason that the General Instruction encourages communion under both kinds. Although the Church teaches that Christ is truly present in either the bread or the wine, the eucharistic banquet in which we participate at the Communion Rite is more strongly evident when we receive both.

When we take the cup, we take up the cross. “Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” Jesus asked James and John. It is also the cup of thanksgiving: “The cup of salvation I will raise as I call on God’s name” (Ps 116). Drinking from a common cup signifies our life together in Christ and our commitment to one another. The common cup makes us one family.

This is why the General Instruction, and other Church law, forbids communicants from dipping the host into the chalice, a practice called intinction:

“If Communion from the chalice is carried out by intinction, each communicant, holding a communion-plate under the mouth, approaches the Priest who holds a vessel with the sacred particles, with a minister standing at his side and holding the chalice. The Priest takes a host, intincts it partly in the chalice and, showing it, says, The Body and Blood of Christ. The communicant replies, Amen, receives the Sacrament in the mouth from the Priest, and then withdraws.” (287.)

Besides lacking the sign value of taking the chalice and drinking from it, this very complex arrangement is simply too impractical. It must be the priest who takes the host and dips it into the consecrated wine, not the communicant. Liturgical law makes no provision for people to serve themselves communion. The tradition has always been to receive, not to take, communion.

At every Mass, Christ invites us to “Take this, all of you, and drink from it”.


Elizabeth Harrington