Do we really know what Eucharist is? - 25th January 2015

Actions I witness and comments I hear sometimes make me wonder how well we comprehend what the Eucharist is all about. In particular, there seems to be some misunderstanding in areas such as what participate in the Eucharist means, what the difference is between unconsecrated bread and wine and the body and blood of Christ, and the distinction between the Eucharist and the Blessed Sacrament. I will look at each of these in turn.

At the celebration of Eucharist, the past events of the paschal mystery – Christ’s life, death and resurrection – are made present so that we become part of the story and participate in it. Through the readings, prayers, actions and symbols of the Mass, we recall our faith story and remember who we are and always will be. We eat the body of Christ so that we might be the body of Christ, blessed, broken and shared for the life of the world.

I have seen processions of gifts accompanied by lighted candles, smoking thurible and grand music, giving the clear impression that it is about something more than simply bringing forward bread and wine and our gifts for the poor. At one Mass a gift bearer tripped and spilled some hosts onto the floor. The fluster and consternation that ensued (about the hosts, not the person!) convinced me that most people present considered the dropped bread to be the body of Christ.

In the Middle Ages, theologians determined that the precise point at which the bread and wine became the body and blood of Christ was at the words of institution (“This is my body… This is my blood...”), and this part of the Eucharistic Prayer came to be called ‘the consecration’. The current theological understanding is that the whole of the Eucharistic Prayer consecrates the gifts. During the Eucharistic Prayer we pray that the Holy Spirit will make our offerings holy, so that they may become for us the body and blood of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Continued calls from some quarters for the tabernacle to be put (back) on the altar demonstrate the confusion that exists between the sacrifice of the Mass and adoration of the reserved Sacrament.
The sacrifice of the Mass is an act of Jesus Christ who offers himself to the Father. Worship offered to Christ in the reserved Sacrament on the other hand is always a human act, often an act of private devotion.

More than 50 years ago, Pope Pius XII stressed the importance of keeping the Mass as an act of sacrifice separate from the worship of adoration so that the faithful would clearly understand the distinctive character of each:

“The altar surpasses the tabernacle because on it is offered the sacrifice of the Lord. In the tabernacle, on the other hand, Christ is present as long as the consecrated species remain, without, however, offering himself perpetually.”

The connection between sacrifice and communion is broken and confusion between altar and tabernacle reinforced when the faithful are fed week after week from the tabernacle and not from what was consecrated on the altar at the Mass being celebrated. Actions speak loudly!


Elizabeth Harrington