Eucharistic Bread


After a conference Mass last year, one of the participants commented to me that she felt as if she had not really received communion because home baked bread had been used instead of hosts. I kid you not!
This is like someone claiming that they had not really eaten because dinner had been a three-course meal at the dining table instead of takeaways from a tray in front of the TV, or that a baptism had not been correctly celebrated because the candidate had been immersed instead of sprinkled. It is sad to think that we can become so used to second-best that we do not value the real thing.
The early church used everyday leavened bread for eucharist. Deacons collected the loaves that people had brought from home to use in the Sunday liturgy. The bread was offered, consecrated and given back to the people as communion. What was not needed for the celebration was given to the poor.
Gradually, the understanding of the Mass shifted. The celebration became more public and formalised. Eucharist was understood as an object rather than as a ritual meal. The presence of Christ was focussed in the consecrated host. This led to the development of ‘visual’ communion whereby the people, who considered themselves too unworthy to receive Christ directly in communion, instead gazed upon the presence of Christ in the consecrated host in order to obtain grace.
The requirement that only unleavened bread be used for Mass was introduced in the Western Church around the year 1000. The bread gradually became thinner, whiter and perfectly round in order to befit its role as an object of devotion and symbol of the real presence. These tiny, thin, round unleavened ‘hosts’ bore no relation to bread eaten at the family dinner table.
Vatican II called for the liturgical symbols to be made clearer and more meaningful. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal takes this up in its recommendation concerning the bread for Mass:
The nature of the sign demands that the material for the eucharistic celebration truly have the appearance of food. Accordingly, it is desirable that the eucharistic bread be made in such a way that in a Mass with a congregation the priest is actually able to break the host into parts and to distribute them to at least some of the faithful. …. The action of breaking the bread will more clearly bring out the force and importance of the sign of the unity of all in the one bread and of their charity, since the one bread is being distributed among the members of one family. (GIRM 2000 # 321)
Home baked bread allows a community to offer its own gifts for the eucharist. Unlike small hosts, it can be seen by everyone in the church. It looks, smells and tastes like real bread.
While hosts are quicker and easier to use than real bread, the sacred gestures of the Last Supper when Jesus took, blessed, broke and shared the bread are best actualised when the community shares the one loaf and becomes one Body of Christ.


Elizabeth Harrington