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The Eucharist: What do we believe?

10 July, 2012

This book tries to answer some of the questions Catholic adults have about the Eucharist. Catholics are a sacramental people. Our rituals are what bring us into contact with the God we believe in and with the actions he has undertaken that we believe are for our salvation. The book tries to help our faith understand better what we do when we are celebrating sacraments, especially the Eucharist.

Fáinche Ryan is a native of Tralee, Co Kerry and holds a doctorate in theology from the University of St Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome. She lectures in theology at Mater Dei, a college of Dublin City University. She is the author of Formation in Holiness.


1. On being Catholic
2. From Corinth to the Second Vatican Council
3. The Table of the Word
4. When do you eat your God?
5. Eucharist — The Sacrament of Divine Indiscriminate Welcome?
6. The Eucharist and Popular Devotions
7. Some Theological Thoughts
8. The Eucharistic Vocation

92pp. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie

At a meeting with some parents of first communion children, one of the parents told me of his daughter’s question, a child preparing for first communion, coming home from school and asking if she could put jam on the’Holy Bread’. He himself professed that he was somewhat at a loss to respond, easy to say no, but then ‘Why not?’, don’t bread and jam go well together? This question struck me and reminded me of how difficult it is to get good solid information on the Catholic Church, of the problem of knowing where to go to get answers to our questions.
This book will try to help that parent explain to his child why it is not a good idea to put jam on Holy Communion, and also invite him to wonder why Catholics do what they do, and what is understood by the ‘Eucharist’. The content and structure of the book has been influenced by the many questions put to me from encounters with members of parishes, parents of first communicants, friends who have drifted from their faith, those curious and who might be considering taking the awesome step of baptism, and not least questions from those actively involved in Church ministry. For this stimulation I am intensely grateful.

Thanks is also due to those who read earlier drafts of this work and offered helpful critique – Brendan McConvery, Tom Whelan, Ethna Regan and Joe Egan.

CHAPTER ONE: ON BEING CATHOLIC (‘Abide in me’ Jn 14:4)

One problem with being a Catholic in Ireland today is that in one sense we know too much, but in another we know very little. We know there are certain things that Catholics do, and we do them, or at least we did them religiously in the past. Many of us were never too sure why we did them, and often it is when our children are born that we begin to wonder should we baptise them. Is there any reason for them to make their first communion other than to have a great family day out, expensive though it might be. This book will seek to explain what it means to be a Catholic, to be a member of a Church in which to celebrate something called the Eucharist is central. It will try to inform you, the reader, so you can better understand what it is to be a Catholic, or decide if you would like to bring up your children as Catholics, depending on where you are coming from.

The Church, the People of God
A famous French theologian, Henri de Lubac, once said that ‘the Church makes the Eucharist’ and ‘the Eucharist makes the Church’. In other words, the two are intimately connected, and so if we are to discuss the Eucharist we need to begin by thinking about the word ‘Church’ and wondering what it means, or what we understand by it. Very often we think of the Church as the building that we went to as children, that we loved going to and have lovely memories of, or alternately, as a place we dreaded going to, a place of boredom and cold. Whatever our memories they tend to simply refer to the church building, a physical construction built by humans. Similarly today many understand the word Church as referring solely to the men in Ronne, primarily the Pope, and also maybe our own bishop and the priest(s) in our parish. Once again this is a man-made understanding of Church, seeing it solely in institutional terms, and, while very much part of the story, to understand the Church like this is to limit the idea of Church too much.

The Second Vatican Council (1962 — 1965) devoted a lot of time to the task of discovering how best we might understand what it means to be Church, to be a member of the community that follows Jesus Christ. Looking back over our tradition, and in particular at the early days, the years after the resurrection of Jesus, the teachings of the Second Vatican Council suggested that the Church is best understood as the People of God, all the baptised, equal in the eyes of God. Indeed it is a human structure, composed of human beings, both sinful and holy, and yet we believe in the presence of the Holy Spirit, present and active in the Church, among the people and hopefully guiding us. The Church is thus best understood as a community of all the baptised, guided by the Holy Spirit, trying to live in the world as Christians. We often say it is both a human institution and a divine mystery. In other words, because it is a human institution it is made up of fallible, fragile human beings and so often makes mistakes, but it is at once a divine mystery with God present guiding us gently. For this reason we believe, in faith, that the Church will always have holy people in it, and that it will ultimately be a source of goodness. We believe that it helps people to both live well in this life and to journey through death to life everlasting with God. This is our faith.

A key point to remember is that the Church in its current form was not always this way. Indeed we often seem to forget that Jesus the Christ was a Jew, and died a Jew crucified on a cross. What is remarkable is that this person who died on a cross was resurrected from the dead — ‘God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear’ (Acts 10:40). This came as a big shock to his followers, and they found it hard to believe, but slowly they came to understand what was going on. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are central to the Christian faith, one could say they are the foundation events of the Church. This is the story which ‘makes’ Christians, the story which we retell over and over again as we seek to learn, at a deeper level, what it means to be a Christian. It is important to remember that we are Christian first, Christians who express our faith through the traditions of the Catholic Church (1).

God is Love
To be a Christian means quite simply to be a follower of Christ. In the Acts of the Apostles we read that ‘it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians”‘ (Acts 11:26). To be a Christian is to be a follower of Christ, it is an invitation to live differently, to radically reorient our values and to try to live lives which accord with the values by which Jesus lived. To be a Christian is to always seek to learn more about the God whom Jesus taught us to call ‘Our Father’. To be a Christian is to be a member of a community, a community called Church. The Church, founded by Jesus, progressed by people who believed Jesus had an important message to proclaim, that of God’s saving presence in human history, a presence which became manifest in a particular way in the life of Jesus. These people, the early Christians, wished to tell this story, and to proclaim to the whole world the fact that the Holy Spirit has been gifted to us, promising newness of life. The Holy Spirit both invites and empowers us to live differently, to seek to live and die as Jesus did.

It is, however, difficult to live as Jesus lived, and virtually impossible alone. For this reason, from the earliest days Christians have gathered together: to pray together, to worship the God that is Trinity, and then to go back to their everyday life to proclaim this God of love to others. Love has always been central to the Christian journey, ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (Jn 13:35), and this should come to us as no surprise because Love is a name for God — as we read in the first letter of John, ‘God is love’ (1 Jn 4:16).

Pope Benedict XVI chose to name his first major writing as Pope (Bishop of Rome) Deus Caritas Est, after this passage from scripture. The opening paragraphs of this encyclical give a summary of the Christian vocation:

‘God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him’ (1 Jn 4:16). These words from the First Letter of John express with remarkable clarity the heart of the Christian faith: the Christian image of God and the resulting image of humankind and its destiny. In the same verse, Saint John also offers a kind of summary of the Christian life: ‘We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us.’

These words express the fundamental principal of a Christian life: a Christian is someone who has come to know and to believe in God’s love. This can only come through an encounter with the living God, a God who is love, an encounter which gives life new meaning, and gives new direction to all that one does. An encounter which invites a response, a changed way of living, and an encounter which teaches that life does not end with death. The centrality of love is a message we have inherited from our Jewish brothers and sisters, something they acknowledge every time they pray the Shema: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might’ (Dent 6:4-5) (2). Benedict XVI goes on to remind Christians that ‘Since God has first loved us (cf. 1 Jn 4:10), love is no longer a mere “command”; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us.’

This gift of love, for Christians, is primarily named as Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. In a sense Jesus is love incarnate, love visible in human flesh. It is the story of Jesus Christ, which forms Christians into a people. From the early days of the Christian community one became an identifiable member of the community through the ceremony called baptism. One of our earliest accounts of this is in an ancient document called the Didache which speaks of baptising people with water and in the name of the Trinity (3). Today it remains the case that most Christian Churches mark entry into their community by baptism with water and in the name of the Trinity. Once baptised a person could then participate fully in eucharistic gatherings, and eat at the eucharistic table. While a person is ‘made’ a Christian when baptised, one spends the rest of one’s life really ‘becoming’ a Christian through prayer and regular celebration of the Eucharist. Gathering to celebrate the Eucharist has been the mark of a Christian from the very earliest days. The Eucharist has always been the place where Christians gathered to hear again the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and by hearing the story becoming more and more transformed into the story.

Most Christian Churches baptise and celebrate the Eucharist, although we may use different names and we may have different understandings of what we do. In their liturgies Christians remember the great love of God in sending his Son to live among us, and in raising him from the dead after his crucifixion.

The Catholic Church calls baptism and Eucharist sacraments. It also identifies five other key moments in the Catholic life as sacraments – confirmation, reconciliation, marriage, ordination and the sacrament of the sick. What all these events have in common is that they are key moments of encounter with the Divine, if you like ‘concentrated’ meetings with God. While the Church very firmly believes in God’s presence everywhere, that there is no place in this world from which God is absent, it is often hard to remember this. The sacraments serve to remind us of this; God is with us, always (‘Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God’, [Is 41: 10]).

But what precisely are sacraments? Are they some form of magic? To an outsider viewing a baptism, a Eucharist or any of the sacraments, they must seem very strange. And where did they come from? Christ of course, for Christ is the sacrament of God. In Christ, God’s words of grace, of mercy and of salvation are made visible. So while we did not have seven sacraments from the time of Jesus, the Catechism teaches that,
the Church, by the power of the Spirit who guides her into all truth’, has gradually recognized this treasure received from Christ … the Church has discerned over the centuries that among liturgical celebrations there are seven that are, in the strict sense of the term, sacraments instituted by the Lord (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1117).

These seven are sacraments of the Church, making people holy, forming a priestly people, bringing us into communion with God, and even more spectacularly, as we shall see when we come to discuss the Eucharist, deifying us, making us ‘like unto God’ (4). Sacraments are transformative, effecting that which they signify. The document on the liturgy from Vatican II expresses what Catholics understand by sacraments most beautifully:

The purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify people, to build up the Body of Christ and, finally, to give worship to God. Because they are signs they also instruct. They not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects they also nourish, strengthen and express it. That is why they are called ‘sacraments of faith’ (Sacrosanctum Concilium 59) (3).

Sacraments are signs of God. We use bread, wine, water and oil and we speak of these things as signs of God. Matter, earthly matter, speaks to us of God. This is so because, if we recall the story of Creation in Genesis we read that God saw ‘all that God had made and indeed it was very good’ (Gen 1:31). This is the message of Christianity — creation is good. The truth of this fact, and indeed the regard with which God beholds humanity is particularly emphasised in the incarnation, the wonderful gift to us of the Word which became flesh. God deigned to take on our humanity, human flesh, in this way ensuring that forever we will remember that we are good, body and spirit. With the incarnation God revealed to us how we might be, what we might become, as humans, created after God’s image and likeness. In every sacrament we celebrate we remember this and we give thanks for the goodness of all of creation, especially for the gift of our humanity, a nature gifted with a reason, a mind, which enables us to consciously give thanks to God.

Words, as well as objects, are central to sacraments. Remembering that in our sacraments God is acting, we might say that our words become God’s words, our language God’s language. We encounter, at a most profound level, Jesus Christ, the Word of God. In each sacrament celebrated we enter into the story of Jesus Christ, the story of a life, a death on a cross and a resurrection into eternal life. Sacraments are God in action, and they are simultaneously the human response to God, they are most profoundly an invitation to enter into the relationship between Jesus and the Father, and to allow the Holy Spirit to transform us and prepare us for life everlasting. Sacraments are efficacious, so the Church has always taught, they cause what they signify because in the sacraments it is Christ acting, Christ who is praying, and the Father always responds to the words of his Son. At the same time sacraments are sacraments of faith, so faith is necessary if the Holy Spirit is to transform us. The power of God is the power of love and gentleness, God’s grace never forces itself, to be transformed we must wish to be transformed.

Making Holy
Before moving to look specifically at that most beautiful of all sacraments, the Eucharist, it is helpful to summarise what has been said thus far of sacraments. They are essentially encounters with the extraordinary through the ordinary. The seven sacraments are sacraments of the Church, celebrations of a priestly people, a people of faith. They are encounters with a God who claims to love us for ever, who will never reject us although we are always free to reject God. We can choose to become unloving; we are free to reject the goodness in which we have been created. The God whom we encounter is so awe-inspiring, described by one theologian as a mysterium tremendum, that were we to encounter this God ‘face to face’ we would be overcome at this rather terrifying and tremendous mystery that God became human. God became human and walked among us, now our invitation is to encounter God the Second Person of the Trinity, the one who became flesh and blood like us.

In each sacrament we enter into the story of Jesus — Jesus’ life and even more profoundly his death and resurrection. Although we may receive the consecrated elements individually at the Eucharist, or go to the sacrament of reconciliation alone, all the sacraments are best understood as celebrations of a people, and so are best celebrated in that community called Church, and celebrated as a community. Sacraments are efficacious (effective) because through them God is acting, they are not dependent on the holiness of the person ministering the sacraments, God has always acted through frail and vulnerable human vessels. God acts in the sacraments forming a people into God’s image and likeness. When a person is baptised they begin the story of their encounter with God in a visible way, they become visibly part of the Church community. Baptism, confirmation and ordination are sacraments that are received only once. The sacrament of reconciliation and the sacrament of the sick have come to be understood as sacraments of healing, and can be received more than once, whenever there is need. We have mentioned earlier the fact that sacraments are signs which also instruct, and the Eucharist is the sacrament where most of the instruction can take place. It really is the key sacrament involved in the making of a people, as it is celebrated so regularly, and recalls so clearly the story of Christ. Like all the sacraments it is forming us for life everlasting with God. St Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-1274), in his answer to the question, ‘what is a sacrament?’ very succinctly puts together all that this chapter has tried to say:

a sacrament properly speaking is that which is ordained to signify our sanctification. In which three things may be considered; the very cause of our sanctification, which is Christ’s passion; the form of our sanctification, which is grace and the virtues, and the ultimate end of our sanctification, which is eternal life. And all these are signified by the sacraments. Consequently a sacrament is a sign that is both a reminder of the past, i.e. the passion of Christ; and an indication of that which is effected in us by Christ’s passion, i.e. grace; and a prognostic, that is, a foretelling of future glory (Summa Theologiae III a.3 c) (6).



Why We Do What We Do: The real presence of God’s action in the here and now
Some key ideas underpin each Eucharist celebrated, and make it what it is. Most of these core elements have their roots in Judaic practices. Key among these is the idea of memory, memorial, zikkaron. A rich concept of memory is central to the Jewish people. During the Passover seder, (or ritual meal) they pray that ‘each of us must this night remember that he/she has come out of the land of Egypt’. In this way, through their rites and prayers, the Jewish people keep the memory of what God has done for them in the past to the forefront, and they continuously urge God to ‘remember’ the People of God. It is the memory of God’s wonderful acts in the past (the mirabilia Dei), which keep alive the hope that God will again act wonderfully today, and every today’ that the Jewish people live. God is always faithful.

This is similar to what happens when we gather to pray the Eucharist. We remember what God did in the past, in particular the fact that ‘on the third day God raised Jesus Christ from the dead’, and as we remember we ‘remind’ God and ask God to do wonderful things in our world, in our today. Because God has done as God said in the past, we trust God will act again. Like the Jewish people, our prayer is a trusting supplication in the unfailing power of the Word. God’s Word created the world (Gen 1, ‘God said’) and lived among us (‘and the Word became flesh’, Jn 1:14) (2). In our eucharistic gatherings, we ‘remind’ God of the fidelity of His promise to save us. We ‘remind’ God, and ourselves, that ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again’. We pray in a sense ‘so that he will come’. We pray so that we may truly become the Body and Blood of Christ. In our baptism we were baptised into the Body of Christ, through our eucharistic celebrations we grow into the fulfilment of that mysterious membership.

The Greek term for memorial is anamnesis, and this word is often used by liturgical theologians when they try to explain what the Mass is about. Anamnesis is really for Christians what zikkaron is for Jews – a liturgical memorial which renders present the past actions of God as a living reality for the worshipper. During the Christian Eucharist we make present something from the past; we remember the story of Jesus ‘as if’ it was happening now, in our time. We pray the Mass remembering that the life, death, resurrection and ascension are one complex act, which occurred in history, but with effect ‘now’.

The Eucharistic memorial is celebrated in fidelity to Jesus’ command. It is no mere calling to mind of a past event. It is the Church’s effectual proclamation of God’s reconciling action in Christ. Through it, we not only recall Jesus Christ’s Passion on behalf of the whole Church but we participate ‘today’ in these benefits and enter into the movement of his self-offering. Through the power of the Spirit, the once and for all event of Jesus’ Death on the Cross is made present in our time in each Mass. We become present to that great event and are bound together in communion by it, not only with those we meet in any particular Mass, but with those gathered around the Eucharist in all corners of the world and throughout time (See The Eucharist: Communion with Christ and with one another. Veritas 2011).

1. All Christians claim to follow Jesus Christ, but within the Christian tradition there are different ecclesial (Church) expressions of faith. Catholics are distinctive in affirming the Petrine ministry (papacy) as an integral element of the institutional Church. The principle of sacra-mentality is also central. Catholics understand God to be present and operative in history through the visible, the concrete. Christ is regarded as the sacrament of the encounter with God, the Church the sacrament of encounter with Christ and the sacraments as (seven) signs and means by which the encounter with Christ is made manifest and celebrated. Catholicism sees itself as a Church of the ‘both/ and’ in its approach to things such as nature and grace, faith and reason, scripture and tradition.
2. The Shema is the central prayer for Jewish people. A declaration of faith in one God, the scripture passages prayed reaffirm the basic tenets of Jewish faith.
3. The Didache, known in English as ‘The Teaching of the Apostles’, is a piece of writing from the early days of the Church. It was probably written in the early part of the second century, and it provides very interesting information on early Church practices and teachings. The Didache can be easily accessed on the internet.
4. The Fiftieth International Eucharistic Congress, held in Dublin in 2012, took as its theme the very rich notion of ‘communion’. For more on the multi-faceted nature of this term see The Eucharist: Communion with Christ and with one another (Dublin: Veritas, 2011), nn.7-19.
5. The Second Vatican Council was held in Rome from 1962 to 1965. The first document to be promulgated by the Council was concerned with the liturgy, and began with the words, Sacrosanctum Concilium, which means ‘this sacred council’ (1963).
6. This quote is taken from the Summa Theologiae of St Thomas Aquinas, the work for which he is most famous.

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