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The Doctrine (and the Defense) of the Eucharist

by Carl E. Olson

It is impossible to overstate the importance and meaning of the Eucharist in Catholic life, teaching, and theology. "Our way of thinking is attuned to the Eucharist," wrote Saint Irenaeus in the second century, "and the Eucharist in turn confirms our way of thinking" (CCC 1327). Centuries later the Second Vatican Council declared that the Eucharist is "the source and summit of the Christian life" (Lumen Gentium, 11).

In the centuries between, the Church has contemplated, studied, defined, and defended her belief—as stated by the Council of Trent—that "in the blessed sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, after the consecration of the bread and wine, our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and man, is truly, really, and substantially contained under the appearances of those perceivable realities." This belief in the real presence is central and distinguishing. It is also at the heart of the controversies and divisions that have arisen around the Eucharist at different times in the history of the Church.

The Eucharist is a direct result of the Incarnation and the Cross and is a miraculous continuation of those great mysteries of the Faith. The Blessed Sacrament is the crucified and risen Christ, offered under the appearance of bread and wine. This should be obvious to Catholics, but it is a truth that cannot be taken for granted, especially when so many misunderstandings and false ideas exist about it.

In the Eucharist the unique, one-time Paschal Mystery is offered sacramentally to those generations that came afterwards. The Eucharist is sacrifice and meal—the two realities are intimately joined. Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II’s "Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy" summarizes:

"At the Last Supper, on the night when He was betrayed, our Savior instituted the eucharistic sacrifice of His Body and Blood. He did this in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the centuries until He should come again, and so to entrust to His beloved spouse, the Church, a memorial of His death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a paschal banquet in which Christ is eaten, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us" (par 47).

The word "Eucharist" comes from a Greek work, eucharistia, which means "thanksgiving." This thanksgiving is an act of faith and worship, an acknowledgement of God’s work of salvation, and a confession of man’s need for God’s grace and mercy. The word "Eucharist," explains the Catechism of the Catholic Church, recalls "the Jewish blessings that proclaim—especially during a meal—God's works: creation, redemption, and sanctification" (CCC 1328).

The Eucharist is an endless number of unified elements. It is meal, communion, and celebration. It is the sacrificial offering of believers, as sons and daughters of God and as members of Christ's Body, to the Father. It is the sacrifice of Christ made truly present. The Eucharist is described in many ways: the Lord’s Supper, the breaking of Bread, the Holy Sacrifice, the Holy and Divine Liturgy, Holy Communion, Holy Mass, and many others.

God nourishes and sustains His family, the Church, in many ways, but the most profound means is the Eucharist. It is the unifying principle and reality of the Family of God, creating communion by communicating the Body and Blood of the Head of the Church to those who make up the body of the Church. In the Eucharist, the Catechism states, Catholics experience unity with one another and "an intimate union with Christ Jesus" (CCC 1391).

Over the centuries objections to belief in the Eucharist have been made, most notably by certain Protestants. One objection is that the Eucharist cannot be the true Body and Blood of Christ because no perceptible change can be seen after the consecration of the gifts. Evangelical author James McCarthy, a former Catholic and author of The Gospel According To Rome, writes that "there is not even the slightest indication that either the bread or the wine changed at the Last Supper. The same is true at the Mass today. The bread and wine before and after the consecration look exactly alike. Furthermore, they smell, taste, and feel the same. In fact, all empirical evidence supports the interpretation that they do not change at all." (The Gospel According To Rome, 133).

This reliance on "empirical evidence" raises difficult questions for the Evangelical critic. Since when does Christianity rest exclusively on scientific evidence? Where is the empirical evidence for the Virgin Birth? Angels? The Holy Spirit? Heaven? And where is the scientific proof that Jesus was completely God, completely man? How is the miracle of the Eucharist more unbelievable than the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, the death and resurrection of Jesus or the Trinity?

Then there are the teachings of Jesus, who stated at the Last Supper, "Take; eat; this is My body" and "Drink from it...for this is My blood..." (Matt 26:26-30), and in the Bread of Life discourse: "My flesh is true food and My blood is true drink" (Jn 6:51-59). This is not metaphorical language and neither is this rhetorical question asked by Saint Paul about the Eucharist: "Is not the cup of blessing we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?" (1 Cor. 10:14-22). In fact, no Christian interpreted these words of Jesus and Paul metaphorically until some one thousand years after they were written.

Another criticism is that the Catholic Church allegedly teaches that Jesus must be "re-crucified" at every Mass. Presbyterian theologian Loraine Boettner claims that the Mass is "is in reality a re-crucifixion of our Lord over and over again, in an unbloody manner" (Roman Catholicism). This is a faulty understanding of what the Church teaches, which is that the Eucharistic sacrifice brings into present time the saving effects of the once for all time death of Jesus. While the work of the Cross is indeed finished and will never be repeated, its benefits and power are applied today through the sacrament of the Eucharist, according to the commands of our Lord.

Ironically, the idea of Christ’s past work being efficacious in the present is not novel to many Evangelical Protestants. They believe that when a man "accepts" Christ into their heart, or has a "born-again" experience, the work of Christ on the Cross is applied to him through faith. Some will say that they have been "washed in Jesus’ blood," but they don’t believe Jesus is re-crucified every time a Christian makes a profession of faith. Unwittingly, they implicitly believe what the Catholic Church teaches: that the effects of Christ’s death on the Cross are just as powerful and present today as they were two thousand years ago.

The Church has tirelessly taught the truth about the Eucharist and has answered every sort of question and objection. Today, there are countless articles, books, and other resources about the Eucharist providing Catholics with excellent catechetical and apologetic materials for growth in understanding and appreciation of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

(This article is adopted from "What Catholics Believed About the Eucharist—and How To Defend That Belief," which appeared in the September 26, 2004 issue of Our Sunday Visitor.)

Carl Olson is the editor of He is the co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author of Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He writes regularly for National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, and other Catholic periodicals.

Selected Ignatius Press titles about the Eucharist and the Liturgy

Hidden Manna: A Theology of the Eucharist

Fr. James T. O'Connor

382 pages. Paperback.

This is a profound, readable and comprehensive study of the great Mystery of the Eucharist from apostolic times to the present day. Using every possible source, from Church Fathers, Scripture, the writings of Popes, councils, saints and more, O'Connor presents a beautifully thorough and inspiring study of the Eucharist.

God Is Near Us: The Eucharist, the Heart of Life

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

160 pages. Paperback.

The Second Vatican Council says, "We ought to try to discover a new reverence for the Eucharistic mystery. Something is happening that is greater than anything we can do. The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is the font from which all her power flows."

This profound statement about the Eucharist stands at the center of this book by Cardinal Ratzinger. He compellingly shows us the biblical, historical, and theological dimensions of the Eucharist. The Cardinal draws far-reaching conclusions, focusing on the importance of one's personal devotion to and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, for the personal reception of Communion by the individual Christian, as well as for the life of the Church. For Ratzinger, any transformation of the world on the social plane grows out of the celebration of the Eucharist. He beautifully illustrates how the omnipotent God comes intimately close to us in the Holy Eucharist, the Heart of Life.

Adoration: Eucharistic Texts and Prayers throughout Church History

Ed. by Daniel Guernsey

250 pages. Paperback.

This classic collection offers rich meditation material before the Blessed Sacrament, providing prayerful souls with insights gleaned from the wealth of Church teaching and tradition. The selections are drawn from a variety of sources and times. They come from the Old and New Testaments, the Church Fathers, great saints, popes, councils, traditional prayers. These prayers and meditations offer a rich view of the Eucharist, and their unique perspectives are intended to aid us in our understanding, appreciation and worship of this Sacrament of Sacraments.

Worthy is the Lamb: The Biblical Roots of the Mass

By Thomas Nash

250 pages. Paperback.

In this exciting new book Thomas Nash refutes the common charge that the Mass is "unbiblical" in a resoundingly biblical fashion. From the Garden of Eden to Christ's Ascension, the biblical roots of the Mass go much deeper than the Last Supper and Christ's Passion. Old Testament sacrifices like Abel’s, Abraham’s and the Passover all prefigure and are fulfilled by Christ's Sacrifice, which is made present in the Sacrifice of the Mass. What began on the Cross culminated in everlasting glory when Jesus entered "once for all" into the heavenly holy of holies, as the Letter to the Hebrews provides.

In a time when the Catholic Church is under attack from within and without, Worthy is the Lamb reminds the faithful that the Mass is, as Vatican II affirms, "the source and summit of the whole Christian life." This book will transform your understanding of and participation in the Mass.

Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer

By Bro. Michael Lang

160 pages. Paperback.

This book presents a historical and theological argument for the common direction of liturgical prayer, known as "facing east", and is meant as a contribution to the contemporary debate about the Catholic liturgy. Lang, a member of the London Oratory, studies the direction of liturgical prayer from a historical, theological, and pastoral point of view.

"I hope that this book will help the struggle for the right understanding and worthy celebration of the Sacred Liturgy. I wish the book a wide and attentive readership."

—Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

Know Him in the Breaking of the Bread: A Guide to the Mass

Fr. Francis Randolph

215 pages. Paperback.

In accessible and lively prose, this book explains the ceremonies of the Catholic Mass and their meaning for lay people, including the young. It is designed to meet the widespread complaint that the Mass is boring, incomprehensible, or alienating. Fr. Randolph goes through the Mass step by step, looking at the origin and purpose of the various elements, and relating them to the reader's experience of prayer and the Christian life. Suggestions are made for ways to enhance our appreciation of the liturgy, how to prepare for Mass, and how to carry the grace of the Mass out into the world. A supplementary chapter looks at the use of Latin in the Mass, its past and present value, and explains it in the context of contemplative prayer.

"Fr. Randolph weaves together liturgical, doctrinal, historical, and spiritual themes, bringing the timeless truths of the Lord's Sacrifice and His Real Presence into the context of worship today. The mysteries of the Mass are presented with detailed information that inspires devotion while gently correcting error. This book is not only adult reading. It is an ideal resource for teachers and catechists working with young people."

--Msgr. Peter Elliott, Author, Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite
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