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,
In the centuries between, the Church has contemplated, studied, defined,
and defended her beliefas stated by the Council of Trentthat
"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 mealthe two realities are intimately joined. Sacrosanctum
Concilium, Vatican IIs "Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy"
"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 Gods work of salvation, and a
confession of mans need for Gods grace and mercy. The word
"Eucharist," explains the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
recalls "the Jewish blessings that proclaimespecially during
a mealGod's works: creation, redemption, and sanctification"
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 Lords Supper, the breaking of Bread, the Holy
Sacrifice, the Holy and Divine Liturgy, Holy Communion, Holy Mass, and
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"
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 Christs 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 dont 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 Christs death on
the Cross are just as powerful and present today as they were two thousand
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 Eucharistand How To Defend That Belief,"
which appeared in the September 26, 2004 issue of Our
is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com. He is the co-author of The
Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author
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
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.
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.
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 Abels, Abrahams 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
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
"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
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
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
"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