By some estimates, roughly a third of the people in the world today identify themselves as Christians.1 But what does this actually mean, considering that there are over 30,000 different denominations? As you might expect, all Christians do share some things in common: reverence for the Scriptures as the inspired Word of God; love for Jesus as Lord and Saviour; and belief in the Holy Trinity, that God exists in three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But beyond these fundamental truths there are great variations in both belief and practice.
The media tends to focus on topics like gay marriage, contraception, and the role of women in the Church, but these aren’t huge areas of contention for most Christians. More pronounced differences arise between Catholics and non-Catholics when discussing things like the role of Mary and the saints, and the existence of Purgatory.2 However, perhaps the most contentious and misunderstood of all Catholic doctrine is transubstantiation, the belief that Jesus is materially present in the Eucharist – Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.
Interestingly enough, most Christians (Catholics and non-Catholics alike) believe in the “Real Presence” in some way, shape, or form.3 Sometimes, when speaking with other Christians, we may even think that our beliefs sound very similar; but our practices say something quite different. It’s important that we understand what we believe, not to be divisive or exclusive, but to begin to work for true unity. Here are some things you may or may not know about the Eucharist and why it is so central to our faith:
- Key Ingredients. Only bread and wine, and not just any kind, mind you. Understandably, there are very particular protocols for celebrating Mass. For instance, the bread must be made only from wheat flour and water, and only sacramental wine (made from pure grapes with nothing added) is to be used. Way back when, unleavened bread was readily available, but these days, churches buy ‘hosts’ from church supply companies for ease and simplicity.
- Signed, Sealed, Delivered. Only a duly ordained priest can perform the consecration. Not even a deacon. When a man becomes a priest, he is chosen by God, configured to Christ, and sealed with the Holy Spirit. Only then can he ‘deliver the goods,’ so to speak. Of course, it’s really God who works this miracle through the hands of His priests! Since the priest is the means that God has chosen to bring this gift to us, we can see how vitally important it is to pray for them – and for more vocations.
- 2 for 1. Very specific words must be used in order for the consecration to be valid; the priest can’t just wing it or make something up. The bread is consecrated first and then the wine (in separate consecrations), yet Jesus is fully present in both. So if only the bread is offered, or if you can’t have gluten4 and opt to take just the wine, you’re still getting the full meal deal…
- You can’t take it with you! There are also special ways to receive the Eucharist – in your hands or directly on the tongue. No saving it for later or taking some home to share! If you don’t consume it right away, chances are someone may chase you down the aisle (as they should). It is permissible to bring the Eucharist to the sick using a proper container called a pyx and with permission from your pastor.
- Handle with Care… Because the consecrated host is truly Jesus’ Body, we must treat it with the utmost reverence and respect. Any hosts remaining after Mass are reserved in the tabernacle (the “gold box,”5 designed just for this purpose) to be distributed later. Even a speck of bread (now Jesus’ Body) or a drop of wine (Jesus’ Blood) is precious and can’t be washed down into the sewer system. Consequently, every Catholic church is equipped with a special sink called a sacrarium, which bypasses the sewer and drains directly into the ground.
- Aka. In our Catholic tradition, we call the consecrated bread and wine by many names: the Eucharist, Precious Body and Blood, Holy Communion, and the Blessed Sacrament to name a few. But, as suggested earlier, a term that could cause confusion is “Real Presence.” Because it’s rather ambiguous and may suggest something quite different than intended, we might want to avoid using it when speaking to non-Catholics.
- Face Time with God. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is one of the Church’s long-standing traditions that allows us to worship Jesus truly present in the Eucharist. During this time, a large consecrated host is placed in a monstrance on the altar, and we are invited to spend time in quiet prayer with the Lord. Can’t get much closer than that!
- Membership Privileges. This is a sticky point with a lot of people, but you must be Catholic to receive Holy Communion in a Catholic church. Why? As the name implies, doing so “communicates” a profound truth we hold dear and also speaks to the union we share with one another in Christ. It has nothing to do with being “worthy” or not (only God knows that), just whether you’re in union with the Church and all that she teaches. When my husband and I moved to Canada, we could live and work here, but weren’t allowed to vote until we became Canadian citizens.6 Same idea at work here.
Why is the Eucharist such a big deal for Catholics? Because it’s not just a symbol or sign, it is our Lord. He comes to us each and every time the Mass is celebrated – in spite of our belief or disbelief. Jesus doesn’t depend on our faith or understanding in order to be present; He is faithful no matter what. And when He promised us His very Body and Blood, He meant what He said.7
Sadly, all Christians don’t share the same beliefs, especially when it comes to the Eucharist. There are many things that continue to divide us, but we mustn’t give up hope that unity is possible! With prayer, sincerity, and meaningful dialogue (…and our awesome Pope leading the way) hearts can be opened, minds can be changed, and one day, God willing, we will cross the great divide.
– Kelley Holy
1 Cf. http://christianity.about.com/od/denominations/p/christiantoday.htm
Internet, Accessed 27 May 2014.
2 Peter Kreeft, Jesus-Shock (St. Augustine’s Press, 2008), 103.
3 Here’s an excellent article by Fr. Dwight Longenecker that explains the differences very well. He is a former Evangelical, then Anglican priest, now Catholic priest. If anyone should know, it’s him:
4 Low-gluten hosts are available, but a completely gluten-free host would be considered “invalid.”
5 Just to clarify, not all tabernacles are gold, nor or they all ‘boxes.’ In older churches, you will sometimes see the tabernacle suspended from the ceiling in the shape of a dove. Very cool.
5 This great analogy comes from Catholicism for Dummies, but it’s one I’ve experienced personally and really helps the Church’s stance on Holy Communion to make sense.
6 The ‘Bread of Life Discourse’ in John 6 will help explain the Church’s teachings on the Holy Eucharist.