Communion (Catholic)

This page discusses the theory and practice of communion as understood by the Roman Catholic church. For general information about communion in other branches of Christianity, see the main Communion article.

The Roman Catholic institution of communion is commonly called the Eucharist, and is a central sacrament of the Roman Catholic church.

Vocabulary

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The word eucharist (Gr. εὐχαριστέω, G2373, to be grateful, to give thanks) and its cognates occur frequently in the New Testament denoting grateful acknowledgment of benefits received especially through the bounty and goodness of the Lord. For this reason, the term “eucharist” in ancient times came to be applied to the Lord’s Supper, probably because of the giving of thanks (εὐχαριστέω, G2373) by the Lord at the time of institution, as He gave His disciples the bread and the cup (cf. Mark 14:22; 1 Cor 11:23, 24). It first appeared as a designation of the communion meal in the letters of Ignatius (a.d. 107) to Philadelphia (c. iv) and Smyrna (c. vi). Irenaeus wrote that after the consecration “it is no longer common bread but eucharist” (Against Heresies, iv. ch. 18, 5). Because of this usage, early liturgies made the thanksgiving, next to the reception, the most significant part of the celebration, and this no doubt promoted the general adoption of the name. Gratitude for salvation was reflected generally in the prayers and hymns associated with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Transubstantiation

The doctrine of the Eucharist maintained by the Roman Catholic Church is based on the idea of transubstantiation, first defined by Radbertus, a Benedictine of Corbie in 831 on the basis of John 6. The influence of Greek views of substance and accident blurred the doctrine in the writings of Ockham and Scotus, while Biel confessed that the miraculous presence of Christ was a mystery to be accepted only because of God's omnipotence. The Council of Trent closed off other options by stating Christ is “truly, really and substantially contained in the sacrament under the appearance of sensible things.... By the consecration of the bread and wine a change is brought about of the whole substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the body of his blood. This change... is called transubstantiation.” Vatican II said of the Eucharist in terms of the body of believers, “Truly partaking of the body of the Lord in the breaking of the Eucharistic bread, we are taken up into communion with Him and with one another.” And “no Christian community... can be built up unless it has its basis and center in the celebration of the... Eucharist.”

History and practice

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The eucharist has been celebrated in a wide variety of ways and with widely differing interpretations.

At first there may have been a full fellowship meal at which the action of Jesus with the bread at the Last Supper was repeated at the beginning, and that with the cup at the end. When abuses crept into the meal (sometimes called a “love feast”), or when the church came to a better understanding of the mind of Christ (see 1 Cor. 11:20-34), the separated actions were brought together, and the meal as a replenishment was gradually stopped. In Christian worship in the second century, according to Justin Martyr, the Word of God was first expounded, in a manner corresponding to that of the Jewish synagogue, then the bread and wine were brought, blessed and thus consecrated, distributed, and partaken of by the Church in an action corresponding as closely as possible to that of Jesus at the Last Supper.

In interpreting the meaning of the rite, the church has always tried to understand what Jesus intended at His last supper. Recently it has been suggested that the breaking of bread in the earliest church life was dominated by the belief that Jesus willed the continuation of His fellowship and resurrection meals with His disciples on a similar pattern so that the church could continue after the Ascension to realize His presence and have joyful communion with Him. However accurate this may be, the words “this is my body” and “this is my blood” may indicate the wish of Jesus that these elements should be regarded as such signs of His own real presence in the midst as He would never fail to honor. He established the Lord's Supper in the continuity of a well-known tradition that when the messianic age came, the Messiah would feast with those who had expected and waited for Him (Isa. 25:6). The vow by which Jesus pledged His own abstinence from participation in the feast, while making His disciples partake, is a vivid reminder that the freedom and joy which the Cross brings involve Him in the inevitable, in a shame and agony from which we are spared.

From the earliest time the church felt the celebration of the Supper was much more than a mere act enabling it to recall mentally the significance of the life and death of Jesus. Just as the celebration of the Passover as a “memorial” involved the Jews not only in memory but in a real participation in the continuing power of the past redemptive events of their history, so in the Lord's Supper “remembrance” was held to involve becoming vitally affected today in the whole of existence, through the re- presentation of a unique event in the past which already had in it more significance than that of an ordinary historical occurrence. The Supper, therefore, was a means through which the efficacy and power of the death and resurrection of Jesus (the unique eschatological event) is applied to successive generations throughout the course of history. Jesus no doubt had this in mind in identifying Himself with the paschal lamb, and His death with the sacrifice of the lamb for deliverance from bondage. He had found foreshadowed in the redemptive history of Israel His own work of delivering man from sin and death. Moreover, since He had come to establish the New Covenant in which sin would be fully forgiven, and the law would be written on the hearts of men through the Spirit, He also referred to this at the Last Supper, and desired that the Supper should be understood in this light.

The church has always found significance in the fact that Jesus, with words which identified the bread and wine with Himself, actually gave them to be eaten and drunk rather than to be merely looked at and adored. This deliberately planned giving and receiving implies some kind of real participation in Christ Himself-that Christ in the Supper is seeking to impart to men in some real ways the actual life which dwelt in His own flesh and blood, and this imparting of life is in some way connected with the giving and receiving at the Lord's Table. The Early Fathers interpreted Jesus' teaching in John 6 about eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of Man to refer not only to a participation in Jesus' humanity by faith through His Word, but also to a participation in Jesus' humanity through the Eucharist. Paul's interpretation of the communion given in the Supper (e.g., in 1 Cor. 10:14-22) can be interpreted in the same light.

Indeed, so realistically did Paul interpret this communion with Christ that he uttered a warning about the damnation which might occur to those who ate and drank “unworthily, . . . not discerning the Lord's body” (1 Cor. 11:29). It does not seem adequate to interpret the presence of the Lord's body in the Supper as simply the presence of the church. There is no doubt, however, that the Supper is a meal in which, through communion with Christ, the members of the church understand and experience-in a way not otherwise so possible-the reality and depth of their unity in Christ, and find strength in each other through a mutual sharing of gifts and burdens.

The Fathers of the ancient Catholic Church tried to give expression in their theology of the Eucharist to their belief that the union with Christ given and confirmed in the Supper was as real as that which took place in the incarnation of the Word in human flesh. Origen and others insisted this fellowship with Christ was spiritual and indeed nothing more than that which comes by believing in the Word. Yet there arose the belief that somehow or other, through consecration in the prayer of thanksgiving, the elements themselves became a sacramental food enabling men to assimilate the essence of deity. This also led to the belief that in the sacrament a sacrifice was made, placating God and repeating the sacrifice of Calvary. This development was encouraged by the doctrine of transubstantiation, made official in 1215, which supposed that the whole substance of the bread and wine was changed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ. The church controlled the grace given through the rite, and the laity were allowed to partake only of the bread, since it was believed that the whole Christ was given under one species.