Pope Benedict with monstranceI’ve been thinking about the Eucharist a lot lately, between the recent celebration of Corpus Christi and some other things that have come up.  Nothing defines Catholicism more fundamentally than our belief in, and reverence for, the Eucharist.

So, what does it mean, this “Eucharist”?  This is not a question that should be asked only by non-Catholics.  It should also be asked and meditated upon often and deeply by Catholics, because it is the “source and summit” of our lives as Catholics.

One thing I have found helpful since the time of my reversion to the faith is this definition from Father John Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary:

EUCHARIST: The true Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, who is really and substantially present under the appearances of bread and wine, in order to offer himself in the sacrifice of the Mass and to be received as spiritual food in Holy Communion. It is called Eucharist, or “thanksgiving,” because at its institution at the Last Supper Christ “gave thanks,” and by this fact it is the supreme object and act of Christian gratitude to God.

Although the same name is used, the Eucharist is any one or all three aspects of one mystery, namely the Real Presence, the Sacrifice, and Communion. As Real Presence, the Eucharist is Christ in his abiding existence on earth today; as Sacrifice, it is Christ in his abiding action of High Priest, continuing now to communicate the graces he merited on Calvary; and as Communion, it is Christ coming to enlighten and strengthen the believer by nourishing his soul for eternal life. (Etym. Latin eucharistia, the virtue of thanksgiving or thankfulness; from Greek eucharistia, gratitude; from eu-, good + charizesthai, to show favor.)


SACRAMENT OF THE ALTAR: The Eucharist viewed as the body and blood of Christ, which are offered on the altar in the Sacrifice of the Mass. Also the Eucharist as reserved on the altar for adoration by the faithful.

Pope Benedict offering MassThis definition of “Eucharist” has so much in it.  I love the way Father Hardon describes it as a three-fold mystery (much like God Himself is).  I remember reading this definition for the first time several years ago and realizing with some horror that in my whole life, I had never really understood the Eucharist.  If I had, I really don’t think I ever would have left the Church!  These years later, it still gives me plenty of food for thought.

If anything, I had always heard “Eucharist” used as a synonym for “Holy Communion.”  Nothing more.  That’s an error, and I can tell you that it’s still being made.  This conflation of Eucharist and Communion can have serious consequences.  It can lead to the abandonment of adoration and the dilution of the doctrines of the Real Presence and of the Mass as Holy Sacrifice.  Without the Real Presence and the Holy Sacrifice, Communion means nothing!  And neither does Catholicism.

There’s no reason to be Catholic if Communion is just a bread-and-wine party… which is what it logically must become if we lose sight of the full meaning of the Eucharist.  Catholicism is much too difficult to bear unless in Communion we are receiving the “true Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, who is really and substantially present under the appearances of bread and wine,” unless Communion “is Christ coming to enlighten and strengthen the believer by nourishing his soul for eternal life.”

Without the Real Presence, adoration really is just “cookie worship.”  And Catholics are all a bunch of lunatics sharing in one huge mass delusion.  And if Christ isn’t the one truly acting in the Mass as our High Priest, then the Mass is just a show with some guy in some fancy anachronistic get-up spouting a bunch of hocus pocus.  Oh, but those crazy Catholics think they’ll risk hellfire if they skip a single Sunday!  The ordained priest has no purpose whatsoever if he is not acting in persona Christi.  He’s just another one in a wide variety of Christian ministers–namely, the crazy one who gave up everything to gain some kind of magical powers over bread and wine.

Maybe that’s all over the top, but not by much.  When you think about it for just a little while, pretty much everything about Catholicism becomes absurd and grotesque if we don’t understand the Eucharist.  It becomes a real live Jack Chick tract.

Pope Benedict giving first CommunionCatholics must understand the Eucharist in order to understand ourselves and to be authentically Catholic.  As opposed to being heretics, protestants, and/or people who mindlessly do and believe things without knowing why.  Being Catholic doesn’t mean being mindless, and it definitely doesn’t mean not asking “Why?”.  The long and venerable tradition of Catholic meditation and contemplation has been built upon ordinary Catholics asking questions.  To some extent, I’d say all prayer is based on asking questions.  The development of our theology and doctrine has been fueled by burning questions.  Christ said, “Ask and you shall receive.”  God blessed Solomon because all Solomon desired was wisdom.  God similarly blessed St. Thomas Aquinas because all Thomas desired was God Himself.  God does answer, He does give wisdom, and He does give us His very Self, when we ask.

Let us ask often to understand the Eucharist in all of its great mystery, power, and glory.  Let us ask to understand it as our Lord and King truly with us on this earth.  Let us ask for the faith and understanding to adore Him, to bear witness to His Sacrifice, and to receive Him into our bodies and our entire lives.  And let’s do it in that order.  Let us place ourselves before Him, let us open our hearts and minds before Him, let us bend our knees before Him, before we even think of receiving Him.  He will give Himself to us.  Let us also give ourselves to Him, mind, heart, soul, and body.  He is far more deserving to receive us than we are to receive Him.