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The MOST Theological Collection: A Basic Catholic Catechism

"Part XIII: The Eucharist and Mass"

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1. The Real Presence

The other Sacraments give us grace, the Holy Eucharist gives us not only grace but the Author of all grace, Jesus, God and Man. It is the center of all else the Church has and does.

As St. Mark records it, at the Last Supper, Jesus "took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them: "Take this, this is my Body" (Mk 14:22). That word blessed in Greek is eucharistesas, from which the Eucharist derives its name.

Three of the four Gospels record the institution of the Holy Eucharist: Matthew 26:25-29; Mark 14:22=25; Luke 22:19-23. St. Paul also records it in First Corinthians 11:23-25. St. John's Gospels does not report this, presumably because he intended chiefly to fill in what the others had not written, for he wrote probably between 90 and 100 A.D.

There are small variations in the words, but the essentials are the same in all accounts: This is my body... this is my blood. St. Luke and St. Paul tell us that Jesus also said: "Do this in memory of me." The others do not give those words. Two of the four, Matthew and Mark, speak of His blood as shed for many. Some people today, having little faith, say that now that the fact that our translations say "for all" instead of "for many" makes the Mass invalid, i.e., it is no longer a Mass. But the Church has decided the text is correct, for the Pope himself when He uses English or Italian, does say "for all" [per tutti]. It is a tragic lack of faith not to believe the Pope and the Church. Further, that word "many" is polloi in Greek, which normally means many. But it is used to try to give the thought of Hebrew rabbim which means the all who are many (could not be used of an all that would be few). Thus St. Paul in Romans 5:19 speaks of polloi as receiving Original Sin - of course he means all. Every time St. Paul uses polloi as a noun he always means all. (Jesus probably spoke Hebrew at the Last Supper, for solemnity; if He spoke Aramaic, the word would have been saggi'in. Jesus Himself in Mk 10. 45 (= Mt 20:28) when probably speaking Aramaic, would have used saggi'in, where the Greek in the Gospel has polloi. The sense in any case is clearly all. Also, the Targum on Isaiah 53:11 & 12 has Aramaic saggi'in to render the Hebrew rabbim).

In John 6:53 Jesus said: "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood you will not have life in you." Of course, He did not mean to cut off salvation from those who through no fault of their own do not know or grasp this truth. It is like the case of Baptism: one must receive it if one knows.

The form, that is the words required for the Eucharist are of course the words of institution. The matter is wheat bread (white or whole wheat) for the host, and natural wine (mixed with a very little water) for the chalice. Addition of a notable amount of other matter would make the material invalid.

Jesus is present wherever the appearances (species) of bread and wine are found after the consecration. Hence He is found even when the host is divided. The substance of bread and wine is gone, only the appearances remain. The Church calls this change transubstantiation: change of substance.

In John 6:47-67 Jesus did not soften His words about His presence even when so many no longer went with Him: had He meant only that bread and wine would signify Him, He could have so easily explained that, and they would not have left.

The Church has always understood a Real Presence. For example, St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was eaten by the beasts in Rome around 107 A.D., wrote: "The Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ" (To Smyrna 7:1). St. Justin the martyr wrote around 145 A. D: "We have been taught that the food is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh" (Apology 1. 66. 2). The Council of Trent in 1551 defined that Jesus is really present in the Eucharist, body and blood, soul and divinity.

Obviously, this divine presence deserves our worship. Really, someone who believes in it should be much inclined to come before the tabernacle often. Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament seems to have started in the 15th century. The Church also promotes Forty Hours devotion. In some places there is perpetual adoration.

We can correctly speak of other kinds of presence of Jesus. (On this see our discussion on the Ascension in the sixth article of the Creed, and Vatican II, On the Liturgy §7). But none of them compare to that in the Holy Eucharist.

2. The Mass

The Council of Trent taught that the Mass is the same as Calvary, "only the manner of offering being changed" from bloody to unbloody. Similarly Vatican II (On the Liturgy §10) said that the Mass is the renewal of the new covenant.

A sacrifice as Catholics understand it (in contrast to some pagan concepts) has two elements: the outward sign and the interior dispositions. The outward sign is there to express and perhaps promote the interior. Without the interior it would be worthless. Hence God once complained through Isaiah 29:13: "This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me." We need to take care that we too do not descend into mere externalism, thinking it enough to just make the responses and sing etc.

At the Last Supper, the outward sign was the seeming separation of body and blood, with the two species. This was a dramatized way of saying to the Father: "I know the command you have given me, I am to die tomorrow. Very good, I turn myself over to death - expressed by the seeming separation - I accept, I obey." On the next day He did as He pledged, but then the outward sign was the physical separation of body and blood, while the interior remained the same. In the Mass, by the agency of a human priest who acts "in the person of Christ" (Vatican II, LG § 10) Christ continues and repeats His offering. The external sign is multiplied as many times as there are Masses. But the interior disposition of Christ is not multiplied, it is continued from that with which He died. For death makes permanent the attitude of will with which one leaves this world.

Since the Mass has the same external sign, and the same interior dispositions on the part of Christ, we rightly call it a sacrifice, the continuation of Calvary. It does not need to earn redemption all over - that was done once for all (Hebrews 9:28) by His death. But since the Holiness of God loves everything that is good, and in good order, it pleases Him to have titles or reasons in place for what He will give (cf. Summa I. 19. 5. c). So it pleases Him to have the Mass provide the title for the distribution of what was once for all earned on Calvary.

Catechists often like to use a memory word ACTS to express the dispositions: adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication. This is not wrong, but it leaves out the essential disposition, obedience to the Father (Cf. Romans 5:19 and LG §3).

At the Last Supper He ordered, "Do this in memory of me". Since we were not there, He wants us to join our dispositions to His. The great Liturgy Encyclical of Pius XII, Mediator Dei, explains well that the people can be said to exercise their royal priesthood, to offer the Mass with the priest: first, "from the fact that the priest at the altar in offering a sacrifice in the name of all His members, does so in the person of Christ," whose members they are. (Since only the ordained priest acts "in the person of Christ" Vatican II says [LG §10] that the ordained priesthood differs from that of the laity in essence, and not only in degree).

Secondly the people can be said to offer since: "The people join their hearts in praise, petition, expiation and thanksgiving with the prayers or intention of the priest, in fact, of the High Priest Himself, so that in the one and same of offering of the Victim... they may be presented to God the Father "(Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 39:556). Vatican II explains (LG § 10) that this is what it means for them to "offer spiritual sacrifices".

These spiritual sacrifices consist of their obedience to the will of the Father, already carried out, and planned for the future (Cf. LG §34). This includes their works, their bearing the troubles of life, their prayers, their apostolic efforts, their living out the duties of their state in life, even their relaxation of body and mind if all these things are done as part of the Father's plan, to enable them to serve Him better. Jesus Himself spent about 30 out of 33 years in family life, to show how greatly the Father values this if done precisely because it part of His plan. No wonder Paul VI, on Feb. 12, 1966, told the 13th National Congress of the Italian Feminine Center that "marriage is a long road towards sanctification", that is, if one takes everything in it as part of the Father's plan. (To be explained more fully in our section on the Sacrament of Matrimony).

We can call this a royal priesthood, since to live this way is to reign, instead of being a slave to vices ( 2 Peter 2:19). St. Augustine explains this well in his exegesis of Revelation/Apocalypse 20:5-6 (City of God 20:7-9) which tells how the holy ones rise from sin - which is the first resurrection, and reign, by being their own masters, by not consenting to the works of the Beast, the Antichrist and his minions, "but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and will reign with Him for that thousand years", i.e., all the time from His ascension to His return at the end.

It would be good to take a moment before each Mass to see what one has to join with the obedience of Christ, soon to be offered on the altar. Then Mass cannot be without meaning; rather, it dominates all of life, for we should bring our past obediences, and look ahead to the obedience of the near future.

We can see easily how Vatican II could call the Mass the renewal of the new covenant: in the making of that new covenant, the essential condition which gave it all its value was obedience, the obedience of Jesus, which is to be re-presented again on the altar, so we may join with it.

It is good to recall too that His Mother shared in this sacrifice by her obedience (cf. our comments on the Third Article of the Creed) on Calvary, and now, as John Paul II taught (Angelus Homily of Feb. 12, 1984) she "is at every altar" because "she was present at the original sacrifice", sharing in it, and now from heaven, she still joins her will to His, as He offers the flesh and blood He received from her.

The graces of the Mass are communicated in accord with how often the Mass is offered for a certain intention, the dispositions of the priest, the dispositions of the faithful who join with him, the dispositions of those for whom it is offered, and God's Providence.

We say we offer the Mass in honor of Our Lady, the angels, particular Saints. In it we thank God for what He has done for them, and for us through them. But we offer the Mass to God alone.

The chief liturgical divisions of the Mass are: the penitential rite, the liturgy of the word, the liturgy of the eucharist, the communion rite, and the concluding rite. For the sacrifice as such, only the double consecration is essential. Hence Pius XII taught, "When the consecration of the bread and wine is validly brought about, the whole action of Christ is actually accomplished. Even if all that remains could not be completed, still, nothing essential would be lacking to the Lord's offering" (Vous nous avez, To the Liturgical Conference of Assisi Sept 22, 1956). Hence the Great Amen is not the offering, it is a sort of extension, to give us further opportunity to join with Christ. The Communion follows up, giving us a share in the Divine Victim as He has commanded.

The Mass brings forgiveness for venial sins for which there is sorrow, and for temporal punishment commonly left over after forgiveness of sins.

Mass may be offered for the living or the dead. Its general benefits go to the whole Church, living and dead. Special benefits are for the priest who offers, and those for whom a Mass is specially offered, and for those who actively participate at the Mass.

In it we recall not only His death, but also His Resurrection, as the Eucharistic Prayer I reminds us.

Even with the changes in the laws, Mass on Sundays and Holyday of Obligation remains an obligation binding under grave sin each time.

3. Holy Communion

In the ancient sacrifices, both Jewish and pagan, those who took part were given part of the meat of the sacrificed animal, in the hope of a sort of communion with the divinity. In the Mass, after the sacrifice itself is completed, we have the unspeakable privilege of receiving the flesh and blood of the Divine Victim, who is not dead, but living, and comes to give life in abundance to our souls.

This Holy Communion, if we are rightly disposed, produces an increase in sanctifying grace - the ability to take in the vision of God in the life to come - plus a special claim to actual graces as needed, forgiveness of venial sin for which one is repentant, help to keep from mortal sin, and an increase in the virtue of love.

But dispositions are needed, for even though the Eucharist contains the very Author of all grace, it does not operate like magic: we must do what we can.

We must of course have the state of grace. Without it it would be sacrilege, and an added mortal sin to receive. Right intention is also needed, i.e., to please God, to be more closely united with Him, to gain a remedy for our weaknesses.

It is not required to be free from all venial sin. The reception itself may forgive venial sins for which one is sorry. But the fruits of receiving are reduced. It is especially needed that one be free from all deliberate venial sin - in contrast to sins of weakness, sins when one is taken off guard.

For fullest benefits, we should be free from all attachment to anything sinful. Some have as it were a gap in their purpose of amendment, as if they said, for example: "I do not intend to commit mortal sins, nor all venial sins. But there are some reservations: if it is hard to stick to the truth, I will not do so, or if it is hard to keep a conversation going without a bit of detraction, that is all right too. These dispositions, sometimes called "affection to venial sin" impose as it were a clamp on one's heart, for he/she has decided to go so far and no farther. So they effectively prevent spiritual growth beyond a certain point. How sad that many who could grow much, block growth by this means.

But mere carelessness, lack of preparation, or lack of thanksgiving can be harmful. Pope John Paul II, in his very first Encyclical, Redemptor hominis §20, said that if one does not constantly try to grow spiritually, receiving the Eucharist would "lack its full redeeming effectiveness" and there could even be a spiritual loss. To receive out of mere routine, with no special care, no thanksgiving, is more apt to cause spiritual loss than gain.

To prepare, one should think in advance about what he/she is going to do, especially during the Mass. After receiving, it is valuable to try for recollection, in humility to adore the Lord present we adore the Lord present within us, to give thanks, to express sorrow for deficiencies, to ask for helps to do better. It is very good to stay a few minutes after the end of the Mass to continue this thanksgiving.

Of course one should be decently dressed to receive. Some give scandal and lead others into sin in the very act of coming.

The Eucharistic fast has now been reduced to one hour - abstaining from food and drink (except water). The time is computed up to the actual time of reception. The sick, even if not confined to bed, and those actually engaged in caring for them at the time, need not observe any period of fasting. The same applies to the elderly, according to the new Code of Canon Law § 919. 3.

Children should begin to receive when they have reached the use of reason, but not before they have made their first confession. Once one has begun to receive, there is the obligation of receiving at least once a year, at Easter time, unless there is a reasonable cause for using a different time.

Pastors should see to it that the sick can receive at times. Those who are in danger of death are obliged to receive the Sacred Host as Viaticum, which means provision for the journey -into the next life.

The present law allows quite a few occasions when the Holy Eucharist may be received under both species. However, Christ is received whole and entire under one form only, for He dies no more: body and blood are never separated. (Cf. First Corinthians 11. 26-27, noting that in v. 26, the word and shows that both species are needed to express the death of the Lord, but for Holy Communion, only one species is needed. Hence the word or is used in v. 27).

When actual reception is not possible, one may profitably make a spiritual communion, by a fervent desire to receive sacramentally. This keeps the soul united with Jesus during the day, and prepares better for the actual reception.

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