Catholic Mass is broken roughly into two parts, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The Liturgy of the Word should be familiar to most Christians—centered on readings from Holy Scripture and a sermon/message by the Priest (the homily). Some analogue of this is, for most Christian communities, the center of worship. In my experience, most Protestant Christians base their opinions of a particular church primarily on their opinions of the pastor’s sermons.
The Liturgy of the Eucharist, however, is the center of Catholic Mass. This is something pretty much unique to Catholicism and Orthodoxy—the two oldest denominations and the truest adherents to to the first 1,500 years of Christian teaching and tradition. Some Protestant churches and denominations still practice ‘communion’ ceremonies that hearken back to the Liturgy of the Eucharist symbolically, but only Catholicism and Orthodoxy recognize the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. Note that in every Biblical account of the Last Supper, Jesus says ‘this is my body’ and ‘this is my blood’ in reference to the bread and wine—not ‘this bread and wine symbolically represents my body and blood.’
I could write volumes about the Eucharist (and others have, indeed, done so), though I could only scratch the surface—especially since I’m still new to the Church and am still learning the truths she teaches. Here I will simply address the logistics very briefly. Lay members of the congregation bring forth the gifts (bread and wine), the Priest prepares the altar and then consecrates the bread and wine by speaking the words that Jesus spoke:
Take this all of you, and eat it; this is my body, which will be given up for you. . . . Take this, all of you, and drink from it; this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all men so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me. – from ‘Ordo Missae Cum Populo’ (Order of Mass with a Congregation)
Through these words, delivered by a properly ordained Priest with the authority Jesus conferred upon his Apostles and Church, the mere bread and wine becomes Christ—body, blood, soul, and divinity. It still looks like bread and wine—physically indistinguishable from what it had been before—but it is spiritually changed. It isn’t just bread and wine anymore, it’s Jesus Christ. This is why Catholics genuflect (bow on one knee) before the tabernacle in a Church sanctuary and make other acts of reverence toward the consecrated host when in its presence. Being in the presence of consecrated bread and wine is being in the presence of God himself and, if one is receptive to him, can be like receiving a small foretaste of heaven.
Then, in a procedure logistically similar to the symbolic communion practiced in many Protestant churches, the people receive the bread either alone or with the wine. Unlike Protestant communion though, the Eucharist can only be received by Catholics. This is not to exclude our Protestant brethren, but rather a recognition that one must fully understand what the Eucharist is and be in a worthy state to receive Christ Himself. Even Catholics are expected to refrain from receiving the Eucharist if they are living in a state of mortal sin, and must right themselves (through true contrition and reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation [Confession]) before uniting with Christ in such an intimate way. St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:29, “For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.”
This is all quite difficult to comprehend, especially for those of us who were taught very differently in our Protestant communities. This ‘symbolic communion’ (or lack of communion altogether) is surprising, since one would think that ‘scripture alone’ Protestant denominations would take Jesus at his word—this is my body; this is my blood; do this in memory of me. Throughout Acts and the Epistles, never once is the doctrine of the real presence contradicted and, on the contrary, St. Paul keeps reiterating the doctrine of the real presence and the importance of communion throughout his letters (see the verse from 1 Corinthians I just referenced as a fine example). In addition, Eucharistic miracles have occurred many times over the Church’s history to continually reinforce this truth. Too many Christians, even many in the Catholic church, have disengaged themselves from the truth of his sacrifice and the re-presentation of that sacrifice offered by the Church in the Eucharist.
Melissa and I received our first Eucharist after we came into the Church at the Easter Vigil. Even that day, having reconciled myself with virtually all of the Church’s doctrine and teaching (and having already received the Sacrament of Reconciliation for my own sinful past), I still had that nagging, rational side of my brain that didn’t fully believe that the bread and wine was anything but bread and wine. I believed in the real presence, in large part, simply because I believed that the Church wouldn’t lead me wrong. I suppose that’s not the best reason to believe in real presence, but it’s better than nothing. That day I received the Sacrament of Confirmation and entered into full communion with the Catholic Church. Shortly thereafter, I nervously approached the altar and received the body and blood of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.
As a rational thinker, I was—and remain—at a loss to explain the reception of the sacraments, but I can tell you it’s not just empty ceremony. They’re something special and important. As I was anointed with chrism (oil) in my Confirmation, I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit. When I received the Eucharist that day and on most Sundays since, I felt the presence of Jesus Christ. I wish I could explain it better, but those small, nagging doubts quickly dissolved; they found themselves facing off against the real presence of God.
The Eucharist has been on my mind lately, as Melissa and I have been slowly becoming more intimately connected with the life of our new church and the greater vibrancy of the Catholic faith.
St. Veronica Church, our home parish, has recently established a Eucharistic Adoration Chapel. In the chapel, which is much smaller and more cozy than the main sanctuary, the consecrated host is displayed in a ‘monstrance’ (a golden cross with a compartment in the middle to store the host and display it through glass on the front). Adorers come to pray, meditate, or simply spend some time there with the Lord. Jesus cannot be left alone in the chapel, so for most of the week one or more adorers are present. Scheduled adorers have responsibility to be present at the chapel for one set hour per week, and the chapel is occupied for every hour (day and night) from about 9:30 Monday morning to about 8:30 Saturday morning. The one-hour responsibility is reminiscent of Matthew 26:36-40, when Jesus was going through the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and asked his disciples to keep watch . . . they could not stay awake for even one hour.
Melissa and I have volunteered to ‘keep watch’ for one hour each week, and it’s a great opportunity to spend some time with the Lord and pray. In our hustle-bustle world, especially in urbanized regions like Northern Virginia, it’s quite pleasant to have a scheduled hour of silent, reflective prayer.
In addition, we had a new experience on Sunday at Mass. We were asked before Mass began if we would be willing to bring forth the gifts, and we accepted the invitation. As the Liturgy of the Word finishes and the Liturgy of the Eucharist begins, the bread and wine are brought forward by members of the congregation:
It is desirable that the participation of the faithful be expressed by members of the congregation bringing up the bread and wine for the celebration of the Eucharist or other gifts for the needs of the Church and the poor. – Rubric from ‘Ordo Missae Cum Populo’ (Order of Mass with a Congregation)
It seems like such a small, inconsequential thing—and, in the grand scheme of things, it is. It is the Priest who has the solemn responsibility of acting ‘in persona Christi’ (in the person of Christ) and consecrating the host. All we did was sneak to the back of the sanctuary during the offering, pick up the un-consecrated bread and wine, and walk up at the right moment to hand them to Fr. Hathaway. But it felt good to offer something more than my prayers and attention, even if it was just the small effort of walking some bread and wine to the front of the church so that it could soon become the body and blood of Christ.
“As a man must be born before he can begin to lead his physical life, so he must be born to lead a Divine Life. That birth occurs in the Sacrament of Baptism. To survive, he must be nourished by Divine Life; that is done in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.” – Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen