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The Last Supper as represented by Leonardo da Vinci

Eucharist in the Catholic Church refers to both the celebration of the Mass, that is the Eucharistic Liturgy, and the consecrated bread and wine which according to the faith become the body and blood of Christ. Blessed Sacrament is a devotional term used in the Roman Catholic Church to refer to the Eucharistic species (the Body and Blood of Christ).

Scriptural foundations

Part of the series on

also known as
"The Eucharist" or
"The Lord's Supper"


Words of Institution
Real Presence
Sacramental union

Theologies contrasted
Eucharist (Catholic Church)
Anglican Eucharistic theology

Important theologians
Paul ·Aquinas
Augustine · Calvin
Chrysostom · Cranmer
Luther · Zwingli

Related Articles
Christianity and alcohol
Catholic Historic Roots
Closed and Open Table
Divine Liturgy
Eucharistic adoration
Eucharistic discipline
First Communion
Infant Communion
Mass · Sacrament

The Breaking of Bread (Fractio panis) at the Eucharist[1]

The Catholic Church sees as the main basis for this belief the words of Jesus himself at his Last Supper: the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20) and Saint Paul's 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 recount that in that context Jesus said of what to all appearances were bread and wine: "This is my body … this is my blood." The Catholic understanding of these words, from the Patristic authors onward, has emphasized their roots in the covenantal history of the Old Testament. The interpretation of Christ's words against this Old Testament background coheres with and supports belief in the Real Presence.[2]

Many, but not all, Protestants tend to interpret this symbolically rather than literally, especially those of Calvinist theological views. They see "This is my body" as parallel with "I am the true vine" (John 15:1) or "I am the door of the sheepfold" (John 10:9), whose meaning is symbolic. The doctrine of a symbolic Eucharist was more expressly propounded by the 16th-century Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli. But all the ancient Churches of the East (the Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodoxy, and the Assyrian Church of the East) believe, as the Catholic Church does, that in the Eucharist the bread and wine do become the body and blood of Christ.

The Gospel of John in Chapter 6, The Discourse on the Bread of Life, presents Jesus as saying: "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you... Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him" (John 6:53-56). According to John, Jesus did not tone down these sayings, even when many of his disciples abandoned him (6:66), shocked at the idea.

Saint Paul implied an identity between the apparent bread and wine of the Eucharist and the body and blood of Christ, when he wrote: "Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 11:27).

Historical development

Virgin Mary by the Host, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.

Pope Benedict XVI celebrates the Eucharist at the canonization of Frei Galvão in São Paulo, Brazil on 11 May 2007

See also: Historical roots of Catholic Eucharistic theology

Early Christianity observed a ritual meal known as the "agape feast" held on Sundays which became known as the Day of the Lord, to recall the resurrection, the appearance of Christ to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the appearance to Thomas and the Pentecost which all took place on Sundays after the Passion. Jude, and the apostle Paul referred to these as "your love-feasts", by way of warning (about "who shows up" to these). Agape is one of the Greek words for love, and refers to the "divine" type of love, rather than mere human forms of love. This preceding form of the service apparently was a full meal, with each participant bringing food, and with the meal eaten in a common room. Following the agapè meal, as at the Last Supper, the apostle, bishop or priest prayed several prayers in combination with the words of institution over bread and wine placed on a specially made and cleaned altar table; after which the Communion was received from their hands by all the faithful present. In the later half of the first century, especially after the martyrdom of Peter and Paul, passages from the writings of the apostles were read and preached upon before the consecration of the bread and wine took place. Justin the Martyr records that, in his time, the rituals already were closely described.

These meals and subsequent Eucharistic rituals evolved into more formal worship services, which became known as the Mass in the West and as the Divine Liturgy in the East.

The word Eucharist is from the Greek word eucharistia, which means thanksgiving. Catholics typically restrict the term 'communion' to the reception of the Body and Blood of Christ by the communicants during the celebration of the Mass and to the communion of saints in which receiving the Eucharist comes fully present.

In about 106, Saint Ignatius of Antioch criticized those who "abstain from the Eucharist and the public prayer, because they will not admit that the Eucharist is the self-same Body of our Savior Jesus Christ, which [flesh] suffered for our sins, and which the Father in His goodness raised up again" (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 6, 7). Similarly, St. Ambrose of Milan countered objections to the doctrine, writing "You may perhaps say: 'My bread is ordinary.' But that bread is bread before the words of the Sacraments; where the consecration has entered in, the bread becomes the Flesh of Christ" (The Sacraments, 333/339-397 A.D. v.2,1339,1340).

The earliest known use, in about 1079, of the term "transubstantiation" to describe the change from bread and wine to body and blood of Christ was by Hildebert de Savardin, Archbishop of Tours (died 1133). This was long before the Latin West, under the influence especially of Saint Thomas Aquinas (c. 1227-1274), accepted Aristotelianism. (The University of Paris was founded only between 1150 and 1170.)

In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council used the word transubstantiated in its profession of faith, when speaking of the change that takes place in the Eucharist.

In 1551 the Council of Trent officially defined that "by the consecration of the bread and of the wine, a conversion is made of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of His blood; which conversion is, by the holy Catholic Church, suitably and properly called Transubstantiation." (Session XIII, chapter IV; cf. canon II).

The attempt by some twentieth-century Catholic theologians to present the Eucharistic change as an alteration of significance (transignification rather than transubstantiation) was rejected by Pope Paul VI in his 1965 encyclical letter Mysterium fidei In his 1968 Credo of the People of God, he reiterated that any theological explanation of the doctrine must hold to the twofold claim that, after the consecration, 1) Christ's body and blood are really present; and 2) bread and wine are really absent; and this presence and absence is real and not merely something in the mind of the believer.

Eucharistic Liturgy

Medieval Mass

Eucharistic liturgy and Mass are the terms used to describe celebration of the Eucharist in the Western or Latin liturgical rite of the Catholic Church. The term Mass is derived from the Late Latin word missa (dismissal), a word used in the concluding formula of Mass in Latin: "Ite, missa est" ("Go, the dismissal is made")[3]

For the structure of the Mass in the Roman Rite of the Church, see Mass (Catholic Church)
For the structure of the Mass in the Eastern Catholic Churches, see Divine Liturgy
For the reforms of the Roman-Rite Mass after the Second Vatican Council, see Mass of Paul VI
For the structure of the Mass before the Second Vatican Council, see Tridentine Mass.


Mass at the Grotto at Lourdes. The chalice is displayed to the people immediately after the consecration of the wine.

According to the Catholic Church, when the bread and wine are consecrated in the Eucharist, they cease to be bread and wine, and become instead the Most Precious Body and Blood of Christ. The empirical appearances are not changed, but the reality is. The consecration of the bread (known as the host) and wine represents the separation of Jesus's body from his blood at Calvary. However, since he has risen, the Church teaches that his body and blood can no longer be truly separated. Where one is, the other must be. Therefore, although the priest (or minister) says, "The body of Christ", when administering the host, and, "The blood of Christ", when presenting the chalice, the communicant who receives either one receives Christ, whole and entire.

Transubstantiation (from Latin transsubstantiatio) is the change of the substance of bread and wine into that of the body and blood of Christ, the change that according to the belief of the Roman Catholic Church occurs in the Eucharist. It concerns what is changed (the substance of the bread and wine), not how the change is brought about.

"Substance" here means what something is in itself. (For more on the philosophical concept, see Substance theory.) A hat's shape is not the hat itself, nor is its colour the hat, nor is its size, nor its softness to the touch, nor anything else about it perceptible to the senses. The hat itself (the "substance") has the shape, the colour, the size, the softness and the other appearances, but is distinct from them. Whereas the appearances, which are referred to by the philosophical term accidents are perceptible to the senses, the substance is not.

When at his Last Supper Jesus said: "This is my body", what he held in his hands had all the appearances of bread. However, the Roman Catholic Church believes that the underlying reality was changed in accordance with what Jesus said, that the "substance" of the bread was converted to that of his body. In other words, it actually was his body, while all the appearances open to the senses or to scientific investigation were still those of bread, exactly as before. The Church believes that the same change of the substance of the bread and of the wine occurs at every celebration of the Eucharist.

The bread is changed in the Eucharist into Jesus' body, but, because Jesus, risen from the dead, is living, not only his body is present, but Jesus as a whole, body and blood, soul and divinity. The same holds for the wine changed into his blood.

The Roman Catholic Church accordingly believes that through transubstantiation Christ is really, truly and substantially present under the remaining appearances of bread and wine, and that the transformation remains as long as the appearances remain. For this reason the consecrated elements are preserved, generally in a church tabernacle, for giving holy communion to the sick and dying, and also for the secondary, but still highly prized, purpose of adoring Christ present in the Eucharist.

In the judgement of the Roman Catholic Church, the concept of transubstantiation, with its accompanying unambiguous distinction between "substance" or underlying reality, and "accidents" or humanly perceptible appearances, safeguards against what it sees as the mutually opposed errors of, on the one hand, a merely figurative understanding of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (the change of the substance is real), and, on the other hand, an interpretation that would amount to cannibalistic (a charge which pagans leveled at early Christians who did not understand the rites of the Catholic Church in that it was considered an unbloody sacrifice) eating of the flesh and corporal drinking of the blood of Christ (the accidents that remain are real, not an illusion) and that Christ is "really, truly, and substantially present" in the Eucharist,[4] not physically present, as he was physically present in the Palestine of two millennia ago).[5]

Some put forward the idea that transubstantation is a concept intelligible only in terms of Aristotelian philosophy. But the earliest known use of the term "transubstantiation" to describe the change from bread and wine to body and blood of Christ was by Hildebert de Savardin, Archbishop of Tours (died 1133) in about 1079, long before the Latin West, under the influence especially of Saint Thomas Aquinas (c. 1227-1274), accepted Aristotelianism. (The University of Paris was founded only between 1150 and 1170.) The term "substance" (substantia) as the reality of something was in use from the earliest centuries of Latin Christianity, as when they spoke of the Son as being of the same "substance" (consubstantialis) as the Father.[6] The corresponding Greek term is "οὐσία" the Son is said to be "ὁμοούσιος" with the Father and the change of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ is called "μετουσίωσις". The doctrine of transubstantiation is thus independent of Aristotelian philosophical concepts, and these have not been canonized by the Church.


In his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia of 17 April 2003, Pope John Paul II taught that all authority of bishops and priests is primarily a function of their vocation to celebrate the Eucharist. Their governing authority flows from their priestly function, not the other way around.

Minister of the sacrament

Roman Catholic priest in Sicily distributing the Eucharist to a child at her first Holy Communion

The only minister of the Eucharist (someone who can consecrate the Eucharist) is a validly ordained priest[7] (bishop or presbyter). He acts in the person of Christ, representing Christ, who is the Head of the Church, and also acts before God in the name of the Church.[8] Several priests may concelebrate the same offering of the Eucharist.[9]

Others, who are not priests, may act as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, distributing the sacrament to others, but not as ministers of the Eucharist, ordinary or extraordinary. "By reason of their sacred Ordination, the ordinary ministers of Holy Communion are the Bishop, the Priest and the Deacon, to whom it belongs therefore to administer Holy Communion to the lay members of Christ’s faithful during the celebration of Mass. In addition to the ordinary ministers there is the formally instituted acolyte, who by virtue of his institution is an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion even outside the celebration of Mass. If, moreover, reasons of real necessity prompt it, another lay member of Christ’s faithful may also be delegated by the diocesan Bishop, in accordance with the norm of law, for one occasion or for a specified time. Finally, in special cases of an unforeseen nature, permission can be given for a single occasion by the Priest who presides at the celebration of the Eucharist."[10]

"Extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion" are not to be called "Eucharistic ministers", even extraordinary ones[11]), since that would imply that they, too, somehow transubstantiate the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.

"Extraordinary ministers may distribute Holy Communion at eucharistic celebrations only when there are no ordained ministers present or when those ordained ministers present at a liturgical celebration are truly unable to distribute Holy Communion. They may also exercise this function at eucharistic celebrations where there are particularly large numbers of the faithful and which would be excessively prolonged because of an insufficient number of ordained ministers to distribute Holy Communion."[12] "Only when there is a necessity may extraordinary ministers assist the Priest celebrant in accordance with the norm of law."[13]

Receiving the Eucharist

Ecce Agnus Dei during a Solemn High Tridentine Mass

"A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible."[14]

"A person who is to receive the Most Holy Eucharist is to abstain for at least one hour before holy communion from any food and drink, except for only water and medicine."[15]

Catholics may receive Communion during Mass or outside of Mass, but "a person who has already received the Most Holy Eucharist can receive it a second time on the same day only within the eucharistic celebration in which the person participates", except as Viaticum (Code of Canon Law, canon 917).

In the Western Church, the administration of the Most Holy Eucharist to children requires that they have sufficient knowledge and careful preparation so that they understand the mystery of Christ according to their capacity and are able to receive the body of Christ with faith and devotion.

In the Western Church, "the administration of the Most Holy Eucharist to children requires that they have sufficient knowledge and careful preparation so that they understand the mystery of Christ according to their capacity and are able to receive the body of Christ with faith and devotion. The Most Holy Eucharist, however, can be administered to children in danger of death if they can distinguish the body of Christ from ordinary food and receive communion reverently" (Code of Canon Law, canon 913). In the Eastern Catholic Churches, the Eucharist is administered to infants immediately after Baptism and Confirmation (Chrismation).

Holy Communion may be received under one kind (the Sacred Host alone), or under both kinds (both the Sacred Host and the Precious Blood). "Holy Communion has a fuller form as a sign when it is distributed under both kinds. For in this form the sign of the eucharistic banquet is more clearly evident and clear expression is given to the divine will by which the new and eternal Covenant is ratified in the Blood of the Lord, as also the relationship between the Eucharistic banquet and the eschatological banquet in the Father's Kingdom... (However,) Christ, whole and entire, and the true Sacrament, is received even under only one species, and consequently that as far as the effects are concerned, those who receive under only one species are not deprived of any of the grace that is necessary for salvation" (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 281-282).

"The Diocesan Bishop is given the faculty to permit Communion under both kinds whenever it may seem appropriate to the priest to whom, as its own shepherd, a community has been entrusted, provided that the faithful have been well instructed and there is no danger of profanation of the Sacrament or of the rite's becoming difficult because of the large number of participants or some other reason" (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 283).

In Eastern Catholic Churches the Eucharist is always received under both species (bread and wine), as was done at Mass also in the West until the opposite custom came into use, beginning in about the twelfth century.[16]

With the change from receiving the Eucharist under both kinds to receiving under the form of bread alone, it also became customary in the West to receive the Host placed directly on the tongue, rather than on the hand, but this was prescribed neither by the Roman Missal nor by the Code of Canon Law. Since the late twentieth century many Episcopal Conferences allow communicants (at their personal discretion) to receive the Host on the hand, except when Communion is distributed by intinction (partly dipping the Host in the Chalice before distributing it).

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 118 mentions a "Communion-plate for the Communion of the faithful", distinct from the paten, to prevent the Host or fragments of it falling on the ground.

Matter for the Sacrament

The bread used for the Eucharist must be wheaten only, and recently made, and the wine must be natural, made from grapes, and not corrupt. The bread is unleavened in the Latin, Armenian and Ethiopic Rites, but is leavened in most Eastern Catholic churches. A small quantity of water is added to the wine.[17]

For questions on the use of gluten-free or low-gluten bread and of "mustum" (natural grape juice) see the 24 July 2003 letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which resumes and clarifies earlier declarations.

Nuptial Mass and other Ritual Masses

Holy Communion at a Nuptial Mass

A Nuptial Mass[18] is simply a Mass within which the sacrament of Marriage is celebrated. Other sacraments too are celebrated within Mass. This is necessarily so for the sacrament of Orders, and is normal, though not obligatory, for the sacrament of Confirmation, as well as that of Marriage. Unless the date chosen is that of a major liturgical feast, the prayers are taken from the section of the Roman Missal headed "Ritual Masses". This section has special texts for the celebration, within Mass, of Baptism, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, Orders, and Marriage, leaving Confession (Penance or Reconciliation) as the only sacrament not celebrated within a celebration of the Eucharist. There are also texts for celebrating, within Mass, Religious Profession, the Dedication of a Church and several other rites.

If, of a couple being married in the Catholic Church, one is not a Catholic, the rite of Marriage outside Mass is to be followed. However, if the non-Catholic has been baptized in the name of all three persons of the Trinity (and not only in the name of, say, Jesus, as is the baptismal practice in some branches of Christianity), then, in exceptional cases and provided the bishop of the diocese gives permission, it may be considered suitable to celebrate the Marriage within Mass, except that, according to the general law, Communion is not given to the non-Catholic (Rite of Marriage, 8).

Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction

The Blessed Sacrament is displayed in a procession at the 2005 Diocese of Charlotte Eucharistic Congress.

Exposition of the Eucharist is the display of the consecrated host on an altar in a Monstrance. The rites involving exposition of the Blessed Sacrament are the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and Eucharistic adoration.

Consecrated hosts are kept in a tabernacle after Mass, so that the Blessed Sacrament can be brought to the sick and dying outside the time of Mass. This makes possible also the practice of Eucharistic adoration, worship of Christ present in the Eucharist, whether the sacrament remains enclosed in the tabernacle or is exposed to view in a monstrance.

It is Christ, who becomes present under the appearance of bread and wine during the Mass through the Words of Institution, who is worshipped.[19]

Eastern Catholics other than Maronites usually do not practise this devotion. They normally concentrate only on the primary purpose for which the Eucharist exists, namely reception of Christ's Flesh and Blood.

Two practices recommended by the Popes and the saints are the Thanksgiving after Communion and the Visit to the Blessed Sacrament.


  1. "The meaning of the sign demands that the material for the Eucharistic celebration truly have the appearance of food. It is therefore expedient that the Eucharistic bread, even though unleavened and baked in the traditional shape, be made in such a way that the priest at Mass with a congregation is able in practice to break it into parts for distribution to at least some of the faithful. Small hosts are, however, in no way ruled out when the number of those receiving Holy Communion or other pastoral needs require it. The action of the fraction or breaking of bread, which gave its name to the Eucharist in apostolic times, will bring out more clearly the force and importance of the sign of unity of all in the one bread, and of the sign of charity by the fact that the one bread is distributed among the brothers and sisters" (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 321).
  2. "Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Prophetic Foundations of the Eucharist." Inside the Vatican 16, no. 4 (2008): 102-105.
  3.  "Liturgy of the Mass". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  4. CCC 1374
  5. Cannibalism; cf. Another Letter to an Agnostic
  6. "Substance" continued to be used to mean the reality of something, and there are writings from the ninth century (by Radbertus, Ratramnus and Rabanus Maurus) that use the word to refer to the reality of the Eucharist. "Around the year 860 A.D. (400 yrs before Aquinas), we have the writings of renowned teacher, St. Paschasius Radbertus. A foundling, who became schoolmaster and abbot of Corbie in Picardy, France, he was a voluminous writer, and the author of the first speculative treatise on Transubstantiation (although this Latin word was not invented until the first half of the 13th Century). However, Radbertus did use the word 'substance' in his famous book, On the Body and Blood of the Lord. He taught, echoing the Church fathers, that after the words of Consecration, through the conversion of the substance, there is present on the altar the Eucharistic Body of Christ which is identical with His historical Body. This 9th Century theologian, who was not an Aristotelian (like Aquinas), nor much influenced by philosophy of any kind, used the word 'substance' to mean the reality that makes a thing what it is: so, after Consecration, it is no longer true to say, 'This is bread', but rather, as Jesus said, 'This is my Body'." (Kalberer, Lives of the Saints).
  7. canon 900, CIC 1983
  8. Canon 899, CIC 1983
  9. Canon 902, CIC 1983
  10. Redemptionis Sacramentum, 154-155; cf. also Instruction Ecclesiae de mysterio, article 8
  11. Redemptionis Sacramentum, 156
  12. Instruction Ecclesiae de mysterio, article 8
  13. Redemptionis Sacramentum, 88
  14. Code of Canon Law, canon 916
  15. Code of Canon Law, canon 919 §1
  16.  "Communion under Both Kinds". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  17. Code of Canon Law, canon 924 and 926; cf. Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 707, and General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 319-324.
  18.  "Nuptial Mass". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  19. Dr Samuel Johnson remarked: "Sir, there is no idolatry in the Mass. They believe GOD to be there, and they adore him" (Boswell's Life of Johnson). retrieved 11 May 2007.[1]

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