This is the second in a multipart series on the sacraments by John Alonzo Dick, professor emeritus of historical theology at the Catholic University of Leuven. We conceive of this series as a kind of seminar or “retreat in writing” that aims to give an historical, pastoral, and theological overview of the sacraments and how our understanding of them continues to evolve. A general introduction to the series is available here. Part I, on baptism and confirmation, is available here—Ed.
Jesus of Nazareth was a charismatic individual and a living symbol of salvation. To the poor he promised relief. To the sorrowing he gave reasons for joy. To the blind he gave sight. And to the discouraged he brought good news. The ultimate symbol of salvation was Jesus’s resurrection. Raised from the dead he became the great affirmative sign that people who lived in God had nothing to fear about death.
We can truly say that the first phase of Christian sacramentality was the primordial sacramentality of Jesus the Christ. My greatly respected professor Edward Schillebeeckx (1914–2009) stressed this in his lectures and in his 1987 book, Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God.
An important phase in Christian sacramentality after Jesus’s death and resurrection was the communal sacramentality found in small and scattered first-century Christian communities. They met regularly to give thanks in his memory.
The word eucharist comes from the Greek verb eucharistein, meaning “to give thanks.” At Jesus’s Last Supper, he gave thanks, giving special significance to the bread and wine he passed to his male and female disciples. Bread and wine had long been used in Hebrew religious practices. When Jesus said the bread and wine were his body and blood, he was speaking about giving his life for his followers.
Paul refers to the Christian practice of the Lord’s Supper in First Corinthians, chapter 11. The Acts of the Apostles mentions three occasions when the early followers of Jesus gathered to give thanks and break bread together (cf. Acts 2:42, 20:7, and 27:35). The eucharistic service was presided over by leaders of the local Christian community who were the heads of households. Leaders were men and women. Ordination was not yet a requirement for eucharistic leaders—something worth remembering as we face a shortage of ordained ministers today.
Early Christians understood, much better than the medieval Christians who would come centuries after them, that social realities can be powerful spiritual realities. For them the Body of Christ, as Paul stressed, was the Christian community. The Gospel according to Matthew is very clear: Jesus says “Where two or three gather together in my name, there am I with them” (Matt. 18:20).
Interestingly, when the Gospel according to John describes the Last Supper, it mentions the washing of feet but not Jesus’s actions with bread and wine. Nevertheless, John is very strong in his affirmation of the presence of Christ in the community. Jesus says, “Father, just as you are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity” (John 17:20–26).
By the late first and early second century, the weekly ceremonial meal of the Christian communities was called a “thanksgiving” (eucharistia). They recalled the words of Paul to the Corinthians: “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:23–24).
A Palestinian Christian leader named Justin (c. 100–c. 165) argued that the Christian Eucharist had replaced Hebrew sacrifices. Justin took a text from Malachi, the last book of the Hebrew Bible, and applied it to Christians in his own days: “Everywhere a pure sacrifice is offered to my name because my name is great among the nations, says the Lord almighty” (Malachi 1:11).
A “pure sacrifice” in the ancient world was a religious meal, shared by individuals who were ritually pure. Some of the food was offered to a god, some was offered to the temple priests, and the rest was consumed by the attendees. Centuries later, when the full meal had evolved into a symbolic meal of bread and wine, the concept of sacrifice was still applied to Christian worship. But the meaning had shifted. Instead of putting emphasis on the sacred meal, it was put on the sacred food.
The sacred food, in the minds of medieval Christians, who had little or no knowledge of the Hebrew tradition, was the body and blood of Christ. The ritual performed by priests was understood as a sacrifice. But this was no longer understood as a sacred meal, but as Jesus’s death, as a sacrificial offering of God’s Son to God his Father.
Using this mistaken understanding of sacrifice, medieval theologians misinterpreted Justin’s quotation from Malachi. For them, Jesus, who was sinless, was taken to be the pure sacrifice spoken of by the prophet. This newly created theological perspective was greatly promoted by Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109) with his satisfaction theory of atonement. Frankly, Anselm created a theological distortion with his understanding of God not as a loving Father but as a hard-nosed, vengeful, and judgmental monster, demanding the death of his own son.
In reality, the eucharistic celebration is not a sacrifice in either Justin’s understanding or Anselm’s, even though Catholics would speak about “the holy sacrifice of the Mass” during the 16th-century Tridentine era and up to the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
The disappearance of the communal meal in Christian worship was gradual. One reason for its discontinuance may have been the kinds of excesses as found in Corinth, where some people became drunk and disorderly. More likely, however, the growth in the size of the Christian communities simply made it impractical.
We find the most complete descriptions of early eucharistic worship in The Apostolic Tradition, a work attributed to Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170–c. 235) and in the writings of Tertullian (c. 155–c. 220), the North African theologian often called the founder of Western theology.
Tertullian mentioned that Christians met for the Eucharist before dawn on Sundays as well as other days. He noted as well that those who wished could take the eucharistic bread home to share with others and to eat before their own meals.
During the first three centuries, therefore, the form of Christian worship evolved from a communal meal to a ritual meal, with prayers in the general style of the earlier Hebrew thanksgiving, but with no set words except those used by the historical Jesus at his Last Supper.
Fourth through Sixth Centuries
Between the fourth and sixth centuries, Christian eucharistic worship evolved from a comparatively brief and simple ritual into a richly elaborate ceremonial liturgy. The change in Christian worship also led to a change in the way people spoke about it. When the communal meal was dropped, the words offering and liturgy became more common names for the ritual action.
Noteworthy is that the word eucharist was not used for the ritual act of thanksgiving but for the sacred elements of bread and wine. The word liturgy came from a Greek word that originally referred to any work or service done for the common welfare.
The sixth century brought another change in language. The eucharistic liturgy was now called “Mass” or “Missa.” The English noun Mass is derived from the Latin missa. The origins of the term missa probably come from the dismissal at the end of the service, when the priest said, “Ite, missa est,” meaning, “Go, the dismissal is made.”
The most significant sixth-century change, however, was the start of the private Mass. Eucharistic worship during the first Christian centuries had been a community experience. Now, however, the practice of the private Mass, offered by a single priest with no attending congregation, became more common. It started first in monasteries, because many monasteries had a large number of priests. Not all of them could easily gather around the chapel altar to celebrate together. Those who wanted to offer Mass daily began to do so privately.
In churches and cathedrals, side altars were added for offering private Masses. Some priests, for payment, said many private Masses in the course of a day to pray for the spiritual well-being of their benefactors.
By the thirteenth century the Mass that had once been a communal prayer was now a clerical ritual separated from the congregation by barriers of language and architecture. The Mass was in Latin, which most people did not understand, including many poorly educated priests who had simply memorized the key prayers. The main altar was now far removed from the congregation, often separated by an ornamental wall with just a small opening into what had become the clerical sanctuary. When the people in the church became too noisy and disturbed the clergy, bells were rung for a bit of “crowd control.”
A shift in theology underlined this linguistic and architectural change. Instead of celebrating the Christian mysteries, the liturgy itself had become a mystery. The greatest mystery, of course, was how the bread and wine became the body and blood of Christ. Theologians said it was linked with priestly power and the priest’s recitation of the Latin words for consecrating the bread and wine. The phrase Hoc est corpus meum (“This is my body”) was seen as a kind of religious alchemy. (In fact, the first three words evolved into the formula used by magicians: “hocus pocus.”)
Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) noted significantly that the Eucharist was different from the other sacraments because it was not just a sacred ritual action but a sacred object, made possible by the priest’s sacramental power given through ordination. Medievalists believed that Jesus had given that power to his male apostles at the Last Supper, and that it had been handed down from them, via ordination, to contemporary priests through “apostolic succession.”
The presence of Christ in the Eucharist was a result of Christ’s “real presence” in the sacrament under the appearance of bread and wine. Popular piety began to shift more and more toward the adoration of the eucharistic bread, the “host.” Among other things, the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) decided that it was not necessary for Christians to receive communion regularly. The Blessed Sacrament (the name given to the consecrated bread), however, was to be adored.
As a natural development, the feast of Corpus Christi (“Body of Christ”), with strong support from Thomas Aquinas, was established in 1264 by Pope Urban IV (1195–1264) shortly before his death. The worship of the consecrated host greatly expanded into the public adoration of the sacrament exposed on the altar. Stories about bleeding hosts and apparitions of Christ in the consecrated host were widespread. Superstitious beliefs about the host’s ability to effect cures and ward off evil were commonplace.
Indeed, by the end of the Middle Ages, the Mass had been transformed from an act of public worship into a clerical prayer focused on adoration of the consecrated bread.
The Counter-Reformation Council of Trent
Protestant reformers reacted to many eucharistic aberrations. The variety of Protestant teachings about the Eucharist forced the bishops at the Council of Trent (1545–1563) to rethink the meaning of the sacrament and to come up with a unified Catholic position.
The Council of Trent produced three documents on the Eucharist, based on Aristotelian scholastic theology. The bishops declared that “Our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and man, is truly, really and substantially contained under the appearances of bread and wine.” This presence, due to “transubstantiation,” was based on medieval Aristotelian metaphysics. It was understood as “the real presence,” localized in the sacramental bread, and not just a spiritual presence. The bishops at Trent believed that this understanding of the Eucharist had always been the understanding and the doctrine of the church, going back to the historical Jesus.
Thanks to Trent, tabernacles that had once been rather small containers for consecrated hosts became magnificent receptacles for the Blessed Sacrament, with a burning candle in front of them. They became the focal point of eucharistic piety—a eucharistic piety almost entirely divorced from the liturgy.
Liturgy and Eucharist in the Twentieth Century
As my friend Joseph Martos, who died on March 24, 2020, so often observed, the Catholic Church officially still recognizes the doctrines of the Council of Trent, but contemporary Catholicism is quietly laying them aside.
Most contemporary Catholic theologians no longer speak about the Mass as a sacrifice. Few urge special devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. The term transubstantiation is virtually unknown to younger Catholics. Even the word Mass, though still in popular use, is disappearing from the professional vocabulary of Catholic theologians and liturgists.
Yet conservative Catholics agree with the former Pope, Benedict XVI, and his desire to return to the good old days. Many contemporary U.S. Catholic bishops, I fear, resonate with him. They were very upset by a Pew Forum study, issued in August 2019, that showed that 69 percent of all self-identified U.S. Catholics believe the bread and wine consecrated at Mass are only “symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” The other 31 percent believe in the “real presence of Christ” in the Eucharist, via transubstantiation.
Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles reacted to the study on Twitter:
It's hard to describe how angry I feel after reading what the latest @pewresearch study reveals about understanding of the Eucharist among Catholics.— Bishop Robert Barron (@BishopBarron) August 6, 2019
This should be a wake-up call to all of us in the Church.
Watch this video for more…https://t.co/wQUcoBvqHZ
During their November 2021 annual meeting, the U.S. Catholic bishops voted overwhelmingly to launch a three-year “eucharistic revival” initiative that will culminate in a National Eucharistic Congress in 2024. The bishops intend to set up a nonprofit organization to handle logistics and to raise $28 million over the next two years to hold the event in Indianapolis, Indiana.
I would suggest that although later Christians came to believe that Jesus brought about a metaphysical change in the bread and wine at the Last Supper, and that priests have the power to produce the same metaphysical change in bread and wine, it is very unlikely that Jesus or his early disciples were ever thinking in these terms. And there were no ordinations at the Last Supper. They did not exist in the days of Jesus.
Contemporary Currents in Catholic Eucharistic Theology
Catholic theologians today prefer to speak of the Mass as the “eucharistic liturgy.” They have a keen understanding of symbolic rituals. They understand sacraments as ritual actions of words and gestures, which embody and reveal not only human realities but also divine realities.
At his Last Supper, Jesus changed the meaning of a common Hebrew ritual to a memorial of his own death and resurrection. He changed the meaning of the bread and wine from what they signified for the Hebrew people to a sacrament of his body and blood. Just as the Word of God is present in the reading of sacred scripture at each liturgy, Christ is also present sacramentally in the bread and wine that are offered to God in praise and thanksgiving and are distributed to the community as signs of spiritual communion with him. As Paul the Apostle said, Christians are the Body of Christ, and so by sharing in the Eucharist they both affirm and become what they are.
The eucharistic celebration is a prayerful action of a Christian community, gathered as the Body of Christ in remembrance of Jesus’s death and Resurrection, in which the community continues to participate in and with the presence of Christ. The worshiping Christian community, the Body of Christ, makes it possible for Christ to be present in the proclaiming of God’s word in the scriptures, in the thanksgiving that it offers to God, in the remembrance of Jesus’ Last Supper, and in the giving and receiving of the eucharistic bread and wine.
If we believe the Christian community gathered for Eucharist is the Body of Christ, it is not enough to just believe it. We must also live it by practicing love of God and love of neighbor as outlined in the Sermon on the Mount.
We recall the words of Jesus in the Gospel According to John: “I am the vine and you are the branches. The one who remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing” (John 16:5). Indeed, living as a member of the Body of Christ is often much more of a challenge than simply believing in it.
Our Christian faith is not a relic of the past. It is a life-giving program for today and for tomorrow. We are called to be in dialogue with the times and the world in which we live, faithful to the word of God, striving to harmonize life and faith. ♦
John Alonzo Dick is a retired professor of historical theology at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven). He holds licentiates in historical theology from the University of Nijmegen and KU Leuven, and doctorates in religious studies and historical theology from KU Leuven. For 30 years he taught courses about religion and values in American society at KU Leuven and the University of Ghent. He is the author of The Malines Conversations Revisited (1989), From Malines to ARCIC (1997) with A. Denaux, and Aggiornamento?: Catholicism from Gregory XVI to Benedict XVI (2013) with J. Mettepenningen and K. Schelkens. This year he published Jean Jadot: Paul’s Man in Washington. He maintains a weekly blog at foranothervoice.com.