August 14, 2009

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Basic Catholicism: Liturgy and the Eucharist

John F. Fink(Twenty-seventh in a series)

St. Francis de Sales wrote in his Introduction to the Devout Life, “There is always more benefit and consolation to be derived from the public offices of the Church than from private particular acts. God has ordained that communion in prayer must always be preferred to every form of private prayer.”

The public worship and acts of the Church are what we call its liturgy. It’s the people of God participating together in the work of God. It’s found mainly in the eucharistic sacrifice (the Mass) and the sacraments.

Many men and women converts to Catholicism were first attracted to the Church by its liturgy. They found it more meaningful or more devout than what they found in other faith traditions. That’s because our liturgy includes scriptural readings, homilies, rituals, flowers, candles, vestments, incense, choirs and many other things.

But above all, it has the Eucharist, which is both a sacrifice and a sacred meal.

As a sacrifice, it’s the memorial of Christ’s work of salvation accomplished by his death and resurrection. We believe that it is Christ himself, through the priest celebrating the Mass, who offers the eucharistic sacrifice, and Christ himself, truly present under the appearance of bread and wine, who is offered.

The Church believes that the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice. The same Christ who offered himself in a bloody manner on the cross offers himself in an unbloody manner on the altar.

As a sacred meal, we believe that we receive the body and blood of Jesus, really present under the appearance of bread and wine. When Jesus said, “This is my body” and “This is my blood” during the Last Supper, he meant what he said.

Catholics call the change of bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood “transubstantiation.” It means that the substance of the bread and wine is changed while the appearances (color, composition and shape) remain the same.

Thus, there’s a basic difference between what Catholics believe about the Eucharist and what most Protestants believe. Catholics believe that, when bread and wine are consecrated by a validly ordained Catholic priest, they really and truly become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Although they continue to look and taste like bread and wine, the Council of Trent taught, “the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.”

Admittedly, it takes a lot of faith to believe that. The great 13th-century theologian St. Thomas Aquinas said, “That in this sacrament are the true body of Christ and his true blood is something that cannot be apprehended by the senses, but only by faith, which relies on divine authority.”

This belief is so strong in the Catholic Church that the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The Eucharist is the sum and summary of our faith” (#1327) and, “The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life” (#1324). †

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