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On the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ 2004, the pope announced a Year of the Eucharist. Eucharist: Jesus With Us examines the function of the prayers and actions of the Mass, provides a fresh look at the Eucharist and explores the ways Catholics understand and talk about this central mystery of the Catholic faith.

Eucharist: Jesus With Us

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Communion With the Lord & the Church

by Father Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., S.T.D.

In my experience, the Communion Rite—which begins with the Lord’s Prayer and ends with the Prayer After Communion—is one part of the Mass that has not changed at all. Yet, in another sense, it has changed very much!

I still remember that Sunday morning in Wichita, Kansas, in the 1940s when I received Holy Communion for the first time. From that day until this, Holy Communion has been a climactic moment in the eucharistic celebration for me. It always was and still is a time of prayer and intimate union with Christ. This has not changed. But there are elements of the Communion Rite that have changed a lot over the decades.


External, internal changes

When I compare my experience of the Communion Rite today with my first Holy Communion, I find that there are several observable, external changes in the ritual. I can name at least six: (1) We can receive Communion in the hand rather than on the tongue. (2) We receive standing up rather than kneeling down. (3) We can receive both the Bread and from the Cup. Formerly we were only permitted to receive the host. (4) Today the majority of Catholics attending Mass receive Holy Communion. As a child, my mother took me to Mass every day, and I received Holy Communion daily. But not everyone at Mass went to Communion in those days. (5) We now see non-ordained ministers distributing Communion. When I received my first Holy Communion, only the priest (or deacon) was permitted to touch the host and distribute the Eucharist. (6) And today in many churches the host is larger and thicker than when I received my first Holy Communion. The current General Instruction of the Roman Missal directs that “the material for the eucharistic celebration truly have the appearance of food” (#321).

Those of you reading this article who do not remember the Communion Rite before the 1969 revision of the Mass probably don’t notice these changes because for you today’s Communion Rite looks much like it always has. But for Catholics my age and older, these changes are “new.” Some of us welcomed them; others were less than happy.

I could take each of these changes and explain their purpose and function. But rather than discuss these observable, external changes in the Communion Rite, I think that it might be more productive for us to look at some changes that might not be visible at all. I want to consider three internal changes in the way we think about the Eucharist and understand what it is we are doing during the Communion Rite.

How would you answer these questions?

1) When you think about Holy Communion at Mass do you think in terms of “receiving Holy Communion” or do you think in terms of “sharing a sacred meal”?

2) Do you think first about the physical and spiritual implications of the act of eating the host, or do you also think of the symbolic and sacramental dimensions of the action?

3) How do you imagine or picture Christ present at the Eucharist?

Receiving Communion/
Sharing the Lord’s Supper

1) Do you experience Holy Communion as a private, individual act (receiving Holy Communion) or as a communal act done with the other members of the worshiping community (sharing a sacred meal)?

I must admit that for most of my life I thought of Holy Communion primarily as a private act. Communion was the moment when I received Jesus into my heart. It was a moment of intense personal and private prayer. But there is a problem here.

If I am to have a personal encounter with the risen Lord in Holy Communion, by inference that encounter would also be private and individual. Yet we know that the liturgy is not a private prayer but a communal action—even though it is at the same time personal. The liturgy—and Holy Communion—is a personal-communal act.

Some years ago, a statement by the United States bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy reminded us that our American “cultural emphasis on individuality and competition has made it more difficult for us to appreciate the liturgy as a personal-communal experience. As a consequence, we tend to identify anything private and individual as ‘personal.’ But, by inference, anything communal and social is considered impersonal. For the sake of good liturgy, this misconception must be changed” (Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, #16).

My experience of Holy Communion has shifted from an individual and private act to an action that is communal and public—while still remaining intensely personal. One of the ways I express the community dimension of this sacred action is by joining my voice in song with the voices of the others with whom I am sharing the Eucharist. We join our voices in a hymn and express common sentiments of devotion. We unite our minds and hearts in common prayer. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says that the purpose of the Communion chant “is to express the communicants’ union in spirit by means of the unity of their voices” (#86).

For me, singing during Communion time used to be a distraction from my individual, private prayer. Now I see singing as an expression of the personal-communal dimension of the Communion Rite.

A symbolic, sacramental action

2) When you think about the meaning of Holy Communion, do you think first in terms of receiving the consecrated bread or do you also consider the symbolic dimensions of the action?

For many years, my attention was focused primarily on the implications of receiving the host. I was taught that ordinarily when I eat something, my body changes the thing eaten into my living body. But when I receive the Body of Christ in Holy Communion, the very opposite happens: I am changed into Christ’s Body. At the Eucharist, in a very profound and unexpected way, the familiar saying is true: You are what you eat!

While this way of thinking is correct—and open to rich spiritual insight—in the past I did not always consider the wider symbolic and sacramental aspects of Holy Communion. Here again we are shaped and formed by our American culture. The document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship points out that “a culture which is oriented to efficiency and production has made us insensitive to the symbolic function of persons and things” (#16).

For example, if I am simply thinking in terms of efficiency, I know that Christ is contained whole and entire—Body and Blood—under the appearances of even the smallest piece of consecrated bread. There is no need to have a larger host, or bread that has “the appearance of food.” There is no need to receive “under both kinds”—that is, both to eat and to drink.

It is only when I consider the importance of the symbolic, sacramental nature of the ritual action that I begin to see the significance of drinking from the Cup. At my daily “ordinary” meals I both eat and drink. The current directives for Mass state: “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…” (GIRM, #281, italics added). Regarding the eucharistic Bread: “The meaning of the sign demands that the material for the eucharistic celebration truly have the appearance of food” (GIRM, #321, italics added).

On Holy Thursday, when we recall the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist, we pray: “As we eat his Body…we grow in strength. As we drink his Blood which he poured out for us, we are washed clean” (Preface for Holy Thursday). When we share the Bread, we become his Body. When we drink his Blood, we give the sign of how we become his Body—by pouring out our lifeblood in generous love, even as Christ did.

Flesh of the Church, Flesh of Christ

3) How do you imagine or picture Christ present at the Eucharist?

I am not sure why I picture the historical Jesus of Nazareth the way that I do. But if I close my eyes and try to picture Jesus, he looks a lot like the Sacred Heart statue that stood by the side altar of St. Anthony Church where I worshiped as a child. Of course, I know he didn’t actually look like that; it is improbable that Jesus had blond hair, blue eyes and Germanic features.

But the important thing to remember is that Jesus of Nazareth has passed through death and is now the risen Christ. “Christ’s Resurrection was not a return to earthly life…In his risen body he passes from the state of death to another life beyond time and space” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #646).

St. Paul’s first experience of the risen Christ is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles (9:3-5): “Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, sir?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’”

Paul’s insight was that the Christian is so united to Christ that what we do to one another we do to Christ himself. The early Church remembered that Jesus had promised “a mysterious and real communion between his own body and ours” (CCC, #787).

It is this “real communion” with the body of the risen Lord that led St. Augustine to give this explanation of the Eucharist: “If then you are the Body of Christ and his members, it is your sacrament that reposes on the altar of the Lord….Be what you see and receive what you are” (Sermon 272). “There you are on the table and there you are in the chalice” (Sermon 229).

Three ritual actions

When you imagine the risen Christ, does the image include his Body, the Church?

The petition of the Eucharistic Prayer at every Mass asks God to change us into the Body of Christ: “by your Holy Spirit, gather all who share this one Bread and one Cup into the one Body of Christ” (Eucharistic Prayer IV). As we move from the Eucharistic Prayer to the Communion Rite, we reinforce that petition through three ritual actions:

1) We pray the Lord’s Prayer and ask the Father to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We pray that we might be able to forgive all those who have in any way injured us so that nothing can divide the Body of Christ, and we ask pardon of all whom we have injured.

2) We offer a sign of forgiveness and reconciliation—the Sign of Peace. The meaning of “peace” is found in the Hebrew word shalom which means “wholeness.” The Kiss of Peace is our promise that all brokenness and division are to be healed.

3) We come forward to share in the Lord’s banquet, conscious of the deep religious tradition that sharing a meal with someone is a sign of forgiveness and reconciliation.

In the Communion Rite, the petition of the Eucharistic Prayer is accomplished: We who eat and drink his Body and Blood are transformed into that Body. We become Christ’s presence in the world. We are commissioned to go forth to continue the mission of Christ to reconcile all things to his Father. And this brings us to the fourth and final movement of the Mass, the Commissioning Rite—the subject of our next newsletter.

Next: Source and Summit of Catholic Life


Question Corner

• What changes in the way we receive Communion, if any, have been made since your first Holy Communion? What do these changes say about how we as a Church think about the Eucharist?

• How much do the pre-Vatican II liturgy and the American emphasis on individuality play in the difficulty some Catholics have in embracing the celebration of the Mass as personal-communal?

• How can you better express your desire for unity in the Body of Christ through the rituals of the Communion Rite—Lord’s Prayer, Sign of Peace, Communion Procession?




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