Each issue carries an imprimatur from
the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
A Short History
By Alfred McBride, O. Praem.
It is a very human trait to treasure the last words of a dying person. In
the case of Pope John Paul II, his encyclical The Church of the Eucharist, published
in his final year, aptly captures his desire to awaken in the Church a new appreciation
of the Eucharist.
“I have been able to celebrate Holy Mass in chapels built along mountain
paths, on lake shores and sea coasts; I have celebrated it on altars built in stadiums
and city squares. This varied scenario of celebrations of the Eucharist has given me a
powerful experience of its universal and, so to speak, its cosmic character. Yes, cosmic!
Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist
is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world. It unites heaven and earth.
It embraces and permeates all creation (The Church of the Eucharist, 8).
In this issue of Catholic Update we respond to Pope John Paul’s
eucharistic desire with this reflection on six stages in the history of the Eucharist in
the Western Church.
1. From Passover to Eucharist
Whatever changes and variations occurred in history, the Church has always
preserved the core ritual. Early Christians viewed the Last Supper from the viewpoint of
the Passover meal. It was held in an “Upper Room,”
a place often used for rabbinic Scripture discussions. The apostles would have seen a short-legged
table surrounded by cushions where they would sit. On the table was a bowl of saltwater
in memory of the tears shed during the slavery in Egypt. A dish of bitter salad recalled
their crushing slave days.
A container of mashed apples, raisins and plums coated with cinnamon looked
like the bricks they made. Platters of unleavened bread stood next to the large Cup of
Blessing filled with wine. A roasted lamb (part of a lamb sacrificed at the Temple) symbolized
the sacrificial quality of the meal and recalled the blood of a lamb on their doorposts
that saved them from the avenging angel in Egyptian times.
Jesus opened the meal with a psalm that praised God for his mighty deeds
of salvation in the Exodus. Then he took the bread, gave thanks for it and, breaking tradition,
followed this with new words:
“Take and eat. This is my body that will be given up for you.” This bread was
now his body. It would be given up, that is offered on the cross. Pause for a moment to
consider what the apostles might have felt and thought at participating in the first Eucharist
At the end of the meal, Jesus took the Cup of Blessing filled with wine and
instead of making the usual toast he again broke tradition and said, “Take and drink...This
is my blood. . . It will be shed for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins.” Once
more Christ referred to his forthcoming passion where he would shed his blood. As they
drank of the one cup and ate of the one bread they experienced their unity in Christ. Finally,
Christ gave them and their successors the power to celebrate Eucharist: “Do this
in memory of me.” They all sang a psalm and Jesus went forth to his saving death
In this event Jesus gave us the sacraments of the Eucharist and the ordained
2. From Meal to Worship
Gradually the apostles and their successors developed the Eucharistic celebration
into the structure that endures to this day. They first named it the “Breaking of
the Bread” but soon they saw the need to separate the rite from a meal, both because of abuses at
meals (1 Cor 11:17-22) and because they wanted a more prayerful setting for this act of
This development was reported by a late first-century document, the Didache or “Teaching
of the Apostles.” Eucharist was moved to Sunday in memory of Christ’s
resurrection. In place of the meal the early Christians created a Liturgy of the Word
somewhat modeled after synagogue prayer that included readings from Scripture, singing
of psalms and an instruction.
Around the words of institution they added prayers of thanksgiving, praise
and intercession. By the year 150, St. Justin Martyr tells us that the basic structure
of the Mass was already in place. These Eucharists were held in people’s homes up
until the year 313.
On Sunday there were two readings by a lector, a homily by the priest, then
the Eucharistic Prayer and the distribution of Communion. And yes, there was a collection—for
widows, orphans and others in need! The threefold roles of bishop, priest and deacon were
already in place in the first century.
Our Second Eucharistic Prayer today is brief and simple, and owes its inspiration
to a similar one composed by Hippolytus of Rome in 215. It is clear that the basic form
of the Eucharist occurred very early and has remained remarkably durable for 2,000 years.
3. The Growing Body of Christ
The year 313 was a turning point for Christianity. Persecutions suddenly
ended. Constantine gave freedom to Christians and spent great sums of money building basilicas
for Eucharistic worship. Modest house churches gradually ceased to exist.
Stately ceremonies suitable in a huge church emerged. Processions, courtly
movement in the sanctuary, metered chant (composed by St. Ambrose) and sung litanies that
galvanized the voices of thousands, incense and bells, kissing sacred objects and the use
of genuflections became a pattern to accompany the ancient structure of the Eucharist.
The celebrants wore clothes worthy of a Roman senator. Their robes eventually
came to be called vestments, since they were retained long after fashions changed. The
simple plates and cups of house worship became elaborate chalices and patens. This was
an inevitable evolution due to social acceptance, organizing an empire-size Church and,
indeed, ecclesial prosperity.
This era witnessed the rise of extraordinary bishops, known now as Church
Fathers, such as Augustine and Chrysostom, whose homilies were rich in theology and pastoral
in application. Their genius was to work out theological development in the context of
the light generated by the Eucharist and the prayerful hunger and faith of the people.
Their theme was “The Body of Christ [Eucharist] builds the Body of Christ [Church].
4. The Eucharist Becomes Distant for Most
The widespread appearance of the stunning Gothic cathedrals in medieval Europe
signaled a resurgence of faith. The colorful religious processions for feasts of saints,
the enthusiasm for pilgrimages to holy shrines, the birth of new religious orders led some
subsequent historians to call these centuries the “ages of faith.”
But alongside these events were troublesome declines in active participation
in the Mass. The removal of the assembly from participating in the Eucharist was dramatized
by screens of stone or iron that hid the choir and altar from public view. The monks and
priests conducted their corporate liturgy away from the assembly. The Mass remained in
Latin, even though people began using their local languages for most things in their lives.
When the people complained of the Mass’s remoteness, they were given side altar Masses
where the priest faced the wall and prayed in Latin.
The people compensated for their estrangement by asking the priest to hold
up the host for their view and adoration:
“Hold it higher, sir priest!” Meanwhile, Berengar of Tours taught that Jesus
was not really present in the host, which was only a symbol of his presence. The Church
repudiated his views at Lateran IV in 1215 by affirming Christ’s Real Presence and
introducing the concept of transubstantiation (the substance of bread becomes the substance
or “being” of Christ) to support this doctrine.
Because many Catholics had ceased receiving Communion, the Council also mandated
going to Communion at least once a year at Easter time. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament
became popular along with other forms of popular piety.
5. Reformation and the Tridentine Mass
It took the Church 28 years to gather to its energies and open the Council
of Trent in 1545 to deal with the Reformation. The Council Fathers called for a renewal
of the liturgy. In 1570 Pope Pius V responded to this call that would be a standard book
for the celebration of Mass for the Western Church. Everything in his decree pertained
to the priest celebrant and his action at the altar including the Liturgy of the Word.
The participation of the people would be devotional rather than liturgical. The Mass text
was in Latin. (This sturdy Tridentine Mass [named for Trent] endured up to Vatican II.)
The Jesuits introduced Baroque architecture in which the choir stalls, screens
and walls were removed. The distance between altar and assembly was shortened so that only
an altar railing separated them. The altar was placed against the wall, which was lavishly
decorated from floor to ceiling. The tabernacle rested on the altar and above it was a
niche provided for exposition and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
A soaring pulpit was situated near the middle of the Church indicating the
importance of a sermon but not a homily. This worship space glowed with self-confidence
and triumph. It suited the mood of this Counter-Reformation. The church was a throne room
and the assembly, the audience. They were treated with the music of Palestrina, Haydn and
Mozart. The Protestants had Bach, but also sang hundreds of new hymns triumphantly.
Sadly, most Eucharists were “Low Masses,” generally without music
and which the assembly attended in silence. Catholics turned to new schools of spirituality
to satisfy their spiritual longings: the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the Carmelite
schools and that of St. Francis de Sales.
Eventually, in the 19th century, it became clear that a return to the sources
of the liturgy was needed.
6. Mass in the Era of Vatican II
The first document approved by the Fathers of Vatican II (1962-65) was the Constitution
on the Liturgy. But a century before this the stirrings of liturgical change had
begun. Benedictines had begun to revive earlier liturgical practices, such as Gregorian
chant (from the sixth century), and were studying the roots of Christian liturgy and
the ways all Christians once had participated. Pope Pius X (1903-1914) encouraged the
use of Gregorian chant, frequent Communion and lowering the age for First Communion to
Pius XII’s Mediator Dei (1947) lent powerful impetus to the
liturgical movement. In 1951 Joseph Jungmann, S.J., published The Mass of the Roman
Rite, that revealed the complex history of the Mass. In the United States, St. John’s
Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, supported the cause for liturgical change through its
magazine Orate Fratres, “Let us pray, Brethren” (now called Worship).
Their roster of writers included all the movers and shakers who rallied the Church in America
to the cause.
In other words, the groundwork was firmly laid by patient scholarship, hundreds
of meetings and countless articles by the time Vatican II assembled. With relatively little
debate and very small opposition, the Constitution on the Liturgy was approved by
the Council Fathers 2,147 favorable to 4 opposed. The sonorous words of the Constitution reached
a high point when it declared, “The liturgy is the summit to which the activity of
the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows” (10).
In the last part of the 20th century the application of the document began.
A number of changes were introduced. The priest now faced the people. Vernacular languages
replaced the Latin. People shook hands at the greeting of peace. The congregation was asked
to participate actively in the Mass, to sing and pray at various times.
People were invited to receive Communion either in the hand or on the tongue
and to stand at its reception. They were offered the chalice so they could communicate
under both species, the eucharistic Bread and Wine.
Laity and religious could serve Communion as extraordinary ministers. Married
deacons appeared, to assist the priest at Mass and to preach homilies. Entrance processions
were added. People brought up the gifts at the presentation of the offerings.
Priests abandoned what some called the “fiddle-back” chasubles
for robe-like replacements. Mass readings provided a three-year series of Scripture in
which large sections of the Bible would be heard. Homilies, which had become lectures or
announcements on most anything, were expected to explain Scripture and apply it to everyday
Church architecture became functional and minimalist in decoration, a sign
of the times. Instead of the long “shoe box,”
a wider auditorium model appeared. Guitar Masses surfaced and new hymns were composed,
leading to many arguments about taste and suitability.
None of this happened without some anger and discomfort. Some experimentation
went over the top. But in fact the amazing thing is how little disturbance actually happened.
The dreams of the liturgical movement were fulfilled and expanded upon. People are realizing
that they can enrich their spirituality mainly from the celebration of the Eucharist.
What’s striking is that the significant impact of all this is yet to
be experienced. In Church years, we’re very near the beginning of the Council’s
Eucharist: Alive and Dynamic
One conclusion we can draw from this sketch of the history of the Mass is
that changes in the liturgy, whether large or small, have been occurring since the Last
Supper. The basics have never changed, but the details, decisions by Church authority and
the attitudes of the participants have undergone modifications and development.
In this sense the celebration of the Eucharist is a dynamic and living reality.
While a constant diet of experimentation is not healthy or desirable, a loving attention
to the quality of the divine celebration is a necessity. We certainly need to avoid frivolity,
but we also need to avoid stagnation.
The noble core of the Eucharist from the Upper Room to an urban cathedral
or a village church has withstood the tumults of history—and always will. For this
we praise and thank God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
NEXT: AdventCelebrating Promise, Joy, Hope (by Kenneth R. Overberg,