The Eucharist – An Overview

The Catechism of the Catholic church quotes Vatican II when it teaches that “The Eucharist is ‘the source and summit of the Christian life.’  The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch.“ (CCC1324)

A 1992 survey about what US Catholics believed to be true about the Eucharist revealed the following results:

  • 30% — believe they are really and truly receiving the body, blood, soul and divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ under the appearance of bread and wine.
  • 29%  — believe they are receiving bread and wine that symbolize the body and blood of Jesus.
  • 10% believe they receive bread and wine in which Jesus is also present.
  • 24% believe they are receiving what has become Christ’s body and blood because of their personal belief.

Which of these is correct?  The first of course, and we learn that only 30% of US Catholics almost 30 years ago had a correct understanding of what we believe about the Eucharist.  And the younger people were, the less likely they were to believe in what the Church refers to as the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  

The Pew Forum found very similar results in 2019 when they polled US Catholics and learned that only 31% responded they believe that during Mass the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ.   And a significant number of Catholics (43%) who believe the bread and wine are only symbols are unaware that their view does not reflect the teaching of the Church.  Clearly we have some work to do.

However, an aspect of any poll about what Catholics believe does have to consider whether the responders who identify as Catholics are actually practicing Catholics.   When the Pew Forum looked only at Catholics who actually attend weekly Mass, 63% had the correct understanding that Catholics believe that when we receive the Eucharist we truly receive the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus under the appearance of bread and wine.   So while the numbers still reflect we have some work to do, it is important to remember that many people who identify as Catholic do so in a cultural sense only, or because it’s part of their heritage.  Not because they actually practice or know their faith.

Within the world of Christendom, an understanding of what it means to receive Communion varies.   This again is not a Catholic/Protestant division.   Within Protestantism there is also a wide variety of beliefs.   I put together this chart to give a high level overview of the way different Christian groups view this topic:

Over the next many posts I will explore the Catholic belief in the Eucharist and how it aligns with Sacred Scripture.  This will take us deep into the Old Testament and especially the story of the Israelites and the Exodus they experience as they are freed from the bondage of slavery in Egypt.  I’ll cover some of the more common objections to the Eucharist, such as the false understanding that we believe we re-sacrifice Christ at every Mass, and why the Old Testament prohibition from drinking blood is not applicable.   And when Christ says the words “this is my body” and “this is my blood” – are we meant to take that literally?   Or was he speaking metaphorically?  As we embark on this study, may we come to understand in the words of St. John Paul II – “This is the wonderful truth, my dear friends: the Word, which became flesh two thousand years ago is present today in the Eucharist.” 

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