History of Catholic eucharistic theology

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The historical roots of Catholic eucharistic theology begin with the same sources as do other Christian churches who express their faith in the "bread of life" found in the words of Jesus in Scripture. These include the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the Church Fathers, and later Christian writers. While the word "Eucharist" (from the Greek) refers to Christ's prolongation of the Jewish Passover or "thanksgiving" meal, the gift of Communion, whereby, as Paul says, he fashions us into one body in him, came to signify God's greatest gift, for which Christians are most thankful.

Historical roots of Early Church and Catholic Eucharistic Theology[edit]


The three synoptic Gospels and Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians contain versions of the Words of Institution: "Take, eat, this is my body.... Take, drink, this is my blood.... Do this in remembrance of me." All subsequent reference to the Communion bread and wine in the Eucharist is based on this injunction. A more detailed explanation of the Communion bread is New Testament passage John 6:47-67, key to understanding of the disciples of Jesus and the first Christians. There Jesus states:

I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever; and the bread that I will give, is my flesh, for the life of the world. The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying: How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Then Jesus said to them: Amen, amen I say unto you: Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. (51-54)

Jesus then points to the need for correspondence between the bread as a sign (sacrament) and the life of those who would profit from it:

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.... It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is profits nothing. (56f; 63)

Old Testament Foundations of the Eucharist[edit]

The New Testament tells of Jesus' celebration of the Jewish passover meal with his disciples before he died (though according to John's Gospel this meal would have been anticipated by Jesus – 19:14). At this meal the Jewish people recounted God's blessings toward them over each of the dishes. Jesus would turn one of the blessings over the bread and over the wine into symbols of the Father's love in his own life, death, and resurrection, and tell his disciples to do this in memory of him. As a thanksgiving meal, the Passover meal can be likened to the todah or thanksgiving sacrifice (Lev 7:12-15). As a collective todah of Israel under the Mosaic covenant, it was the highest instance of todah sacrifice in the Hebrew Scripture. Likewise, the very term "Eucharist" (from the Greek eucharistia) reflects the centrality of thanksgiving. Christ's words of institution emphasize the essential todah elements of thanksgiving and remembrance, whose object in this case is his "body which is given for you" (Lk 22:19). As suggested by Jesus' use of Psalm 22 (Mk 15:34), a classic todah psalm, Christ's Passion, death, and resurrection exemplify the characteristic todah movement from lament to praise.[1]

Just as Passover recalled and made present the Exodus from bondage in Egypt, the New Passover recalls and makes present the New Exodus from bondage to sin. The New Exodus, in which the twelve tribes of Israel would be redeemed along with the nations, was a major theme of the Old Testament prophets. In Isaiah 40-55 and the New Testament (1 Peter 1:18-19), the New Exodus is closely associated with redemption from sin.[2]

As given in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, the words Jesus spoke over the cup begin, "this is my blood of the covenant" (Mk 14:24). This phrase echoes the establishment of the Mosaic covenant in Ex 24:8, referring to the blood that is used to seal a covenant poured out to initiate the covenant (cf. Ex 24:6-8). Thus, Jesus declares at the Last Supper that his own blood, poured out in his Passion and made really present in the Eucharist, reestablishes the bond of kinship between God and man. The Last Supper and Passion established the covenant, and the Eucharist is now an ongoing re-presentation of that covenantal establishment.

Jesus describes his blood as "poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Mt 26:28). These words allude to the prophetic theme of the "many" among the exiled tribes of Israel to be redeemed in the New Exodus (Is 52:12) from and with the Gentiles (cf. Zech 10:8-11). The likeness between the Jewish people as God's suffering servant and the unexpected[3] suffering Messiah is evident in these passages which speak of a paschal lamb (Is 53:7) whose life is "poured out" for the "sin of many" (Is 53:12).[4]

Paul's epistle to the Corinthians[edit]

The Scriptures contain testimony from the early Christians. In 1 Cor 10:16, St. Paul states: "The chalice of benediction, which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? And the bread, which we break, is it not the partaking of the body of the Lord?" In the next chapter, he draws the same association we find in the Didache and elsewhere, the need for purity in receiving the Eucharist. First, Paul narrates the meal with Jesus: (11:24) "And giving thanks, broke, and said: Take ye, and eat: this is my body, which shall be delivered for you: do this in commemoration of me." Likewise with the chalice; then Paul states (11:27) "Therefore whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord." The early letters and documents seem to affirm a belief in what would later be called the Real Presence of Jesus in the Communion bread and wine.

Early Christian documents[edit]

From the earliest Christian documents, such as the Didache, the understanding follows this pattern: that the bread and wine that is blessed and consumed at the end of the (transformed) Passover meal had a more real connection with Christ than would a less "real" sign. The Didache emphasizes the importance of a proper disposition if this sign is to have its effect, and involve a true, personal sacrifice: "confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure" (Jurgens §8). St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred in ca. 107, speaks of his disposition and gives spiritual meaning to the blood: "I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the Bread of God, which is the Flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for drink I desire His Blood, which is love incorruptible" (Jurgens §54a). He recommended Christians to stay aloof from heretics who "confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again" (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 8). (Note the use of "which", referring to "the flesh", not "who", which would refer to "our Saviour Jesus Christ".) St. Justin Martyr, ca. 150: "We call this food Eucharist; and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true.... For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by Him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nourished, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus" (Jurgens §128). From St. Clement of Alexandria, ca. 202: "'Eat My Flesh.' He says, 'and drink My Blood.' The Lord supplies us with these intimate nutriments. He delivers over His Flesh, and pours out His Blood; and nothing is lacking for the growth of His children. O incredible mystery!" (Jurgens §408). The Catholic church will not be overly literal in her interpretation of these statements, but would teach that Jesus is present whole and entire under both species. An overly physical interpretation of what is being received would overlook the spiritual meaning and effect that gives purpose to this sign, and the disposition that makes any spiritual effect possible.[5]

Over the centuries[edit]

Christian documents show that this doctrine of how we regard the host was maintained. From Origen, c 244: "[W]hen you have received the Body of the Lord, you reverently exercise every care lest a particle of it fall..." (Jurgens §490). From St. Ephraim, ante 373: "Do not now regard as bread that which I have given you; but take, eat this Bread, and do not scatter the crumbs; for what I have called My Body, that it is indeed" (Jurgens §707). From St. Augustine, c 412: "He walked here in the same flesh, and gave us the same flesh to be eaten unto salvation. But no one eats that flesh unless first he adores it; and thus it is discovered how such a footstool of the Lord's feet is adored; and not only do we not sin by adoring, we do sin by not adoring" (Jurgens §1479a). At the Roman Council VI, 1079, Berengarius affirmed: "I, Berengarius, in my heart believe and with my lips confess that through the mystery of the sacred prayer and the words of our Redeemer the bread and wine which are placed on the altar are substantially changed into the true and proper and living flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, our Lord..." (Denziger [Dz] §355). In a discussion of the form of consecration (the word now used to refer to the blessing given by Jesus), Pope Innocent III states (1202) "For the species of bread and wine is perceived there, and the truth of the body and blood of Christ is believed and the power of unity and of love.... The form is of the bread and wine; the truth, of the flesh and blood..." (Dz §414-4). Note that while the "realness" of this presence was defended, the purpose was not overlooked: to experience "the power of unity and of love," presumably in the body of Christians which was the Church. The dogma was affirmed repeatedly by the Roman Catholic Church and within Roman Catholic theology, e.g. at the Council of Lyon, 1274 (Dz §465); by Pope Benedict XII, 1341 (Dz §544); by Pope Clement VI, 1351 (Dz §574a); at the Council of Constance, 1418 (Dz §583); at the Council of Florence, 1439 (Dz §698); by Pope Julius III at the Council of Trent, 1551 (Dz §874); by Pope Benedict XIV, 1743 (Dz §1469); by Pope Pius VI, 1794 (Dz §1529); and by Pope Leo XIII, 1887 (Dz §1919), inter alia. Other examples can be found to flesh out any interim.

The Summa Theologiae by Thomas Aquinas[edit]

The Summa Theologiae, c 1270, is considered within the Roman Catholic Church to be the paramount philosophical expression of its theology, and as such offers a clear discussion of the Eucharist. "[F]or Christ is Himself contained in the Eucharist sacramentally. Consequently, when Christ was going to leave His disciples in His proper species, He left Himself with them under the sacramental species..." (III 73 5). "The presence of Christ's true body and blood in this sacrament cannot be detected by sense, nor understanding, but by faith alone, which rests upon Divine authority. Hence, on Luke 22:19: 'This is My body which shall be delivered up for you,' Cyril says: 'Doubt not whether this be true; but take rather the Saviour's words with faith; for since He is the Truth, He lieth not.' Now this is suitable, first for the perfection of the New Law. For, the sacrifices of the Old Law contained only in figure that true sacrifice of Christ's Passion, according to Hebrews 10:1: 'For the law having a shadow of the good things to come, not the very image of the things'" (III 75 1). "[S]ince Christ's true body is in this sacrament, and since it does not begin to be there by local motion, nor is it contained therein as in a place, as is evident from what was stated above (III 75 1 ad 2), it must be said then that it begins to be there by conversion of the substance of bread into itself" (III 75 4). But, again, Thomas held that the final cause was the "cause of all causes" and so held priority over the material and formal causes (which had to do with substance) of which he was speaking.[6] To be faithful to Thomas' theology, then, the purpose of the bread should never be overlooked in the effort to find meaning.


In the gospel of John chapter six, Jesus emphasized the importance of faith for understanding his presence in the bread. The verb pisteuo ("believe") is used 98 times in this gospel.[7] This points to the importance of faith for understanding what is asserted by Christians. St. Thomas quotes St. Cyril in emphasizing faith as a basis for understanding (III 75 1). St. Augustine writes, "I believe in order to understand, I understand the better to believe" (quoted in CCC §158). Over time, the dogma was clarified and preserved, and presented consistently to catechumens. A contemporary explanation of Christ's presence would give a holistic explanation of its meaning: "The Baltimore Catechism portrayed a sacrament as 'an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.' In our perspective sacraments are symbols arising from the ministry of Christ and continued in and through the Church, which when received in faith, are encounters with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In both definitions, four key elements can be identified: sign-symbol, relation to Christ, effectiveness or power, and what is effected, brought about or produced."[8]

Other historical Eucharistic dogmas[edit]

Also a part of Church teaching are the need for a special minister for the celebration of the Eucharist; and the lasting presence of Christ in the bread and the respect that should be shown to the bread. St. Ignatius of Antioch, ca. 110: "Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints" (Jurgens §65). From St. Cyril of Alexandria, ca. 440: "I hear that they are saying that the mystical blessing does not avail unto sanctification, if some of [the Eucharistic species] be left over to another day. They are utterly mad who say these things; for Christ is not made different, nor is His holy body changed, but the power of the blessing and the life-giving grace is uninterrupted in Him" (Jurgens §2139). And Tertullian, 211: "We take anxious care lest something of our Cup or Bread should fall upon the ground" (Jurgens §367). Pope Innocent III, 1208: "[H]owever honest, religious, holy, and prudent anyone may be, he cannot nor ought he to consecrate the Eucharist nor to perform the sacrifice of the altar unless he be a priest, regularly ordained by a visible and perceptible bishop" (Dz §424). The consecrated hosts are not merely changed permanently into Eucharist, but are due the worship of latria. In early counter-Reformation times, Pope Julius III wrote in 1551: "There is, therefore, no room left for doubt that all the faithful of Christ in accordance with a custom always received in the Catholic Church offer in veneration the worship of latria which is due to the true God, to this most Holy Sacrament" (Dz §878).

Alleged origins in mystery religions[edit]

Some scholars note a similarity between the idea of feeding on the life-force of a mystical entity characteristic of the central rites of Graeco-Roman and Near-Eastern mystery religions, and claim that this is the context in which the acts and ordinances of Jesus and his apostles came to be memorialized.

The Christian authorities made no reference whatever to the purported mystical benefits of flesh-eating and blood-drinking. They taught that the Christian "unbloody mysteries" (cf. Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, Council of Trent, Theses of Bonn) convey actual divine benefits. Christianity and the Eucharistic rite began within Judaism: the first Christians were all Jews. Paul the Apostle's First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11:20–29) and the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:42, Acts 2:46) present the rite of the "Lord's supper" or "breaking of bread" as dating from the very beginning when Christianity was still an entirely Jewish phenomenon. Writing of the "Lord's Supper" rite in the mid-50s, little more than 20 years after the death of Jesus, Paul says he had already linked it with the Last Supper when he evangelized the inhabitants of Corinth, Greece in 51/52, and that this was something that he himself had "received" earlier still. The Tyndall Bible Dictionary concludes that the tradition that Paul recorded in his first letter to the Corinthians dated from his earliest years as a Christian,[9] some 8 years before he began his missionary activity, and 20 years before he wrote that letter.[10] In 1 Corinthians 10:14-22, Paul cites precisely the Eucharistic rite as a reason for refusing to have anything to do with the idolatry and sacrifices of the pagans.

Spiritual meaning of the Eucharist[edit]

The Catholic church has given approval to private, devotional use of the Eucharistic bread, for holy hours and private prayer. The meaningfulness of this is evident from the number of churches that offer Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament on a regular basis. The Church has also called Catholics to keep in mind the greater value of the Mass for interpreting the full meaning of the bread: “Popular devotions … should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some fashion derived from it, and lead the people to it, since, in fact, the liturgy by its very nature far surpasses any of them.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 13). Following up on this, Jesuit Father General Pedro Arrupe (1965-1983) wrote:

The rediscovery of what might be called the "social dimension" of the Eucharist is of tremendous significance today. We once again see Holy Communion as the sacrament of brotherhood and unity. We share in a meal together, eating the same bread from the same table. And St. Paul tells us clearly: "The fact that there is only one loaf means that, though there are many of us, we form a single body because we all have a share in this one loaf" (I Cor 10.17). In the Eucharist, in other words, we receive not only Christ, the head of the Body, but its members as well. This fact has immediate practical consequences, as St. Paul once again reminds us. "God has arranged the body so that… each part may be equally concerned for all the others. If one part is hurt, all parts are hurt with it" (I Cor 12.24-26). Wherever there is suffering in the body, wherever members of it are in want or oppressed, we, because we have received the same body and are part of it, must be directly involved. We cannot opt out or say to a brother or sister: "I do not need you. I will not help you." [11]

Historically, the communitarian and private fruits of the Eucharistic bread have been held in dynamic tension: “The great themes of the liturgy (resurrection hope and God’s love) should flow over into the family & private devotions of our daily lives and form a bridge leading back to the common assembly.”[12]


  1. ^ Gray, Tim. "From Jewish Passover to Christian Eucharist: The Story of the Todah". Retrieved 2017-04-28.
  2. ^ Pimentel, Stephen. "The Todah Sacrifice as Pattern for the Eucharist." Inside the Vatican 16, no. 3 (2008): 44-47.[1]
  3. ^ "Were the Jews expecting the Messiah to suffer at all?". christianity.stackexchange.com. Retrieved 2017-04-28.
  4. ^ Pimentel, Stephen. "Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Prophetic Foundations of the Eucharist." Inside the Vatican 16, no. 4 (2008): 102-105.[2]
  5. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1128, 2111
  6. ^ Schmid, Stephan (2015-01-01). "Finality without Final Causes? – Suárez’s Account of Natural Teleology". Ergo, an Open Access Journal of Philosophy. 2 (20170426). doi:10.3998/ergo.12405314.0002.016. ISSN 2330-4014.
  7. ^ "Critical Issues Commentary: Formulating a Theology of Pisteuo (believe) in John's Narrative". cicministry.org. Retrieved 2017-04-29.
  8. ^ Worgul, SJ, George S. (1980). From Magic to Metaphor: A Validation of Christian Sacraments. Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist. pp. 123–128. ISBN 978-0809122806.
  9. ^ Comfort, Philip W., and Elwell, Walter A. editors, Tyndale Bible Dictionary 2001 ISBN 978-0-8423-7089-9, article Lord's Supper, The
  10. ^ Conversion in 34, first missionary journey begun in 47/48, 1 Corinthians in 54, according to Blue Letter Bible Study Tools; 36, 48, 57 according to Timeline of Paul's ministry
  11. ^ David Leigh, SJ, in Toward a Sacrament of the World,” in Spirituality Today, vol. 37, Spring 1985, pp.33-46.
  12. ^ Louis Weil, “Liturgical Prayer,” New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, ed. Peter Fink, SJ. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990, pp.949-959.
  • The Saint Andrew Daily Missal, St. Bonaventure Publications, Inc., 1999 reprint ed.
  • Father Gabriel, Divine Intimacy, Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1996 reprint ed.
  • William A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers.
  • Alfred McBride, O.Praem., Celebrating the Mass, Our Sunday Visitor, 1999.
  • Very Rev. J. Tissot, The Interior Life, 1916, pp. 347–9.