The role of Holy Communion in the Catholic Church

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The biennial meeting of American Catholic Bishops received more than its usual attention last June due to one particular item on its agenda: a proposed document on the Sacrament of the Eucharist, a ritual also known as Holy Communion.

Because this as yet unwritten document is expected to include guidance on when and if Holy Communion can be withheld from a Catholic who presents himself in a manifest state of grave sin, this church affair has been reported in the pages of national newspapers.

It also sparked a “declaration of principle” from 60 Catholic Democrats in the United States House of Representatives, urging bishops “not to go ahead and deny the holiest of all sacraments.”

As a specialist in sacramental Catholic theology, allow me to offer some thoughts on the central role of Holy Communion in the Catholic Church, and the pain it can cause some members to be denied the reception of it. -this.

One of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church, the Eucharist is a ritual in which, according to Catholic theology, the bread and wine blessed by a priest actually becomes the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.

This is its central role in Catholicism, it has been called “the source and summit of all Christian life”.

Catholics are required to take Communion at least once a year, but in practice many do so much more frequently during Mass or Catholic public worship.

Why might Catholics worry about not having access to this practice when there are likely many other opportunities for spiritual growth both inside and outside the Catholic Church?

The answer doesn’t just lie in a feeling of unfairness in being denied access or forcing a change in habit. It is found in the history, practice and theology of Holy Communion itself.

Eucharist at the beginning of Christianity

In the formative years of Christianity, around 2,000 years ago, the practice of ritual meals was already common in Jewish and Greco-Roman culture.

Early Christian Eucharistic practice took seriously the ritualistic power of a meal to transport participants beyond the physical world by connecting them to both past events and spiritual realities.

Jesus shared many meals throughout his time on Earth, culminating in his “last supper,” during which, according to biblical passages, he asked his disciples to share bread and wine, saying, “ This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.

The first disciples of Jesus worshiped in synagogues and continued to participate in Jewish rituals. Thus, the Eucharist flows from the same stream as the Passover Seder in which Jewish tradition says that each person should consider himself to have been personally freed from slavery in Egypt.

Yet the Christian ritual meals were unique because they centered on Jesus, a crucified victim of the Roman Empire, who Christians say “passed over” death to be resurrected by God.

Body of christ

The whole structure of the Mass, which normally culminates in the reception of Communion, consists of immersing the participants in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, so that they can see the form of death and resurrection of life. in the world.

Catholic theology distinguishes three ways of speaking of the body of Christ, all rooted in the Bible: There is the historical Jesus who walked on the Earth, the body of Christ which is present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and finally the assembly of people who, as the apostle Saint Paul said, “are the body of Christ and individually members of it”.

The celebration and reflection of the first Christians on the Eucharist did not imagine a clear division between the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and in the people who celebrate it.

But a controversy in the eleventh century over the nature of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, which became closely associated with the historical Jesus, initiated what one scholar called a “mortal rupture” between the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Eucharist and the presence of Christ in people. .

Twentieth-century Catholic theology has rediscovered this deep link between the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and in the community.

Be set apart

In its most basic terms, Catholics receive Christ truly present in communion so that they can be Christ in the world.

Catholics believe that when one consumes the Eucharist one is incorporated into Christ and becomes linked to others who are also part of the body of Christ on Earth.

It is not simply a matter of individual belief, but of the unity of the Church and the mission of being Christ in the world.

To put oneself outside the practice of Communion – or to be put outside by another – is to be outside the very practice which incorporates someone into the body of Christ. Timothy Gabrielli University of Dayton / The Conversation

Image courtesy of CNS photo / Paul Haring



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