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HomeThe Catholic FaithEucharistWho do you say that I am? The Eucharist vs. Christian communion

Who do you say that I am? The Eucharist vs. Christian communion

St. Augustine once said in a sermon on the Eucharist: “Behold what you are, become what you receive.” To take his words to heart is to recognize that we are all sinners in need of a savior, and that Jesus Christ gives himself to us on the cross in the ultimate sacrifice — a sacrifice that is made manifest each week at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass when the Catholic faithful gather to receive the Eucharist and become more like him.

At every Mass that is celebrated, something miraculous happens: bread and wine become flesh and blood. The faithful gathered at the altar offer sacrifice together with the priest, who acts in the person of Christ to consecrate the bread and wine and transform them into the body and blood of Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. This is one of the fundamental claims of the Catholic Church that separates it from other Christian denominations, and it is perhaps the hardest for non-Catholic Christians to understand. The general consensus among these brothers and sisters in Christ is that the bread and wine is symbolic — a representation of Christ’s passion and a commemoration of his sacrifice, but nothing more.

How can the Catholic Church make this claim? Is all bread and wine offered in any Christian church to be treated the same? And what is it about the Catholic liturgy that makes the Eucharist so special? The Church provides a rich tapestry of traditions that allow her to make such claims, but when it comes to the Eucharist, it is the teachings of transubstantiation and communion that set her apart.

Transubstantiation

Since her earliest days, the cornerstone and very foundation of the Catholic Church has been her unwavering proclamation that the Eucharist is in fact the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. Pared down to its essence, this is what defines and gives life to the Church. The Catechism describes the Eucharist as the source and summit of the faith, which hinges upon those words spoken by Christ at the Last Supper: “This is my body […] This is my blood.”

The teaching of transubstantiation — that the very substance of the bread and wine offered at Mass actually transform into the substance of Jesus’s body and blood — is derived from the deliberate language Jesus used at the Last Supper, but it also shares roots in John 6. Jesus tells those gathered after the miracle of the loaves, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” After saying these words, Jesus offers no clarifications or qualifiers, indicating that he really means what he says. Many people left at that point, unable to accept such a “hard teaching” (Jn 6:60).

In the years after Christ’s death, both the apostles and the early Church fathers maintained that the breaking of the bread — in other words, the Eucharist — was not meant to be taken as a symbol of Christ’s death and resurrection but rather a literal embodiment and enfleshment of his sacrifice. Likewise, the Church further reaffirmed this teaching at various councils in the centuries that followed, and it is a teaching that the Church upholds with the utmost authority today.

Due to the controversial and difficult nature of the Eucharist, it was inevitable that Christians would begin to disagree on what Jesus meant during the Last Supper and in passages such as John 6. Over time, the concept of consubstantiation began to take root — that is, the belief that the substance of the body and blood of Christ is present alongside the substance of the bread and wine. This teaching marked a small but absolutely critical distinction which, one could argue, eventually led to the widespread practice among non-Catholic churches that communion is merely symbolic — a direct contradiction of Christ’s words. Martin Luther also rejected the teaching of transubstantiation, while not fully adhering to consubstantiation, but rather emphasizing the idea of “sacramental union” when receiving communion.

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The tragic consequence of not taking Christ’s words at face value and instead subverting the Eucharist into a symbolic representation of Christ’s body and blood is twofold. Not only are our non-Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ being deprived of Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist, there exists a profound disunity among Christians that has yet to be fully reconciled.

Communion

It’s no coincidence that the Eucharist is also called communion. Indeed, for at least the first 1,000 years of Christianity, Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist is what united the Church, and it remains what should unite the Church today. Jesus made it crystal clear that Christians need to be one, united as one Body in him and participating as a whole in his sacrifice for us. Jesus himself is the bread that feeds and nourishes his body — the Church — and just as there is only one Jesus, there can’t be multiple breads to eat from. As St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:16-17).

This begs the question: Can a Catholic receive communion at a non-Catholic church — whether it be Lutheran, Anglican, Protestant, Orthodox or otherwise?

The Communion of the Apostles, James Tissot, ca. 1886-1894.

The long and short of it is: no. There are several reasons why, but as the very word implies, the most important reason is because these churches are not in communion with the Catholic Church. Just as non-Catholics are asked not to receive the Eucharist when attending Mass, so, too, should Catholics not partake in a “symbolic communion” at a non-Catholic church (or in the case of the Orthodox church, a church that is not in communion with Rome).

Every time a Catholic receives the Eucharist at Mass, they are making a statement about what they believe and who their allegiance is to — namely, Christ. Similarly, non-Catholics do the same when they receive communion at their own church. The main difference, however, is that non-Catholics are not eating of that one bread of which Paul speaks — the true food and drink that is provided by Christ himself in the Eucharist. As St. Paul also writes in 1 Corinthians: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor 11:23-29).  While likely not intentional, non-Catholics profane the body and blood of Christ because they do not properly discern the body, as Paul says, and instead treat it as a mere symbol — just as Catholics profane the body when receiving communion outside of a state of grace.

Catholics should refrain from receiving communion in a non-Catholic church because doing so would suggest approval of that church’s practices, condoning further disunity among the body of Christ. While receiving bread and wine at other Christian churches may have the appearance of communion, it is not communion as Christ instituted it. This can only be found in the Eucharist — true communion with Christ and his body, the Church, as he intended, and earnestly desires to share with us each week at the Mass.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus asks his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” He asks this same question of his disciples today, especially as it pertains to the question of the Eucharist. What will our answer be?

Aaron Lambert
Aaron Lambert
Aaron is the former Managing Editor for the Denver Catholic.
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