Eucharist, Holy Communion and Mass

As readers of this column have heard several times from me, I am a believer in the idea that words mean things. The language we use when talking about our faith needs to be precise. Regarding the Sacrament of the Eucharist, this is especially true. I am going to focus on three words/terms that are used commonly to apply to the Eucharist which are often used interchangeably, but are not in fact interchangeable terms; to wit: Eucharist, Holy Communion and Mass.



Term Limits

As an entrée into the terminological distinction of these words, let me use a more commonplace set of terms that share, in many ways, the Eucharist’s distinctions. The words “wristwatch,” “clock” and “time” are three words that are very closely related -- like Holy Communion, Mass and the Eucharist – but nonetheless distinct. One may wear a wristwatch. It is a timepiece; the face of that wristwatch shows a clock (analog or digital) and one looks at the clock’s face to determine the time. Both the wristwatch and the clock-face of the wristwatch are there – they exist – in connection to time. The time is the fundamental item at hand; without time, no one would need a clock or wear a wristwatch.

So, too, this relationship and distinction applies to the Eucharist.

Many people, especially in the modern era, have blurred the lines of distinction between the Holy Eucharist, Holy Communion and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. And holy mackerel, that’s a problem. The Eucharist, Holy Communion and Mass are connected, to be sure, but they are not same thing.


Thanks Be to God

So, let’s clarify: the Eucharist is the name of the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. There are seven Sacraments in the Church, the most blessed of which is the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The word “eucharist” comes from a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving.” Thus in ancient Greece, any kind of thanksgiving would be “eucharist.” However, we’re not in ancient Greece, and the “thanksgiving” we are speaking of is a very specific thanksgiving. It is the thanksgiving for Christ’s sacrifice for us which makes present to us his person, his Body and Blood. Thus, since this is not just any ol’ “thanksgiving” but this specific “thanksgiving” we do not call this Sacrament “Eucharist” we call it “the Eucharist” (or “the Holy Eucharist”, or “the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist”). In the case of “the Eucharist” that “the” becomes – dare I say – an article of faith.


Who’s that Girl?

To put this into a pop cultural perspective: the 1960s TV sitcom starring actress Marlo Thomas was called “That Girl” not “Girl” or “Some Girl.” It wasn’t about any girl; it was about that one. So, too, the Eucharist should never, except in perhaps the most metaphysical consideration, be called “Eucharist.” Do you hear people and clergy say just “Eucharist?”  Indeed. We also hear people saying “ain’t,” but that doesn’t make it right. I have actually invoked a term to describe this removal of the “the” in front of the Eucharist by folks: I call it article-erasing. Folks that engage in article-erasing eliminate the article “the” and thus, intentionally or unintentionally, make the Eucharist a more vague or abstract thing. But the Eucharist, in truth, is neither vague nor abstract; it is a Sacrament; it is a specific form of thanksgiving. For us as Catholics, it’s not just any thanksgiving; it is the thanksgiving – the Eucharist. This is how the Church in its documents speaks about it; it should also be our language.


Wholly Communion

Okay, so that’s what “the Eucharist” means. But, you may ask, isn’t Holy Communion also the Eucharist? The answer is no. Holy Communion is something more specific: it is not merely the Eucharist, it is specifically the reception of the Eucharist. To use a royal analogy, the royal crown (not the soda, the headgear) is a crown; when the Queen is crowned with it, it is called “coronation.” Coronation, while related to the crown, is not the crown, it is the reception of the crown. So, too, Holy Communion, while related to the Eucharist, is not the Eucharist; it is its reception. Thus the Eucharist in its ministration to the faithful is called “Holy Communion.”


Some Extraordinary People

Related to this distinction is the name given to the lay faithful commissioned to assist in distributing Holy Communion during Mass. The folks, who are commissioned to assist the clergy, on an extraordinary basis, are commonly called “Eucharistic Ministers” – but that is wrong. These folks are strictly directed to assist in the distribution of “Holy Communion” (i.e., as mentioned, this is the Eucharist being received by the faithful). Thus the title of these lay faithful assistants is properly, “Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion.” That is right and just: on an extraordinary (as needed) basis, these folks minister “Holy Communion” to the faithful. This is why, among other reasons, the Church a few years back clarified that these faithful ministers do not purify sacred vessels (that’s left to sacred ministers) – their role is specifically, and only, to distribute Holy Communion.


Ending Mass Confusion

The final term of endearment related to the Eucharist that needs to be addressed is “Mass.” From the Latin word missa, Mass is the name we use to describe the celebration of the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The gathering of the faithful during which the Eucharist is confected at the altar and distributed to the faithful as Holy Communion is called Mass. Mass requires the proper minister (Bishop, priest) to be celebrating, the proper offerings (bread, wine), the intention of the Church and the use of the proper Ritual. There are various Mass texts to adapt to a specific day or season – but no matter when the Eucharist is celebrated… that is the Mass.

There are other actions related to the Eucharist that are specifically not Mass. In the absence of a Priest, some parishes may have what is commonly dubbed a “communion service.” That is not Mass – no Sacrifice occurs on the altar, no sacrament is confected. It is merely the distribution of Holy Communion. There is also Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament – a beautiful, precious and valuable practice – during which the Sacred Host is exposed in a Monstrance (a liturgical vessel that shows the host in its fullness). Recognizing Christ’s real presence in the host, the faithful worship and adore Christ – their Lord and God – with proper prayers, rites and song. Adoration is beautiful and quite important – but it is not to be confused with Mass.

With all of this spelled out, what is the point being put forth? The point being put forth is this: We must be careful and precise with the language around the things of the Eucharist – that which is precious deserves precision of our words.


Keeping Your Word

Thus, we should avoid saying things like “St. Ansgar Parish is having Eucharist at 9:00a.m.” No!  St. Ansgar Parish is having (or celebrating) Mass at 9:00a.m.; thus assuming a homily of reasonable length, one might be having (receiving) the Eucharist in Holy Communion at about 9:42a.m. Every once in a while we hear simply “Eucharist at 9 a.m.” – does that mean Mass? Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament? Communion Service? We need to be precise.

For some reason, for a period of time it was de rigueur, to substitute the words “Eucharist” or “Liturgy” for the word “Mass” – again, that is imprecise. When someone says “we are celebrating liturgy at 9:00am” that is like saying “at 10pm, I am watching ‘tv show.’” This is a matter which needs clarity: Mass is the only word to use for Mass. You can add adjectives: “Holy Mass,” “Morning Mass,” “Sunday Mass” to qualify it, but the word Mass is the word, and the only word that describes propitiously, the celebration of the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

So, please remember three things from all of the above points:

  1. Remember to keep your “the” in front of “Eucharist” – always “the Eucharist” (unless you live in Ancient Greece, and are using “eucharist” in the common sense). More broadly, don’t “article-erase;” don’t remove the article “the” from a word that needs the article for specificity.
  2. Remember that “Holy Communion” is what you call receiving the Holy Eucharist.
  3. Remember that “Mass” is the celebration of the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

The pop music group The Bee Gees, in the 1970s, sang, “It’s only words, and words are all I have to take your heart away.” And so, too, for us, we often have only words to express our beliefs. Those words we use are valuable, important and they mean things – and when it comes to the Holy Eucharist, we need to use them well and properly so as to make our words and the words of our faith be as one.