Sacrament of the Eucharist: Essential Components

Last issue this column gave an overview of the general understanding and background on the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. In this issue, I will focus on the essential components of confecting the Sacrament and on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.



Do You Validate?

As mentioned in previous articles, for any Sacrament to be validly confected, the proper “form” and “matter” must be present. Without the presence of those validating elements, there is no Sacrament – there is no encounter with Christ. In addition to the form and matter, the proper minister (a Priest or Bishop) with the proper intention (the intention of the Church) must likewise be present. Each of these essential elements: form, matter, proper minister, and proper intention will be examined below.


Heart of the Matter

The matter of the Sacrament of the Eucharist is bread and wine. And the church is very clear, in Canon Law, in defining the two elements: “The bread must be made of wheat alone …. The wine must be natural wine of the grape and not corrupt”  (Canon 924). Moreover, the Church adds that a “quantity of any other substance than wheat” in the bread, renders it invalid for use (meaning the Sacrament of the Eucharist cannot be confected with such bread). In a similar way, the Church says that “wine… cannot be regarded as valid matter, [if] extracted from apples or other fruits, or which is made chemically.” Additionally, if there is more water than wine in the mixture, it is equally invalid.


More than a Form-ality

Now, that we have cleared up the matter of the matter – which is no trifling matter -- let’s move onto the proper form of the Sacrament. The form of the Sacrament is the proper minister speaking the “words of institution” over the valid matter; both bread and wine must be present (having only one or the other invalidates the Sacrament). The “words of institution,” sometimes called the “words of consecration,” are as follows:

  • As the priest holds the bread, he says, “Take this all of you and eat of it for this is my body which will be given up for you.”
  • As the priest holds the chalice filled with wine, he says, “Take this, all of you, and drink from it: for this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me.”

These beautiful words are not just some Hallmark Card type, nice-sounding prose. The Church holds that these are the words that Christ spoke at the Last Supper, (i.e., the first Mass). The Church, following the command of Christ to “do this in memory of me,” continues to re-present that event which is inextricably connected to His death and resurrection. Following the recitation of these words over the elements (and the Holy Spirit having been invoked previously in the Ritual), the bread and wine that the eye still sees (sometimes called the Sacred Species), are, in reality, no more. What is substantially, truly and actually present are the Body, Blood, soul and Divinity of Christ.


Prim and Proper

So, with all of the above in mind, one might wonder, “Can’t I just get bread and wine and say the word and have the Eucharist in my home?” No! In order for the Eucharist to be confected, the proper minister, a Priest (or Bishop) – one who is ordained to offer Sacrifice – must make the Sacrificial offering. The ordained Priest stands in the person of Christ (in persona Christe).  Thus when Fr. O’Reilly says, “Take this all of you… this is my body” it is Christ speaking, it is Christ re-presenting the offering of his Body and Blood.


Magic, Man?

And finally, after having the proper form, proper matter and proper minister, there is one other essential element: The proper minister must also have the proper intention, namely, the intention of the Church. What does that mean? Well, let me tell you about an urban legend from a few years ago – completely untrue, but repeated endlessly. The legend said that some priest in the Midwest went wiggy, and said words of consecration inside a bakery truck and consecrated tons of bread which became the Body of Christ. Further, the Church then had to take the truck and reserve it as sort of giant tabernacle until all of the “Eucharist” could be consumed. Oh, where to begin? Let’s start with the key point: This never happened. And even if this did happen, no valid consecration would have occurred because the proper minister did not have the intention of the Church.

What do I mean by that? The priest is not to be seen as a variant of Mandrake the Magician or the Great Amazo. He doesn’t twitch his nose or give an “I Dream of Jeannie” blink-of-his-eyes and do a trick. That is not the intention of the Church at Mass. The intention of the Church is that priests consecrate bread and wine to re-present, in an un-bloody manner, the Sacrifice of Christ at Calvary making Christ present in our world to nourish us and to be adored. It isn’t an act of magic, it is an act of faith.


Sense and Sense Ability

“Okay, so, Christ is present: Body, Blood, soul and Divinity. Why then,” you may ask, “Do I still see what looks like bread and wine?” A great question! The common simple reply is that Christ is present to us “under the veil” of the Sacrament. He is there, and if you could pull that veil away, you would see the 2nd person of the Blessed Trinity, the Son of God, in his glorified form as he was seen after the resurrection.


Thomas’ Promises

St. Thomas Aquinas in his hymn “Pange Lingua,” addresses this issue writing: “Praestet fides supplementum / Sensuum defectui.” That Latin phrase, roughly translated to English, states, “Faith provides a supplement / (to compensate for) the defect of our senses.” What this means is that in faith we understand the reality of the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, even though our eyes and our taste buds would tell us it is bread and wine. Aquinas would describe the sight of bread and wine after consecration (aka, the Sacred Species), as an “accident” of appearance. That is, just because it looks like bread and wine, doesn’t change what is substantially, actually and truly there: The Real (and abiding) presence of Christ.


Candy is Dandy

To put this in clearer terms, I will make an analogy I used in the past with young children making their first communion. It deals with Fred Flintstone. Have you ever heard of Flintstone Vitamins? These vitamins were developed by a smart pharmaceutical company – they decided that children don’t like to take vitamins because, even though they are good for them, they look like medicine. So, that company decided to make their Vitamins in the shape of the cartoon character Fred Flintstone and added a pinch of sugar to the formula. The Vitamin now looked like and tasted like candy. To the eyes and the taste buds, it had all of the properties of candy. And yabba-dabba-doo, the kids liked it and began taking their vitamins without tears, screaming or a big to-do.

What’s the point of this tale from Vitamin history? Simply this: As much as a Flintstone Vitamin looks and tastes like candy -- to use New York grammar – it ain’t candy. It is in fact: Potassium Iodide, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Vitamin A Acetate, Vitamin B12, Vitamin D3, Vitamin E Acetate, Zinc Sulfate and much, much more.  What the eyes see and the senses taste in a Flintstone Vitamin –namely, candy -- are what St. Thomas Aquinas would call “accidental qualities.” The look and the taste are not what that Flintstone Vitamin truly is; it isn’t candy. What is really there – the good stuff – is hidden to the senses to make the Vitamin more likely to be consumed and understood.

While all analogies break down, and this one is no exception, I think this helps to make the point: Christ makes himself present to us, Body and Blood, soul and Divinity, in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist, under the Sacred Species of bread and wine. While our limited senses can only see the appearance bread and wine, it is not bread and wine that is there at all – it is Jesus Christ. Under the appearance of bread and wine we are able receive Christ and be nourished by him spiritually and physically in a way that our human nature can comprehend.

Thus, in the Eucharist is the real and abiding present of Jesus Christ, whole and entire, made present to us. And frankly, that is something which should all be willing to yabba-dabba-doo about.