We often speak of the four marks of the Church: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Yet during our apologetical endeavors, it would be a missed opportunity not to bring the argument to a climax by unveiling the Eucharist as the mark of Christ’s Church par excellence. The Eucharist is the ultimate mark of Christ’s Church, for the Eucharist not only is a visible sign of each mark, but has the power to maintain the essence of what each mark of the Church represents.
First, the Church is one through the Eucharist. In October 2004, John Paul II graced the Year of the Eucharist with the apostolic letter Mane Nobiscum Domine. In it, the Holy Father recounted several instances in Scripture where Christ was leading his disciples to an understanding of a Church united in him through the Eucharist. In John 6:55, Jesus says, “My flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.” This was shocking to those who heard it—so much so that many left. Jesus asked the Twelve if they too would go away. Peter, speaking for the Twelve, said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” In other words, those who understood, though they were shocked by the reality of the words just spoken, refused to abandon Christ’s teaching because they would be abandoning Christ himself.
St. Cyril of Alexandria understood the Eucharist’s ability to unite us with Christ. He said, “As two pieces of wax fused together make one, so he who receives Holy Communion is so united with Christ that Christ is in him and he is in Christ.”
The Eucharist is, therefore, the sign and cause of unity because the Eucharist is Christ. It was instituted by Christ as a means of drawing us to himself. The Eucharist expresses our unity and also brings it about when we receive him worthily. The fact that we share the same body and blood makes us sisters and brothers in Christ. Even at the natural level we realize that sharing the same blood forms a family bond. Those who are too ill to participate in the Eucharistic celebration are often brought the Eucharist both as a sign of unity and to provide them with spiritual food. Blessed Theophane Venard wrote of the Eucharist, “When the body is deprived of food it languishes and dies; and it is the same with the soul, without the Bread that sustains life.”
By receiving this spiritual nourishment, we, Christ’s body, are equipped to give of ourselves to each other and to him in a more perfect way. The visible structure of the Church maintains the succession of priests who can offer the sacrifice of the Mass and consecrate bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood. “Just as the Church ‘makes the Eucharist’ so the Eucharist builds up the Church” (Dominicae Cenae 4).
The Eucharist also unites heaven and earth. Many who have lost a loved one may experience closeness to that person after receiving Communion or while in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. These feelings may be a result of a deep theological awareness that those who died in grace are alive in Christ; thus, our nearness to Christ in the Eucharist brings us nearer to them as well.
Another way of seeing this fusion of heaven and earth is to realize that when Christ instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper, its sacrificial dimension was revealed. Throughout history, Christ offers himself for the salvation of all mankind—but why? So we can live with him eternally. As one family, we, who share the same divine body and blood, will share in the heavenly banquet together—perfected in love and united in that love.
Augustine said of the Eucharist, “O sacrament of love! O sign of unity! O bond of charity! He who would have life finds here indeed a life to live and a life to live by.”
Second, the Church is holy through the Eucharist. The greatest commandments are to love God and neighbor, and the greatest expression of this love is found in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is Christ, and it recalls the love he has for us—a love so great that he was willing to become one of us, suffer incredible physical and spiritual pain, and die a human death. Consuming Christ in the Eucharist has the capacity to make us more like him—and thus more holy. “For the partaking of the body and blood of Christ has no less an effect than to change us into what we receive” (Eucharisticum Mysterium 7).
Such thoughts help us to understand St. Teresa of Avila’s words that “Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion for the world is to look out, yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good, and yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.”
Third, the Church is catholic through the Eucharist. Christ’s presence in the Church makes it catholic, or universal. He is wherever the Church is, and wherever the Church is, there is the Eucharist.
As a universal Church, we have the responsibility of being Christ to others. This means that not only must we say what he said, but we also must do what he did. Jesus admonished sinners, showed mercy, asked for repentance, and demonstrated compassion and forgiveness. He also fed the hungry, healed the sick, and encouraged the poor. He did not deny anyone because of race, sex, age, or state in life. Just as we are to be Christ to others, so we must see Christ in others. He can be found in everyone. When we see Christ in others, we find ourselves. In this way, the Church is also universal.
By participating in the Eucharistic celebration, we are reminded that the loving sacrifice that he made for us, he also made for everyone. All activities of the Church to spread the kingdom of God are linked with the Eucharist and are directed back to it. St. Peter Chrysologus said, “The Eucharist is the link that binds the Christian family together. Take away the Eucharist and you have no brotherliness left.”
Fourth, the Church is apostolic through the Eucharist. The Church is apostolic because her mission in and to the world is a continuation of the work of the first apostles, a mission given to them by Christ. Because this mission will go on until the end of time, the apostles had to make provisions for others to succeed them. Guided by the Holy Spirit, the bishops, who are the successors to the apostles, continue to teach and guide the Church today. All the members of the mystical body of Christ share in this mission and are called to activities that further God’s kingdom. This means they are to spread the gospel of Christ through works of love in their state of life. “But charity, drawn from the Eucharist above all, is always ‘as it were, the soul of the whole apostolate’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 864).
The Church is governed by spiritual fathers representing God. Throughout the Old Testament, genealogies had great importance because they identified individuals as part of a succession of people who shared the same blood and, thus, were part of the same family. Christ continued this linkage by appointing apostles to succeed him, and he gave us the Eucharist so we could all share in the same blood that our brothers and sisters in faith also shared.
So you see how Christ’s body and blood factor into each mark of the Church. The Eucharist both symbolizes the oneness of Christ’s Church and causes and sustains it. Christ is God, who alone is perfectly holy. Christ is present within the Church for which he dies, making it holy. The Church has been entrusted with the Eucharist, and therefore it has the means to make men holy by partaking in Christ. Christ’s Church is universal because he died for each and every one of us wherever we are, whoever we are, and whenever we lived.
St. John de Brebeuf, a Jesuit who was martyred bringing the Catholic faith to the natives of North America, contemplated the mystery of the Eucharist’s universality, saying,
The only external sign of our holy religion that we have is the Blessed Sacrament of the altar. . . . It seems, moreover, that God supplies what we lack and rewards us with grace for having transported the holy sacrament beyond so many seas and having found an abode for it in these poor cabins.
By bringing the Eucharist to the New World, continents were spiritually united. The Eucharist is a memorial of Christ’s sacrifice for all men, and it keeps in our mind the dignity of all men because of Christ’s love for them. The Church’s ability to trace its roots to the apostles assures us that the successors to Peter are part of our family tree and that it is the true Church. The power to consecrate bread and wine has been passed on within the family as our spiritual treasure that keeps each mark of the Church present and its identity authentic.
The reason, therefore, why the Eucharist is the ultimate mark of the Church, the mark par excellence, is that the Eucharist is Christ, who remains in the Church; sustains it; and, through its members, draws others to himself. Because of the Eucharist, the Church maintains its marks and grows in unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolic works. The Eucharist was instituted because of the Church, and the Church is sustained and grows because of the Eucharist.
Articulating this truth to non-Catholic Christians would resonate in many hearts and draw them into this great mystery of our faith: Christ’s real presence among us. St. John Henry Newman said, “A true Christian may almost be defined as one who has a ruling sense of God’s presence within him.” How much more within us can he be than through the partaking of the Eucharist?