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When Does the Host Become the Eucharist?

It's a question that could lead to a pharisaical mindset - fretting about the minimum requirements for a sacrament - but it's nevertheless important for a number of practical reasons.

Paul Senz

An unfathomable thing happens at every Mass throughout the world, from the rising of the sun to its setting, every hour of nearly every day: bread and wine become Jesus Christ—body, blood, soul, and divinity. The Catholic Church teaches that after the valid words of institution by an ordained priest, Christ is really, truly, and substantially present in every discernible particle of what appears to be bread and wine.  

For this reason, the priest dresses the altar and purifies the vessels in a particular way designed to prevent any particle or droplet from getting discarded or treated with any degree of disrespect. For this reason, every parish sacristy has a special sink called a sacrarium that empties directly into the ground rather than into the sewer system, so that any remaining particles are properly buried when the vessels are washed. These practices are a sign of tremendous respect for Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. 

Catholics believe that because the Eucharist is Jesus Christ—the second person of the Blessed Trinity, fully human and fully divine—it is due reverence and adoration. But adoring mere bread and wine would be idolatrous, so a pertinent question arises: at what point do the bread and wine become Jesus Christ? 

Why bother with the question?

In principle, the question is important. But in practice, concern over matter and form (and thus, validity and invalidity of the sacraments) tends to breed a pharisaical approach: what is the minimum that can be done for there to be a sacrament? Ideally, the question is academic, because if one celebrates the complete rite passed down through Tradition and prescribed by competent ecclesiastical authorities, there is no issue. 

However, the question is important in what we might call emergency situations: when the priest doesn’t have the liturgical books handy, when he accidentally (or intentionally) omits one or more of the words of institution, or he spills the chalice or drops the host partway through the eucharistic prayer.  

The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes the Church’s teaching: “The Eucharist is consecrated by the power of the Holy Spirit and the presiding priest’s saying the essential words of consecration” (1353). This formulation can apply broadly since it doesn’t identify the “words of consecration.” That is a question to be addressed by theological investigation. 

There are also practical questions that arise in cases of emergency. If a piece of bread falls on the ground, it can simply be picked up. But if the Eucharist falls on the ground, it is to be either consumed by the priest or dissolved in a vessel of water until no bread is visible. Perhaps the most practical solution is to err on the side of caution.  

G.K. Chesterton wrote of a scenario in which you come across a fence in the middle of the forest and don’t know why it’s there. Would you tear the fence down? Or would you leave it up because you don’t know its purpose? In the same way, when it comes to respect for the Eucharist, we should err on the side of caution. 


There is a consensus in the Latin Rite that the precise words of consecration—the words at which the Eucharist is confected—are the words of institution, the retelling of the Last Supper, at which Christ instituted the Eucharist (cf. Matthew 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-26; Luke 22:7-39; 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). Our Lord said over the bread, “This is my body” and over the chalice, “This is my blood,” and his word made it so.  

In the Mass down through the ages, the Greek concept of anamnesis is important to our understanding of what happens. Anamnesis is a recalling, remembering, but more than that: it is making something present by the act of remembering. This is the re-presentation of the sacrifice on Calvary, which Our Lord presented at the Last Supper. 

The question becomes more complicated when we consider that the Mass of the Latin Rite is not the only valid confection of the Eucharist. There are various liturgical rites that have developed over the centuries that have a wide variety in their prayers and rituals.  

In the Eastern rite Catholic churches, the various Eastern Orthodox churches, Coptic churches, etc., they have maintained apostolic succession and a valid ministerial priesthood, and thus valid sacraments, including the Holy Eucharist. But their prayers and rituals differ greatly from those of the Latin rite. In fact, there are some eucharistic prayers that the Church recognizes as valid that do not explicitly include the words of institution. 

We must also take into consideration the earliest eucharistic prayers (also known as anaphoras). There was not a great deal of uniformity in practice. The general principles and structure of Christians’ commemoration of Lord’s Day was consistent, but there were many variations in practice. Christians of the day followed the Lord’s command to “do this in memory of me,” but just how they did it varied.  

But there is no question of the validity of these Masses. The belief in the presence of Christ, and the intention to do as Our Lord commanded in union with all others who were breaking bread on that day, with properly ordained-and-sent ministers, speaks to the validity, even though the Church would continue to develop its articulation of the belief in the Real Presence for many centuries to come. 

With all of these variables in mind, is there a method we can use to identify the moment at which the Eucharist is confected? Is there any universal consistency in this regard? 

Matter and form

When talking about sacramental theology, the conversation usually turns toward the two elements of “matter” and “form.” We should note that these terms are foreign to the sacraments as they were developed. Jesus did not delineate the proper rubrics of matter and form for the apostles! They are a theoretical construct, a way of understanding existing practice of the sacraments. They are a way of explaining the way the sacraments are practiced and understanding how they operate. 

They can also be considered a litmus test to help determine whether a given sacramental practice is, in fact, in conformity with the faith. (The limitations of the usefulness of “matter” and “form” can really be seen when looking at the sacraments of reconciliation and matrimony—but this goes beyond the scope of the present article.) 

In the question of matter and form, certain things are changeable, and certain things are set in stone. For example, in the Eucharist, wheat bread and wine must be offered, but the bread can be leavened or unleavened; in baptism, water must be used; in confirmation, oil is involved. But the formulas used by the minister of the sacrament can differ from place to place and time to time. (Which is not to say that the minister can change them as he pleases—quite the opposite!)  

The formulas sometimes differ between East and West—“I baptize you . . .” in the West, “N. is baptized . . .” in the East—as can the understanding of just when the sacrament is effected. But the primary question of whether the sacrament takes place is an easy one to answer, universally, when the rubrics are followed and the minister intends what the Church intends: yes, it does. 

The question of matter and form typically takes into account prevailing Latin rite practice and does not take into account Eastern traditions and other valid apostolic views or practices. So relying on this as our method would severely limit our ability to explore the question regarding worldwide practice. 

The Anaphora of Addai and Mari

A terrific test case for our question comes to us from the Syriac East. 

On October 26, 2001, a document was promulgated with the approval of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Congregation for Oriental Churches, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Pope St. John Paul II. The document was called Guidelines for Admission to the Eucharist Between the Chaldean Church and the Assyrian Church of the East 

The Chaldean Church is one of the Eastern rite churches in full communion with the pope, and the Assyrian Church of the East is recognized as having apostolic succession and valid sacraments, although it is not in union with the pope. No mere attempt at ecumenism, this was a thoroughly theological statement following a thoroughly theological investigation. 

The Anaphora of Addai and Mari is an example of an ancient eucharistic prayer that does not contain the words of institution in an explicit way. We also must consider that the groups who use this prayer have indeed maintained apostolic succession and thus a valid priesthood and sacraments. They share the Catholic belief in the Eucharist and holy orders and clearly intend to confect the Eucharist by this anaphora. 

Historically, there was not any formal disagreement between East and West over the exact moment of consecration. There was universal agreement on the fundamental point: during the Mass, the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ. While there were differing views on some of the particulars (which words effect the change?), the views were not seen as being in opposition to each other. Greeks and Latins, East and West, it remained a purely academic question. 

The scholastics in the twelfth-century West were the first to posit that the words of institution are the sole means of effecting the eucharistic consecration. As we have discussed, such a thesis does not consider the myriad valid liturgies of the Christian East. Nor does this articulation have the nuance of the belief that Christ’s words at the Last Supper are eternally consecratory, even if they are not explicitly pronounced (provided the priest is following the approved rubrics of his church). 


So what are we to make of all this? A lot of sacramental theology, a lot of eucharistic nuance, a lot of ecclesiology, has brought us finally to the point. When does the Eucharist become the Eucharist? 

Perhaps we could summarize our answer in this way: universally, East and West, Catholic and Orthodox believe that the holy sacrifice of the Mass confects the Eucharist, and Jesus Christ becomes really, truly, and substantially present. But defining a precise moment across all liturgical traditions down through the centuries at which the Eucharist becomes the Eucharist is not possible because of the variety of valid liturgical practices.  

The crux of the matter is this: at the Mass, during the prayer of consecration (whatever that may be in each time and liturgical tradition), a validly ordained priest, through the eternally efficacious words and power of Jesus Christ the high priest, confects the Eucharist, and Jesus Christ becomes really, truly, and substantially present under the appearance of bread and wine. This is the source and summit, the font and apex, of the Church’s life, and we do well to adore and worship and revere our eucharistic Lord. 

What should we take from the fact that the Church teaches that the eucharistic prayer is when the consecration takes place without precisely defining the moment when the change is effected? Think about what is happening: the second person of the Blessed Trinity, the logos through whom all things were made (cf. John 1:3), who willingly sacrificed his life on the cross for the sake of all mankind, is becoming truly present under the appearance of bread and wine. This is incredible! St. John Vianney is reported to have said, “If we truly understood what happens at the Mass, we would die with joy.”  

We should spend the entirety of the eucharistic prayer in awe of what is happening before us. We should praise God for the gift of the sacraments, the gift of the Eucharist, and the opportunity to participate in the holy sacrifice of the Mass. 


Church Fathers on the Consecration

St. Justin Martyr (ca. 100-165 A.D.) (First Apology, 66) 

“For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.” 

St. John Chrysostom (ca. 340-+407 A.D.) (Homily on the Betrayal of Judas 1/2, 6) 

“It is not man who causes what is present to become the body and blood of Christ, but Christ himself, who was crucified for us. The priest is the representative when he pronounces those words, but the power and the grace are those of the Lord. ‘This is my body,’ he says. This word changes the things that lie before us; and just as that sentence, ‘increase and multiply,’ once spoken, extends through all time and gives to our nature the power to reproduce itself; likewise that saying, ‘This is my body,’ once uttered, from that time to the present day, and even until Christ’s coming, makes the sacrifice complete at every table in the churches.’” 

St. Ambrose of Milan (339-397 A.D.) (De sacramentis IV, 4.14-17) 

“…to produce the venerable sacrament, the priest does not use his own words but the words of Christ. So it is the word of Christ which produces this sacrament. Which word of Christ? The one by which all things were made. The Lord commanded and the heavens were made, the Lord commanded and the earth was made, the Lord commanded and the seas were made, the Lord commanded and all creatures were brought into being. You see, then, how effective the word of Christ is. If then there is such power in the word of the Lord Jesus that things which were not began to be, how much more effective must they be in changing what already exists into something else!” 

St. John Damascene (ca. 675-753/4 A.D.) (“last of the Greek Fathers”) (De fide orthodoxa 86 [IV, 13]) 

“God said ‘This is my body’ and ‘This is my blood,’ and ‘do this in memory of me.’ And by his all-powerful command it is done until he comes. For that is what he said, until he should come, and the overshadowing power of the Holy Spirit becomes, through the invocation, the rain to this new tillage.” 

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