My name is Father Bower and I am the pastor of Saint Bernard Catholic Church here in Crawfordsville. I have been writing a series of articles in the newspaper about Catholicism, because Saint Bernard is about to start our annual classes for people interested in becoming Catholic. These articles are not meant to proselytize, but rather as an opportunity for interested people to learn more about what the Catholic Church teaches. After all, the Catholic Church can be intimidating and foreign to people on the outside. Today’s article is about communion.
Many churches have communion at their worship services, but not all agree on what communion is and means. When I was in high school, this became apparent to me. I remember getting into a pretty heated debate with one of my classmates about communion (I don’t recall how we ended up on this topic during health class at my public school). Ironically, we were both Catholic and yet had two different beliefs. I had been Catholic my whole life, and yet I found myself arguing that communion is just a symbol of Jesus’ body and blood. My classmate was saying that communion is not a symbol, but truly the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus.
I was deeply embarrassed to find out later on from the priest at my church that I was dead wrong. Even though many Christian denominations see communion as a symbol or a metaphor, the Catholic Church has always taught that the bread and wine at mass is changed into the body and blood of Jesus. That’s why we call it the Eucharist, and why leftovers don’t get thrown away afterward; we keep it in the tabernacle at church.
I couldn’t believe it, how is it possible that what looks like bread and wine is actually the Body and Blood of Jesus? Honestly, I wondered if I should find another church because it just seemed so crazy. Before I could do that, though, my priest introduced me to some quotes from early Christians about communion. I was surprised to learn that the earliest Christians believed communion wasn’t symbolic either. Here are some examples:
“They [i.e. the Gnostics] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our savior jesus christ.” (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to Smyrnians 7:1, 110 A.D.)
“We call this food Eucharist … For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by Him … is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus. (Justin Martyr, First Apology, 66, 165 A.D.)
“How can they say that the flesh is not capable of receiving the gift of God, which is eternal life — flesh which is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord … receiving the word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ … (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5:2:2-3, 140-200 A.D.)
“That bread which you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the word of God is the body of Christ. That chalice, or rather, what is in that chalice, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the blood of Christ.” (Augustine, Sermons 227, c.a. 400 A.D)
So, basically, I was left with a question: Even though I may think that communion is just a symbol, the early Christians didn’t think so. So, who is correct? Them or me? In my experience, this is one of the biggest reasons why people end up becoming Catholic. They realize that basically up until the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s, all Christians believed that communion was literally the body and blood of Jesus.
Father Michael Bower can be reached at email@example.com or by calling the parish office at 765-362-6121.
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