The Roman Catholic Eucharist as a Manifestation of the Sacred

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The Roman Catholic Eucharist as a Manifestation of the Sacred

The definition of religion can be viewed in three main perspectives: functionalist, essentialist, and family resemblance. Many theorists of religion have looked at the actual rituals that take place within certain religions in order to help define religion as well. The Roman Catholic Eucharist, the roots of which can be traced back to the Passover meal when Christ gave bread and wine to his disciples as His body and blood, is one such ritual that is practiced in the Catholic Church daily. Through Jesus’ words “do this in memory of me,” this ritual has been preserved as a sacrament. In this paper, I will look at what the Roman Catholic Eucharist is, its history, and how two theorists of religion, Mircea Eliade and Mary Douglas, would have interpreted this ritual that is one of the cores of Roman Catholic belief.

The first Eucharist took place with Jesus and His apostles gathered in an upper room to celebrate the Passover meal. It was at this meal that Jesus gave the bread as His body and the wine as His blood to His apostles, telling them to all take and eat, and to do it in memory of Him. After Jesus’ death, His apostles and their successors continued this sacred act and named it the “Breaking of the Bread (McBride).” Later, this ritual was moved to Sundays to establish a more prayerful setting, as was reported by an early first century document, the Didache, or “Teaching of the Apostles (McBride).”

By the year 150 A.D., St. Justin Martyr said the basic structure of the Mass was put into effect (McBride). It was not until 313 A.D. when Constantine allowed Christianity to be practiced in the Roman Empire that the Eucharist was celebrated outside of people’s homes and in the public scene (McBride).

In 1570, the Tridentine Mass was established. The Council of Trent, which lasted from 1545-1563, was called to address the Reformation. At this council, Catholic Eucharistic teaching was one of the main focuses because the Reformation had caused many variations of Eucharistic celebrations to come about (BBC). Pope Pius V helped to codify the liturgical practices, and the Tridentine Mass was formed out of the Council of Trent. This form of the Mass was in Latin and the priest faced opposite the congregation for the entire duration of the celebration. The congregation played a more passive role with this form of the Mass. The structure of the Mass and Eucharist remained this way for almost 400 years (BBC).

The Council of Vatican II that occurred from 1962-1965 brought about some interesting changes in regard to the Roman Catholic Eucharist that were put into place at the Council of Trent. During the celebration of the Eucharist, the priest was now to face the congregation, which bridged the gap that was present when the priest had his back to the congregation and made them seem like two almost completely separate entities. The requirement that the Mass be said in Latin was removed. The celebration of the Eucharist could now be said in English and was able to foster more participation from the congregation, as many people were not fluent in Latin.

Today, Roman Catholic churches have their own musical styles for hymns, different architectural designs, and distinct names, but the concept of the Eucharist is the same for all. The Roman Catholic Eucharist takes place in the second half of the Mass, which is known as the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The Catholic priest takes the elements of bread and wine, which are then consecrated and transformed into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ. The body and blood are not just merely symbols of Jesus’ body and blood that He gave to us as He died on the cross, but, according to Roman Catholic belief, they are actually transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is truly present in the celebration of the Eucharist, which is known as transubstantiation (Pohle).

Mircea Eliade, author of the book...
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