The Body of Christ; The Blood of Christ:
Theology, History, and Praxis

by Joyce Stolberg

Many of us older Catholics have, within our lifetime, left the secure land of splendid, solemn Tridentine liturgical worship, having grown up receiving Jesus Christ -- Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity -- under the appearances of bread only. We welcomed the surprise return of the ancient privilege of receiving Holy Communion under both species. Younger Catholics may have matured in the Faith experiencing Communion under both species as the norm. This presentation provides a brief overview of both the understanding and the practical aspects of the reception of Holy Communion by the faithful from the time of the earliest Christians until the present day. Perhaps the principle of "Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi" resonates most luminously in relation to our praxis surrounding the reception of Holy Communion.

Early History

Early Christians expected to receive both the Body and Blood of Christ at Eucharistic celebrations. "From the first days of the Church's celebration of the Eucharist, Holy Communion consisted of the reception of both species in fulfillment of the Lord's command: "take and eat . . . take and drink" (General Instruction of the Roman Missal 17). In the early Church at Jerusalem the faithful received Communion at the "Breaking of the Bread" and reserved the Body of Christ in their homes to receive Communion every day. (Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart... Acts 2:46, Catholic Encyclopedia). St. Paul retells the narrative of the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians.

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, 'This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.' For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. (1 Cor. 11:23-27)

In Chapter 66 of Justin Martyr's First Apology, he describes the change (in later ages explained to be transubstantiation) which occurs on the altar: "For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Saviour was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus" (First Apology 66:1-20 A.D. 148). No theology of concomitance was needed or developed, and all participants clearly understood that they were receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. St. Cyril of Jerusalem instructed: "When you approach, take care not to do so with your hand stretched out and your fingers open or apart, but rather place your left hand as a throne beneath your right, as befits one who is about to receive the King. Then receive him, taking care that nothing is lost." (51)

Thus the distribution of Holy Communion to the faithful under both kinds was the norm for more than a millennium of Catholic liturgical practice, although infants were communicated with the precious blood only and the sick who remained in their homes communicated under the species of bread only. Yet the rites, while authentic, grew diverse and unification with reform was needed.

Medieval Practices

Towards the end of the eighth century, Charlemagne who had united much of Europe politically, took great interest in the Church's liturgy. He decreed that the Roman rite of Mass, embellished by some Galician elements, would be used throughout his domains and he worked with the pope to secure liturgical reform. Until either sometime in the twelfth century (Reception of the Eucharist Under Two Species by Mark E. Welding) or the 15th century, when prohibited by the Council of Constance in 1415 (General Instruction of the Roman Missal 18) our ancestors in the Faith continued to experience the reception of Holy Communion under both species. There are minor disagreements in regard to the timing of the discontinuation of offering the chalice to the lay faithful among several references researched and cited. Perhaps the practice diminished gradually in different regions of the Latin Rite Church. It may be stated as a general fact, that down to the twelfth century, in the West as well as in the East, public Communion in the churches was ordinarily administered and received under both kinds, although it was administered to infants under the form of wine only, and taken home for the sick under the form of bread only. Reception of Communion under both species has continued unbroken to the present time among the Eastern rite churches.

What happened, then, to cause such a dramatic shift in practice within the relatively narrow span of about a century or two during the High Middle Ages in Europe? What confluences of theological development, liturgical praxis, popular piety, and pressures of practical necessity combined to create the perfect storm of relatively rapid change?

A thorough exploration of all these factors would generate an endless thesis; only the highlights are presented here. Beginning in the early middle ages and influenced by the writings of St. Paschasius Radbertus, (abbot, c 800-865) including "De corpore et sanguine Domini", (Catholic Encyclopedia Online) an inaccurate overemphasis was placed on equating the Sacred Species with the physical historical body--the flesh and bones--the carnal presence of Christ.  

"He supports his doctrine by the words of institution in their literal sense, and by the sixth chapter of John. He appealed also to marvelous stories of the visible appearances of the body and blood of Christ for the removal of doubts or the satisfaction of the pious desire of saints. The bread on the altar, he reports, was often seen in the shape of a lamb or a little child, and when the priest stretched out his hand to break the bread, an angel descended from heaven with a knife, slaughtered the lamb or the child, and let his blood run into a cup!" (History of the Christian Church, Vol. IV, P. Schaff)707 

 Although this teaching was refuted, its deleterious effects endured; its implications led to a prolonged and pronounced decrease in frequency of reception of the Eucharist. Despite this trend, reception under both species continued until the middle ages as detailed above; this was justified by the doctrine of concomitance, and reception under both kinds was eventually prohibited by the Council of Constance in 1415 (Wedig). St. Thomas Aquinas (d 1274) (Summa Theologica, Tertia Pars, The Holy Eucharist) clarified the Eucharistic doctrines of transubstantiation, Real Presence, sacred species, and sacrament in the 13th century. He also developed beautiful texts to accompany devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. 

In liturgical practice and popular piety, the Mass, which was always a re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary and a sacrificial meal, became seen more as a sacrifice and less as a meal. The elevation of the sacred Host for adoration became the action of the Mass most cherished by the laity. This action was made as prolonged, as highly visible, and as embellished as possible! Medieval piety and devotion to the Eucharist took the form of gazing lovingly at the Body of Christ, either at the Consecration of the Mass or in prolonged exposition, rather than through reception of Holy Communion. Actual reception of Communion became so infrequent that the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) had to legislate the mandatory reception of Communion at least once a year. Ironically, an era of great faith became an age of rare and "sub una" (under one species) Communion.

European social conditions and overall climate underwent severe strain during the High Middle Ages, although these influences on the issue under discussion, namely the discontinuation of Communion under both species, remain somewhat nebulous. The historically warm climatic period which peaked around 1000 AD diminished and the climate gradually deteriorated into the "little ice age" which persisted through the 17th and even influenced climate into the 19th century. Europe saw crop failure, famine, and diseases such as plague, measles and smallpox, although the worst outbreak of the "Black Death" came in the mid 14th century, probably after the chalice was removed from lay participation in many areas. Though lacking a fully developed comprehension of the germ theory of disease, medieval Europeans intuitively understood that some illnesses could be communicated from person to person by invisible means. An increased separation between the hierarchy and the laity developed. What role any or all of these factors contributed to the discontinuance of the presentation of the chalice to the laity would present a research opportunity of its own.  

Renaissance, Protestant revolt, and the Council of Trent  

The Renaissance era brought the Protestant revolt: "reformers" including Luther, Calvin, and Hus reintroduced the chalice to their assemblies in protest against clericalism (Wedig). Protestant "reformers" also reintroduced Communion in the hand, a practice which had disappeared. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) vigorously refuted the theological and practical errors of Protestantism, reinforced and clarified Catholic doctrine and set liturgical practice in durable and replicable forms. Reception of the Precious Blood by the faithful was again prohibited, both in refutation of the errors of Protestantism and in an effort to affirm the doctrine of concomitance. The use of the Latin language and the reception of Communion under one species (sub una) would endure for another 400 years until the opening of Vatican II.  

The continuance of the Latin language in the liturgy may have been necessitated by the incomplete emergence of developing modern written vernacular language texts and Bibles in the 16th century. However, in the regulations surrounding the praxis of the reception of Holy Communion by the faithful, we see here a reversal of the principle of "Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi". Of Trent we might rather say, "Lex Credendi, Lex Orandi" because the method of distributing Communion (as well as other aspects of the Mass) was specifically designed to firmly reinforce the theology concerning the Eucharist and to refute the errors of Protestantism. For example, in the 21st session the Council stated that Communion under either species is sufficient for salvation (Page 141). Therefore Communion under both species for lay persons was prohibited. Thus, the practice of receiving Communion under both species, which had been discontinued for practical reasons, was prohibited in the process of refuting heresy, and thus became lost for 400 more years. Children were not admitted to the reception of Communion until they reached an age when they could understand the basics of the nature of the sacrament (although this restraint began well before the Council of Trent). The Council of Trent did encourage frequent and even daily reception, even by the lay faithful, of Holy Communion while insisting on proper preparation and a clear conscience. Communion became more frequent for some time, but in subsequent centuries reception again became less frequent due largely to the influence of the false teachings of Jansenism.  

The 20th Century and Vatican Council II  

A re-exploration of praxis surrounding Holy Communion began long before the Second Vatican Council. The 20th century gave us two great popes who were strong proponents of more frequent reception of Holy Communion, Pope Pius X and Pope Pius XII. Pope Pius X (d. 1914) not only lowered the age of reception of First Holy Communion from approximately 12 years of age to the age of seven (Quam Singulari, 1910) but also encouraged frequent and daily Holy Communion by all the faithful. 

The rules for frequent and daily Communion are laid down by the decree of the Congregation of the Council, "Sacra Tridentina Synodus" (20 Dec., 1905). (1) "Frequent and daily Communion. . . should be open to all the faithful, of whatever rank and condition of life; so that no one who is in the state of grace, and who approaches the holy table with a right and devout intention, can be lawfully hindered therefrom."

Pope Pius XII continued to make Holy Communion more accessible, primarily by changing the strict rules concerning the required fast prior to reception of Holy Communion. In his instruction of 1953, Pius XII issued regulations concerning the fast prior to reception of Communion at evening Masses: one need only refrain for three hours from solid food and alcoholic liquids, and one hour from non-alcoholic liquids: water does not break the fast. In Sacram Communionem, 1957, these instructions were extended to all Masses, including morning Masses. This law was applied to all the faithful everywhere. (The sick were exempt from fasting. The regulation was subsequently changed in the 1960s to require fasting for one hour only from all solids and liquids, excepting water and essential medicines.) The true purpose here was to make Holy Communion more accessible to everyone. Perhaps only those who had been required to abstain from everything, including a small sip of water, from the prior midnight in order to receive Communion could fully understand the welcome implications of this innovation. Pope Pius XII also proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption in 1950, and instituted many other liturgical reforms, including the restoration of the solemn Holy Week liturgy, that paved the way for the work of Vatican Council II in reforming the liturgy.  

Elected to the papacy at an advanced age in 1958, Pope John XXIII was expected to be a "transition" or short-term Pope: he redefined the meaning of "transition". He quickly called a General Council on January 25, 1959, not to refute any major heresies, but rather to "open the windows and let in some fresh air". This Council, convened in four sessions between 1962 and 1965, was much more fully equipped with the benefit of historical knowledge concerning the Church's liturgy and praxis than our most highly educated ancestors were in previous ages. Pope John XXIII lived only through the first session. His short papacy was long enough for him to begin to oversee a far-reaching reform of the sacred liturgy. Pope Paul VI continued the Council.
Published in 1963, The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was the first document promulgated by Vatican Council II. It dealt comprehensively with many aspects of the liturgy: the reception of Holy Communion under both species is the primary issue under consideration here. It decreed as follows.

That more perfect form of participation in the Mass whereby the faithful, after the priest's communion, receive the Lord's body from the same sacrifice, is strongly commended.
The dogmatic principles which were laid down by the Council of Trent remaining intact, communion under both kinds may be granted when the bishops think fit, not only to clerics and religious, but also to the laity, in cases to be determined by the Apostolic See, as, for instance, to the newly ordained in the Mass of their sacred ordination, to the newly professed in the Mass of their religious profession, and to the newly baptized in the Mass which follows their baptism. (No. 55.)

These limited occasions opened the door to the return of the reception of Holy Communion under both species for the laity within the Latin Church as directed by the bishops. During Vatican II, the bishops of the Church took a deep, sincere look at the liturgical practices of the earliest centuries of the Church, endeavoring to restore pristine rites and eliminate unnecessary and irrelevant accretions. Vatican II endeavored to achieve a "hermeneutic of continuity" with the intention of restoring liturgical practices to consistency with those used in the Church throughout most of history. The Council's bishops examined and revived legitimate practices that reached past the Council of Trent into all eras of Church history.

The Body and Blood of Christ

This permission has been greatly expanded in subsequent decrees and documents. In 1970 the Holy See approved for the United States the bishops’ Appendix to the General Instruction for the Dioceses of the United States, which gave permission for Communion under both kinds at weekday Masses (AGI 242:19). In accord with the instruction of the Congregation for Divine Worship on Communion under both kinds (June 29, 1970), the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in November, 1970, added the following cases:

Other members of the faithful present on the special occasions enumerated in no. 242 of the "General Instruction";
At funeral Masses and at Masses for a special family observance;
At Masses on days of special religious or civil significance for the people of the United States;
At Masses on Holy Thursday and at the Mass of the Easter Vigil, the norms of the instruction of June 29, 1970, being observed;
At weekday Masses.

On June 17, 1977, the Congregation of Sacraments and Divine Worship also approved the request of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops to permit the optional practice of Communion in the hand. (Ibid. 240)

 At its meeting in November, 1978, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops further extended the occasions on which Holy Communion under both kinds might be given when it approved the motion that Holy Communion may be given under both kinds to the faithful at Masses on Sundays and holy days of obligation if, in the judgment of the ordinary, Communion may be given in an orderly and reverent manner.     

It may seem counterintuitive here that Communion under both species was permitted at weekday Masses before being allowed at Sunday Masses. The operative words here are "orderly and reverent manner". Those of us who swelled the ranks of extraordinary ministers of Communion at that time can attest to the pragmatic logic of this apparent reversal of priorities. The extension of this privileged to Sunday Masses necessitated an intense recruiting and training effort to achieve the necessary complement of extraordinary ministers needed to facilitate the proper and orderly distribution of Communion. It was of prime importance that they be trained to serve in a manner that ensured the utmost care for the sacred species and fostered reverence among the faithful. The faithful also needed to be catechized to receive Communion properly.    

The Holy See extended this permission to most Masses in the U.S., when it approved the bishops’ directory, This Holy and Living Sacrifice: Directory for the Celebration and Reception of Communion under Both Kinds in 1985.

 And finally, far from being appropriate only in monasteries and convents, the law states:

"Communion under both kinds is to be desired in all celebrations of the Mass, though this is not possible in all cases"

Cases where it is not possible include large Masses in stadiums, outdoor places, hotel ballrooms and other facilities where proper care of the blood of Christ cannot be assured.  

The directives contained in the above-mentioned documents have now been superseded by the norms incorporated in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 2003. The most relevant of these norms follow. 

11. Since, however, by reason of the sign value, sharing in both eucharistic species reflects more fully the sacred realities that the Liturgy signifies, the Church in her wisdom has made provisions in recent years so that more frequent eucharistic participation from both the sacred host and the chalice of salvation might be made possible for the laity in the Latin Church.

17. From the first days of the Church's celebration of the Eucharist, Holy Communion consisted of the reception of both species in fulfillment of the Lord's command to "take and eat . . . take and drink." The distribution of Holy Communion to the faithful under both kinds was thus the norm for more than a millennium of Catholic liturgical practice.

21. The extension of the faculty for the distribution of Holy Communion under both kinds does not represent a change in the Church's immemorial beliefs concerning the Holy Eucharist. Rather, today the Church finds it salutary to restore a practice, when appropriate, that for various reasons was not opportune when the Council of Trent was convened in 1545. But with the passing of time, and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the reform of the Second Vatican Council has resulted in the restoration of a practice by which the faithful are again able to experience "a fuller sign of the Eucharistic banquet." (33)

24. The General Instruction then indicates that the diocesan Bishop may lay down norms for the distribution of Communion under both kinds for his own diocese, which must be observed. . . . The diocesan Bishop also has the faculty to allow Communion under both kinds, whenever it seems appropriate to the priest to whom charge of a given community has been entrusted as [its] own pastor, provided that the faithful have been well instructed and there is no danger of the profanation of the Sacrament or that the rite would be difficult to carry out on account of the number of participants or for some other reason. (6)

In April of 2004, the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacrament issued the instruction, Redemptionis Sacramentum from the Vatican, reaffirming the direction of the Second Vatican Council for the whole Latin Rite Church.

[100.] So that the fullness of the sign may be made more clearly evident to the faithful in the course of the Eucharistic banquet, lay members of Christ’s faithful, too, are admitted to Communion under both kinds, in the cases set forth in the liturgical books, preceded and continually accompanied by proper catechesis regarding the dogmatic principles on this matter laid down by the Ecumenical Council of Trent.[186]

[101.] In order for Holy Communion under both kinds to be administered to the lay members of Christ’s faithful, due consideration should be given to the circumstances, as judged first of all by the diocesan Bishop. It is to be completely excluded where even a small danger exists of the sacred species being profaned. With a view to wider co-ordination, the Bishops’ Conferences should issue norms, once their decisions have received the recognitio of the Apostolic See through the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, especially as regards “the manner of distributing Holy Communion to the faithful under both kinds, and the faculty for its extension”.[188]

Confusion over the Indult

In 2002, the Catholic bishops asked for and were granted a special Indult that allowed the Eucharistic ministers to purify the sacred vessels: this was granted for a period of three years ending in 2005, at which time the Indult was not renewed. This Indult did not affect the distribution of Communion under both species directly, however it did affect to some extent the ease with which it could be accomplished. The priest, deacon, or instituted acolyte must purify all sacred vessels used for distribution of the Sacred Body and Precious Blood of Christ either during Mass following the distribution of Communion or immediately following Mass. Extraordinary ministers are no longer allowed to perform this function.    

That was no Indult given to the United States either in 1970 or 1985 granting permission to administer Holy Communion under both species: the Apostolic See recognized the requests of the bishops as described above. That generated the series of instructions cited which progressively extended the application of this privilege to most Masses, and this was not specific to the United States or to the English-speaking countries. Perhaps the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops took greater advantage of this recognition than did bishops' conferences of other regions.    

All instructions regarding Communion under both species have strongly emphasized that intense reverence and care must be given to the sacred species because they are the Body and Blood of Christ, that ministers must be extremely careful and very reverent, and that the faithful must be properly catechized, and must receive with consciousness of freedom from serious sin and with appropriate dispositions. These instructions also emphasize that each bishop must make decisions in this regard for his diocese, the pastor must ensure the appropriateness for his congregation, and the celebrant must ensure its appropriateness for the specific liturgy involved. Even though reception of Communion under both species at every Mass is the ideal, there are times when it may not be feasible in specific circumstances. The utilization of extraordinary ministers also must not give a false impression of clericalization of the laity. Everything must be accomplished with proper decorum and with great care given to the sacred species.  

Conclusions and Reflections    

While Reception of Communion under the form of bread only provides all the graces necessary for salvation, reception of Holy Communion under the forms of both bread and wine provide a fuller and more vibrant sign and reflects more fully the sacred realities signified in the liturgy. Drinking from the Cup of Salvation is a sign of God's saving love. Throughout the two millennia long course of Church history, partaking of the Eucharist "sub una" or under the species of bread only has been an aberration from the norm generated by physical necessity and by an effort to counteract the errors of Protestantism. Yet we must always remember that our bishops and priests are chosen and ordained by God to offer the sacred liturgy; their determination of the appropriate occasions for reception of Holy Communion under both species must be both honored and embraced.    

It has been said that the vibrant participation of the laity in the activity of the Church has been the "surprise" of Vatican II. Perhaps it should not have been surprising at all! Since Vatican II, the laity have moved from a stance of engaging in private devotions, mainly the rosary, while the priest said Mass to achieving a full active conscious participation in the liturgy and receiving Communion regularly and even daily under the fuller sign of both the Body and the Blood. With the laity thus infused with such abundance of divine grace, how could we expect anything less than an outpouring of energy and charisma into the building up of Christ's body the Church and the spreading of the Gospel?    

Some fervent elder Catholics have bemoaned the decrease in opportunity for Eucharistic adoration since Vatican Council II. Eucharistic adoration is a great privilege and a wonderful devotion; we should visit Jesus reserved in the Blessed Sacrament in our churches whenever possible, whether exposed in the monstrance or hidden in the tabernacle. Let us never forget, however, that Jesus instituted the Eucharist to be consumed in a proper manner, not primarily to be reserved and adored. If our expression of piety has shifted somewhat from engaging in Eucharistic adoration to participating in the sacred liturgy fully, actively, and consciously, and receiving the Body and Blood of Christ frequently and even daily, this is an emphasis to be celebrated, not regretted. By changing the Mass as it existed since the Council of Trent, Vatican Council II has reestablished continuity with the liturgy as our earliest Christian ancestors celebrated it.    

The Tridentine liturgy, with all its beauty and reverence, emphasized the vertical aspect of our worship: our stance in humility before God. Since Vatican II, the emphasis in our worship has perhaps swung too far in the direction of celebrating our horizontal relationships: who we are for one another as members of the body of Christ. Again, we affirm, "Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi". Achieving balance in our liturgy will unite our stance before God with our respect for all the members of Christ's body. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, we come to the end of our 40+ year journey through the desert of experimentation and uncertainty. We are striving to enter the promised land of worship that achieves a liturgy both beautiful and meaningful, and hand this legacy on to our descendents in the Faith.