Breaking the Host Before Consecration

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Breaking the Host Before Consecration

ROME, 26 OCT. 2004 (ZENIT)

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: The pastor of my parish breaks the bread into two pieces prior to consecrating the bread into the precious Body of Christ. Then he holds the two pieces of bread, one in one hand, one in the other. Then he spreads his hands wide apart, and as he pronounces the words of consecration, he brings his hand together, and touches the two consecrated hosts at the lower end. I always understood that the bread is not to be broken till after the Lamb of God is announced. This is a source of concern and very disturbing to some of the members of our parish. — E.F., Scottsdale, Arizona

A: This theme is succinctly addressed in the instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum," No. 55:

"In some places there has existed an abuse by which the Priest breaks the host at the time of the consecration in the Holy Mass. This abuse is contrary to the tradition of the Church. It is reprobated and is to be corrected with haste."

It is hard to be much clearer than that.

This abuse seems to have arisen from a literal and somewhat dramatic interpretation of the words of the institution narrative of the consecration "He took the bread, broke it ..."

This might be a symptom related to our televised society where the visual image predominates over the deeper meaning. And so, some priests, often in good faith, have been led to adopt in a more dramatic or even theatrical mode while celebrating the Mass.

Thus, some see themselves almost as acting out the role of Christ by imitating his words and gestures.

This phenomenon, however, may also be indicative of a lack of formation and of a defective understanding of the priest's ministerial role as acting "in persona Christi" and the theological content of the words of consecration as form of the sacrament.

Of course, if one were to be totally consistent with this view, then Communion would logically have to be distributed immediately after pronouncing the words "gave it to his disciples," etc.

As far as I know, this has never been attempted.

In a way, the other parts of the Eucharistic Prayer explicate what is contained within the institution narrative as the summit of Christ's paschal mystery of his death and resurrection, the center of salvation history.

During the course of the celebration each element of the consecration is rendered clearer and in a way is also made present.

During the offertory the Church takes the bread and wine and offers up thanks and praise to the Father.

Before the consecration the Church also calls upon the Holy Spirit to intervene just as he did in Christ's incarnation and throughout his life.

The prayer which immediately follows the consecration, often called the "Anamnesis," because it begins with a phrase such as "Father, calling to mind his death and resurrection ..." is, in a way, the Mass defining itself by explaining what is meant by Christ's command to the apostles to "do this in memory of me."

This prayer shows that the priest, in the consecration, is saying and doing more than just repeating Christ's words and gestures.

What is called to mind and made present throughout history is Christ's death resurrection and ascension into glory.

The command to "do this" also means imitating in our lives the attitudes of the loving and total self-giving which Christ demonstrated in his sacrifice.

After this the Eucharistic Prayers generally invoke the Holy Spirit once more so that we may obtain the fruits of the celebration, above all to be united in charity and to intercede along with Christ for all those, living and dead, who need our prayer. This is done so that the overall purpose of the Eucharist is achieved when we are united with the saints in heaven.

Finally, in the doxology, we recognize that all that is done through, with and in Christ in union with the Holy Spirit, is done for the Father's honor and glory just as Christ constantly offered all to the Father.

This might seem to be a digression away from the main point of the question. But I wish to show that unless the Eucharistic Prayer is complete, the full meaning of the gesture involved in breaking and giving is truncated and not fully grasped.

The gesture is not the breaking and giving of a piece of bread but of the Lord's Body sacrificed yet risen and ascended into glory.

It is not partaking of a simple meal, but of Christ's eternal sacrifice from which springs our salvation.

Perhaps I am reading too much into what might appear as a simple practical gesture, albeit one that has been present from the beginning of Christianity. Yet I believe that many of these gestures obey an inner logic and may not be tampered with without peril. ZE04102622

* * *

Follow-up: Breaking of the Host [from 11-09-2004]

Several questions arose related to our piece about breaking the host at the consecration (Oct. 26).

A reader from Syracuse, New York, asked about how high the host and chalice should be raised after the words of consecration.

There is no clear-cut rule, although a certain elevation is required since this is a showing of the host and chalice to the people for the purpose of adoration.

Before the reforms following the Second Vatican Council, the eastern direction of prayer at Mass meant that the priest would elevate the host high above his head so that it would be visible to the congregation.

People were encouraged to look at the host. Pope St. Pius X had granted an indulgence to those who repeated the words of the Apostle Thomas, "My Lord and my God," at this moment.

Today, most Masses are celebrated facing the people and consequently such a high elevation is probably unnecessary. But for visibility sake it should be raised to at least eye level and maybe slightly higher depending in part on the celebrant's height.

It should also be held aloft for a few seconds so that people have time to make an act of adoration.

Another reader, from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, mentions that occasionally some of our readers use the expression that Christ is present "in the bread and wine" and that this term is even heard in some widely used hymns.

She points out that such a form is technically incorrect "to clarify that the body and blood of Jesus Christ is not IN the bread and wine. The form or appearance or accidents of bread and wine remain, but these have become really the body and blood of Jesus and no longer exist themselves."

In part this is due to the limits of the English language when it comes to expressing supernatural realities. In part it stems from the inherent difficulties in expressing such wonderful mysteries in any language.

Most people who use such expressions probably have a truly orthodox understanding of the reality of the Eucharist. Yet it is worthwhile pointing out these infelicitous expressions as the frequent repetition of imprecise terms can eventually lead to a misconception of the truth behind the words. ZE04110922

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