ASK FATHER: Why do we call Eucharist “Bread” in Novus Ordo?

From a reader…


My wife who is to be received into the Church at the the Easter vigil (Deo gratias!) recently asked me why in the Novus Ordo Missae one of the options for the Memorial Acclamation is “When we eat this Bread and drink this Cup, we proclaim your Death, O Lord, until you come again.” Surely we don’t eat “Bread” at all as the substance of the bread is annihilated at consecration. [Perhaps a better way to put it is entirely changed, from one substance to another.] I thought it might be a mis-translation so I checked the Latin. I’m ashamed to say my Latin isn’t up to much but the operative word there seems to be “panem” which also means “bread” as I understand it. I did notice the word “Bread” is capitalised in English, but not in Latin, is this significant in some way? Can you please explain what’s going on? Thank you in advance.

First, I am glad that the formation your wife has received has been adequate to prompt her to ask these questions.

It is perfectly acceptable also… also… to refer to the Eucharist, the consecrated Host, as “Bread”.  Our Lord refers to Himself as “Bread of Life”.  St. Paul teaches the Corinthians in these terms:

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. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.

To speak of the Eucharist in terms of “Bread” and “cup” is to use Biblical imagery.  It is, for us, an echo consistent with the way that our earliest forebears in the Faith spoke of the Eucharistic Lord.

Many centuries later, we have deepened of our understanding of the what occurs during the celebration of the Eucharist.  We have been able to develop a technical term that goes beyond the poetic, biblical, simple imagery: transubstantiation.  Even after developing this razor sharp, philosophically inspired refinement of terminology, we still use the Biblical images in our sacred liturgical rites.  For example, St. Thomas Aquinas, in composing the Mass formulary and the Office for the Feast of Corpus Domini, includes the bread imagery:

Verbum caro, panem verum
verbo carnem efficit:
fitque sanguis Christi merum,
et si sensus deficit,
ad firmandum cor sincerum
sola fides sufficit.

The Word as Flesh makes
true bread into flesh by a word [Not just bread, but true bread.]
and the wine becomes the Blood of Christ.
And if sense is deficient
to strengthen a sincere heart
Faith alone suffices.

When we adore the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament at Exposition and Benediction we use the verse and response:

V. Panem de caelo praestitisti eis. (T.P. Alleluia)
R. Omne delectamentum in se habentem. (T.P. Alleluia)

V. Thou hast given them bread from heaven (P.T. Alleluia).
R. Having within it all sweetness (P.T. Alleluia).

In this moment we are not talking about the manna of the Old Testament.  We are talking about the Eucharistic bread, of which manna was a foreshadowing.  We we invoke the image of bread when referring to the Eucharist, we bring to the fore in our minds the whole history of salvation.  Bread figures again and again in salvation history before the Word became flesh.

Our use of biblical imagery does not counteract our more philosophical and theological grasp of the Eucharist.  Indeed, it supplements and compliments.

Use of the simpler, virtually “daily” imagery of bread and cup, or chalice, reinforces in us that the Eucharist is our nourishment as we sojourn in this vale of tears, as we march upcountry as pilgrim soldiers toward the heavenly homeland.

Over a lifetime, as Catholics, we learn to hold many concepts up in the air, as it were, as if we were jugglers.  We come more and more easily to see and think of the Eucharist in terms of Bread and Cup, as nourishment, as well as Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, as well as, sacramentum which has its effect, its res in our souls, as well as… etc.  We are able more and more easily to participate at Holy Mass as both renewed Sacrifice of Calvary as well as renewed Last Supper in the upper room.  Catholics are “both/and” believers: both Calvary and Cenacle, both Cross and Table.  We can hold in perfect balance the absolute truth of transubstantiation together with bread and wine imagery without falling into the heresy of Protestants.  For many, this doesn’t happen overnight.  It takes a while to hear and see with a Catholic ear and eye.  We converts settle into the Faith over time, each on his or her own course and schedule.   After the zeal of initial conversion and reception, then the patience and the maturing takes place, much as the new wine needs time in the barrel.

So, congratulations and I hope that helps a little.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. sirlouis says:

    Father Z, this is a most excellent response you give to the question. Many thanx for posting it.

  2. Saor Alba says:

    That’s a wonderful answer Father, and very prompt! Thank you very much, you’re in my prayers.

  3. ReginaMarie says:

    I am partial to the way the Holy Eucharist is referred to during the Divine Liturgy as “the divine, holy, most pure, immortal, heavenly and life-creating awesome Mystery of Christ..” [Nice! But this was about the Novus Ordo.]

  4. Dave N. says:

    Thoughtful response. Sad more Catholics don’t know that this acclamation is a quote from the Bible. [I hope you read the top entry, and the question, carefully. The question is coming from a convert. Get it?]

  5. Giuseppe says:

    I think the rule in Catholic English is that one capitalizes words which signify Jesus. After consecration, the bread is not bread. It is Bread.

    Cup is a little more poetic. The cup itself is not Jesus, it is the cup of Wine which is Jesus.

  6. Fr AJ says:

    A questionable use of word “bread” at NO Masses is calling Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion “Bread Ministers” and “Wine Ministers.” I correct this use wherever I hear it and hopefully it’s fading away. [Indeed. I am very much AGAINST that sort of language.]

  7. Geoffrey says:

    Great post! It made me take particular notice of today’s introduction to the “Preces” at Lauds:

    “Benedicámus Christo, qui se nobis dedit ut panem de cælo descendéntem…”

    ICEL: “Praise to Christ, who has given us Himself as the bread from heaven…”

    Alternate translation:
    “Let us bless Christ, Who gave Himself to us as the Bread that came down from heaven…”

  8. THREEHEARTS says:

    As a little boy growing up in the Catholic Church I have always remembered the great Hymn “O Bread of Heaven beneath this veil thou dost my very God conceal”. Since we cannot look at God and live I am thankful for this veil, in fact it would seem to me to be very reminding of the veil in the Jewish temple and in the Catholic Churches around the tabernacle, very traditional I think.

  9. The awesome Mystery of the Eucharist requires, as Fr. Z noted, balance between a great number of nuances. The Eucharist is Sacrifice and banquet; true Body and Blood of Christ, under the appearance of bread and wine. I like to think of the holy gifts of bread and wine being a food offering, and being consumed by the Fire of the Holy Spirit called down from heaven by the priest, changing them into Christ in pattern after the incarnation with the Virgin by the Spirit.

  10. The Cobbler says:

    A hymn about the Living Bread by the guy who pretty much gave us the term “transubstantiation”… hard to find a better example of the both-and here than that!

  11. Papabile says:

    The Catechism of the Council of Trent has an excellent section explaining why it is still referred to as bread after the Consecration (even in the old Mass).

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