Breaking of the Host

And More on Bowing

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ROME, OCT. 5, 2010 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Why is it that within the institution narrative, before the words of consecration, the priest doesn’t break the bread while he is saying, «He broke the bread, gave it to his disciples ….» I mean, why does he still wait for the Agnus Dei to break the bread? I think this question rings out also in the head of some priests; that is why, in order to make sense, some would really break the bread during the institution narrative. Kindly help me out! — X.A., Quezon City, Philippines

A: Before addressing the motive why the host should not be broken at this moment, I recall that this practice has been specifically 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.»

There are several reasons why the Latin rite tradition does not ritually break the host at the above-mentioned moment, and we will try to illustrate some of them.

The institution narrative describes four actions of Christ: taking the bread, giving thanks and praise, breaking the bread, giving it to the disciples. These four moments constitute what the erudite Anglican liturgist Gregory Dix called the «shape» of the Eucharistic liturgy.

Indeed, the Latin Church has ritually structured the Liturgy of the Eucharist and of holy communion around these four moments. Taking the bread is expressed above all by the rite of presentation of the gifts. Giving thanks and praise is the essence of the Eucharistic Prayer. Breaking the bread is carried out in the fraction and giving it to his disciples is done at communion.

The institution narrative is within the Eucharistic Prayer and thus falls within the context of giving thanks and praise to God the Father. The supreme act of thanks and praise is the paschal mystery of Christ, the Word made Flesh. In the institution narrative the Church relates to the Father the action of his Eternal Son and his command to continue this memorial action. This efficacious memorial is not limited to the transubstantiation of the sacred species but makes present the whole mystery of salvation in recalling Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension into heaven. No other act of thanks and praise to the Father can equal what occurs during the Eucharistic liturgy.

Now, since the object of the Eucharistic Prayer is offering thanks and praise to the Father, dramatic gestures directed toward the faithful such as breaking the host or making a gesture of proffering while saying «Take this, all of you» are misplaced and actually detract from the essential meaning of the rite at this moment.

It could be adduced that the above argument would also suggest that the Latin-rite practice of the priest’s taking the host and chalice in his hands and showing it to the faithful after the consecration is equally out of place. Theologically speaking, the gestures of handling and showing are not strictly necessary for the validity of the consecration, as is demonstrated from the practice of some Eastern Churches. It is also true that historically the rite of showing the host and chalice was introduced in response to a devotional desire to see the sacred species.

Notwithstanding these origins however, the rite of showing the host and chalice enjoys the favor of almost 1,000 years of approval as part of the Church’s universal liturgy and, as a consequence, has guided and fostered faith in the Real Presence for centuries. It must therefore be considered as a legitimate organic development of the liturgy. I believe that the gesture of breaking the host before the consecration cannot be seen in the same light, and not only because it has been specifically reprobated.

The Roman rite, in placing the fraction after the Eucharistic Prayer and accompanying it with the chant «Lamb of God,» underlines that we share Christ our Redeemer and not just ordinary bread. We participate in a sacrificial banquet. Our request for mercy and peace is strengthened by this faith. Breaking the host before the consecration, and thus before completing the thanks and praise, impinges upon this meaning.

A final, albeit weaker, argument could be made from the point of view of ritual logic. If it were to be accepted that the words «He broke the bread» necessarily implies ritually executing the gesture, then it could equally be argued that the same should apply to the words «He gave it to his disciples.» We would logically have to distribute a host to everybody before pronouncing the words of consecration. I cannot imagine how to handle the giving of the chalice.

This argument is, of course, absurd and only serves to point out that not all ritual words require an accompanying gesture, especially when the liturgy itself explicates their deepest meaning in a fuller way.

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Follow-up: Bowing While Kneeling

In the wake of our comments on bowing during the elevation of the host (see Sept. 21) a reader commented: «In the Cathedral Parochial School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1956-1964), I was taught to look at the elevated host (and later the chalice), then to bow my head and contemplate and acknowledge belief in the Real Presence by silently repeating the words of St. Thomas: ‘My Lord and my God.’ So bowing the head was to be a way to have a private moment to contemplate and adore the real presence of Christ. I recall that some of my classmates (probably myself included) and some of the congregation would bow their heads during the entire elevation so as not to look at the host. We had a priest in the Cathedral Parish In the mid-1960s who (without admonishing those who bowed their heads) said that the elevated host and chalice were to be seen by the congregation. He had a practice of elevating the host and the chalice for what seemed to be an extremely long time (10 to 15 seconds) so that even those who had the practice of bowing their heads during the showing of the host and chalice would see the Body and Blood of Christ.»

This comment proves the point that the practice of bowing during the elevation is not novel. I suppose that the religious sisters in the school taught the children to bow their heads as the priest genuflected after showing the host and chalice. Since the time for both gestures was usually very brief, it is understandable that some got confused. While it is true that the concluding elevation of the Eucharistic Prayer («Through him …») is of greater liturgical importance, a paused showing after the consecration can be pastorally very effective in fomenting prayer and adoration.

Another reader asked: «For the sign of peace, is it still OK to bow your head or is it going to be shaking hands? I personally prefer bowing my head.» The norms say that the sign is made according to local custom, so both practices are legitimate as well as some others. It seems that the bow or nod of peace has been gaining ground in some quarters as it is less likely to lead to confusion and disorder just before communion.

Finally, an Australian reader asked about the Sept. 21 follow-up which mentioned the case of a married couple acting as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist. To wit: «If the bride and groom were from the parish and were recognized as extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, could they, after receiving Communion from the celebrant and should there be large numbers of communicants, then administer holy Communion along with the celebrant to those present in their capacity as extraordinary ministers? Or is this best left to some other person who is an extraordinary minister?»

This is clearly a rare situation and one not contemplated by the n
orms forbidding ad hoc naming of spouses as extraordinary ministers. In this case, the fact that they were just married would not per se impede them from exercising their extraordinary ministry. Whether they do so or not requires prudent judgment as to the circumstances and their probable state of emotion during the service. If there is any danger of the groom or bride fainting, then they should advisably refrain from distributing Communion.

* * *

Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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