Explaining Holy Communion to Non-Catholics

For Catholics, receiving Communion is an important step in strengthening their relationship with God.
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While the tradition of breaking bread and sharing a cup in memory of Jesus' last supper crosses the boundaries between the Christian denominations of Protestant and Catholic, the belief system behind this action is quite different between these two groups. For Catholics, receiving Communion requires preparation and completion of certain other sacraments. Communion for Catholics is not just symbolic. Catholics believe that Jesus is physically present in the bread and wine.

1 Catholic Sacraments

The Catholic tradition includes seven sacraments, or instruments of communion with God, including baptism, reconciliation, Communion, confirmation, matrimony, holy orders and anointing of the sick. While all the sacraments increase a Catholic’s unity with God, the most important is the sacrament of Communion. Children are usually around 7 or 8 when they receive their First Communion. Candidates for First Communion must have been through the sacrament of baptism and reconciliation. During baptism, a Catholic person, usually a baby, is sprinkled with water to symbolize being reborn as a child of God. During reconciliation, Catholics confess their sins to a priest in order to obtain forgiveness from God. Later, after receiving First Communion, they will be confirmed in the church by the bishop anointing their heads with oil to symbolize the seal of the Holy Spirit. Most will continue with marriage or holy orders. Near the end of their lives, or during a serious illness, they will receive anointing of the sick to prepare them for death.

2 Liturgy of the Eucharist

A Catholic Mass is divided into two parts: The Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The first part, the Liturgy of the Word, consists of readings from the Bible, followed by a sermon, or homily, by a priest. The Liturgy of the Eucharist is the part of the Mass where a Catholic priest performs transubstantiation for communion, meaning that special prayers are said that transform the communion bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus, in remembrance of Christ’s Passover supper. Catholics in good church standing then consume the communion bread, or host, and wine.

3 The Last Supper

According to the New Testament of the Bible, the night before his death, Jesus had a "Last Supper" for his followers. He shared bread and wine with his friends and instructed them to do this same ceremony in his memory after his death. The words said by the priest during the Eucharistic prayer include the words spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper: “This is my body which is given for you” and “This is my blood which is poured out for you. Do this in memory of me.” For Catholics, the wording of these sentences is very important. Since Jesus said “is” instead of “represents” or “symbolizes,” Catholics believe that each time Mass is celebrated, Jesus is truly in their presence, both in spirit and physically in the Communion.

4 Receiving Communion

Catholics in good standing are free to receive communion every day. To receive Communion, Catholics must have been baptized and have made a confession to cleanse themselves of any mortal sins. If a priest is not present to perform a Mass, leftover communion, or Hosts, from a previous Mass are distributed from a special storage box called a tabernacle. Catholics believe that by remembering Jesus’ death in this way they strengthen their union with God.

Laura Stakelum has been a professional writer since 2003. After graduating with a B.A. in communications from the University of South Alabama, she served as managing editor of "Mobile Bay Monthly" and "Mobile Bay Bride" magazines. Stakelum is a contributor to "Business Alabama" magazine, "Dothan Magazine," "The Local," "Farm Collector" and various special projects.