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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > B > Liturgical Use of Bread

Liturgical Use of Bread

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In the Christian liturgy bread is used principally as one of the elements of the Eucharistic sacrifice. Our Divine Lord consecrated bread and wine at the Last Supper, and commanded His disciples to do the same in commemoration of Him, and thus ever since bread made of beaten flour has been offered at the altar for the officiating priest to consecrate into the Body of the Lord. It is a debated question whether Christ used leavened or unleavened bread at the institution of the Holy Eucharist, since different conclusions may be drawn, on the one hand, from the gospel of St. John and the synoptic Gospels on the other. History does not establish conclusively what the practice of the Apostles and their successors was, but it may be asserted with some probability that they made use of whatever bread was at hand, whether azymous or fermented. Different customs gradually began to grow up in different localities and then became tradition and fixed. The Eastern Churches for the most part made use of leavened bread as they still do, while the western Churches declared their preference for unleavened bread. At the time of the schism this difference of practice gave rise to much discussion of the value of their respective claims in following the example of Christ, and fomented bitter controversy even in recent years. Either kind of bread is, of course, valid matter for the sacrifice, so the difference of usage should be of little dogmatic importance. (See AZYMES).

In the primitive Church the bread and wine for the sacrifice were brought to the altar by the faithful, each contributing his share. A relic of this practice may now be seen in the rite of consecration of a bishop, for at the Offertory the newly consecrated bishop presents to the consecrator, among other gifts, two loaves of bread, one of which is gilded the other silvered, both ornamented with the coat of arms of the consecrator and the bishop. A similar usage is found in the ceremony of the solemn canonization of saints, where at the offertory one of the cardinal-priests makes an offering to the pope of two loathes of bread, one gilded and the other silvered. Although in the beginning bread which served for cornmon use was offered at the altar still, growing reverence for Holy Eucharist soon effected in change, so that the altar-breads were specially prepared, assigning a round form of moderate thickness, and were stamped with a cross or some other significant religious emblem having special reference to Our Lord in the Eucharist. These hosts became smaller and thinner in the Western Church until they assumed the light, wafer-like form now so common.

In the Holy Eucharist, bread thus serves for the offering of the sacrifice, and after the consecration for the Communion of the celebrant, the clergy, the laity, as well as for reservation in order that Communion may be brought to the absent, or that the Blessed Sacrament may be adored in the tabernacle or in the monstrance. In Rome at one time it was the custom of the pope to send a part of the consecrated bread to the priests in the titular churches that all might be united in offering the same sacrifice so that this fermentum, as it was called, might in spiritual sense leaven the whole mass of the faithful, make them one with the pope in faith and worship. Bishops also were once accustomed to send the Eucharistic Bread to their priests for the same purpose and also to each other to signify that they admitted one another into ecclesiastical communion. To prevent abuses and profanation to the Sacrament, this custom was early prohibited and soon disappeared. The usage then began of sending blessed bread instead of the Holy Eucharist to those who did not communicate at the Mass, and to those who might wish to receive this gift as a pledge of communion of faith. These who did not communicate received bread offered at the Offertory of the Mass but not consecrated. It appears to have received no other blessing than that of the Offertory prayer, and was considered blessed because it formed part of the oblation. This bread is called eulogia, because it is blessed and because a blessing accompanies its use; it is also called antidoron, because it is a substitute for the doron, the real gift, which is the Holy Eucharist. The eulogia is prescribed in the liturgies of St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom, but now it is distributed to all, both communicants and non-communicants. It existed also in the West, and is mentioned by St. Gregory of Tours, the Council of Nantes, and Leo IV, in terms which would make it appear a somewhat universal custom.

The little loaves or cakes of bread which received a special benediction and were then sent by bishops and priests to others, as gifts in sign of fraternal affection and ecclesiastical communion were also called eulogiae. Persons to whom the eulogia was refused were considered outside the communion of the faithful, and thus bishops sometimes sent it to an excommunicated person to indicate that the censure had been removed. Later, when the faithful no longer furnished the altar-bread, a custom arose of bringing bread to the church for the special purpose of having it blessed and distributed among those present as token of mutual love and union, and this custom still exists in the Western Church, especially in France. This blessed bread was called panis benedictus, panis lustratus, panis lustralis, and is now known in France as pain bénit. It differs from the eulogia mentioned above, because it is not a part of the oblation from which the particle to be consecrated in the Mass is selected, but rather is common bread which receives a special benediction. In many places it is the custom for each family in turn to present the bread on Sundays and feast days, while in other places only the wealthier families furnish it. Generally the bread is presented with some solemnity at the Offertory of the parochial Mass, and the priest blesses it before the Oblation of the Host and Chalice, but different customs exist in different dioceses. The prayer ordinarily used for the blessing is the first or second: benedictio panis printed in the Roman missal and ritual. The faithful were exhorted to partake of it in the church, but frequently it was carried home. This blessed bread is a sacramental, which should excite Christians to practice especially the virtues of charity, and unity of spirit, and which brings blessings to those who partake of it with due devotion. The Church, when blessing it, prays that those who eat it may receive health both of soul and body: "ut omnes ex eo gustantes inde corporis et animae percipant sanitatem"; "ut sit omnibus sumentibus salus mentis et corporis". In some instances the pain bénit was used not only with superstitious intent, and its virtues exaggerated beyond measure, but also for profane purposes. This usage was brought from France to Canada, and was practised chiefly in the province of Quebec. There the pain bénit had blessed immediately after the Asperges, and then distributed to those who assisted at high Mass. The parishioners furnished it in turn, and vied with one another in presenting as rich and fine a pain bénit as possible, until finally the bishops, seeing that it entailed too much expense upon the poor circumstances, prohibited it. Within the last twenty-five and thirty years the custom has almost entirely disappeared.

In the present Roman ritual there are six blessings for bread. Two of these are entitled simply benedictio panis, and as mentioned above, are often used for blessing the panis benit. The third entitled benedictio panis et placentarum (blessing of bread and cakes), is found in the appendix among the blessings which are not reserved. The other three are approved for particular localities, and are special blessings given under the invocation of certain saints, usually on their feast days, in order to gain special favours through their intercession. The first, approved for the Archdiocese of Cologne, is a blessing of bread, water, and salt given under the invocation of St. Hubert; the second, approved for the Diocese of Bois-le-Duc, is a blessing of bread and water under the invocation of St. Machutus, and the third, for the Diocese of Urgel, is a blessing of bread, wine, water, and fruit to be used on the feast of St. Blasius. Some other places have local of blessing bread on certain feast days, as for instance on the feasts of St. Genevieve, of St. Nicholas of Tolentino and others.

Bread is also used in the rite of ordination of priests, as a Host is placed upon the paten which the candidates touch, in order to signify that power is given to them to consecrate bread into the Body of Christ. It is also sometimes prescribed in the rubrics that the bishop, after using the Holy Oils, as for example at confirmation and ordination, shall cleanse his fingers with crumbs of bread. Such, in the Christian liturgy, are the more important and general uses of bread, which, it will be seen, are confined principally to the Holy Eucharist. With the exception of some few blessings of bread for special purposes, most of these customs are closely connected with the Eucharistic sacrifice, and generally derive their origin from ceremonies practised with the Eucharistic bread. (See ANTIDORON, AZYMES, EUCHARIST, EULOGIA.)


About this page

APA citation. Goggin, J. (1907). Liturgical Use of Bread. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02749a.htm

MLA citation. Goggin, John. "Liturgical Use of Bread." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02749a.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Joseph P. Thomas.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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