The Eucharist is the ‘source and summit’ of Christian life (Lumen Gentium, §11) and the supreme expression of Christians’ communion with one other and with Christ Himself. It is, for this reason, also the supreme symbol of the Church’s universality, uniting all the nations in many different liturgical rites and traditions but only one Eucharist. Catholics, therefore, may partake in the Eucharist in any liturgical rite of any sui iuris Church, and thus fulfil their obligation (Code of Canon Law, §923).
The Eucharist is administered considerably differently in the Byzantine rite than in the Roman rite. We use leavened, rather than unleavened, bread as a symbol of the risen Christ, and administer the True Body together with the Precious Blood into the mouth via a spoon. We currently do so using a different spoon for each communicant. It is also traditional to receive the Eucharist while standing, as this is the default position of prayer for Eastern Christians, as codified in Canon 20 of the First Council of Nicæa, a canon most Eastern Churches continue to observe. We also signify we wish to receive the Eucharist by crossing our arms over our chest, much as Latin Catholics do when they wish to receive a blessing. This gesture symbolizes the wings of the Seraphim, who cover their faces and feet in the presence of God (Isaiah 6:2). If you are not known to the priest, it is helpful to give your name just before receiving, as he will say: ‘The servant of God, [Name], partakes of the precious and all-holy Body and Blood of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, unto the forgiveness of sins and unto life everlasting’ before administering the Eucharist.
You may also notice infants receiving Holy Communion. This is an important part of our tradition, as we do not consider the life-giving benefits of the Eucharist to be dependent upon a person’s rational understanding of them. Consequently, Eastern Christians receive their first Holy Communion immediately after baptism and chrismation (confirmation), and continue to receive thereafter. However, if your children are Latin Catholics, they should follow the discipline of the Latin Church. Priests do not generally give blessings during the Eucharist in the Byzantine rite but it is not uncommon for antidoron — blessed but unconsecrated bread — to be made available for those who are unable to receive Holy Communion. The priest will typically leave the sanctuary and say ‘Christ is among us’, the response to which is ‘He is and will be’, before offering the antidoron.
Eucharist and Communion
‘The Church is Eucharist’, wrote Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, in 1996, adding ‘The Church is communion; she is the communion of the Word and Body of Christ and is thus communion among men, who by means of this communion that brings them together from above and from within are made one people, indeed, one Body.’ We therefore see that ‘communion’ has a dual meaning in the Church, both sacramental and ecclesiological. Indeed, as stated above, it is this Sacrament of Holy Communion which unites each member of the Church with one another and with God. As §18 of the Ravenna Document, agreed between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church in 2007, states:
The Church of God exists where there is a community gathered together in the Eucharist, presided over, directly or through his presbyters, by a bishop legitimately ordained into the apostolic succession, teaching the faith received from the Apostles, in communion with the other bishops and their Churches. The fruit of this Eucharist and this ministry is to gather into an authentic communion of faith, prayer, mission, fraternal love and mutual aid, all those who have received the Spirit of Christ in Baptism. This communion is the frame in which all ecclesial authority is exercised. Communion is the criterion for its exercise.
As Catholics of the Eastern Christian tradition, we therefore confidently state without fear of contradiction that we are ‘Orthodox in communion with Rome’. That is to say, we are Orthodox Christians in all respects of liturgy, tradition and spirituality, being also in communion with the Pope of Rome and all the bishops, clergy and laïty in communion with him, as also with Christ present in the Eucharist and in the Deposit of Faith handed down through Saint Peter, the Apostles and their successors. We may also turn to Pope Benedict and the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church for assurance that there is neither any contradiction in our being Orthodox in our understanding of episcopal primacy. Writing in 1976, for example, then-Father Ratzinger set out his thoughts on the conditions for future union between Catholics and Orthodox:
Rome must not require more from the East with respect to the doctrine of primacy than what had been formulated and was lived in the first millennium. When the Patriarch Athenagoras, on July 25, 1967, on the occasion of the Pope’s visit to Phanar, designated him as the successor of St. Peter, as the most esteemed among us, as one also presides in charity, this great Church leader was expressing the essential content of the doctrine of primacy as it was known in the first millennium. Rome need not ask for more.
Reunion could take place in this context if, on the one hand, the East would cease to oppose as heretical the developments that took place in the West in the second millennium and would accept the Catholic Church as legitimate and orthodox in the form she had acquired in the course of that development, while, on the other hand, the West would recognize the Church of the East as orthodox and legitimate in the form she has always had.
Just what this means can be surmised from §19 of the joint Catholic and Orthodox Chieti Document: ‘Appeals to the bishop of Rome from the East expressed the communion of the Church, but the bishop of Rome did not exercise canonical authority over the churches of the East.’ As Orthodox Christians in communion with Rome, we pray we are but the first-fruits of this longed-for reunion, that all may be one.