Sep 15, 2004

Reflections on the significance of the bread we use for Mass 

Online Edition

– Vol. X, No. 6: September 2004

The Bread We Offer

Reflections on the significance of the bread we use for Mass 

by Father Brian Van Hove, SJ

Many Catholics have asked about the Church’s requirements for the bread intended for use at Mass. Some prefer home-baked bread as a better sign of "real food" and communal sharing, while others think that traditional hosts best convey the unique meaning of the Bread of Life. Another aspect to consider is the bread as sacramental or "ritual food".

The Church has definite laws governing the "matter" or composition of bread used for Mass. The Code of Canon Law is explicit on this, and the recent instruction on the Liturgy,

Redemptionis Sacramentum

,1 reaffirms it. Following is the relevant passage from the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM, or

Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani


GIRM 320 – The bread for celebrating the Eucharist must be made only from wheat, must be recently baked, and, according to the ancient tradition of the Latin Church, must be unleavened.

GIRM 321 – The meaning of the sign demands that the material for the Eucharistic celebration truly have the appearance of food. It is therefore expedient that the Eucharistic bread, even though unleavened and baked in the traditional shape, be made in such a way that the priest at Mass with a congregation is able in practice to break it into parts for distribution to at least some of the faithful. Small hosts are, however, in no way ruled out when the number of those receiving Holy Communion or other pastoral needs requires it. The action of the fraction or breaking of bread, which gave its name to the Eucharist in apostolic times, will bring out more clearly the force and importance of the sign of unity of all in the one bread, and of the sign of charity by the fact that the one bread is distributed among the brothers and sisters.

Those who prefer home-baked bread for the Roman Rite argue that this symbol is "fuller and richer, more ample" — a desirable ideal, but not the only point to consider. For the sacraments and sacramentals we now tend to have more oil, more wine, more water, more fire and wider gestures than before the Second Vatican Council’s reform of the rites. The "ampler manifestation" principle has taken hold. But what about bread, a more complex question?

The "Wonder Bread Masses" of the 1970s (sometimes called "coffee-table Masses") insisted on truly common, everyday bread, as ordinary as every household would know — the kind you buy at the grocery store. This bread often included tortillas, pita bread, and French peasant bread. Anything used at a picnic could be used for Mass. This was the "domestic" versus "ritual" solution. The "Eucharist-as-community-meal" idea drove some people right into the theology of the Reformation.

On a recent trip to Denver I learned that the Neocatechumenal Way bakes their own bread for Mass, so the issue is current in some places within the Church, presumably more sensibly grounded than things were in the 1970s.3 Generally, however, those groups that "baked their own" in the 1970s no longer do so today. We have more data and experience with the problems since then — and these have taught us much.

At that time, thirty years ago, there was already a decay of reverence and a harsh desacralization of the Liturgy in much of the Church in the United States and Western Europe. It was a virtual surrender to secularism, which made a kind of idolatry out of Modernity (just when it was about to collapse as a force outside the Church). For many Catholics, alien ideologies, such as a superficial pseudo-Christian feminism,4 were more compelling than the Magisterium of our Holy Mother the Church founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ. Those who resisted these trends (including the pope) were attacked and vilified in the press. Catholics who never witnessed those days and events, or who had other concerns drawing their attention, may not have realized how the pope and the faith itself were savaged. Maybe those times are best forgotten. But the after-shocks are still with us, and harmful ideas, which were once novel and experimental, have since been institutionalized and survive in a variety of forms.

People who prefer the traditional host point out that purity of the "matter" of the bread is insured (only wheat flour and water are used to make them) and that fragments are few and easy to manage. These hosts (even the word "host" is a hallowed part of our Catholic heritage — we never use the word "wafer") have captured the Catholic imagination, which is witnessed to by a long history of the depiction of hosts in art, their inclusion in literature, and their being linked to Eucharistic miracles in history. During and after the Reformation there were Eucharistic martyrs, those who died for the Sacred Host! Continuity with our own past may just tell us who we are, or who we are supposed to be.

Practice and Doctrine Inseparable

Furthermore, the piety of the people is generally connected to the shape and texture of the traditional host, especially as it is adored outside of Mass. Some people think that "chunk bread" (which virtually eliminates receiving Communion on the tongue) is not really Communion. That view may be incorrect, provided that the material used to make the bread is lawful. But too often recipes for "home made" Communion bread contain ingredients that do affect the validity of the Sacrament.

A shift in piety — more particularly the psychology of piety — can mean a subtle shift in what is actually believed. This point should not be minimized or overlooked. Practice and doctrine are not as easily separated as some liturgical reformers thought. There is more confusion today than there was when I was a child growing up in the 1950s, especially in matters that are "settled questions" in the Church. I think people then understood sacramental realism and transubstantiation. They had a kind of instinct for the faith that was sound and true. They had absorbed something from the Liturgy. The "old rite" communicated doctrine well enough. The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy stated that only what "had to be changed" should be changed.5 And historically the "new rite" has yet to prove itself. In "Church time" the period since 1969 — when the revised Missal was approved — hardly shows itself on the screen of history. We were able to popularize the doctrine of the Eucharist in the past because we believed in it, and the rites somehow conveyed it and our Catechism made it reasonable. What Catholics believe in now — if you interview the average parishioner in the United States – is vague or contradictory.

Ultimately, everything is doctrinal. Even if we are only talking about one symbol (in this case the kind of bread used for Mass), soon thereafter we are entering the realm of doctrine and doctrinal positions. The "meaning" question can never be avoided. Faith and morals are paramount. What we actually believe in is of the essence. Finally, we either have a sacramental worldview, or we do not.

Ritual Food

For those of us who are aware of our Christian roots in Jewish worship, there is another consideration. The Jewish matzo used at Passover is analogous to our unleavened bread required for the Roman Rite. Jewish spirituality often isolates and enhances a symbol for ritual purposes. The shofar — the ram’s horn trumpet that is blown for Rosh Hashanah — is reserved for that sole purpose,6 just as our monstrance that holds the Host for adoration is reserved for one single purpose. In our ritual, the pyx and the miter are also univocal. There is nothing ordinary about these symbols. They are all marvelously extraordinary. In them "we can envision the ocean in a drop of water".

The need for a ritual food that is extraordinary and "reserved" or set aside as special for this purpose alone is part of Catholic sacramental history. Even though the traditional host may be less symbolic of a "community meal", it is a stronger sacramental symbol, and prevents subtle erosion of reverence for the Presence of Christ it contains after the consecration. On a practical level, use of traditional hosts avoids a serious excess of fragments, lack of good preservation and storage, and the inclusion of additives (internal and external) that would render the Mass illicit, invalid, or both.

Recovering the Sacred Dimension

The failure of the "modern-liturgy-contemporary-worship" movement in the postconciliar period (1965-present) is by now evident. It has not inspired a sense of awe and majesty. Beauty has been the victim of excessive renovation. Trendiness has just about killed our capacity for prayer at all. And there is as much division and strife and lack of charity as ever, despite the prolonged rite of peace during Mass — a practice that was never approved by Church authorities.

The distance between the liturgical vision of the Council fathers and what people today actually experience in most of our churches in this country is breathtaking. Going to church may be traumatic, banjoistic, flippant, numbing, upbeat, bouncy, or political — but less and less Catholic.7

While there has been a modest gain in active, popular participation, in contrast to the pre-conciliar liturgical celebrations, the quality is still defective. An expanded Liturgy of the Word has had some benefit. But what can be said when the noble Graduale Romanum is replaced by songs like "Sing a New Church Into Being" or "I Myself am the Bread of Christ, You and I are the Bread of Christ"? How can we tolerate a hymn that begins "Here we are, all together as we sing our song, joyfully" when there is no mention of God at all, just ourselves by ourselves and seemingly for ourselves?

Obviously, I am painting with broad strokes — and leaving out many other examples. But there can no longer be any doubt about it — as a Church, we need to go back to the drawing board to permit the Liturgy to convey more powerfully the Church’s doctrine of the Eucharist. Perhaps we need what some have called the "reform of the reform".

One can read about the history of the first liturgical reform movement, from the mid-nineteenth century to 1963, and the need now for a true renewal, in three books of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Feast of Faith, A New Song for the Lord, and The Spirit of the Liturgy). And the cardinal-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is not alone.

The Holy Father’s latest encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (The Church of the Eucharist), and the recent "disciplinary" instruction, Redemptionis Sacramentum, also urge this renewal and reform of our celebration of Mass.

The transcendence and "otherness" of God must not be lost in a type of "immanentism"8 where people end up worshiping themselves and each other in the search for "community". In such a system, the Mystery of Faith is reduced and trivialized to entertainment, therapy, good feeling, and coziness. Emotion becomes more important than belief grounded in doctrinal commitment and the truth. A closed circle prevents the priest and the congregation from facing the Lord together as we march in unity — together with the whole Church — on our pilgrim way. Awareness of the Paschal Mystery becomes muted, and a type of worship redolent of secular humanism comes to dominate the consciousness of the worshippers.

Basically, people lose their faith — or have it unplugged from their Catholic patrimony. The greatest need in the Church today is for deeper understanding of what it means to be Catholic: for religious orthodoxy and the reassertion of authentic Catholic doctrine. This is done first through the sacred rites. A study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and recent Church documents on the Liturgy will help us to understand those rites.

Church law authorized by the Holy See, independent of private opinion and personal preference, binds us together. The liturgical norms are not optional, and they are not mere guidelines. They are to be observed by the Church universal, in every country, in every diocese, and in every parish. And the rules do allow for legitimate variation. Concerning the bread used for Mass, the law is clear on the matter (only wheat flour and water), whether it is made in someone’s home or in a convent that produces traditional hosts.

The Liturgy Anchors Faith

The purpose of the rules that govern the Liturgy is to bring order to the Mass and unity to the Church. Making up our own rules defeats this purpose. The Liturgy should never be allowed to become a politicized battleground or an arena for intimidation. When Mass is seen as a "combat zone" it drives people away. Nobody can meet Christ under those conditions.

For most of our history the classic Latin Rite was understood to be the chief source of grace, the mystery of all mysteries. The more we move away from this conviction and the piety that goes with it, the more we lose our treasure of faith, and our identity as Catholics disintegrates. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass produced the saints. Let us never forget that. Holiness is the reason we have a Church in the first place. Our Liturgy is an anchor in a storm, and every age is stormy. Is any liturgical experiment or novelty strong enough or deep enough to provide this anchor? Is not the attitude of novelty-seeking itself part of our problem? The Liturgy should orient us toward the eschaton and glory. Only God’s grace can make us whole.

As the prayer over the gifts for the Sunday after Trinity Sunday, the Feast of Corpus Christi, says: "Lord, may the bread and cup we offer bring your Church the unity and peace they signify. We ask this in the name of Jesus the Lord".



1 Redemptionis Sacramentum, released April 23, 2004, was published in Adoremus Bulletin July-August 2004, and is accessible on the Adoremus web site.

2 General Instruction of the Roman Missal – Third Typical Edition, (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2003), available on the USCCB web site at Also see the USCCB summary "The Roman Missal 2000" and Latin version of the GIRM at

3 Bishop Attila Miklósházy provides an enlightened discussion of this point. See Benedicamus Domino! The Theological Foundations of the Liturgical Renewal (Ottawa: Novalis, 2001), page 120.

4 On feminism, see, for example, "Creation and Nuptiality: A Reflection on Feminism in Light of Schmemann’s Liturgical Theology" by David L. Schindler in Communio (28, Summer 2001), pages 265-295.

5 The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) 23, available on the Adoremus web site.

6 See "The Magic of Shofar" by Rabbi A. Brander (

7 Seminarians today are often far more traditional in their religious views and sentiments than their parents’ generation. For developments among youth nationwide, see Colleen Carroll, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2002).

8 "Immanentism" refers to being locked into the visible world, with nothing but our sense experience, and no way to contact any reality but the reality of our own mind and our subjective consciousness. It excludes faith in things unseen.


Father Van Hove is a Jesuit priest now serving in Texas. This is his first contribution to the Adoremus Bulletin.



Father Brian Van Hove, SJ