Altar Breads

 

Altar Breads
Bread is one of the two elements absolutely necessary for the sacrifice of the Eucharist. It cannot be determined from the sacred text whether Christ used the ordinary table bread or some other bread specially prepared for the occasion. In the Western Church the altar-breads were probably round in form. Archaeological researches demonstrate this from pictures found in the catacombs, and Pope St. Zephyrinus (A.D. 201-219) calls the altar-bread "coronam sive oblatam sphericae figurae". In the Eastern churches they are round or square. Formerly the laity presented the flour from which the breads were formed. In the Eastern Church the breads were made by consecrated virgins; in the Western Church, by priests and clerics (Benedict XIV, De Sacrif. Missae, I, section 36). This custom is still in vogue in the Armenian Church. The earliest documentary evidence that the altar-breads were made in thin wafers is the answer which Cardinal Humbert, legate of St. Leo IX, made at the middle of the eleventh century to Michael Cerularius, Patriarch of Constantinople. These wafers were sometimes very large, as from them small pieces were broken for the Communion of the laity, hence the word "particle" for the small host; but smaller ones were used when only the celebrant communicated.

For valid consecration the hosts must be:

  • made of wheaten flour,
  • mixed with pure natural water,
  • baked in an oven, or between two heated iron moulds, and
  • they must not be corrupted (Miss. Rom., De Defectibus, III, 1).


If the host is not made of wheaten flour, or is mixed with flour of another kind in such quantity that it cannot be called wheat bread, it may not be used (ibid.). If not natural but distilled water is used, the consecration becomes of doubtful validity (ibid., 2). If the host begins to be corrupt, it would be a grievous offence to use it, but it is considered valid matter (ibid., 3.) For licit consecration:

  • the bread must be, at present unleavened in the Western Church, but leavened bread in the Eastern Church, except among the Maronites, the Armenians, and in the Churches of Jerusalem and Alexandria, where it is unleavened. It is probable that Christ used unleavened bread at the institution of the Blessed Eucharist, because the Jews were not allowed to have leavened bread in their houses on the days of the Azymes. Some authors are of the opinion that down to the tenth century both the Eastern and Western Churches used leavened bread; others maintain that unleavened bread was used from the beginning in the Western Church; still others hold that unleavened or leavened bread was used indifferently. St. Thomas (IV, Dist. xi, qu. 3) holds that, in the beginning, both in the East and West unleavened bread was used; that when the sect of the Ebionites arose, who wished that the Mosaic Law should be obligatory on all converts, leavened bread was used, and when this heresy ceased the Latins used again unleavened bread, but the Greeks retained the use of leavened bread. Leavened bread may be used in the Latin Church if after consecration the celebrant adverts to the fact that the host before him has some substantial defect, and no other than leavened bread can be procured at the time (Lehmkuhl, n. 121, 3). A Latin priest travelling in the East, in places in which there are no churches of his rite, may celebrate with leavened bread. A Greek priest travelling in the West may, under similar circumstances, celebrate with unleavened bread. For the purpose of giving Viaticum, if no unleavened bread be at hand, some say that leavened may he used; but St. Liguori, (bk. VI. n. 203, dub. 2) says that the more probable opinion of theologians is that it cannot be done.
  • The hosts must be recently made (Rit. Rom., tit. iv, cap. i, n. 7). The rubrics do not specify the term recentes in speaking of the hosts. In Rome, the bakers of altar-breads are obliged to make solemn affidavit that they will not sell breads older than fifteen days, and St. Charles, by a statute of the Fourth Synod of Milan, prescribed that hosts older than twenty days must not be used in the celebration of Mass. In practice, therefore, those older than three weeks ought not to be used.
  • Round in form, and not broken.
  • Clean and fair, of a thin layer, and of a size conformable to the regular custom in the Latin Church. In Rome the large hosts are about three and one-fifth inches in diameter; in other places they are smaller, but should be at least two and three-fourths inches in diameter. The small hosts for the Communion of the laity should be about one and two-fifths inches in diameter (Schober, S. Alphonsi Liber de Caeremoniis Missae, p. 6, footnote 9). When a large host can not be obtained Mass may be said in private with a small host. In cases of necessity, such as permitting the people to fulfil the precept of hearing Mass, or administering Viaticum, the Mass may be also said with a small host but, as liturgists say, to avoid scandal the faithful should be advised.

As a rule the image of Christ crucified should be impressed on the large host (Cong. Sac. Rit., 6 April, 1834), but the monogram of the Holy Name (Ephem. Lit., XIII, 1899, p. 686), or the Sacred Heart (ibid., p. 266) may also be adopted.


The altar-breads assumed different names according as they had reference to the Eucharist as a sacrament or as a sacrifice: bread, gift (donum), table (mensa) allude to the Sacrament, which was instituted for the nourishment of our soul; oblation victim, host, allude to sacrifice. Before the tenth century the word "host" was not employed, probably because before this time the Blessed Eucharist was considered more frequently as a sacrament than as a sacrifice, hence the Fathers use such expressions as communion (synaxis), supper (coena), breaking of bread, etc., but at present the word "host" is used when referring to the Eucharist either as a sacrament or as a sacrifice. In the liturgy it is used:

  • for the bread before its consecration, "Suscipe sancte Pater . . . hanc immaculatam hostiam" (Offertory of the Mass);
  • for Christ under the appearance of the Eucharistic Species, "Unde et memores . . . hostiam puram, hostiam sanctam, hostiam immaculatam" (Mass, after the consecration).

Durandus says that the word host is of pagan origin, derived from the word hostio, to strike, referring to the victim offered to the gods after a victory, but it is also of biblical origin, as it represented the matter, or victim, of the sacrifice, e.g. "expiationis hostiam" (Exodus 29:36).

- article from the Catholic Encyclopedia at www.newadvent.org

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