Their beliefs were rooted in Jesus' words and the traditions passed down to them from the Apostles.
After almost 2,000 years of Catholic teaching, the Church boldly proclaims in the Catechism, “The Eucharist is ‘the source and summit of the Christian life.’ ‘The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it'” (CCC 1324).
It is a striking statement, one that shows how much the Church values the Eucharist in the present age. Yet, is this belief something new, introduced during the last few centuries? Or has it been part of the Church’s teachings since the very beginning?
As with all essential teachings of the Catholic Church, it is simply a reechoing of the Church’s beliefs throughout the centuries. This is clearly revealed when delving into the writings of the early Christians who lived in the first few centuries after Christ’s death and resurrection.
To help illustrate that point, here is a small selection of quotes from these Christians that detail their beliefs about the Holy Eucharist. After reading these, it becomes clear how the Church has passed on this teaching over the years virtually unchanged.
On the Lord’s own day, assemble in common to break bread and offer thanks; but first confess your sins, so that your sacrifice may be pure. However, no one quarreling with his brother may join your meeting until they are reconciled; your sacrifice must not be defiled. For here we have the saying of the Lord: “In every place and time offer me a pure sacrifice; for I am a mighty King, says the Lord; and my name spreads terror among the nations.” (Didache, c. 90)
For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Savior being incarnate by God’s Word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the Word of prayer which comes from him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus. (St. Justin Martyr, c. 100)
They [Gnostics] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead. (St. Ignatius of Antioch, c. 110)
[Christ] has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be his own Blood, from which he causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, he has established as his own Body, from which he gives increase to our bodies. (St. Irenaeus of Lyons, c. 140)
The Word is everything to a child: both Father and Mother, both Instructor and Nurse. “Eat My Flesh,” He says, “and drink My Blood.” The Lord supplies us with these intimate nutrients. He delivers over His Flesh, and pours out His Blood; and nothing is lacking for the growth of His children. O incredible mystery! (St. Clement of Alexandria, c. 150)