The History of Wine in Catholicism

The importance of wine in Catholicism centers on the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. Here, members of the church celebrate the Lord’s Supper, replicating the exchange of bread and wine to symbolize Jesus’ sacrifice for the redemption of sins. The account of the Lord’s Supper, found in the Bible in Matthew 26:17-30, Mark 14:12-26, and Luke 22:7-23, describes Jesus breaking the Passover bread and offering up a correlation to his body, which would be broken shortly after. In the same way, the wine was given to the disciples to signify his blood that was to be shed. The color of the wine (red) adds to the symbolism associated with it being Jesus’ blood for the purpose of remembrance. This practice is mentioned in the Bible after Jesus’ death, indicating that the early church began to practice Communion (or the Eucharist) at its founding. Paul discusses the act of Communion in his letter to the Corinthians (I Corinthians 11:23-34). In this context, the celebration of Passover is still in place. However, the early church began to see the celebration as more than just an observance of salvation from Egypt but of salvation of the soul.

During the Lord’s Supper, a chalice was passed to each disciple for him to drink from. Paintings often show the chalice being used as Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is tied into his request to “Let this cup be taken from Me; yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). In the past and in many churches today, Catholicism has allowed both priests and the congregation to drink from the chalice or partake of wine from the chalice by using a spoon. Still others allow the bread to be dipped in the wine before partaking. While the symbolism of the wine is clear, the actual understanding of how Jesus’s blood becomes the wine is less defined. The wine representing Jesus’ blood is used as a way to remember the sacrifice that was made and to look forward to his prophesied return.

At times, there have been strict regulations as to what type of wine could be used. The goal was often to find wine that was pure, without any type of additives, from grapes that had not been corrupted. However, there are some differences from one Catholic church to the next. Some have completely removed the chalice from the celebration, opting to only offer the bread or a wafer. Others offer members juice in place of the wine. (Protestant churches such as the Baptist and Methodist denominations substitute grape juice for the wine.) Regardless of the type of wine or how it is delivered, Catholicism places a valued importance on the act of taking Communion. In most cases, everyone in the church is invited to come forward and take Communion before the conclusion of Mass. Only certain priests and leaders of the church can offer the bread and wine to the congregation, and the process is well-organized and considered sacred.

There is no doubt that wine has played a critical role in the Catholic Church and the remembrance of the Lord’s Supper as well as Jesus’ death. As a sacrament, the Eucharist is given extreme importance as a sign of God’s grace given to the believer. Despite the changes to the wine over the years, including the way it is administered to the congregation, there is no doubt that its symbolism as the blood of Jesus has remained strong. At every Mass, everyone is encouraged to take part in the Eucharist, eating the bread and drinking the wine (or juice), as a way to consider the sacrifice that was made and what it means to a person and their eternal soul.