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The Eucharist in the Parish

January 29, 2010

The Eucharist in the Parish Noel O’Sullivan,

Article published in The Furrow, January 2010

‘That was a lovely Mass, Father.’ Seems like the perfect compliment, except that the ceremony referred to was not Mass at all but a baptism: an all too common reaction of well-meaning parishioners whose rare contact with Church is occasioned by the birth of a baby, or attendance at a wedding or funeral. A far cry from how the Church understands the Eucharist: the ‘source and summit of the entire Christian life.’

The challenge facing us today as we attempt to communicate the richness of the life of the Church and its sacraments to a secularized and theologically disengaged culture is well expressed by Mgr Brugès, the Bishop of Angers:

People no longer know how to read Christian art. They are no longer capable of understanding the discourse of the Church, especially when it treats of moral questions; the same is true of its rites and way of life. The Christian era is only interpreted in caricatures and simplistic visions fed through films, television programmes and newspaper articles.

There is much truth in this statement: the discourse of the Church is seen as just another voice in a chorus of discourses. Authority and objective truth tend to be devalued in a culture of tolerance. The chat show host and the newspaper columnist are the new high priests, who do not hesitate to speak with authority on the Catholic Church and its teaching. And we have our caricatures too: ‘Fr Ted’ is surely the best known ‘priest’ in these islands. This is the challenge and the opportunity. The problem is knowing where to begin.

The Eucharistic Congress scheduled for 2012 is surely the focus we need to give impetus to renewal at diocesan and parish level. This task demands an approach that is spiritual, theological, catechetical and liturgical. The purpose of this article is to see how this process might be advanced at parish level.

We are still fortunate in Ireland that our churches are so full on Sundays, albeit that there are some urban pockets where attendance is lamentably low. This half-full glass must surely be the impetus for Eucharistic and parish renewal. Despite the pandemic of scandals so many people from all age groups still want to be part of the Church: parents whom we visit before baptism are exceptionally open and welcoming; young families bring their children to Mass and so many want them to be altar servers; the ‘Do This in Memory’ programme prior to First Communion has greatly enlivened the faith and practice of families and parishes; so many young people make up our congregations on Sunday. It’s easy to curse the half-empty glass and fail to see the potential.

Rethinking the Eucharist Theologically

Two years in advance of the Eucharistic Congress is the opportune time to look at ways in which we can enter more profoundly into the mystery of the Eucharist and live out in practice what we celebrate as a community on Sunday. I want to make a pitch here for the need to rethink the Eucharist theologically. Without a proper theological understanding of Church and Eucharist it is all too easy to slip into pragmatic solutions that may undermine the mystery we are celebrating while seeming to enhance it. One such is the relationship between sacrifice and communion. An over-emphasis on the table of communion without sufficiently appreciating its intrinsic connection with the altar of sacrifice can lead to a horizontal reductionism of the Mass. What I mean by this will become clear as we proceed.

The twentieth century has been called the century of the Church with the Vatican Council as the Council of the Church. Two major documents on the church were issued by the Council; Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes. The document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, was the first document to be published, on 4th December 1963. Major work had been done on the liturgy prior to the Council, by people like Dom Otto Casel. However, the document says little about the Eucharist. While establishing some basic liturgical principles, it is largely a list of mandatory and recommended changes, the change to the vernacular being the most dramatic. We have lived through these changes and the document now reads like a checklist of what has been done. Now is the time to take stock and to see where these changes have brought us. In general terms, what the document tried to do was to move away from the more ritualistic orientation of the Latin Mass to a greater emphasis on participation by all, reflecting a more inclusive ecclesiology. Those who were ordained prior to the Council will remember the stress of meeting the requirements of an exacting rubric. It is worth recalling the words of the document itself:

Pastors of souls must realize that, when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the laws governing valid and lawful celebration. It is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part, fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite and enriched by it.[3]

The obvious question is: to what extent has this happened? Do the faithful take part, fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite and enriched by it? A second question is pertinent: Do we priests take part in the liturgy, fully aware of what we are doing, actively engaged in the rite and enriched by it, or are we swamped by a multiplication of masses and weighed down by futile attempts to make it ‘meaningful’?

The Vatican II document on the liturgy dealt all too briefly with the Eucharist. What it did was highlight its importance with little further elucidation: ‘The liturgy is the summit towards which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows.’[4] Three important documents have been published in the past seven years which complement the Council document on the liturgy. These are, firstly, the encyclical from Pope John Paul II, entitled, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (2003) and, secondly, his Apostolic Letter, Mane nobiscum Domine (2004). Thirdly, there is the Apostolic Exhortation from Pope Benedict, Sacramentum Caritatis (2007), which is the fruit of the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist. These documents could provide material for study groups in a parish. Mane nobiscum Domine is a very accessible introduction for the year of the Eucharist where the late Pope reflects on the Eucharist as the mystery of light, based on the Emmaus resurrection appearance. Here I will focus on Ecclesia de Eucharistia.

The Eucharist as Sacrifice

At the beginning of Ecclesia de Eucharistia Pope John Paul II sets out the problematic regarding the Eucharist:Stripped of its sacrificial meaning, it is celebrated as if it were simply a fraternal banquet. Furthermore, the necessity of the ministerial priesthood, grounded in apostolic succession, is at times obscured and the sacramental nature of the Eucharist is reduced to its mere effectiveness as a form of proclamation.

There are three areas of concern it this statement. First of all, there is the question of the Mass as sacrifice. When the Mass is reduced to the horizontal level, a banquet, it loses its focus and meaning. The fact that it is Christ’s sacrifice offered to the Father, in which we are privileged to participate, has sometimes been blurred since the Council. The second point raised by Pope John Paul is the undermining of the ministerial priesthood. On one level we would be inclined to say that is not an issue in Ireland but, on another level, the reaction to parishes without priests betrays a slippage regarding the importance of the ministerial priesthood. Some comments suggest that a new type of Church may be evolving where the ministerial priesthood is somehow dispensable, failing to see the necessity of the priest for the celebration of the sacraments, acting in persona Christi capitis (in the person of Christ the head). Finally, the Pope sees the danger of a horizontal reductionism whereby the liturgy becomes flat-footed and a theological lowest common denominator prevails. The word absorbs the Eucharistic sacrifice. Horizontal reductionism is evident in a Eucharist where the liturgy of the word dominates. In an effort to make the Mass more accessible to an increasingly uneducated congregation – theologically – there is a danger of reducing the language and symbolism to banalities, omitting such rich terminology as grace, Trinity, divine, and, especially, sacrifice. When the salt becomes tasteless… ‘Let us proclaim the mystery of faith’. Where is the mystery? We need to rediscover the mystery that is the Eucharist. The encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia focuses on the Eucharist as sacrifice. The Eucharist is a sacrifice not in the sense that Christ gives himself to us; it is primarily the gift of himself to the Father in total obedience: The gift of his love and obedience to the point of giving his life (cf. Jn 10: 17-18) is in the first place a gift to his Father. Certainly it is a gift given for our sake, and indeed that of all humanity, yet it is first and foremost a gift to the Father.[6] This is not a sacrifice to placate an angry God, but a loving self-giving to the One who is love. At the Last Supper the sacrifice of the cross is anticipated and present in the sacramental presence and self-giving in the upper room. Ecclesia de Eucharistia expresses this in these terms: ‘The institution of the Eucharist sacramentally anticipated the events which were about to take place.’[7] What Jesus offered the Twelve was his body given and his blood poured out: ‘Jesus did not simply state that what he was giving them to eat and drink was his body and his blood; he also expressed its sacrificial meaning and made sacramentally present his sacrifice which would soon be offered on the Cross for the salvation of all.’[8] In this way Jesus enabled his apostles to participate in the passion in the most intimate way. By eating the consecrated bread and wine they were actually consuming the sacrifice of love on the cross. In the Eucharists celebrated subsequent to the Resurrection, the sacrifice of Calvary is present in the memorial: ‘Do this in memory of me’, understood in the light of Jewish ritual memorial, especially the Passover as the ritual memorial of the Exodus. In this perspective the saving event of the Exodus is present whenever the Passover is celebrated. Similarly, the Eucharist is the living memorial of the death and resurrection of Christ: being at Mass is the same as being on the hill of Calvary and the garden of resurrection. When we participate in the Eucharistic we are joined to Christ as he offers himself to his Father. The climax of this participation is when we receive Communion. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal captures the essential intention of Eucharistic participation when it affirms that in offering the sacrifice of Christ we offer ourselves: ‘The Church’s intention is that the faithful not only offer this spotless Victim but also learn to offer themselves, and so day by day to be consummated, through Christ the Mediator, into unity with God and with each other, so that at last God may be all in all.’[9] And we may add, thus becoming the body of Christ, the Church.The relationship between the Eucharist and the Church is encapsulated in the celebrated phrase of the late Cardinal de Lubac (1896-1991): ‘The Church makes the Eucharist, but the Eucharist also makes the Church.’[10] The first part of that phrase refers to the Church seen in its active sense, exercising its power of sanctification; the second part envisages the Church in its passive role as the Church of the sanctified. In this mysterious interaction, the unique Body is being constructed in the conditions of life here in this world, until the day of its fulfilment: the Body of Christ as the Eucharistic species and the Body of Christ as the community of Christians. St Augustine’s cryptic exhortation sums up the proper balance that should mark the relationship between Church and Eucharist: ‘Be then what you see and receive what you are.’[11] The Eucharist is the Body of Christ and so is the Church. There is one communion because there is only one Body of Christ. We receive the Body of Christ in the Eucharist to become the Body of Christ. The difficult issue we have is to tease out is how this vision of Eucharist and Church can be incarnated in the average parish, school or hospital. How can we catechise our people so that they not only receive the Body of Christ but that they become the Body of Christ in their parish? The approach of the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist gives us some help. The first section of Sacramentum Caritatis, entitled ‘The Eucharist, a Mystery to be believed’, reflects on the relationship of the Eucharist to the other sacraments. This is an approach we can take as we prepare for the Eucharistic Congress: it is a matter of considering each of the sacraments in relation to the Eucharist and, in that way, to create a Eucharistic community in our diocese and parish. Take baptism, for example. Pope Benedict’s approach in Sacramentum Caritatis to the relationship between Baptism and Eucharist is to emphasise that the reception of Baptism and Confirmation is ordered to the Eucharist. In Baptism we are conformed to Christ, incorporated into the Church and made children of God. Participation in the Eucharistic sacrifice perfects within us the gifts given to us at Baptism.Our problem is that all too often the sacraments of initiation are unrelated to any kind of Church practice. They seem to have become cultural events with little or no religious significance. The godparents are sometimes youngsters themselves with no idea what it is all about. Some years ago I remember asking a girl why she wanted her child baptised; it was child number five and partner number three. She nonchalantly replied, ‘I’d be afraid anything would happen to him.’ When someone has a baby they automatically ask for baptism and, usually, their wish is granted without much preparation. Recently I called to a priest on a Saturday afternoon and he excused himself very apologetically because he had baptisms to do. I asked him how many and he replied, ‘Oh, I don’t know; however many turn up.’ In an effort to be accommodating we have sold short on the sacraments and no wonder couples treat them as secular events. So in our attempt to renew our parishes as Eucharistic communities we need to begin at the beginning. In France parents usually have to do a three month preparation course; otherwise the child is not baptised. In the parishes where I have worked there have been baptismal teams in existence: these are mothers who visit the couple before the baptism to explain the ceremony and make some attempt to prepare. However, I found this was not adequate. When the couples arrived for baptism they were usually complete strangers to the priest and he to them. So we now have the practice of visiting the family well in advance of the baptism and we find that is very useful. The young couples are very welcoming and they appreciate the gesture. It is an occasion to make a worthwhile pastoral visit. Visitation with a focus makes all the difference. We are currently developing a course for prospective baptism parents which will be given by the parish baptism team.[12] A worthwhile catechesis can be developed by making connections between the Eucharist and the other sacraments. Such a reflection on the sacrament of marriage is especially enlightening and enriching. In fact no sacrament should be celebrated without an acknowledged link to the Eucharist, the ‘source and summit of the entire Christian life.’[13] The Eucharist and the CommunityCelebration of the Eucharist is not a disembodied exercise: it must take account of what is happening in the community. The early Eucharists, as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, knew how to connect liturgy and life. There was never anyone in want in their communities.[14] The celebrated passage of St John Chrysostom where he linked the Eucharist to Matthew 25 is pertinent:Would you honour the body of Christ? Do not despise his nakedness; do not honour him here in church clothed in silk vestments and then pass him by unclothed and frozen outside. Remember that he who said, ‘This is my body’, and made good his words, also said, ‘You saw me hungry and gave me no food’, and, ‘in so far as you did it not to one of these, you did it not to me’. In the first sense the body of Christ does not need clothing but worship from a pure heart. In the second sense it does need clothing and all the care we can give it.[15] In practice, this means that our parishes need to be communities of care, especially for the weakest. We cannot talk about celebrating the Eucharist without giving equal regard to love of neighbour. The caring agencies of the Church – at home and abroad – exercise such a pivotal role in this regard. But there are so many ways of being poor which are not measurable in material terms. These too should be the focus of our Eucharistic care. Members of parish assemblies and parish councils who are in touch with a wide range of parishioners are in a good position to diagnose the needs of a community and, with Eucharistic vision, seek ways of meeting those needs. Quoting from his address to the Roman Curia in December, 2005, the Pope gives great weight to the human relationships that should result from the Eucharist: And it is precisely this personal encounter with the Lord that then strengthens the social mission contained in the Eucharist, which seeks to break down not only the walls that separate the Lord and ourselves, but also and especially the walls that separate us from one another.[16] This is at the heart of the relationship between Eucharist and parish. So many people fail to see the connection and the implications. They have no problem devoutly assisting at Mass and then pointedly ignoring a family member coming out of the Church. ‘If you bring your gift to the altar…’ Holding the grudge, on the one hand, and being ostensibly religious, on the other, is a contradiction that seems not to penetrate the Irish psyche. One could make similar comments about the lack of a business ethic. Indeed, there are so many aspects of life that people fail to see as having any connection with faith and worship. And by the way don’t mention the plank in my own eye! Some Pastoral Implications

1) Communion Services
We need to rediscover the Eucharist as mystery which implies that its sacrificial nature be given its rightful place. The self-giving of Christ to his Father, in which we participate both in the liturgy and in our lives, is the source of our communion with Christ and one another. Any separation of sacrifice and communion is a reduction of the mystery of the Eucharist. For that reason it is ill-advised to distribute communion at services where a priest is not available to celebrate Mass. It reduces the Mass to an act of consecrating hosts. The instruction of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004), makes it clear that a celebration of the Word with the distribution of Holy Communion on Sundays is intended for missionary areas and should be considered as ‘altogether extraordinary’. [17] In regard to such celebrations on weekdays the instruction insists that permission should not be given lightly, especially where Sunday Mass is available.[18]

2) Eucharistic Adoration
There has been a significant revival of Eucharistic Adoration especially in the new movements, like Youth 2000 and the Emmanuel community. Several parishes throughout the country have perpetual adoration. Pope Benedict, while welcoming this development, stresses the need for an accompanying catechesis: Great benefit would ensue from a suitable catechesis explaining the importance of this act of worship, which enables the faithful to experience the liturgical celebration more fully and more fruitfully.[19]The purpose of adoration is to deepen our celebration of the Eucharist, not to act as a parallel devotion. In enabling us to enter more profoundly into the Eucharistic sacrifice, adoration allows us to grow in our union with God and with one another. If adoration is reduced to a cosy cocoon in splendid isolation where we shut out the world then it is no longer Eucharistic.

3) Beauty
It was Lacordaire who wrote: ‘La vérité s’arrête à l’intelligence, la beauté pénètre jusqu’au cœur (truth stops at the level of intelligence, beauty goes right to the heart).’ Sacramentum Caritatis is the first Magisterium document which makes beauty a channel to introduce mystery. Veritatis Splendor (1992) implicitly referred to the Platonic idea that the beautiful is the splendour of the true. ‘Everything related to the Eucharist should be marked by beauty,’[20] writes Pope Benedict. The document stresses the importance of architecture, art, harmony of furnishings, music, silence.[21] Church art and architecture have been catechetical instruments down through the centuries. The scriptures have been opened up to people in the great cathedrals of the world and in little country churches through the stained glass windows and architectural features of these places of worship. It is such a tribute to our forefathers who managed to build fine churches in poor times. It surely behoves us to maintain high standards. Music in the liturgy has gone through so many metamorphoses. I think it is probably regaining the dignity that it should in most places. Singing is one of the primary ways by which the assembly of the faithful participates actively in the Liturgy. It is an integral part of the celebration of Mass. I don’t think I was ever at Mass in France where there wasn’t some singing. Expressing our faith through music deepens the faith of the whole community. The motivation for singing is clearly expressed in the document on the Liturgy: ‘The quality of our singing the Liturgy comes less from our vocal ability than from the desire of our hearts to sing together of our love for God.’[22] As in so many aspects of the Eucharist that we have looked at, singing and music are not for our gratification but find their object in God. This point is highlighted in the 2007 document on the liturgy issued by the United States Conference of Bishops:A cry from deep within our being, music is a way for God to lead us to the realm of higher things. As St Augustine says, ‘Singing is for the one who loves.’[23] … Thus, it is no wonder that singing together in church expresses so well the sacramental presence of God to his people.[24] We see immediately that catechesis is essential in this, as in all aspects of liturgical life. Indeed there are some areas where lack of catechesis causes problems in pastoral practice.Weddings and funerals are sometimes occasions of contention regarding music. People often ask for secular music on these occasions because they don’t know of any other. We need to have in place – preferably on line – music that is suitable for such ceremonies. What certainly needs to be addressed is the discrepancy that is sometimes evident between the treatment accorded to the little people and the indulgence shown to the high and mighty. Mary Murphy can’t have her mother’s favourite comallye sung at her funeral but when there are high profile people involved liturgical norms are cast aside and they can do what they like. An unjust and unseemly anomaly surely! The good soil, on which to build a proper celebration of the Eucharist, is catechesis, in the widest sense. Pope Benedict rightly draws attention to the catechetical experience of the Eucharist itself: ‘The best catechesis on the Eucharist is the Eucharist itself, celebrated well.’[25]


[1] Vatican Council II Lumen Gentium § 11.
[2] Mgr J.-L. Brugès O.P., ‘L’eucharistie et l’urgence du mystère,’ in Nouvelle Revue Théologique 130/1 (Belgium, 2008), p. 5.
[3] Vatican Council II, Sacrosanctum Concilium § 11.
[4] Vatican Council II Sacrosanctum Concilium § 10. See also: Lumen Gentium § 11; Christus Dominus § 30, 2; Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia § 1, 3, 6; Pope Benedict, Sacramentum Caritatis § 3.
[5] Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (Dublin: Veritas, 2003), § 10.
[6] Ibid., § 13.
[7] Ibid., § 3.
[8] Ibid., § 12.
[9] The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (Dublin: Irish Liturgical Publications, 2005. First published in Latin, 2002), § 79.
[10] Henri de Lubac, Méditations sur l’Eglise (Paris: Declée de Brouwer, 1985, Paris: Cerf, Œuvres complètes VIII, 2003), p. 113.

[11] ‘Estote quod videtis, et accipite quod estis,’ St Augustine, Sermo 272, Patrologia Latina 38, 1247f.
[12] See Julie Kavanagh & Maeve Mahon, A Welcome for Your Child : A Guide to Baptism for Parents (Dublin: Veritas, 2008); Rosemary Gallagher, Let’s Celebrate a Baptism (Dublin: Redemptorist Publications, 2nd edition 2009).
[13] Vatican Council II Lumen Gentium § 11.
[14] See, in particular, Acts 4: 32-35.
[15] St John Chrysostom, Homily 50, 3, in The Divine Office III, p. 480 (Week 21, Saturday).
[16] Pope Benedict, Address to the Roman Curia (22nd December 2005), quoted in Sacramentum Caritatis (London: Catholic Truth Society, 2007), § 66.
[17] Redemptionis Sacramentum (Dublin: Veritas, 2004), § 164.
[18] Ibid., § 166.

[19] Sacramentum Caritatis § 67.

[20] Sacramentum Caritatis § 41.
[21] See also Sacrosanctum Concilium § 112-130 and General Instruction of the Roman Missal § 289-318.
[22] Ibid., § 30
[23] St Augustine, Sermo 336, I, Patrologia Latina 1844-1855, 38.
[24] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, November, 2007, § 2.
[25] Pope Benedict, Sacramentum Caritatis § 64.

Last Updated on Saturday, 30 January 2010 09:40

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