Holding Eucharist as Central

The National Catholic Reporter recently published a Viewpoint essay by Jim Purcell, who is a member of their board and a retired college administrator. The title, “Focus on preaching the kingdom is key to ending clericalism,” intrigued me. Who, after all, could not be in favor of preaching the kingdom? And if this could spell the end of clericalism, how wonderful that would be! I picked it up with interest.

Unfortunately, as the article unfolded, it became clear that the author thinks the real key to progress in preaching the kingdom and ending clericalism is to be found in ending the centrality of Eucharist in the life of the Church! He describes himself as one who embraced Eucharist as central for most of his own adult life (he was ordained a priest in 1965 but left to marry a few years later), yet in the past ten years or so his views have changed. He now believes that Eucharist should hold a subordinate place to preaching the kingdom. He would keep the priesthood, but demote the Eucharist. This, he argues, along with appointing lay persons (male and female) as pastors, would change the balance of power and authority in the Church, and bring us closer to the example of Jesus in the New Testament. Eucharist should hold a supporting role, in his view. It is “food for the journey,” but not the source and summit of the Christian life.

To bolster his argument, he presents a rather thin, picture-thinking depiction of the life of Jesus as an itinerant preacher who focused on the kingdom and didn’t spend time on Eucharist. He contrasts this with a caricature of later developments in theology that emphasized priestly powers to confect sacraments. He uses terms such as transubstantiation and ex opere operato as code words for the wicked substitution of priestcraft for pure gospel faith based on the example of Jesus. He also points out, as if this were an argument against the centrality of Eucharist, that John’s gospel has no institution narrative. And, as if all this were not astonishing enough, he also cites approvingly the RCIA as a model for understanding faith as a journey not centered on Eucharist.

It amazed me, frankly, that a lifelong Catholic with a theological education and many years of service to Catholic institutions should display such a breathtaking ignorance of the historical roots of liturgy, the biblical-theological background to the centrality of Eucharist, and the Church’s overall sacramental vision expressed in a coherent ritual system with Eucharist at its heart.

Eucharist is not a “see-and-do” performance based on Bible stories from the life of Jesus. It has never been this. An institution narrative based on the Synoptic Gospels (but not identical to them), is retold at every Eucharist. This is tremendously important. But it is the post-Paschal Christ and his living presence in the Church — mediated by the Holy Spirit – that makes the Eucharist what it is, i.e. central to Christian life. The living Jesus, the Jesus who is LORD now, is indeed continuous with the earthly Jesus who once upon a time walked the dusty roads of Palestine, but we know him now in his Risen life—not merely as an itinerant Galilean preacher.

Soichi-We-Are-All-One-In-Christ

We know him too through the Spirit he sent. Purcell’s description lacks reference to the whole phenomenon of Pentecost, which liturgy relies upon so deeply for our awareness of who Christ is, how he is among us still, and what it means for us to be Church and to “do this in memory of me.” This post-Paschal, Spirit-laden presence of Christ is what Eucharist mediates in the fourfold way that Sacrosanctum Concilium describes: through gathered community, the word proclaimed, the minister, and, in a pre-eminent way, bread and wine.

To be clear, let me say, unambiguously, I am not arguing against preaching the kingdom! But what we do in Eucharist remains central. It rests upon and accesses a deep and fundamental human experience: the sharing of food. Eucharist is central to our life in common precisely because it is bread broken, shared. No preaching, however effective, can do what this primary sacramental sign does. Preaching can explain it, exhort the faithful to live by it, enlighten our minds and fire our passion for the work of God in our midst – but it is in sharing the Eucharist that we become who we are as God’s people, the Church. We do it together.

From our earliest history, the Christian community gathered for Eucharist. Sunday, the primordial feast day, the day of the resurrection, has been the day of Eucharist since apostolic times. It was indeed primary. By rendering Eucharist secondary, Purcell is not just opting out of late medieval definitions of priesthood, he is suggesting we opt out of the deepest stratum of the tradition! Ironically, his ideas about Eucharist seem to be so dominated by priesthood issues that he does not approach the Eucharist from the vantage point of the more fundamental question: What has the community done through the ages? The community has indeed held Eucharist at its heart, because in sign and symbol Eucharist embraces everything that the reign of God, begun in Christ and still coming, is and means. Yes, peace and justice. Yes, forgiveness and healing. Yes, faith and hope and charity. Yet Eucharist is also a foretaste of heaven, the banquet we share with all the saints, and a promise of the final fulfillment and glory of the Parousia. It is food for the journey, to be sure, but it is also the living icon of journey’s end. All of this is based on scripture as well as tradition. We are not dependent on one or two “meal texts” for our understanding of Eucharist.

Finally, I must admit I was flabbergasted to see an approving reference to the RCIA for supposedly subordinating Eucharist to the faith journey in the overall scheme of things—an “important part” of the journey, he writes, but “focusing on the sacramental theology of baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist as a moment in time instead of as ‘food for the journey’ would be a mistake.” In point of fact, the RCIA states quite clearly that “Eucharist is the high point of Christian initiation” and it underlines this in any number of ways. Outstandingly, it sets aside an entire period of the process—the period of mystagogy—as a time of immersion into the experience of the sacraments and the ongoing unfolding of their meaning! The neophytes Masses are the primary setting for mystagogy—mystagogy takes place not in a preaching series, but at Sunday Mass. Eucharist is central to the new life the neophytes have begun to live. All of this is aside from the fact that many, many of features of the earlier stages of the process are precisely geared toward formation which assists the catechumens in developing the capacity to celebrate Eucharist richly and fully and with integrity — to read the liturgical signs, to treasure the unfolding of the liturgical year, to be formed by the scriptures in the lectionary, to internalize the postures and gestures of prayer, to belong to the faith community, and make their own the mission of the Church. Communities and ministers of initiation toil at all these things precisely so that the catechumens can one day stand before God in Christ with all their brothers and sisters, in the liturgy. Eucharist is not an add-on. It’s the high point. It’s the summit and source. It’s also the ongoing sacrament of initiation for Christians: the Amen to what we are. And Eucharist will be with them until the last day of their lives, when it is received as viaticum.  This is no small thing.

What I suspect the author is reacting against is not actually the centrality of Eucharist but a defective experience of Eucharist – one which reduces it to an exercise in personal piety, a me-and-Jesus comfort meal, or a grand priestly exercise so remote that it neglects the here-and-now mission of Christ and of the Church. I understand the need to emphasize and renew our grasp of what it means to seek God’s kingdom and welcome God’s reign. Writers such as Ken Boyack and Frank DeSiano (Creating the Evangelizing Parish), Robert Rivers (From Maintenance to Mission), and others have been saying things like this for years. The solution Purcell proposes, however, seems to throw the baby out with the bath water. By all means, let us look again at power and authority in the Church, and consider ways to reform its use and avoid abuses. But not by relinquishing the real strength of our tradition, which holds Eucharist as central.

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16 comments

  1. The article shows a false dichotomy. For Catholics, the celebration of the Eucharist consists of the proclamation of the Living Word of God proclaimed to the Church (the Body of Christ) shared as the Body and Blood of Christ with the Body of Christ (the Church).

    1. @Fr. Jim McClintock:
      How wonderful it is, Jim, that the reformed liturgy embraces both Word and Sacrament. But for countless centuries the TLM obscured this fact by making it appear that the Eucharist was all about the “moment” at which the priest changed bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. An updated theology of the Eucharist attempted to restate what the priest’s role is in the context of the entire Prayer of Thanksgiving rather than just the words of institution, but the rubrics and the postures (at least in the US) make that difficult to comprehend. More importantly, our practice of all Eucharist all the time makes priests more indispensable than they should be. This results in reorganizing parishes to accommodate the number of priests available to confect the Eucharist. Surely this reflects an underdeveloped sense of what constitutes a community of faith. I absolutely do believe that the Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life, but with church leaders persisting in limiting ordination to a diminishing pool of men willing to forego marriage that will only be true in theory rather than actual practice. Further development of the theology of word, church, liturgy, and servant leaders is sorely needed if we are to grasp more fully what Jesus meant when he said “do this in memory of me”.

  2. I saw that piece and was underwhelmed. I was not surprised by it, because I’m quite used to seeing people reverse-engineer solutions from a desired result, which is in crude terms what this piece proposes. It’s weak tea.

    While I wouldn’t say there was implied Arianism in the piece, there is definitely more than a whiff of a very low Christology. The problem with low Christology is that Scriptural witness for it is more selective and uneven that most proponents of low Christology typically acknowledge: to put it in crude New Testamant 101-level terms, the Jesus of the Gospel of Mark is very poor candidate for low Christology, given the hammer like emphasis on his miracle-working, demon-expelling, and overall mysterious character, and some of the earliest passages in the New Testament (the hymn in Philippians) speak to a quite-high Christology from Chritianity’s earliest days.

    Moreover, it’s the Paschal Mystery of which the Eucharist is the living continuity that illumines all that preaching in a quite different light, like sunlight through a stained-glass window.

    The reduction of Christian discipleship from theosis to mere moralism is not as different when the moralism is the Social Gospel from when it’s Purity-and-Docility than some imagine it is.

    Most of the Catholics who would be inspired by what the author proposes have probably already left active practice of Catholicism, and the rump of progressive Catholics who remain in active practice are much less likely to be moved by it than the author or NCR might imagine.

    As a postscript, I would note that the author doesn’t seem to realize that the Our Father is a prayer that is fulfilled, perfected and embodied in the Paschal Mystery, not a thing merely preached

      1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt:
        Indeed. Yet I can recall so often how the Gospel of Mark is typically advanced as the more authentic/primitive/undoctored core record of early Christian witness unburdened by a high Christology. Once you step back and compare the Gospels, you start to see that’s a tanker of hooey.

        The Jesus of the Gospel of Mark can be likened metaphorically to the powerful (and ultimately victorious*) thrust of God’s mighty arm into and disrupting – with immediacy – the regular flow of this world.

        * That all-important and illuminating opening verse of the Gospel of Mark, against which the rest of the Gospel needs to be considered: this is the story of the TRULY Good News of the ultimate Victor in the war against evil, sin and death.

      2. @Fritz Bauerschmidt:
        PS: when I refer to God’s mighty arm in the Gospel of Mark, I am not thinking like a mosaic or fine Renaissance painting, but something more, well, terrible, with a whiff in the direction of Tony Kushner’s scene about how people change from part 2 of Angels in America:

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uAmIIaXgHhc

        And this *is* a message of victory and hope. It’s just hard in our culture to hear it that way. Because it’s neither melodramatic nor sentimental.

      3. @Karl Liam Saur #8:

        Yeah, that sounds more like it, even though I’ve been told/taught that it is we who pull apart our innards, as is our wont to destroy ourselves, one organ at a time, and it is God who sews us back up, one painful stitch at a time.

        Anyway, this post is, as usual, most excellent. Thanks, Rita! Shoddy writings deserve to be pulled apart.

      4. @Elisabeth Ahn:
        Elisabeth. I would agree that is also true; I think they can coexist. What I appreciate about Kushner’s non-Christian perspective is that it doesn’t partake of the usual American penchant to make it sound like a self-improvement exercise in which God is merely our coach and cheerleader. And, specifically in my invoking of the Gospel of Mark, there’s a Jesus who “is not very nice” in that characteristically totemic American sense of a “nice” God. Hence why, of the Gospels, there’s some whiff of Kushner’s take in that.

        There are days when I think “Just Mangled Guts Pretending” would be an apt thing to put on a gravestone. Or as the name of a small sacred choral music schola.

  3. Proclaiming the kingdom can do done in words and deeds. I always think of the Eucharist as a ritual way of proclaiming the Word. And yet at the same time I recall Yves Congar’s famous dichotomy.

  4. Beautiful, Rita! This reminded me of the famous Flannery O’Connor comment on the Eucharist: “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it. That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”

  5. Rita, excellent!!!! You always find the right words. Are there any plans to reprint this in the NCR? It would be a useful counterpoint.

  6. Thank you Rita for your excellent essay. There’s plenty to unpack here, and I agree with Steve Woodland that the NCR (or, might I add, any Catholic journal).

    Rita: “The living Jesus, the Jesus who is LORD now, is indeed continuous with the earthly Jesus who once upon a time walked the dusty roads of Palestine, but we know him now in his Risen life—not merely as an itinerant Galilean preacher.

    Without a doubt, all of what you say is true. Certainly the risen Christ is among us, and for this we should rejoice. However, the paschal mystery also contains in an omnipresent and coterminous manner the death of the God-Man and the singular salvific event of the crucifixion of Calvary.

    When I decided to practice contemporary Catholicism, I was disheartened to find that not much preaching is devoted to the crucifixion outside of Good Friday homilies. I realize that this topic, especially from the perspective of the Johannine passion, can be extremely difficult to explain to an assembly. Certainly many Catholic clergy and laypersons in history have perverted the passion texts to “justify” the most depraved evils. Despite these formidable homiletic barriers, the Cross must be preached nevertheless. The labor of the passion can’t be ignored simply out of fear or sensibility. To do so leads a person to be restless and unable to know why they are (purposefully) burdened. How can a person understand the full refreshment of the Eucharist if a person only understands a parsed paschal mystery?

    […] “et qui in ligno vincebat, in ligno quoque vinceretur” […]. “He conquered by the Tree, he also was conquered by the Tree”. The limpid clarity of the Holy Cross preface succinctly states that we the crucified live our earthly burdens in Christ so that we may live to understand Christian joy in the risen Christ. Lamentably, so many Catholics wish this weren’t the case, or rather fast-forward to Easter Sunday.

  7. Well done, Rita!
    For those who “don’t get it,” go back to the basics: CSL 56
    “The two parts which, in a certain sense, go to make up the Mass, namely, the liturgy of the word and the eucharistic liturgy, are so closely connected with each other that they form but one single act of worship.”

  8. There may be a grain –but a grain– of truth in Purcell’s article vis a vis preaching and Eucharist.
    The documents of Vatican II tell us the priest’s primary responsibility is to preach the Word of God.
    St. Paul reminds us that faith comes through hearing (the word of God).
    That preaching should lead to an awareness and reverence of the Eucharist as the source and summit of Christian life.
    But… preaching still takes a back seat among many priests. How many priests have I heard, an hour or two before Mass, say something like, “I gotta say something” and end up not having anything, really, to say.
    The notion of God present in his proclaimed word is a foreign notion among most Catholics.
    The Word/preaching and Eucharist= inseparable.
    But it is the preaching that sheds light on the Eucharist.

  9. I’m glad harshness has been mostly avoided in these comments and in Rita’s eloquent post. It’s a bit ironic for Christians to fall into polemic in defense of a feast of love.
    Nevertheless . . .
    1. In the era of enormous rethinking and dialogue throughout the Christian world around the time of Vatican II, many Anglican, Lutheran, and other Protestant congregations went from celebrating the Eucharist once a month to celebrating it weekly or oftener. So they’ve already tried what Jim Purcell is proposing. I suggest he ask them why they changed.
    2. As others have observed, being formed to advance the kingdom of God is already integral to the Eucharist. In a typical parish Sunday Mass, the Liturgy of the Word takes noticeably more time than the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Each celebration of the Liturgy of the Word is supposed to move us a little toward that kingdom, so that we’ve changed as disciples with each reception of Communion. If that really happens, I don’t see that Jim Purcell has much to complain of.
    3. Freely and joyfully accepting gifts is indispensable to a successful life, I believe. And the Eucharist is one remarkable gift.

  10. Mr. Purcell, cites as an argument for is position of downgrading the Eucharist, that evangelist John does not mention the ritual of the Eucharist. He neglects to mention (WHY?) the the other 3 evangelists do include the ritual. Moreover, the ritual is cited by Paul in 1Corinthians 11. John, while not specifically mentioning the ritual has a long chapter on not the “bread of life” with many Eucharistic terms in eluding “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life”.

    Purcell goes on to say that the Eucharistic ritual is only include two times in the Gospels. My reply is that there is only one Last Supper, the climatic moment when Jesus teaches the ritual. And there is only one incident, on the road to Emmaus, where he reveals his identity by breaking the breadth two of Jesus’ followers.

    Flimsy reasoning –and there’s more in the article — speaks for the authenticity of the article.

    Oh…why not stress preaching AND the Eucharist? No, says Purcell we have to downgrade the Eucharist. Why not stress both, I ask.
    Purcell also berates priests who want to show their great importance, by claiming they change the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus. However, I thought, as the Mass liturgy intimates that God make that happen. The celebrant really represents us, the congregation.

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