As part of an ecumenical conversation about the place of the Eucharist in the life of the Church and in living the Christian faith, Archbishop Malcolm McMahon, OP of Liverpool offered the following address. The occasion was the Adoremus symposium, congress, and pilgrimage. Reprinted with kind permission of The Tablet in London.
The Catholic Church’s teaching on the real presence of Christ in the liturgy is much broader than most people realize.
It is quite clear that the Lord is present in the assembly of the faithful gathered in prayer in his name. It is also clear that he is present in his word when the scriptures are proclaimed in Church and explained. These are quite easy to understand and accept. After all we have Jesus’ own word for it that he will be in our midst when we gather in his name, and as we believe that Jesus is the Word made Flesh it is not too difficult to see the reading of the Scriptures as being a moment when Christ is present to his faithful followers. The church also teaches that he is present in the person of the minister – that is trickier to understand but the fourth presence of the Lord is in the Eucharistic sacrament. In a way that is completely unique, the whole and entire Christ, God and man, is substantially and permanently present in the sacrament. This presence of Christ under the appearances of bread and wine “is called real, not to exclude other kinds of presence as if they were not real, but because it is real par excellence’. (Eucharsticum Mysterium, no 55)
The Holy Eucharist was initially reserved for the sick. So that if they could not attend mass to receive Holy Communion they could have the sacrament brought to them. It followed because it was reserved it became an object of devotion. But the church has never taught that reserved eucharist should be honored in isolation of the liturgical life of the church. When the faithful honor Christ present in the sacrament they should remember that this presence is derived from and directed towards sacramental and spiritual communion.
We believe that prayer before Christ the Lord, sacramentally present extends the union with Christ which the faithful have reached in communion. It renews the covenant which in turn moves them to maintain in their lives what they received by in the midst of human society. faith and by the sacraments. They should try to lead their whole lives with the strength derived from the heavenly food, as they share in the death and resurrection of the Lord. Everyone should be concerned with good deeds and with pleasing God so that he or she may imbue the world with the Christian Spirit and be a witness of Christ. (Euch. Myst. 13)
Some controversial issues
Some Christian traditions see these as a kind of idolatry, but their purpose is to give a public witness of faith and devotion to the sacrament. Unfortunately, these have become triumphalist in some places and at times in history so that their purpose in witnessing the suffering death and resurrection of the Lord has been lost.
It is difficult to explain to Christians who share one Baptism, one Faith and one Lord that they cannot receive holy Communion in a Catholic church. One way of understanding this is to say that the Catholic church is in a real but imperfect union with their fellow Christians. The controversy centres on what we believe about the eucharist both personally and as a community. Because the different communities have different beliefs about the eucharist it is not possible for them to receive. On the other hand, on special occasions (e.g. weddings or a funerals) it is possible for non-Catholic Christians to receive holy communion if they share the same beliefs as Catholics regarding the Eucharist. Catholics believe that intercommunion is a fruit of unity not a means to it – but that may be controversial statement even for Catholics. (e.g. in a marriage between a catholic and a non-Catholic Christian sacramental unity in Christ exists in the sacrament of matrimony, but usually the non-Catholic partner cannot receive communion in a catholic church).
On a personal note my prayer is that of the Lord: that we may all be one. I have longed to share this Passover with you. (Lk 221:15)