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.
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.