Brief Book Review: Eating Together, Becoming One

Eating Together, Becoming One:
Taking Up Pope Francis’s Call to Theologians
By Thomas O’Loughlin

Who should read this? Bishops, all pastoral ministers and leaders across denominations (but especially Roman Catholics), ministry students, those engaged or interested in Christian ecumenism (and, really, who among Christians shouldn’t be?) and church members seeking deeper understanding of the purpose and meaning of eucharistic participation and sharing.

What’s the main point? Professor O’Loughlin responds to Pope Francis’s invitation to theologians to examine the question of intercommunion between Catholics and other Christians, casually issued during a visit to a Lutheran church in 2015. The book builds the case, layer by layer, for a broad eucharistic hospitality on the part of the Catholic Church beginning with the basic act of meal-sharing and general principles of hospitality (the “grammar of meals”: we don’t invite someone to our house then have a meal in front of them without offering them a place at the table), moving through the sense of family that emerges in such sharing, to the unity of all Christians in baptism, itself intrinsically connected to eucharist, and to the ecclesial subject of this eucharistic action as essentially missionary and pilgrim in character. As sacramental expression of the Church’s being on the way but not yet fully attaining to the fullness of the incomprehensible divine mystery, the eucharist is viaticum, the provisions for that journey toward ultimate unity in God, rather than a reward for having already arrived.

What difference will this book make? O’Loughlin successfully achieves his stated purpose, “to show that it is incompatible with who we are and what we are doing to take part in a eucharist and, then, not wish all present to share fully in the Lord’s Supper at which they are companions—and companions at a table eat and drink together” [19]. Those who follow his straightforward and compassionate approach through the multi-layered ecumenical eucharistic theology he offers in this important book will deepen their understanding of the eucharist and their longing to share it with utmost inclusivity. Appropriating O’Loughlin’s vision, in short, will help us make our eucharists more hospitable and our discipleship more authentic.

What intrigued me the most? Reading Eating Together, Becoming One affirmed in an overwhelming way the sense that we Catholics should have been past needing to make this case a long time ago, especially since many of us have in practice moved on (unofficially, of course) from discouraging other Christians from approaching the eucharistic table. For many, this will simply feel like common sense—this in spite of how poorly the subtleties of the official teaching are generally understood or how frequently it may be enforced by rigorists (whether from the pulpit or the pew). It raises a question about the sensus fidelium and the theological reception of the teaching on eucharistic reception.

In the last several chapters of the book O’Loughlin takes the reader on a most worthwhile journey through several eucharistic and other theological themes, to which this brief review cannot do justice. But by way of example, I loved the section (and its title) in chapter seven, “Food Is an Analogue of Food,” a stark reminder of the nature of sacramentality and of the sacramental nature of the eucharist. “Food, alimentation and hydration, is a constant in human life… [E]very added significance that food and meals have for us can be traced back to that primary reality… Before food is ever an analogue for something other than its own reality—such as ‘I am the bread of life’ (John 6:35)—it already is valued, understood, and precious. This puts us in connection with reality and with the Source and End of reality: God the creator” (97).

What will get you thinking? To push the envelope further, as the book is a response to Pope Francis’s invitation to theological exploration occasioned by a faithful Lutheran woman asking why she shouldn’t share at the Lord’s table with her Roman Catholic husband, we might also wonder how the first principles about the grammar of meal-sharing might be brought to bear on Pope Francis’s very recent revelation (reported, among other places, in America) that he had never denied the eucharist to anyone (and wasn’t at all scandalized that he had inadvertently once given communion to an elderly Jewish woman—when she revealed this to him after the fact, he said in an impromptu teaching moment, “The one I gave you was Jewish, too”). While the Pope did not explicitly invite further theological reflection on the question of sharing the eucharist with those from religious traditions other than Christianity, the fact that he would tell this story (while responding to a question about allowing reception of communion to Catholic politicians who hold a pro-choice position on abortion) says something about his own posture of eucharistic hospitality in practice (modeled, as O’Loughlin would say, on “the actual practice that Jesus showed us” [9]). It does so in a way that helps move the needle further from the classical starting point that “someone cannot ‘receive’ communion unless they meet certain requirements” and that “eating at the eucharist is not simply part of being Christian,” and closer toward one that gives all Christians (at least) the “benefit of the doubt” and sees eating at the eucharistic table as “a normal part of the pilgrim life of disciples” [89].

For helping immensely to articulate the significance of this pastoral/theological shift in paradigm, we are truly in Professor O’Loughlin’s debt.

Thomas O’Loughlin, Eating Together, Becoming One: Taking Up Pope Francis’s Call to Theologians, (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2019), 174 + xiv pages.

REVIEWER: David Stosur
David Stosur is Professor of Religious Studies at
Cardinal Stritch University, specializing in liturgical theology.
He recently published a review of Brian A. Butcher’s
Liturgy after Schmemann: An Orthodox Reading of Paul Ricoeur (Fordham UP, 2018) in Theological Studies 81/2 (June 2020).

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