The Eucharist OF the Church

Commenting on a draft of “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church,” both Kevin Irwin and Fritz Bauerschmidt wonder whether it devotes excessive attention to questions of personal worthiness to receive Communion. Commenting on the final version of the document, Teresa Berger wonders about silence on the question of climate change.

I share these concerns. Here, though, I want to spend time on the document’s presentation of sacrifice, of the significance of the communicant’s “Amen,” and of the meaning of liturgical participation.

On sacrifice, paragraph 14 states:

As a memorial the Eucharist is not another sacrifice, but the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ by which we are reconciled to the Father.  It is the way by which we are drawn into Jesus’ perfect offering of love, so that his sacrifice becomes the sacrifice of the Church.  As Pope Benedict XVI wrote,

The remembrance of his perfect gift consists not in the mere repetition of the Last Supper, but in the Eucharist itself, that is, in the radical newness of Christian worship.  In this way, Jesus left us the task of entering into his “hour.”  The Eucharist draws us into Jesus’ act of self-oblation.  More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving.

“The sacrifice of the Church.” This phrase could be understood as referring to something the Church is offering to God, something that is other than the Church itself. Augustine, however, asserts in City of God that this sacrifice is of the Church in the sense (also) that the Church is the sacrifice: “the whole redeemed city, that is the congregation and fellowship of the saints, is offered to God as a universal sacrifice through the great priest who, in his passion, offered himself for us in the form of a servant, to the end that we might be the body of such a great head” (Book X, 6). Later, in the same section, Augustine writes: “This is the sacrifice of Christians: although many, one body in Christ. And this is the sacrifice of the altar (which is well known to the faithful), where it is made plain to her that, in the offering she makes, she herself is offered.” Hence, Eucharistic Prayer III asks that the assembly be made an “eternal offering” to God and Eucharistic Prayer IV asks that those gathered “may truly become a living sacrifice in Christ to the praise of your glory.” Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation II speaks in the same vein:

Holy Father, we humbly beseech you
to accept us also, together with your Son,
and in this saving banquet
graciously to endow us with his very Spirit,
who takes away everything
that estranges us from one another.

Suppose “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church” had spoken in this way of the sacrifice of the Church, adding also what Lumen Gentium 34 says about the daily “spiritual sacrifices” of Christians: “Together with the offering of the Lord’s body, they are most fittingly offered in the celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, as those everywhere who adore in holy activity, the laity consecrate the world itself to God.” How might these words shape an understanding that the Eucharist is of the assembly and not over against the assembly?

On the communicant’s “Amen,” “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church” states in paragraph 6: “Yet, we also know that he is present to us in a way that binds us together as one body, which we proclaim by our ‘Amen’ in responding to the invitation: ‘The Body of Christ.’”

And it adds in paragraph 22:

When the Eucharist is distributed and the minister says,“the Body of Christ,” we are to look not simply at what is visible before our eyes, but at what it has become by the words of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit – the Body of Christ. The communicant’s response of “Amen” is a profession of faith in the Real Presence of Christ and reflects the intimate personal encounter with him, with his gift of self, that comes through reception of Holy Communion.

Elsewhere, the text talks about Eucharist as sign and cause of communion (paragraph 25 for example). Once again, however, Augustine offers an important word for us to consider, this time from Sermon 272:

So if you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the apostle telling the faithful,“You, though, are the body of Christ and its members” (1 Cor 12:27). So if it’s you that are the body of Christ and its members, it’s the mystery meaning you that has been placed on the Lord’s table; what you receive is the mystery that means you. It is to what you are that you reply Amen, and by so replying you express your assent. What you hear, you see, is “The body of Christ,” and you answer, “Amen.” So be a member of the body of Christ, in order to make that “Amen” true.

Suppose the “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church” had spoken in this way about the “Amen.” This word affirms not only belief in Real Presence. Rather, it affirms belief in the Real Presence in the sacramental elements that is utterly bound up with the assembly as (also) Body of Christ. How might Augustine’s words affirm that the Eucharist is of the assembly?

In paragraph 31, the document has this to say about participation in liturgy:

We actively and consciously participate by giving our full attention to the words being spoken in the prayers and the Scriptures, even if we have heard them hundreds of times before. We do so also by listening to the homily and reflecting upon how the Lord may be speaking to us through his ordained minister. We are actively giving thanks when we join in singing and in the responses; when we kneel, stand, and sit; and when we pay attention to the liturgical seasons where the entire history of what God has done for us, in and through his Son, is revealed to us.

The document elsewhere points out that the Eucharist directs the assembly to social concerns (hear the cry of the poor in paragraph 40 for example), but “participation” in liturgy is restricted to the actions noted in 31. These actions are part of what Mark Searle characterized as “Level 1” of participation in liturgy. There are other levels.  Concerning Level 2, Searle wrote:

In the New Testament . . . cultic terms such as “priest,” “sacrifice,” “worship,” and “liturgy” are used to refer not to Christian ritual but to Christ and his “obedience unto death” and secondly, to the ongoing life of the Christian community, lived in conformity to Christ . . . . For our prayer to be acceptable . . . it must consist of our being drawn into a living participation in Christ’s own sacrifice of obedience.”

Yes, in paragraph 14 “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church” quoted Benedict XVI on the Eucharist drawing us into Jesus’ self-offering, but Searle points out that being drawn and moving into this self-offering is a matter of liturgical participation. And there is a Level 3:

Ultimately . . . full, conscious, and active participation in the liturgy of the Church means nothing less than full, conscious, active participation in the life of grace, lived and manifested individually and collectively, as union with God and communion with all of humanity.

In its concluding section, “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church” correctly notes that the Eucharist sends us forth into the world as missionary disciples. It does not, however, speak of the life of such disciples as a matter of a liturgy that consecrates the world itself to God (Lumen Gentium 34). Suppose the document connected those dots.

Perhaps drawing on the insights of Saint Augustine and Mark Searle and drawing as well on Lumen Gentium and the texts taken above from Eucharistic Prayers would yield a document that better speaks to the Catholic faithful today.

[The passages from Mark Searle are from Mark Searle, Called to Participate: Theological, Ritual, and Social Perspectives, eds. Barbara Searle and Anne Y. Koester (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2006), 27; 38.]


  1. In line with Augustine, I vividly remember the first time I heard a priest explaining that the exchange “The Body of Christ — Amen” actually means “The Body of Christ — Yes, we are!”

  2. It might be remember that, in the preconciliar rite of Mass, the priest alone recites the following, including the Amen, though I assume a communicant might interiorly join it, as it were.

    “Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam. Amen.”

  3. Thanks TIm, for a lovely guided meditation on what might have been… I have a number of theological issues with older Anglican eucharistic liturgies, but one part of the several versions of the prayer following the words of institution always rings true for me (and along the lines of several of your comments):
    “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves,
    our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living
    sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee that we, and all
    others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may
    worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son
    Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction,
    and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and
    we in him.”

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