The Eucharist the Pope and the Anglican Dog

Not long ago a parishioner asked his pastor why the bell wasn’t rung anymore at the elevation of the Host during Mass. “Oh, that isn’t necessary,” the pastor replied. “We only did it in the old days when the Mass was in Latin, and we had to wake people up.” The pastor thought that was funny. The parishioner did not. He was still fuming when he told me the story.

Whichever side you take in this trivial spat, the incident illustrates an unhappy fact about Catholic life these days. The Eucharist, which is supposed to bring people together in the communion of the one Body, often serves as a focal point of conflict and division. Not just between Catholics and of the pastoral abuse” if they persist. Again, at a general audience February 26 of this year, the pope himself urged an “examination of conscience” regarding the state of non-Catholics either, as in pre-ecumenical times, but now among Catholics themselves.

From disputes pitting bishops against the Vatican over liturgical translations, to arguments about the music at Mass in your parish, clashes over the Eucharist and how it is celebrated have proliferated in the four decades since Vatican Council II. Now, far from disappearing, they may actually be multiplying, as orthodox Catholics, formerly cowed into submission, begin to fight back.

Gaudy aberrations of the years after Vatican II—things like clown Masses, improvised eucharistic prayers, readings from Martin Luther King Jr. and Kahlil Gibran instead of the Bible—may have faded, but confusion and contention haven’t. Strange notions about this most sacred of the Church’s sacraments fester in the Catholic underground. And the decline in attendance at Sunday Mass goes on. The U.S. rate plunged to a self-reported 31 percent last year, but allowing for the likelihood that some people who say they’ve been to Mass have not, the real figure is probably more like one in four.  In the early 196s it was seven out of ten.

Against this troubled background, Pope John Paul II and his men are trying to turn things around.

For example: Faced with complaints about priests who refused Communion to people who knelt to receive instead of standing, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments last year not only said the priests were wrong but threatened “disciplinary action consonant with the gravity of the pastoral abuse” if they persist.  Again, at a general audience February 26th of this year, the pope himself urged an “examination of conscience” regarding the state of liturgical music. He called for steps to “purify worship from ugliness of style, from distasteful forms of expression, from uninspired musical texts which are not worthy of the great act that is being celebrated.”

Then, on Holy Thursday, April 17, John Paul issued Ecclesia de Eucharistia (On the Eucharist in Its Relationship to the Church). The 17,500-word encyclical is the 14th of his pontificate and, clearly, one of his most deeply felt. It’s a surprising document in certain respects—lofty in some places, warmly human in others, and at times quite notably tough. No one who reads it can doubt that this pope loves and reveres the gift of the Eucharist—and has little patience with others who ought to but don’t.

Later this year, two Vatican congregations—Divine Worship and the Sacraments, headed by Francis Cardinal Arinze, and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s Doctrine of the Faith—will issue a joint “disciplinary note” that’s likely to come down on errors in eucharistic belief and practice in terms even harder and more explicit than the encyclical’s. It has also been rumored, but not confirmed up to the time of this writing, that John Paul might convoke an assembly of the Synod of Bishops late next year or in early 2005 to discuss the Eucharist.

The Health of the Faith

Why this top-level flurry of activity? The fundamental reason is hardly a secret. “The Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” Ecclesia de Eucharistia begins. Where eucharistic faith is healthy, so is the Church, but in many places today eucharistic faith is hardly in blooming health. The implications for the Church are clear.

Weeks before Ecclesia de Eucharistia appeared, bookstores in Rome were featuring Il Dio Vicino (God Close at Hand), a new book by Cardinal Ratzinger in which he argues that “correct celebration and correct understanding” of the Eucharist are essential to resolving the contemporary crisis of faith. “All of us know the difference between a Church that prays and a Church that has been reduced to a museum,” he remarks. Eucharistic faith—or its absence— will go far in determining whether the Church of the future will be one or the other.

More immediately, several concerns are energizing the Holy See’s current surge of interest in this topic.

During a stay in Rome shortly before the encyclical appeared, I spoke with a Vatican official who gave a fairly simple account of its genesis and aims. The encyclical, he said, merely reflected the pope’s desire to pay homage to the Blessed Sacrament on the 100th anniversary of a eucharistic encyclical by Pope Leo XIII (Mirae Caritatis [Wonderful Charity], actually published in 1902), along with his continuing concern for the priesthood, whose identity is intimately linked to the Eucharist.

But another official, closer to this project, painted a more complex picture of what was happening and why. The pope, he explained, was indeed eager to issue a eucharistic encyclical after 13 others on topics from ecumenism to social justice. But when John Paul’s intentions became known around the Vatican, others recommended taking the opportunity to confront eucharistic abuses at the highest level possible. The Vatican gets a steady stream of complaints about these from all over the world, suggesting the existence of problems the bishops haven’t successfully coped with up to now.

The original plan was to treat the abuses in a disciplinary note from Worship and the Sacraments that would come out at the same time as the encyclical and clearly draw its authority from that source. But delays at the congregation slowed its preparation, making simultaneous publication impossible. The official expressed regret at that, saying postponement opened the door for critics to claim the condemnation of abuses, coming apart from the encyclical, was a post-factum attempt by curialists to balance what they considered “pastoral” imprudence on the part of the pope.

John Paul himself may have headed that off, however, by specifically calling attention to the forthcoming disciplinary note in Ecclesia de Eucharistia. The encyclical says the second document will contain “prescriptions of a juridical nature” concerning violations of the liturgical norms that govern the celebration of Mass. Having morphed into a joint production along with Doctrine of the Faith, the document now is expected to come out next month.

In the meantime, Ecclesia de Eucharistia itself does no mean job flaying abuses.

Echoing a phrase often used by Cardinal Ratzinger—”Liturgy is never anyone’s private property”—John Paul lights into the “misguided sense of creativity and adaptation” that he says has been a “source of suffering” for people making good-faith efforts to adjust to liturgical changes in the years since Vatican II. He skewers bad liturgical art, architecture, and music; insists that Catholics in mortal sin must receive Penance before receiving Communion; and praises eucharistic devotions like adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Corpus Christi processions that elitists have regularly scorned since the council.

Although the encyclical endorses ecumenism, it denounces ecumenical “concelebrations” and illicit intercommunion undertaken by enthusiasts hoping to leverage Christian unity. Unauthorized sharing of the Eucharist with non-Catholics weighs heavily on the Vatican’s mind these days. The kind of thing that troubles Rome is illustrated by an incident in Berlin a little over a month after the encyclical appeared, in which a rebellious priest celebrated Mass for 2,000 in a Lutheran church with Communion distributed indiscriminately to Catholics and Lutherans alike.

Even so, the Vatican itself may have played host to some unplanned intercommunion. Last February 22, British Prime Minister Tony Blair may—or may not—have been given Communion at a private papal Mass he attended with his Catholic wife and children. Neither the Vatican nor Downing Street is saying what actually happened, and people who were present give contradictory accounts. In Ecclesia de Eucharistia John Paul notes that the practice is permitted in special circumstances “to meet a grave spiritual need for the eternal salvation of an individual believer.” But corporate intercommunion “remains impossible,” he says, pending the reunion of separated churches.

The Erosion of Belief

While today’s challenges to eucharistic faith take many forms, none is more pressing than those touching on belief in the Real Presence—the dogma that, as an old formula says, Christ is present body and blood, soul and divinity, beneath the consecrated appearances of bread and wine.

In his famous 1802 work of apologetics, The Genius of Christianity, de Chateaubriand expressed the doctrine this way: “The Saviour…reinstated us in our privileges, and the highest of these privileges undoubtedly was to communicate with our Maker. But this communication could no longer take place immediately, as in the terrestrial paradise…. A medium was therefore required, and this medium the Son has furnished. He hath given himself to men in the Eucharist.”

This, or something like it, has always been at the heart of Catholic belief about the Eucharist. Until recently, that is. After Vatican II, squishiness set in.

Some treatments of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist—for example, the explanations in the famous Dutch Catechism (A New Catechism) published in 1966, as well as homilies and catechetical popularizations of that era—began talking about the Real Presence in a way that, without exactly denying it, made it sound not so real. It became fashionable on the Catholic left to say that Jesus was really present in other people, especially the poor, the suffering, and the marginalized. No doubt He is, in a sense; but this shift in emphasis appeared to be a tacit downgrading of faith in Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.

A predictable consequence was the erosion of belief on display in a much-discussed 1994 New York Times–CBS News poll. Most Catholics, it found, preferred to consider the bread and wine at Mass “symbolic reminders” of Christ rather than saying they were “changed into [His] body and blood.” In most age groups the split wasn’t even close. Among those between 18 and 44, 70 percent opted for the symbolic account. Only among those over the age of 65 did a slim majority, 51 percent, say the bread and wine become Christ’s body and blood.

Some people attempt to discount such findings by pointing out that polls often distort reality by lumping non-practicing and practicing Catholics together. In some contexts, of course, the difference really is significant. But a 1997 poll in the Diocese of Rochester, New York, found that only 35 percent of the practicing Catholics believed in the Real Presence, while the majority thought of the sacrament in merely symbolic terms. Other polls have had similar results.

Alarmed by the evidence of a serious problem, a number of bishops have responded in the last several years with pastoral letters on the Real Presence, and in June 2001, the bishops collectively issued a densely written question-and-answer document on the doctrine that said in part: “The transformed bread and wine that are the Body and Blood of Christ are not merely symbols because they truly are the Body and Blood of Christ.” Pope John Paul in Ecclesia de Eucharistia quotes the definitive teaching of the Council of Trent: “The consecration of the bread and wine effects the change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. And the holy Catholic Church has properly and fittingly called this change transubstantiation.”

The teaching is clear; whether people are listening is another matter.

At this point in the story, conservative Catholics often recall a celebrated remark by Flannery O’Connor. When clever lapsed Catholics got her goat at a dinner party by chattering about the symbolism of the Eucharist, she blurted out, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”

Less often quoted is what O’Connor told the correspondent with whom she shared this anecdote: “That was all the defense I was capable of, but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”

How many Catholics, conservative or liberal, could say that now with straight faces?

The Assault on Eucharistic Faith

It’s hard not to see a link between declining faith in the Real Presence and the embarrassing fact that today, even when Mass is celebrated by the book, the celebration can be disconcertingly banal—a pastiche of bad music, incoherent homilies carelessly delivered, noisy and disordered scufflings up and down the aisles, sanctuaries clogged with superfluous eucharistic ministers, worshipers fleeing church like scalded cats before the closing hymn dies away. The new Mass, it seems, has been robbed of dignity. It’s as if the well of faith had been subtly poisoned, with a pervasive loss of reverence entering into Catholic life alongside innovations like Communion in the hand, standing instead of kneeling to receive, and vernacular translations that plod when they should soar.

But other factors are also at work in the assault on eucharistic faith.

Congregationalism is one. Arising from an exaggerated view of the baptismal priesthood of the faithful and from a corresponding de-emphasizing of ordained priesthood, this error involves the idea that the congregation as a whole is the real celebrant of the Eucharist and that in a pinch, the congregation can choose any of its members to preside.

In his important study, Eucharistic Presence (Catholic University of America Press, 1994), Monsignor Robert Sokolowski traces the roots of such thinking in modern times to an article by the influential 20th-century French theologian Yves Congar, O.P. But, says Monsignor Sokolowski, himself a prominent philosopher, Congar was no simpleminded congregationalist, for he also wrote: “The Church is, however, not fully sacerdotal except through…ordained ministers, who alone can perform the Eucharist and transmit the priesthood.”

Referring to such issues in Ecclesia de Eucharistia, Pope John Paul insists that “a truly Eucharistic assembly… absolutely requires the presence of an ordained priest as its president.” And he adds that the priest must be validly ordained by a bishop, not just tapped for the job by the congregation.

The mirror image of congregationalism is the notion that it doesn’t matter much whether the Eucharist gets celebrated or not, as long as people can receive Communion. In pre-Vatican II days, popular confusion like this was unwittingly encouraged in parishes where distribution of Communion outside Mass was a common pastoral practice.

Now this what’s-the-big-deal approach to the actual celebration of the sacrament may be making a comeback, as Communion services increasingly take the place of Masses in parishes without priests. Something of the sort probably can be seen at work in the parish where, a bishop reported, the sister who conducts weekday Communion services got tired of correcting people who asked where “Mass” would take place. “Know what I say now?” he quoted her. “’Mass is downstairs.’”

Undoubtedly, though, the fundamental source of difficulties for faith in the Eucharist today, underlying the others and helping shape them, is the worldview of materialistic atheism, which exerts a destructive hold on the religious imaginations even of people who are neither materialists nor atheists themselves. Speaking of the “anti-religious mythology” of contemporary materialism, Stephen M. Barr, a physics professor at the University of Delaware’s Bartol Research Institute, says: “The materialist will not allow himself to contemplate the possibility that anything whatever might exist that is not completely describable by physics.”

There’s no room for sacraments in a world—and a worldview—like that.

The Heart of the Church

Despite the problems, nevertheless, some real signs of a resurgence of eucharistic faith do exist, perhaps especially on the devotional level.

A growing number of parishes report success with practices like exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, perpetual adoration, Corpus Christi processions, and Benediction. The conventional wisdom in progressive Catholic circles in the last four decades dismissed such things as outmoded vestiges of the past, but theologians and pastors who continue to buy that line today apparently are missing the point. In her book The New Faithful (Loyola Press, 2002), Colleen Carroll tells of orthodox young Catholics for whom eucharistic devotions are an exciting discovery—with good reason. John Paul calls them “positive signs of Eucharistic faith and love.”

At least one obvious conclusion emerges from the present mix of good and bad, darkness and light: Not only is the Eucharist a great gift, but so is eucharistic faith. The most moving passage of Ecclesia de Eucharistia is the pope’s personal testimony on this point:

For over a half century, every day, beginning on 2 November 1946, when I celebrated my first Mass in the crypt of Saint Leonard in Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, my eyes have gazed in recollection upon the host and the chalice, where time and space in some way “merge” and the drama of Golgotha is represented in a living way…. Here is the Church’s treasure, the heart of the world, the pledge of the fulfillment for which each man and woman, even unconsciously, yearns. A great and transcendent mystery, indeed, and one that taxes our mind’s ability to pass beyond appearances…. Allow me, like Peter at the end of the Eucharistic discourse in John’s gospel, to say once more to Christ, in the name of the whole Church and in the name of each of you: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

Today, of course, that version of eucharistic faith has to compete with others.

In his popular text Catholicism, Rev. Richard McBrien, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame, says agreement between Catholics and Anglicans on the Real Presence is “clear and unequivocal.” Others say the same. And very likely some Anglicans do believe in the Real Presence. But hardly all—any more than all Roman Catholics apparently now do.

A story a friendly Episcopalian lady told me last Ash Wednesday sheds some light on the situation.

“A woman I know used to bring her German shepherd to church. One Sunday she went up to communion and knelt at the altar rail, and the dog came and stood beside her. When the priest got to the dog, he said to himself, ‘Who am I to excommunicate anyone from the body of Christ?’ So he gave the dog a piece of the bread. Then somebody next to the dog dipped his fingers in the communion cup and put a couple of drops on the dog’s nose.”

“That was a holy dog,” I said.

“He was a real Anglican,” the lady cheerfully replied.

If you find yourself questioning the need to defend and promote eucharistic faith, remember that Anglican dog.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...