By Thomas O’Loughlin
In everyday life, our experience tells us – unconsciously – when it is appropriate to use the verb ‘to give’ and when it is appropriate to use ‘to share.’ So we might ask someone to ‘please give me that book lying there’ or ‘I gave him the money’ or ‘she should give that form to … ’ or ‘give that pot a stir.’ On the other hand, ‘we share tasks between us,’ we offer to share burdens in the hope of halving them, and, most significantly, in English, sharing is the verb used of food items divided between people: ‘shall we share that last piece?’ A moment’s reflection on these two verbs shows that while the different usages may seem trivial, they make very different assumptions about our relationships with those to whom we give things and with whom we share things.
‘Shall we share the last piece?’
Giving something assumes ownership in some way or other, and then its transfer. I have something, and I give it to you. You have something and you are prepared to give it to me. What was once in the domain, power, and possession of one person is transferred to another as a gift, an exchange, or as of right. The demand ‘Give me my due, I have a right to it!’ could not easily be rephrased in terms of sharing.
Eucharist is an action of the whole church.
By contrast, sharing assumes that ownership and control is common between all involved. It is because it is ours, not mine or yours, that we share it. It is ours to start with, and it remains ours – and to make it solely mine or for you to take it as yours would be to act inappropriately. However, while neither you nor I can take it all, we can both have all that we should have: shares.
Sharing assumes that our rights are held in common and respecting each other is essential to our relationship. While actions of giving and taking merely suppose an ordered neutrality – or some force acting as the defender of the peace; sharing presupposes society.
Every act of sharing further develops and enhances our society.
We can see that the distinction between ‘giving’ and ‘sharing’ maps exactly on to the distinction made by theologians between ‘a contract’ (in essence a treaty and a vehicle for commerce) and ‘a covenant’ (in essence a relationship often imagined, as in the prophet Hosea, in terms of marriage imagery).
Likewise, the relationship of human religion with the divine can be seen in terms of ‘deals,’ whereby we trade with the gods for safety and success: humans give to the gods something the gods want; then, in return the gods give people what the people want.
These are actual altars – so unlike the Christian table – and they suppose we ‘do deals’ with the gods.
The exact opposite to this notion of deals with God is the relationship of love we profess in the Paschal Mystery. The Paschal Mystery initiates the new covenant: the Lord shares in our lives that we might share in his.
We, as Christians, do not barter with God – though this is a constant temptation – but exist through sharing in his goodness. Then sharing in the goodness of God requires us, as an extension of love, to share with our fellow human beings, and especially with the poor.
Sharing in demands sharing with.
So what of the Eucharist? Clearly, this is a place of sharing par excellence. We share in the Christ’s praise of the Father, we share in his Spirit dwelling within us, we become sharers in the new covenant, and we share in the meal at his table!
Then being joyful in God’s love for us, God’s sharing, we share with the needy – this is the origin of the collection. The collection is supposed to be for the poor not to pay clergy or elaborate buildings.
Take note of the verbs we use
The eucharistic verbs are all linked to sharing, participating, and acting together – this is what we notice when we sit down and think about it.
But when it comes to the sphere of action, we all very quickly move into the familiar groove of ‘giving’ and ‘taking.’ We move from the world of covenant and sharing into the trading world of contract. So, in practice, there is the task of ‘giving out Communion’; ‘the priest gave out communion; or the president asks a minister ‘will you give out communion over there?’ Similarly, in most Catholic churches the cup ‘is not given to the laity.’ While the liturgists may point out that ‘communion should not normally be given from the tabernacle,’ all would agree that ‘after you have given communion you should put any remaining hosts [note this word does not remind us of parts of a loaf broken for sharing] in the tabernacle.’ Sixty years after Vatican II, the process of deep renewal has barely begun.
This range of language continues with such statements as ‘I got communion,’ ‘she received communion,’ and ‘I went to get Mass and communion on Saturday night.’
Banquet v. Fast Food
More to the point, this is not simply a matter of language: our experience of participation in the eucharistic meal is more adequately described in terms of ‘giving’ / ‘taking’ than ‘sharing.’
Imagine the scene on a Sunday morning: a line or a queue shuffling up for an encounter with a minister that lasts but seconds, each getting a pre-cut individual package. Then while the first person turns to return to his or her place, the minister is ready to give a similar individualised product to the next person. Long before fast-food restaurants had worked out the processing of people though their ‘fast-food’ systems (systems that are the very antithesis of a banquet), our liturgy had adopted remarkably similar processes – but we kept, officially at least, the language of banquets, feasts, and sharing.
That there is such a gap between what we formally proclaim and the way we think about the Eucharist in our actual eucharistic activity means that there is for many people a deep inner tension and confusion about the whole matter. This tension is rarely aired in words, but does not surprise anyone who has seen our ordinary weekly celebrations. One can try to brush this off as a case of ‘poor catechesis’ or the survival of ‘older attitudes’ which only change gradually – though attitudes to many other aspects of life, and the language appropriate to them, have changed more profoundly in a shorter time than that separating us from Vatican II – and, no doubt, there is truth in both points.
Pre-cut and ready to use: the basic action of Jesus of breaking and sharing is not just lost but negated!
But the fact remains: there is a massive mis-match between what we say we believe and the language used in the liturgy on the one hand, and our actual experience, our doing of the activity of eucharist, on the other. Moreover, saying that it is lack of understanding fails to take account of what people experience for themselves at the liturgy. Our actions ‘speak’ about ‘getting communion’ not of sharing at a banquet.
It is this mis-match that is at the heart of why Pope Francis had to step in to stop the use of the unreformed rite. That rite’s use of words and gestures was so at variance with the renewal called for by the Second Vatican Council that to use it and also claim to adhere to the Council’s teaching was not really possible. Claims today that one can do both are either based on ignorance of the Council or disingenuous.
We have to match up our doing with our theology. This is a challenge to all of us, not just to any one group in the church.
When such dissonances arise in any area of our lives, our responses roughly fall into one of four categories.
On one extreme, some will deny the dissonance by appealing to the need for a lofty vantage point. If one, for example, could really see what politicians were doing to serve the people one would realise just how lucky we are to have them! In our case, if one had a spiritually alert understanding one would ‘see beyond these mere material facts’ to ‘the meaning.’ Whatever about such apologies from politicians, the liturgical example of special pleading is inadequate because it denies the rationale inherent in a sacramental liturgy. It is precisely in the doing and experiencing of the liturgy, located in the realm of our senses, that we are to encounter the mystery.
The other extreme reaction is to assume it is all just a conspiracy to mislead the gullible: nice words to cover real intentions, a fist in velvet, a wolf wrapped in wool. To those who react in this way the result will be alienation from the Eucharist: it is just more of the empty rhetoric of a group with little or nothing to offer. This reaction is rarely verbalised: people who feel this vote with the feet – and we could all name someone, perhaps a child or a sibling, who had disappeared from the church because it is all just ‘empty words.’
In between are those who assume that there is some aspect of the whole affair that they ‘just don’t get.’ They hear the words but they make little sense, so they just follow it all ‘as best they can’ and hope that will be ‘enough.’ Perhaps, they imagine, if they were priests or nuns or very holy they would appreciate all this stuff about ‘sharing at the table of the Lord’ and ‘participating in the Paschal Mystery’ that are without counterparts in experience. But sadly they are not so endowed: so they just ‘get communion’ and leave the rest to others. So the liturgy is not a function of all the baptised – which since Vatican II has been our explicit claim – but is inchoately perceived as a two-level affair where some are really ‘on the inside,’ while the rest, them included, are in a lower sphere. This approach, a bottom-up Gnosticism, then means that they see their role as passive within the liturgy: they do not need to be bothered with such matters taking part in ministries and the like because that level of participation belongs to the initiates. From the perspective of the Church, this entirely natural reaction to liturgical experience, is destructive of the whole vision of the renewed liturgy of full, conscious and active participation by all the faithful which is demanded by the liturgy’s own nature. Perhaps it is time to read again Sacrosanctum concilium, n. 14.
The fourth reply is to view the liturgy in an individualistic and consumerist manner. ‘They’ (those who produce liturgy and so the product I want) have to go through the motions – elaborate words, gestures, and so forth – but that is merely the necessary ritual process (and they can do it however they like); while I am there for what it means to me. So long as I get my private moment with Jesus, my communion, my ‘fill’ of grace, my time to say my prayers, then the rest is just detail: their problem. Just as someone wanting his car fixed will dismiss the technical explanation of an enthusiastic mechanic with ‘you can spare me the details’; so this last liturgical participant treats the liturgy – just as long as his needs are served. So the carefully prepared celebration is just a more drawn out version of the ‘quickie Mass’ – and blessed is that cleric who delivers it while avoiding sermons and skipping the ‘optional extras’! As with the third reaction, this behaviour, which was for so long sanctioned by the Church and encouraged by the forms of celebration, simply breeds a disaffection that is destructive of the liturgy and faith over the longer term.
Actions not just words
The rivalry of two perspectives of, on the one hand, ‘giving’ / ‘taking’ and, on the other, ‘sharing’ / ‘participating’ is so fundamental to our understanding of liturgy that we fail to even notice them most of the time. On noticing them the first response is to imagine that this is just a matter of language – and it is a matter of language. Hence, one needs to find new ways to avoid saying ‘distributing holy communion’ or ‘going up to [get] communion.’
But, immediately, another problem is encountered: we, as human beings, really love to use words that are not full of fluff, we actually like calling a spade a spade! Imagine asking Mrs X (a minister of the Eucharist) ‘to assist in sharing the broken loaf.’ Or asking Mr Y ‘to facilitate his fellow celebrants [all the baptised are celebrants, the ordained preside] to participate in the cup.’ Mrs X would say ‘eh?’; while Mr Y would imagine he was reading a politically correct office memo, and you, the questioner, would feel you were being a pompous clown. This does not mean those words are wrong – they express the vision of the liturgy – but the experience, what is actually done, is inadequate. Action is at fault, not words.
Humans do not simply eat food, humans share meals!
If we are to share in the Eucharist, participate around the Lord’s table in his supper, be drawn into his Paschal Mystery, then the liturgy (a matter of empirical human signs) must express itself in what we do, eat, and drink. We pulled out ‘altars’ so that presidents could stand behind them, but did not realise that was so that people could gather around them as tables.
We translated the liturgy so that now everyone could hear about sharing at that table, but we continue using pre-cut individualist wafers – the earliest example of consumerist fast-food – that only by dint of imagination can be linked with our notion of ‘bread’ and which wholly fails to express the reality of the broken, shared one loaf of which each of us is a part in Christ (1 Cor 10:17).
We have let people hear, ‘drink this,’ but the cup remains firmly within the clerical circle and the one cup of the Lord – which discipleship challenges us to drink – is firmly withheld. In withholding this basic symbol of our unity in Christ (1 Cor 10:16) as the baptised, our action proclaims disunity: a two-tier church of mere followers and the full initiates.
It all draws out the deep division between ‘getting Mass’ and ‘sharing in the Eucharist.’
Taking Vatican II seriously?
There is, at present, a deep-seated desire among Catholics for a renewal of the church, and central to that process is a restoration of its credibility: the alignment, or re-alignment, of its deeds with words and aspirations.
We may look to programmes, movements, or even the pope for such re-invigoration, but if we believe our claims that the Eucharist is central to Christian living, then until our words and actions there are re-jigged, do we not perpetuate the dysfunction?
So when was the last time you felt that you shared the loaf with the person next to you around the Lord’s table
Or, if you are a presider: when did you last give communion from the tabernacle?
By Thomas O’Loughlin
We like to think of the realm of religion as a place of authenticity: here we do not pretend, here we are far from the make-belief of the celebrity culture, the double-talk of marketing and advertising pitches, and the sham games that populate the public forum.
Before God our deceits and our boastings are useless:
‘But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart”’ (1 Sam 16:7).
This is a widespread human sentiment about religion: we tend to expect sham and hypocrisy elsewhere, but hope that those who claim to speak in the name of Most High will set a higher standard - and so are all the more shocked when we find pretence among those who are outwardly identified with religion as clerics and religious. This is part of our revulsion at the sex-crimes of priests.
This horror of sham in the presence of the Holy is what lies at the base of such statements as “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth” (Mt 23:27). Before God, we must be genuine.
In the last few years when the credibility of the clergy has taken blow after blow with successive revelations about the extent of the abuse of children and vulnerable adults, this point should not need to be laboured. However, authenticity, which for most people means that there is some direct linkage between appearances and reality, affect every aspect of our lives, and this includes our celebration of the Eucharist.
What we say we are doing when we celebrate must be what we are doing when we celebrate.
However, the link between words and practicalities in most liturgies is as strained as the link between décor and reality that we find in theme parks: it may look the part, but it is only a stage set; image rather than fact.
The bread of life
We continually refer to the Eucharist as ‘the bread of life,’ ‘the bread broken for the life of the world,’ and say that it is in human realities that we sacramentally encounter the Christ. But when we look at what we actually use bread only within the most strict legal definition of bread – can we say that we are authentically using bread? We often hear in homilies that it is the very ordinariness of bread the basic foodstuff – that makes it such a rich symbol. It is present on every table, virtually every culture has a cereal-based mainstay of subsistence that is like it, and so it points to Jesus interacting with us as the very staff of life. But would anyone give you thanks for what we actually use at the Eucharist if they saw it on their plate?
Does this look like authentic bread?
Would you give this to someone who was hungry?
So we live in world of double-take: we talk about bread, but what we actually hold up as bread, and talk about as bread is not what we would ever otherwise talk about as bread. Language becomes silliness. Cheap language breeds contempt for reality.
Let’s start with real bread, something to which we can all directly respond, then we can talk about what we as Christians believe about the mystery of the Eucharist.
We all share in the one loaf
We happily read Paul’s explanation of the Eucharist to the church in Corinth and we rejoice that within a couple of decades of the Resurrection that the Eucharist was, indeed, the focus of the weekly gathering. The Corinthians may not have been the most exemplary of Christians, but we are thankful for the excuse they gave Paul to expound on this central ecclesial mystery. Paul’s thought is based on the fact that a loaf represents a transformed unity: umpteen grains have been ground together, transformed in cooking, and now we have a single, but divisible reality, a loaf of bread. The loaf is the unity of all who are in Christ, and by its being divided we are all given a share in it. Paul’s imagery is not that of the splitting up of a some large lump-like foodstuff, such as large lump of meat that can be sliced so that everyone has some, that is parcelled out. No, Paul’s image is that the unity remains: each having a piece is each having a share, and that share is in Christ. This is the notion of getting a piece of the wedding or birthday cake: that is a cake (a single entity) we share in, not something that we simple get a lump of. So the Eucharistic loaf is a unity that is broken so that we feed upon, and so share in the unity.
The loaf is the unity of all who are in Christ,
and by its being divided we are all given a share in it.
We read 1 Cor 10:17 (‘Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf’) and we refer to the breaking of the loaf in every celebration in the Institution Narrative (‘… he broke the bread … ’), and we have the token fraction (the president breaking his waver and then eating both parts himself – as thus performed the breaking is meaningless), yet in practice it is pre-cut little disks which are the opposite of sharing in a single entity. Our standard small wafers transmit an image of individualism (think of the mini-packs that can be got bought where people do not want to share: ‘just for one’), rather than the mystery of sharing within the body of Christ (symbolised for Paul in the loaf).
Significantly, and sadly, we talk about ‘the distribution of communion’ rather than ‘breaking for sharing.’
If we want to authentically celebrate that event the early Christians referred as ‘the breaking of the loaf,’ then our paten must have a big loaf which we take the time to share, not a heap of altar breads that we pass out so that everyone can have one.
Real food / Fast food
One does not have to be a member of the ‘slow food movement’ to know that real food is not fast food: hence expensive restaurants are where we celebrate. Time over food with our friends is the basis of community – and it is the basis of Christians community in the Eucharist.
But would you serve ‘left overs’ to your guests, would you serve pre-cooked reheated food at a solemn celebration? Likewise, when we gather for the Eucharist we are there to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, not to get a commodity. This is why the distribution of ‘communion outside Mass’ – a common practice in the pre-Vatican II era – has been all but abolished; this is why there are exhortations in the rubrics to distribute ‘particles consecrated at the Mass’ (note the ‘commodity’-style theological vision) rather than from the tabernacle. ‘Communion from the tabernacle’ transmits the message that it is the equivalent of ‘left overs’ from the fridge within our experience of food. It is also the equivalent of the drive-in fast-food outlet: we can conveniently serve all as the come by. How sad that anything to do with the most sacred banquet could be thought of, from its praxis, as akin to a ‘hamburger and fries’ rather than a meal where we truly celebrate all that is best in our humanity.
Fast food is a substitute for real food.
Is the Eucharist a banquet or a fast-food affair as it is celebrated in so many places?
If we are serious about ‘being called to the Lord’s Supper’ and the banquet language of the liturgy, then the tabernacle must remain firmly locked until after all present have eaten!
We all share in the one cup
‘Take this all of you and drink from it’ is central command at every Eucharist, yet it take time, is messy, and somehow seems unnecessary – and we are adept at thinking up reasons for curtaining access to the cup such as spills, contracting swine flu, or time. Yet a banquet without liquid is unthinkable, and the words without the action conveyed inauthenticity as if we do not really mean or believe it. As it happens, sharing a cup (as distinct from sharing a loaf or a cake) is deeply counter-cultural and was so even in the time of Jesus. In this action, passing a cup one to another we have an action that is unique to the Eucharist and to the meal-practice of Jesus. This most unique, Jesus-based gesture is, however, the one we seem to omit with aplomb. There is something seriously wrong here: ‘The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?’
Sharing a cup is mark of the disciples of Jesus. It is deeply counter-cultural.
We have become experts at by-passing this aspect of the practice of Jesus
If we are to bring words, deeds, and the activity of gathering for the Eucharistic Meal then we must view not sharing the cup with as much horror as the notion that the president would not drink from the cup.
Gathered at his table
We mention the table and being gathered around it: the common table is precious aspect of our humanity, we share at a table and discover that we are not animals at a table. We condemn an individualist culture that does not eat together but from separate trays before separate screens, and we proudly use the language of ‘the Table of the Lord’; but is it all just words? Even when we have only a handful for a weekday Eucharist, we tend to have the table in front of people rather than them around it; we think of them seeing it, rather than being at it; and, alas, some priests still think that its ‘ok’ to have the table against the wall as if its not there as the table of the community of Christ so that gathering for the banquet, he can be in their midst.
If we are serious about table language, then the celebrating community must celebrate at the table not before it. Perhaps we could start by translating Eucharistic Prayer I accurately: ‘Remember Lord your servants, male and female, indeed all who stand around this table.’ Just imagine inviting three or four people for lunch: would you put them over at the end of the room and dash over to them with food? Surely you would put one opposite you (what ever shaped table you have) then one each side: our experience of being ‘round a table’ must become part of our Eucharistic experience.
IThe table creates a space around it where we can become sisters and brothers.
Authenticity is precious, and doubly so in the face of divine; its pursuit is never optional. These changes hinted at here may seem simply troublesome, unnecessary, or un-rubrical; but bear in mind that for ever more people what we do at our most sacred assembly lacks value, meaning, or worth. Perhaps its time to reinvest value by re-aligning words and deeds for a more eucharistic meal.
Do this ...
It is very easy to write a theology of the Eucharist or preach on the Blessed Sacrament: one can study the great works of the tradition, consult the magisterium’s latest documents, read theologians and get hints on conveying all this from communications experts. But so could any good journalist or researcher. We are not commanded to think about the Eucharist nor to preach about it, but to act: ‘Do this in memory of me.’ It is the doing that is difficult. ‘Eucharist’ is the name of an activity, a doing, the action of offering thanks to the Father through sharing in the meal of the Christ. Unless this is an authentic action where the words we use in the liturgy are matched by the actions we engage in during the liturgy, then far from being the centre and summit of the Christian life, our weekly gathering may just be another distraction, suggesting that even in the liturgy we are engaged in inauthentic behaviour, in sham and double-think. Before we can authentically preach an authentic theology of the Eucharist, we must be doing the Eucharist with authenticity.
By Thomas O'Loughlin
How very Christian those revolutionary values of "liberté, egalité e fraternité"
Each year on July 14th when France celebrates its National Day -- what we English- speakers call "Bastille Day" -- my mind goes back to visiting the Church of our Lady of the Angels in Collioure with the waves of the sea, literally, lapping its walls. Collioure is in the extreme south of France, on the Mediterranean, just a few kilometers from Spain. It is a tourist hotspot -- deservedly for its picturesque beauty – and the church jutting out into the sea is seen by myriads every day. Few, I suspect, look up over its main door where some official at some point in the past painted the following words:
REPUBLIQUE FRANCAISE: LIBERTE, EGALITE, FRATERNITE.
The lintel of the main door in the church in Collioure, France.
It is a far cry from most of the titles one sees on churches, and one can make a shrewd guess about the rationale behind the inscription. The storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 and the subsequent revolution were seen as a clash between modernity and the established powers: and the Church and the monarchy were fused in many minds, whether they approved of the fusion or saw it as the source of human enslavement.
Indeed, for nearly two centuries the default position of many Catholics in Europe was to see the French Revolution as an explicit attack on the Church. Many of "the left" saw the Church as the emotional bulwark of reaction, and the structure producing intellectual and social enslavement. Karl Marx expressed this famously in 1847 when he said: "The social principles of Christianity justified the slavery of Antiquity, glorified the serfdom of the Middle Ages and equally know, when necessary, how to defend the oppression of the proletariat, although they make pitiful face over it."
Meanwhile, from the Catholic side one heard -- and indeed one still can hear from those who imagine faith in terms of a dialectic -- that all our difficulties could be traced back to the "rationalism of the Enlightenment" and "the anti-clericalism of the French Revolution". There was a strange nostalgia in these claims: the Virgilian, but profoundly pagan, backward glance to a "golden age" somehow does not sit well with a religion that understands time linearly and culminating in an eschaton.
Christians do not look backwards to a good time but seek to do the Father's will and hasten the coming of the kingdom: the kingdom is a future event.
A culture war
But in that culture war that ran from roughly 1790 to 1960, each side sought the advantage and even some well-painted graffiti on a church building might seem like a little victory! So, I imagine some minor official, anxious to show that modernity had overtaken throne and altar, decided that placing these words over the door would remind worshippers that there were other values at work in this place, the French Republic, than those being preached inside!
The new, non-Church values were liberté, égalité and fraternité.
Sadly, many of those who preached would have agreed! The Church openly declared itself to be a "society of un-equals" -- there were two ranks: clergy (teachers and rulers and sanctifiers) and laity (led, taught and sanctified). Slavery was still defended as morally acceptable in Catholic moral theology textbooks for seminaries as late as 1860 -- and the modern wholesale opposition to slavery is a completely new departure in Catholic theology. Catholics still have problems with the notion of actual equality within the Church, and we (along with many of the eastern Churches) are also cagey about practical fraternity: otherwise, we would not be able to refuse other Christians a place at our tables.
But there is a more profound question: could it possibly be that both the cleric and the anti- cleric were wrong.
Could it even be that liberté, égalité and fraternité are Christian values?
Could it be that it was the effect of Christian teaching, anonymously present in the revolutionaries' minds, that inspired the events of 1789?
Liberté as a Christian value
Is there a Christian today who would publicly defend slavery?
I know many whose poor grasp of the nature of our common humanity, and whose anxieties and fears, makes them racists – but even these stop short of defending the opposite of liberty. But we did do it, just as other Christians defended apartheid in South Africa, and so we can forget some very basic Christian messages about humanity.
We are all God's children (1 John 3,1) and because of God's equal love, we are equal in dignity. If am God's child, I have an innate gift of liberty. If that is taken from me – that enslavement is part of the world of sin.
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are"
To not view the promotion of liberty as part of the moral vision of Christians is to imagine and promote an image of God that is unworthy of faith. But -- here is the awkward bit -- we have to face up squarely to those accusations that Marx levelled at us 170 years ago. Some of the thinkers we have most favored in our history -- such as Aristotle -- took slavery to be part of the natural order. One can find plenty of cases in the scriptures where slavery is taken for granted. We can find early disciples of Jesus, such as Paul, who seemed to have little problem with it. And we can find any number of famous names -- such as St Augustine or Pope St Gregory the Great -- and even Catholic bishops in the young United States who accepted slavery or owned slaves. It is always worth recalling that St Patrick -- him of the green beer on March 17th -- does not condemn slavery but does criticize those who stole his father's (a deacon) slaves.
What a challenge it is to discover just what a being moral means for a Christian. It can take centuries!
Egalité as a Christian value
Equality is not some obscure right discovered in a philosophers' salon in the 18th century but a basic moral sense. Often the first direct evidence we get that a child is becoming a moral agent is when she cries out in the playground: "That's not fair!" We want to receive fairness – and that is based in the notion that we humans should treat each other with equality. Indeed, the whole tradition of Christian ethics is seen to be founded in summation of the earthly demands upon disciples: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Mt 19,19 and 22,39, and parallels). The supposition is that I and every other person are interchangeable in respect of our duties towards one another: neighbors are equal. But there is an explicit sense in which equality is a mark of the Christian -- and a characteristic of our lives together.
Consider Jesus' act of washing the feet of his disciples (Jn 13, 3-20) -- and then commanding them that they should each wash one another's feet. In this mutual foot washing, there is established the basis of the equality of the baptized. To wash the feet of guests was the task of the lowest, female household slave. There was simply no one lower in the social hierarchy -- indeed such slaves were seen as just available sexual objects for their owners. It was -- and is -- a shocking image. It is little wonder that it has never caught on as a practice -- and when it is done it is interpreted as humility on the part of "the big people" towards "the little people" rather than a statement of égalité.
But John rubs in the message:
You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him (Jn 13:13-6).
The same message is found elsewhere in the gospels: the first shall be last and the last first (Mt 19:30).
The Christian vision of mutual relationships is one of equality. We find this hard to take when we think of the Catholic Church as the hierarchical society where some are "reverends" -- some even more reverend that other reverends and a few who are "eminent", but the vision stands. We Catholics still live in a world that has many of the trappings of medieval European monarchies -- and it still affects the way many in the Church think. But just because it is familiar and fills us with awe -- all those impressive ranks in their coloured soutanes -- it does not mean this nostalgia as a spectacle is part of our basic vision.
The events of 1789 may still need to shock us out of our confusion of earthly pride with discipleship. The equality of the baptized is basic.
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise (Gal 3:27-9).
A visual display of the equality of every Christian in baptism?
And now as we embark on the path towards a synodal Church we might need to look back to that call for égalité and be thankful for those who first pointed out the need for a reform of society that placed it at its centre!
Fraternité as a Christian value
Human fraternity -- that we are a family -- is not that widely recognized apart from the three great monotheistic religions. Most religions are better at segregating the nice people (us) from the not-nice people (them). And if we need proof that fraternity is rare, let us recall that the history of humanity can be seen as the history of warfare.
But fraternité is very much a Christian virtue.
Just look at the language that we use when we gather for the liturgy: we are called sisters and brothers. Just look at the language of our religious orders: "Sister" and "Brother" have become titles! But also let us recall the solidarity we are expected to show with people in need, those who are suffering and marginalized. We embrace them -- or should -- as members of our family.
This is fraternité.
The need to share vaccines in the wake of COVID-19 is a call for us to model fraternité.
Taking the knee – an expression of fraternity
Learn from everyone
Too often there is a knee-jerk reaction to hearing the words "Enlightenment" or "French Revolution" that sends Catholics off on a nostalgia trip for the Ancien Régime! Instead, we should celebrate Bastille Day as an occasion when human beings discovered a new sense of dignity -- a moment when Christians were reminded of what we had forgotten.
Thomas O'Loughlin is a presbyter of the Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton and professor-emeritus of historical theology at the University of Nottingham (UK). His latest book is Eating Together, Becoming One: Taking Up Pope Francis's Call to Theologians (Liturgical Press, 2019).
A conversation with expert Catholic theologians and history scholars, Phyllis Zagano, Justin Taylor and Joe Grayland on women deacons in the Catholic Church. The conversation is hosted by Professor Thomas O'Loughlin.
Rediscovering the truly sacred spaces in the great Christian act of praise and thanksgiving
By Thomas O'Loughlin
In the world's wealthier countries the virus is retreating before the vaccines.
In some places, parish life and celebrations in church buildings are returning to a kind of normality. Many Catholics, especially presbyters, are pleased: the familiar is returning.
But before we settle back into our familiar ways, we should take stock. A new normal might be much more in keeping with the gospel than the old and familiar.
Sacred / Profane
Most religions make a very clear distinction – running right through the cosmos – between the holy and the plain, between the sacred and the profane, and between religion and mundane, the ordinary.
One is wonderful, the other is "just there", the everyday that is just "thrown there".
The religious has a character of permanence and solemnity, the world about us is tatty even if it is where we work and live.
This distinction is not the same as a moral dualism, a world of good and evil at war, such as Manichees lived within and which has infiltrated Christianity from time to time.
It is more akin to the way we treat clothes: there is ordinary everyday working clothes that might be smart and practical, and then there are our special clothes – our glad rags, "best suit", or formal wear (which you hope you can still fit into) - that we get out for special occasions.
The ancient religions of Greece and Rome – focused on the city – are perhaps the best expressions of this distinction.
For them, the temples represented the holy and the temple precincts were marked off from the ordinary. With them was the area where the priests functioned: they worked inside the holy area on behalf of "the great unwashed".
The gods were to be appeased, their help and protection sought: their benign smile was needed for the happiness of the city. This divine benefit required the service of the people in terms of sacrifices.
A Hellenistic altar found during the excavations at Banias [Caesarea Philippi]
- this is from a wealthy household and has a basin to hold libations offered to the gods
This was the "deal" between the city and the gods; with the various priesthoods as intermediaries.
This relationship was summed up in three words: do ut des ("I give to you in order that you give to me") and the priests (there are various words in Latin such as sacerdotes and pontifices) acted as "go-betweens".
Into this world came Christianity with a very different vision – a vision far more radical than most of the converts to Christianity at the time seem to have realized.
The God of all
For Christians the whole of the cosmos – every last bit of it from the sun, moon and stars to the stones one stubs one's toe on – was the handiwork of God.
God had created it in freedom and God was infinitely more than the creation.
The shock of this was captured in the mid-second century by Hermes in a little amusing tag that would pull up any pagan short: the Christians believed that "God created everything out of nothing" (creatio ex nihilo).
All depends on God's will and love. All is ordinary in comparison with God. Only God is Holy. Put another way, the whole creation is a sacred space because it is God's handiwork.
… and climate change?
That is why, for example, when Pope Francis talks about the ecological crisis he is engaging in a religious topic.
This may cause great annoyance of the climate change deniers who do not see this as any of his business.
But it his business, and the business of everyone (Jew, Christian and Muslim) who proclaims that God is not one more being in the universe, but the ineffable cause of all being.
… and liturgy?
This also means that wherever I am I can be as close to God as anywhere else. The creation is our temple.
This was expressed by John thus:
Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. … But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth (Jn 4, 21-4).
Wherever a human being is, there God is present and there that person can be present to God.
The divine love extends to each person, so each person is able, and has the dignity, to stand there in God's presence and offer worship.
Hence, we stand when, through Jesus the Christ, we all intercede for the world in the Prayer of the Faithful.
We can all, not just a specially selected few, enter the divine presence. This is what saying "we are a priestly people" means.
It is also the reason why the early Christians never referred to their leaders as sacerdotes (priests) but as presbuteroi (elders).
By the time Christians started to use the word sacerdotes for presiders at the Eucharist, they were already thinking in the pagan way of a "chosen someone" who worked on their behalf in the "sacred area".
Christians had by then forgotten the cry of Irenaeus: "Christian be aware of your dignity" and that there is only one chosen one, one priest in the New Law: Jesus.
He is the "great high priest over the house of God" (Heb 10:21), and we all "are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people" (1 Pet 2:9) who pray through him.
A community's table in a traditional formal arrangement
- just because something does not mean it is ideal.
And if all the creation comes from God, and all depends on him, then trading with God is blasphemous, and the attitude of love to love is that of gratefulness.
We are to be a grateful people. We are to recall what God has done for us in the creation and in the Christ and return thanks through our High priest. Hence the name of our great assembly is "the thanksgiving", the Eucharist.
That we gave it another name by accident, "the Mass", is a warning of just how easily we made it into one more act of service on the pagan model.
Sadly, many still do not even appreciate (as when a parish priest uses it on a notice board) how it is a symptom of forgetfulness!
'Neither sacred gardens nor altars'
At the end of the second century an apologist for Christianity, Menucius Felix, who was all too aware of the difference between the pagan and Christian visions, made this his great cry.
The great Christian act of praise and thanks took place at a table: it was a shared meal of the community at which the Christ is among us.
We do not need to go to a special place; our thanksgiving takes place in the ordinary world of tables and chairs in our everyday life. It is at every meal that we are called to make Eucharist happen.
Then having been thankful alone or in families, we can appreciate our gathering as a larger family, sisters and brothers in the Lord, who celebrate the great meal of thankfulness.
Even the plainest, most utilitarian table can become a Christian sacred space if the baptized gather around it,
and in union with the Christ, offer than to our heavenly Father.
We have just come through a weird fifteen months: no real gathering to stand around the Lord's table and to share his loaf and his cup with our sisters and brothers.
But if we have not been eucharistic at our own table and have not seen thanksgiving as a fundamental feature of our lives – thankful for our lives, our health, our loved ones, our neighbors, all who care for the sick, those who make life livable – then we just might miss the fundamental Christian vision.
God is here, the risen one is among us in our lives. And it is from out of the ordinariness of our lives that through Jesus, with Jesus and in Jesus that we must act eucharistically.
The Christian "new normal" is that we can engage in the fundamental expression of our attitude to God – thankfulness – at our shared tables.
Thomas O'Loughlin is a presbyter of the Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton and professor of historical theology at the University of Nottingham (UK). His latest book is Eating Together, Becoming One: Taking Up Pope Francis's Call to Theologians (Liturgical Press, 2019).
Read more articles by Thomas O'Loughlin in La Croix International