By Thomas O'Loughlin
As the Roman Catholic Church aspires ‘to embrace a synodal way’, some old questions about its ecclesial vision return. One such question is the equality of all the baptised within the church. This question is particularly fraught because of the church’s long history of viewing the itself as a society of unequals, its hierarchical structures, and its culture of top-down authority modelled on pre-modern monarchical conceptions of society. This paper argues that not only must the church face the implications of accepting the equality of the baptised as a basis of its praxis, but also that it should embrace that equality as part of its witness and service to the world. Thus, it must not simply take equality to heart and express it in its rituals, but must create a ‘theology of human equality’ which then becomes part of its preaching.
Online Publication Date: 07 Feb 2022
Read the paper
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.