this is an article which I wrote and was posted in the web link of New Catholic Times http://www.newcatholictimes.com/
new catholic times
On the validity of Catholic Eucharist
Posted by: Editor on Mon, 13 September 2010 01:00:00
Most Catholics in our country have not rejected the Eucharist or the sacraments – but have voted with their feet and said that what the Roman Catholic Church offers is empty and meaningless. The “sense” of the people is that what they need is not found in the magical incantations of a discredited religious elite.
While being trained to be the “celebrant” of the Eucharist, little attention was given to the matter of the validity of the sacrament. We were simply taught that the substances of bread and wine, while remaining to appear as bread and wine, actually became the body and blood of Christ if the proper words were said by a validly ordained priest, no matter what his intentions or state of mind. We were given the example of how a bakery donated to the church a whole truckload of bread (body?) that had been consecrated by a mentally ill priest who had used the proper words to bless all the bread in its delivery truck.
The key to this mystery (puzzle) comes with a literal understanding of the words Jesus supposedly used in the “Last Supper” (Luke 22:19, 1Cor 11:24-25) that calls for a “remembrance” – do this and remember me. That evolved into something very different than what perhaps Jesus may have intended – not a remembrance but a claim that the repetition of these words resulted in the transformation of the simple bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ. This transformation is called “transubstantiation”, a term that seems to have only appeared in the 11th century or at least makes its first use by Hildebert de Lavardin, Archbishop of Tours. Within a century “transubstantiation” was official doctrine and in 1215 the Fourth Council of the Lateran defines this process using the term “transubstantiated”.
The Christian churches of the reformation had different understandings of the Eucharist, some coming closer to the Catholic understanding of the communion actually being the body and blood of Christ and remaining so even after the communion service. The Anglican and Orthodox churches would fall in this group. The Calvinist tradition would place more emphasis on the faith of the “recipient” – so the validity of the sacrament would depend on the proper disposition of the person taking communion rather than the one giving it. This tradition does not think of the Eucharist in a corporeal (i.e. flesh) sense but rather as a mystery. It is reasoned that as the “real body” of Jesus is in heaven seated at the right hand of the Father, the communion provides a means whereby the great distance of separation (between the worthy believer and the Jesus in heaven) is bridged by the power of the Spirit. The Methodist tradition, following John Wesley, would still understand the Eucharist as “real presence” while rejecting the concept of “transubstantiation”.
Where so much emphasis is placed on the recipient of communion in the majority of Christian churches, the practise of “open communion” is more common. Open communion is not reserved for identified church members, but is an inclusive gesture inviting participants to share in the mystery of this real presence when “two or more are gathered” in the name of Jesus and break bread in memory of his sacrifice. The Catholic Church is not alone in practising “closed communion” – that is restricting communion to those whom the provider of the sacrament deems worthy, with membership being the main criteria. In the body of Church law, Canon 844 states that “Catholic ministers may lawfully administer the sacraments only to catholic members of Christ’s faithful, who equally may lawfully receive them only from catholic ministers”. So a priest who denies communion to Christians of other sister churches is in fact only following official policy. However it would seem that an insistence upon this law is more loudly exercised in recent decades as the spirit of ecumenism is crushed by the triumphalism of one group that denies legitimacy to all other groups, labelling them as “defective” churches (Dominus Iesus, 2000) according to then Cardinal inquisitor Josef Ratzinger.
Now this is not just an intellectual concern but rather a query coming out of an incident a short time ago. I have a cousin who is a devout and practising member of the Anglican Communion. She attended the funeral in a Catholic church of the husband of a woman she knows well, who was an employee of her Anglican parish. The man had been ill for a number of years and had been ministered to in his illness by the woman Anglican priest of the parish where the wife worked, although he was officially Catholic and attended a Catholic church. His own Catholic priest had only once visited him in his three years of illness. Still he was buried from the Catholic parish where he had been a long time member. The funeral service was not particularly personal, for personal statements and in particular eulogies are greatly discouraged in Catholic funeral rituals (except for dignitaries or persons with greater status in the church). This enables the Catholic priest to prepare one funeral sermon that can be used for all funerals: “shares in baptism and shares in eternal life – Amen – let’s keep this short OK!”
So apparently the mass was pretty standard and unimpressive – just a typical Catholic mass – until the communion service. Then the priest (again remembering official church policy) stopped the ceremony to announce that communion would be offered only to “Catholics” and non-Catholics who wished a simple “blessing” would be welcomed to approach the priest in the communion line but were to cross their arms in front of their chests so that they could receive a blessing instead of communion. As the deceased and his wife were well known in my cousin’s Anglican parish, a number of congregants from that parish were attending the funeral.
My cousin has in the past been welcomed at Catholic services to receive communion, as our family has a mixture of members attending different communions within the Christian family. So having experienced the inclusivity of open communion in the past, this announcement came like a slap in the face.
When I taught in a Catholic high school I would try to use the analogy of a birthday party to help explain the significance and purpose of communion. I would ask students what they would think if they were invited to a birthday party only to be told after the “blowing out the candles ritual” that only select guests were invited to share the cake, and the rest could have a cookie or just watch the select enjoy their piece of the cake. I would explore with the students the important symbolism of the birthday cake – no matter how horrible it might be with its phony lard filled icing bought at the local supermarket. The cake symbolized the person whose “birth day” was remembered and celebrated. Eating of the birthday cake was a gesture of communion with that special person of the day. Not to be invited to share in the cake or refusing to eat of the cake could be interpreted as an insult – a rejection of the very purpose of the celebration.
My cousin simply did not accept the theology of the priest, and went ahead and took communion. However she worried that she did wrong in taking communion “with anger in her heart” after hearing the disinviting words of the priest. She noticed that most of the Anglican’s present whom she knew did not take communion and that in fact most of the others (presumably most being Catholic) did not take communion either. Why would the majority decline sharing in the communion after making an effort to be “present” at this key moment in someone’s life?
Perhaps the error was in conducting a closed ceremony but allowing others to attend giving the impression that it is “open”. It would have been more honest to put a notice on the church door stating that “Only Roman Catholics in the state of grace are welcome to this service”. Thus other persons could be spared the experience of being excluded from a ceremony – a ritual – where they could express their oneness with the deceased and his family in this intense moment of grief, sorrow and a shared belief in resurrection – the ultimate triumph even over death.
Reflecting on the conflicting message in such a situation, I wonder about the old teachings on the Eucharist. Transubstantiation is a formula of control – how shaman elite seek to reserve to themselves a mystery as expressed in the story of Jesus walking with disciples on the road to Emmaus. They retold the story, and then sat down to share a meal and recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread. This account may have some historical basis but it is mostly formula – teaching the early Christian assemblies how to “remember” Jesus, to keep alive his vision and witnessing in the public square this new ethos. Breaking bread together became a tangible symbol of their coming together in the (real) presence of the Lord.
The Eucharist is all about inclusivity. It takes what is most common (in an ancient sort of way) – bread and wine. There is a sharing the story of Jesus – sharing his ancient scriptures (for he only was a Jew and nothing else) and the writings that came to be the Christian scriptures. There are prayers, intercessions and blessings – so that the community could find strength together enabling each member to go out into the world and live as Jesus lived.
When a priest intends to exclude others through the Eucharist – to exclude others who are baptised brothers and sisters – I wonder if the Eucharist can possibly be valid. At least since the 11th century the focus has been directed at the magical fingers of the ordained priest – but not his intentions nor more importantly on the intention of Jesus. Was it his intent to present a formula of liturgical celebration at the Last Supper? It would seem to me that most of what we have even in the Christian scriptures is theological imagination by a new community of believers who had very little experience with the historical Jesus or even with those who were his original community of disciples.
The Roman Catholic church has every right to exercise its canon law and if Canon 844 expresses the true intention of its clergy from the Pope down to the lowly curate, then so be it. At the same time this intention to “exclude” members of the Christian family invalidates the Catholic sacrament for it goes contrary to the message and witness of Jesus in everything that he did as far as we can see in the scriptures. There is a small town called Pisac, near the ancient Inca city of Cuzco, where the tradition (since the time of the conquest) was that communion was only offered to men but not to women. This tradition was true to the misogynist tradition in Catholic theology from the earliest times as certainly it has been expressed by most of the official theologians over the centuries. Personally I doubt that the Eucharist celebrated in Pisac could ever really be thought of as the “real presence” of Christ. There is no doubt that the communion was the presence of the god of the conquistador – bible and sword together to deprive the poor of their land and to impose the yoke of Spanish customs and tyranny.
Most Catholics in our country have not rejected the Eucharist or the sacraments – but have voted with their feet and said that what the Roman Catholic Church offers is empty and meaningless. The “sense” of the people is that what they need is not found in the magical incantations of a discredited religious elite. They wander looking elsewhere, experimenting with different groups and messengers. The fundamental message of Jesus is obscured by the bafflegab of the religious establishment, led by a former soldier of the Third Reich who has gone out of his way to insult other Christian communions, Muslims and Jews. The open windows of Vatican II have been nailed shut and ecumenism is reduced to “you can join us on our terms”. Regressive Anglican clergy whose misogynist and homophobic attitudes have blinded them to the message of Jesus are welcome to become Catholic clergy only after they grovel and renounce the validity of their ordinations and years of service in the Anglican Church.
My cousin was right to seek to express her communion not only with the deceased and his family, but with the communion of the faithful. She acted as a believer moving ahead in the 21st century. She came upon a huge barrier – disguised as church and clergy and rubrics – that prevented communion. The priest was only guilty of fraud – pretending to withhold the sacrament of the Eucharist when what he offered was a cheap facsimile – bread that was only wafer and at that not even whole wheat. The wine was not even offered to the non-clergy. The vast congregation of lapsed or recovering Catholics bears witness to the emptiness of the sacramental slot machine found in most Catholic churches.
This is perhaps an unwelcome ponderism – for extended to its logical conclusion other Catholic sacraments based on the “exclusion” factor could likewise be deemed to be invalid. The dictum of Paul that these exclusions cannot be tolerated (Gal 3:28) for “you are all one in Christ Jesus” would invalidate religious symbols and actions that are based on promoting divisions that perpetuate the power imbalance in relationships among the followers