Paradox at the heart of the Mass

 — Mar. 12, 200512 mars 2005

Special for The Tablet by Dominic Milroy OSB, a monk and priest of Ampleforth Abbey, North Yorkshire.

Communion is sign of unity, but often it leaves people feeling excluded, on the outside of the community of the faithful. In the fifth of The Tablet‘s series for the Year of the Eucharist, a Benedictine monk seeks a theological basis for a pastoral re-examination of the problem.

“See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament
One drop would save my soul, half a drop; ah, my Christ.”

Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus senses the supreme and majestic efficacy of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice, but is deprived of access to it by the brutal separation in which he has trapped himself. The Year of the Eucharist challenges us to examine some rather less dramatic contemporary anomalies: the Eucharist is simultaneously the sign par excellence of the Church’s unity and the most disturbing sign that this unity is very far from being realised.

Both at the local and at the universal level, the celebration of the Eucharist presents us with a wide range of dilemmas and problems. Most of the deepest ones are concerned with two fundamental questions – how do the faithful perceive their participation in the Eucharist? And what access, in practice, do they have to it?

In talking about “access”, I am not referring primarily to the availability of Mass, whether in Peru or in Portsmouth. The “shortage” of priests or of Masses is obviously a huge issue, and is related to this problem, but is not central to it. Faith in the Eucharist is above all rooted, not in the number of Masses available, but in the believer’s sense of belonging to the “once and for all” redeeming sacrifice of Christ, and of having intimate access to it in every circumstance of life. The blood of Christ is “shed for you and for all”. Nobody is unworthy of it. Every sinner has access to it.

The paschal mystery has transformed the meaning of the whole of Creation. It is by its very nature essentially “inclusive”. Why, then, is it so often experienced as being exclusive? Why do so many people (whether they have the opportunity to participate or not) feel, in so many different ways, that they simply do not belong to this absolutely central legacy of Christ? Is there a “missing dimension” in the way we preach the eucharistic mystery?

These questions can, of course, be addressed in a global or in an ecumenical context. In a pluralist world, and in a divided Church, the Eucharist can be perceived above all as the classic “test” of unity. “Those not in full communion with the Church of Rome may come forward for a blessing.” As far as it goes, this is fair enough, both in terms of Canon Law and as a stark challenge to the fact of imperfect communion. But does it go far enough as an inspiring proclamation of faith in what Christ has achieved for us all?

It is worth looking at some of the detailed personal realities which may be hidden within an ordinary celebration of Sunday Mass in our own local context. Let us consider, as an example, two or three pews of a well-attended urban parish church. There are several family groups and a number of individuals. Some know each other quite well, others not at all.

● John and Mary are there with their three children; both parents are Catholic; they are not very happy together, and John is there largely for the sake of the children. John is engaged in some fairly dubious business practices; neither have the habit of going to confession, and nor do the children; the eldest is an adolescent girl currently in boy trouble and would rather not be at Mass; she and all the family go to Communion as a matter of course.

● James and Elizabeth are recently married. James is a confirmed Anglican, and was permitted to communicate at their nuptial Mass; since then, they have attended the Eucharist in each other’s churches, where they regularly communicate.

● Peter and Susan are also in a mixed marriage. They chose not to have a nuptial Mass, because the question of Communion seemed to them to be divisive. Susan (the non-Catholic) does not go to Communion.

● Pamela is Afro-Caribbean, and at Mass by herself. She is a committed Catholic, and married a Catholic in church. Her husband left her after a few years, and she is very happily re-married to a divorced man. She goes to Mass regularly, but never communicates.

● David is an older man, a committed Catholic and homosexual. He tries, not always successfully, to live as a celibate. He believes strongly in the link between confession and Communion, but has been treated unsympathetically in the confessional. He does not communicate.

● Pauline is a divorced Catholic and remarried. But her first marriage was to a non-Catholic in a register office at a time when she had “lapsed”. So she is free to communicate, and does. The fact that the couple want no children and are practising birth control is not perceived as being an issue.

● Arthur is, in fact, Anglican, but he has Catholic friends in the parish, with whom he has been on holiday several times in France. When in France, he goes to Communion, but in England he doesn’t, “out of courtesy” to the parish priest.

● Charlotte is also in a happy second marriage. For years she did not communicate, but has been advised by a sympathetic priest that it would no longer cause scandal and that it would be all right to resume. Her husband (a semi-lapsed Anglican) has started to join her at Communion.

● Timothy is a Catholic widower, who has recently recovered the habit of occasional Mass-going. He has not been to confession for many years, but when he comes to Mass he always communicates.

● Maria is a Filipina hotel worker, who comes to Mass by herself. She dare not go to confession in a foreign language, so she never communicates.

● George is at heart a Latin Mass man. He does not like the kiss of peace or Communion under both kinds, and thinks that he should confine himself to “spiritual Communion”, especially as others seem to him to take Communion too lightly.

● Simon considers himself a failure, both professionally and personally. He has been through several marriages, and is out of a job. Coming to Mass is the highlight of his week, but he feels far too unworthy to communicate. His sister, Joanna, who brings him, is an embittered but successful teacher and always communicates.

This catalogue raises a number of important questions – about the link between confession and Communion, about the readiness of many people to communicate with little or no real preparation, about the sacramental link between marriage and Mass, about the whole question of “unworthiness” and about the factors that are perceived as “disqualifying” people from sharing fully in a eucharistic celebration in which they have chosen freely to participate. But they raise, above all, a deeper question: did Christ, who was so willing to eat with “publicans and sinners”, intend that the re-enactment of the paschal mystery should raise these particular complexities without, as it were, the compensation of an overarching rainbow of a deeply shared eucharistic vision available to everyone?

A similar question was posed for me, in a significantly different way, by a Mass I celebrated, in Chilean Patagonia, some years ago. It was in a small village where there was no priest. My presence was broadcast on the local radio, and people rode for miles on horseback to attend the Mass. The atmosphere was one of great reverence, even though the traditional link between Mass and confession was so absolute that hardly anyone communicated. For me, this seemed a rather sad anomaly, but this was more than offset by the strong sense that in the people themselves, in their devotion and in their oneness as a community, the fragments of the body of Christ had been gathered together in a powerful and eloquent way.

Both of the situations outlined above must surely give rise to a sense of pastoral failure. It is sad that the collective and individual experience of the central Christian act should be clouded by so many anomalies, by so much half-understanding and by so much personal pain and deprivation. It is clear from the New Testament and from the history of the early Christian communities that these tensions are not new.

Does the solution lie in the direction of simply changing the rules, for instance by making inter-communion easier, by downgrading the role of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (although one might perhaps upgrade the role of Reconciliation within Mass), by in general making Communion less of a challenge?

This would amount to an all-round trivialisation of the whole theology of the Church. What is surely needed is a concerted enrichment, at every level (theological, catechetical, pastoral) of our perception of the paschal mystery’s penetration of the entire meaning of God’s creation and the entire range of our moral existence. The “fruit of the earth and work of human hands” have been given, in the “New Creation”, a sacral quality which is essentially eucharistic in character.

It will always be the case that the full consummation of this sacralisation will only be realised in the Eucharist, but everything else (except what is evil) now looks towards that consummation and is related to it.

This sense of the sacralisation of things, the baptism of time into the sabbatical rhythm of worship bequeathed to us by the Hebrew Bible, is (of course) wholly alien to secular assumptions about the essential non-meaning of everything. The eucharistic dimension is one that embraces, rather than denies, the deep desire of the human heart to find a meaning in everything. Is this an impression that we, in practice, succeed in conveying?

St Paul speaks of the “entire Creation” as “longing to be set free” by the paschal mystery. In Christ, the barriers between sacred and profane are broken: everything from inorganic matter to the highest states of human consciousness is drawn up towards the eucharistic offering to the Father. This Pauline cosmology, which is “folly to the Greeks”, is one which the Church, always torn apart by schism and cramped by human stupidity, has found difficult to develop and to preach. The hugely inclusive basic perception of sacramental reality (both in the case of Baptism and in that of the Eucharist) has too often been obscured and distorted by unavoidable controversies about particular interpretations of doctrine.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Christ’s preaching opens with the Beatitudes and closes (in Chapter 25) with the extraordinary proclamation of his own reduction, in ordinary daily human affairs, to a sort of mysterious anonymity. “When you did this to the least of my brethren, you did it to me.” For most of us, for most of the time, the eucharistic environment is one that we inhabit without knowing it. For a privileged few of us, it is realised, consciously and voluntarily, in the fullness of liturgical celebration, but this does not detract from the marvellous eucharistic reality which, in the “New Creation”, is open to everyone. As St Leo the Great affirms in his great Christmas sermon, “Nobody is an outsider to this happiness.” In the Year of the Eucharist, it is perhaps less important to multiply Masses, and to focus on devotions which are “exclusively R.C.”, than to learn to live and to think more creatively within a eucharistic dimension that excludes nobody, and which is inspired by a vision of Christ’s blood streaming in everyone’s firmament, not just in ours. We need to cultivate a eucharistic language of welcome, which highlights the many levels of Christ’s presence in the body of his people, which “casts out fear” and fosters both loving reverence and a joyful sense of community.

At a recent ecumenical (non-eucharistic) event, a Russian Orthodox woman, who would not have dreamed of sharing Communion, said to me, “Thank you for your words; they were Eucharist to me.” Within such a context, might it be possible for us to find a way towards lessening the pain of those who now feel deprived of access, and even (who knows?) to resolve some of the more obvious anomalies which at present hinder our proclamation of the liberty which Christ has won for us?

Posted: Mar. 12, 2005 • Permanent link:
Categories: TabletIn this article: Catholic, Christian unity, eucharist, sacramental sharing
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