Let’s Eat Together – has the time come to change our (anti-) ecumenical practice which hurts people?

Let’s Eat Together: has the time come to change our (anti-)ecumenical practice which hurts people?

Thomas O’Loughlin

A central illusion in most religions is that their beliefs, structures, and rituals are unchanging. They assert a continuity that stretches back into, quite literally, time immemorial. This phenomenon has been studied for more than a century: Mircea Eliade’s notion that religion links people to their mythic original time – in illo tempore – being its most famous description. Theoretically, for monotheists such as Christians, this should not be the case: only the Creator could be beyond time, and since the all else (the creation) is subject to time, the norm should be that every creature is changing and developing with out human situation. Change will only cease at some future, unknown moment. Unfortunately, most Christians slip into thinking their particular focus of attention, usually either ‘the bible’ or a ‘deposit of doctrine,’ is not only immune to change but somehow perfect, and the last word that is to be said on a topic.

One particular bit of doctrine that affects practice that has got stuck in this way (i.e. it is repeated rather than reflected upon) is the Catholic Church’s statement that only those they consider in doctrinal agreement with them on the significance of the Eucharist (labelled variously as ‘Holy Communion’ / ‘the Mass’ / ‘the Lord’s Supper’) can participate fully at its celebration. Put crudely, this means that (1) if you are a Protestant you are not invited to eat or drink at a Catholic service, and (2) a Catholic, even if welcome at a Protestant Eucharist, must refuse to share fully in the meal event by eating and drinking.

It hurts people

This policy of clear blue water between denominations was standard policy for centuries, but with the rise of the ecumenical movement in the twentieth century it seemed out a place. Nonetheless, the Catholic Church while willing to talk about unity, saw this step as impossible ‘until there was unity of faith’ (i.e. doctrinal uniformity) without recognising that this approach postpones sharing, actual ecumenism, until the end of time. This matter might seem but a curious ritual detail, except that the very groups involved all see gathering to thank the Father through Jesus as the centre and summit of the worship. Not to share at a eucharistic celebration, casts a doubt and a cloud over moves towards unity. This Catholic no-go attitude not only creates deep hurt and tension at official levels in relations between church-leaders, but it creates tensions in households every Sunday where partners want to worship together but one or other feels excluded – it is a question that caused hurt to people.

This problem appeared to be easing in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council (1962-5) but in recent decades under two conservative popes (John Paul II and Benedict XVI) the situation deteriorated again. Indeed, in 1998 the Catholic bishops in Britain and Ireland issued a statement, One Bread One Body, which, de facto, forbade any sharing of communion until a very distant (not to say impossible) future moment. Moreover, in a very conservative climate it became clear there was serious resistance to any discussion or research. Significantly, One Bread One Body was used as the basis of documents by many other Episcopal Conferences.

This negative climate of silence was changed suddenly in 2015. To mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther throwing down his challenge to the papacy, Pope Francis visited the Lutheran Church in Rome. Afterwards, he agreed to take questions from the congregation and this issue of intercommunion was, not surprisingly, the very first item raised. Rather than closing down the question, the Pope opened up several new avenues of thinking which could lead to a change in Catholic law and practice.

A field hospital approach

Pope Francis used his familiar approach that the church as more a field-hospital for suffering humanity rather than an oracular lawgiver. What, he wondered, if communion was food for a journey needed by people, rather than a reward?  This new openness caused ripples. While all noted that the comments implied a new openness; conservatives dismissed it as no more than thinking aloud: a lapse in precision rather than a signal for change. However, few noticed that Francis also called on theologians to explore this difficulty afresh.

So can one create a theological rationale for change? Here is just one such argument. We human need food, but only through human teamwork can we eat. Robinson Crusoe, the ideal individualist, is a great story, but fanciful. We also collaborate to cook it – even alone in a bed-sit there are others generating electricity! We humans do not simply eat together, we share meals. Meal-sharing is distinctively human; and this sharing has an inherent structure. This has implications for the Eucharist because, to say the least, its form is a meal. Can you be present and I refuse to share the food with you? To do so makes my own act contradictory: I act in a non-human way. Could such behaviour ever be worthy towards anyone, much less someone whom because of baptism I already am willing to address as ‘sister’ or ‘brother’? Family meals must promote reconciliation by sharing or are dishonest – and so unworthy of worship.

Fixing this ulcer of division between Christians means re-imagining the meal Jesus bids his followers to share in his memory. If we talk about unity, but do not eat together we are not being truly human.

Moreover, the notion that doctrine is a fixed body of idea – by analogy of the way some people speak of ‘the laws of physics’ – is itself a real threat to the proclamation of the gospel. After all, at the heart of the gospel is the news that God has done something new in Jesus of Nazareth.


Eating Together, Becoming One has won First Place in the “Ecumenism or Interfaith Relations” category in the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada’s 2020 Book Awards




Author: Thomas O’Loughlin
Publisher: Liturgical Press
ISBN: 0814684831

Similar Posts


  1. Pól Ó Duibhir says:

    Does he redefine the traditional concept of the Real Presence or is it just expected to fade away in the face of new behaviour?

  2. Kevin Walters says:

    I have read “No Real Presence, no Christianity”

    I have entered several empty none Catholic Churches, during my life time and have always been struck by a sense of deadness, apart from one occasion, when in a small country Chapel I was confront by a vase of freshly cut flowers on the altar, as I felt the living beauty of His creation/presence before me.

    I believe that the reason for this is that I am subconsciously looking for the red Sanctuary Light with its gentle living/active flame that is usually situated close to the Tabernacle. As it always provokes a feeling of recognition, in that I am not alone as a mutual presence is manifest/felt.

    Approximately fifteen years ago, one Sunday morning the Sanctuary lamp was not lit, this was the first time that I had encountered this in a Catholic Church and once again I felt this same sense of deadness. For most of my life I have always genuflected before His Divine Presence in the Tabernacle, but several years ago I became perturbed and in doing so stopped, my reasoning for doing this, for some, may be a bit confusing, but made sense to me at the time, as I had become aware of what could be described as self grandioso by some of those following the Monstrance/ Ostensorium from the main altar to the side chapel in carrying a parasol (With other factors of control rather than humility) above it, in an ostentatious manner, accompanied by heightened emotion.

    A round the same time I had a similar awareness when I followed a group of parishioners leaving the Church after mass to go and pray outside an Abortion Clinic, the praying by some was vindictive, as its vocal emphasis (Heightened emotion) stressed words of condemnation, rather than repentance (Change of direction) and compassion. They appeared to think that they owned (the judgement of) God.

    The question I had placed before myself in effect was this, can His physical presence be held in isolation by His ‘creatures’ in a box or Monstrance or be stolen desecrated and misused, as

    “Heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool. What kind of house will you build for Me, says the Lord, or what will be My place of repose? Has not My hand made all these things”

    Without the flame in the sanctuary lamp His presence is not known /felt, as it could be said, that if there was no consecrated Eucharist host within the tabernacle, the same sense of a mutual presence is manifest/felt and on the spiritual plane, it would be the real acceptance of God’s presence. As in the symbolic everlasting light, or eternal flame that shines before the altar of sanctuaries in many Jewish places of worship.

    A lit candle metaphorically speaking could be described as the Trinity, the source (candle/ mass) of all creation (Matter/Flesh). The Holy Spirit, His Will within the candle/mass igniting and giving life to the flame, seen as His living Word, Jesus Christ, who in shedding His light gives light to our consciousness, for us to see and know His Will, that emanates from the source and mystery of our Creator/ Father.

    “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life”

    When the priest says the “Body of Christ” we say Amen a declaration of affirmation and for me He is present when devoured as we become ‘living’ tabernacles, living been the operative word, without this affirmation in faith, would the bread of life give life to an unbeliever? Is it not the willing acceptance/consent of His living presence within the Eucharist that gives life to our spirit that wells up into eternal life, as the flesh profits not?

    It could be said that the bread and wine are the ordained means to “total change basic reality” to draw us into the spiritual constant reality before God of His Divine Presence (Eternal living sacrifice) now and always present before/within us, when we willingly say in faith Amen, as we partake of the living bread of life and transforming Sacrificial Cup of eternal salvation.

    This reflection has for me solved my initial concern of making a genuflection, as with the bush of fire before Moses

    “Take off your sandals because this place where you are standing is holy ground”

    A genuflect, an act of humility, is more than in order before the ‘acknowledged’ reality of the mystery of the divine, His presence in this holy place, before Him in His tabernacle, while the Sanctuary flame stirs from deep within our subconscious, His living Inviolate Word “this is my body” and so it is.

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  3. Mary Cunningham says:

    This is good news indeed. Congratulations Thomas O’Loughlin.

    Today is the fourth anniversary of our prophetic friend Fr. Sean Fagan.
    In December 1997, Sean publicly defended President McAleese’s taking Holy Communion at a Church of Ireland service. He wrote, ‘It is forgotten that the Eucharist is not only a sign of unity achieved, but also a source and powerful means of unity on the way to being achieved. It is not a reward for good behaviour, but the daily food for sinners in the struggle to become saints.’

    Sean’s good friend and fellow theologian, Fr Gabriel Daly, has spoken and written powerfully on the Eucharist. He brilliantly addresses thorny issues such as transubstantiation and the real presence. One example may be read on the link below.


  4. Daithi O'Muirneachain says:

    Fr.Thomas.In referring to “anti-ecummenical practice that hurts people” and “restrictions on who can receive”, raises many questions that need to be addressed.
    The Church requires Catholics to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, failure to attend is stated to be a Mortal Sin. However, there is a requirement or obligation to receive Communion only once a year. Thus
    the Catholic attends a Eurcharistic Meal and does not have to fully participate as he may not receive the food (host) of the heavenly meal. This indeed raises the question is the Eucharist food for the soul or a reward for being ‘good’?
    A recent book ‘Food, Feast and Fast’ by Fr.P.Fintan Lyons OSB looks at Food, Feast and Fast as part of the history of mankind. He gives special attention to these three in relation to the Eucharist.

  5. Paddy Ferry says:

    You know, Daithi, I have always been a bit uncomfortable with the idea that:

    “The Church requires Catholics to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, failure to attend is stated to be a Mortal Sin.”

    In other words, if you do not accept God’s love, you are liable to incur His wrath !!

    As I began to develop a smidgen of intellectual self confidence to give some serious thought to what we are asked to believe as Catholics –and this, sadly, has been a fairly recent development–I have become more and more uncomfortable with this and other things too.

    However, sticking with the business of “obligation”, Tom O’Loughlin summed up the nonsensical nature of the concept beautifully when writing his piece on this site on the Ascension recently when he spoke of the “strange concept”:

    “Even in those countries where it is a ‘Holiday of Obligation to attend Mass’ (a strange concept: threatening people with being guilty of a sin if they do not go and joyfully thank God for his goodness!) it gets passed over.”

    And, of course, Mary McAleese’s profound words come to mind yet again !!

    On this same theme, Fr. Paul Zulehner, the Austrian theologian, Professor of Pastoral Theology and Sociologist of Religion, no less, has recently spoken of the “clericalist Church that infantilises the faithful” in a piece in Novena.

    How very, very true!!

    “Has no future”: Austrian priest theologian blasts clericalist Church that infantilises faithful – Novena

  6. Joe O'Leary says:

    Laws become obsolete when not received. A case in point is the idea that “missing Mass is a Mortal Sin.” “Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin”–Catechism of the Catholic Church. This reminds me of the saying that the Latin Mass offered the celebrant hundreds of occasions of mortal sin, since any slip was considered grave matter. Why have Irish Catholics persisted in clinging to the most decomposed remnants of tradition instead of opening up to the broad horizons of the Vatican II Church, including ecumenism and encounter with Scripture?

  7. Neil Bray says:

    Being technical rather than sanctimonious or judgemental about it the only person who can change the Sacrifice of the Mass is Christ Himself. It is only “through Him, with Him and in Him” that it can take place. He is unlikely to change its nature because to do so would be to renege on his love for the Father.

    The Sacrifice of the Mass is the same sacrifice He offered by instituting the Eucharist and then dying on Calvary. The last Supper transformed Good Friday from an execution into a sacrifice and Easter Sunday transformed the sacrifice into a sacrament.

    Jesus’ redemptive offering was His body, an offering He bore into heaven with Him at His Ascension. This offering of love is never repeated because it never ceases. “He continues a priest forever.” His priesthood never ends. He is always offering an ongoing redemptive sacrifice to the Father which is never repeated.

    The Sacrifice of the Mass is a sharing in this perpetual sacrifice going on in heaven, a participation in the Heavenly Liturgy. That is the significance of the invitation in the Missal to “lift up your hearts.” “Through Him, with Him and in Him” Christ enables Catholics who can proclaim the Mystery of Faith at the Consecration to share in His perpetual offering to the Father. Christ also enables us to present ourselves with humble and contrite hearts as sacrifice, taking up St Paul’s appeal to the Romans “by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” And Christ’s own offering to the Father gives the Father “all” honour and glory. It’s the only way human beings can render God such glory, but it becomes entirely achievable for them at the Sacrifice of the Mass attended in the state of grace.

    The Eucharist has the characteristics of a meal but if were only so then Calvary would only be an execution. We all enjoy the pleasant social experiences that arise from socially sharing meals. But not all shared meals create this positive effect. Sometimes they create the opposite. Relying on the notion of meal-sharing as a basis for changing the nature of the Eucharist is not totally convincing.

    But given the enormity of the blessings of the Sacrifice of the Mass, why would one want to improve on the design of the Lord by diluting it, even in the worthy interest of Christian unity?

  8. Kevin Walters says:

    From the Article “A field hospital approach Pope Francis used his familiar approach that the church as more a field-hospital for suffering humanity rather than an oracular lawgiver”

    Romans: 8:14 “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God”

    We are taught that the Holy Spirit will lead us into the (All of) Truth while distilling the brokenness of our own hearts, teaching us to comprehend and identify with suffering humanity, in humility and compassion, as we realise in hope and thanksgiving that “There BUT for the Grace of God go I” While we reflect upon the ongoing transformation (Groining) of the human heart as revealed in Romans 8

    Those who receive the Spirit are also empowered to give witness to Jesus in the world while He the Holy Spirit sanctifies our hearts in creating a dwelling place for Himself (The Divine presence) to reside within us.

    After the crucifixion in the upper room we see those who had travelled the road/way of enlightenment/self-realization with Jesus (The Word Made Flesh) hide in fear from the Jewish leadership, while now knowing the full reality of their brokenness (Betrayal and cowardice) before our Father in heaven, it could be said that their hearts were now readied to receive The Holy Spirit as a humble heart is His dwelling place, as in

    “I am leaving you with a gift–peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid”

    Prior to the Pentecost we see Man’s understanding of the righteousness of God manifest by Prophets, such as, in Elijah’ murderous blood bath of the vile prophets of Baal, with all their wives and innocent children. He then also hides in fear because “I have been very zealous (Ruthless) for the Lord” Similar to St Paul’s murderous persecution of Christians while James and his brother John wanted to call down fire on a Samaritan town; they were rebuked by Jesus. Prior to this rebuke Jesus called James and John, Boanerges, which meant “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17) – probably a reference to the positive side of their bold and zealous personalities.

    A Personal understanding of 1 Kings 19:11-12
    A wind there was (of Pride), rude and boisterous, that shook the mountains (Heavens) and broke the rocks (Holy precepts) in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not to be found in the wind (of my bluster). Nor in the storm (High expectations of life) and earthquake (Of self-made foundations/delusions) leading to the Fire (of suffering/Reality of the Selfhood) and after the fire, the whisper of a gentle (Uplifting) breeze
    For men of good intent on the Worldly plain It is natural to want prevail over evil (especially in others) to call to account and punish those who do evil, this desire comes from a worldly feeling of self-righteousness but as seen by Elijah’s inspired self-realization, God is known through His gentleness, as in a gentle breeze.

    Jesus says “Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart”

    So, the battle has to be fought on the Spiritual Plane if it is to bear lasting fruit, we do this this when we walk with the Holy Spirit in humility. (St Bernard, Humility; a virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases him-self).

    At Pentecost we see the Holy Spirit descend and then separate onto the Apostles conferring within them (and now to those who serve Him) the power of Truth. The Truth bears witness to Itself and needs no embellishment, as those who are of the Truth hear His voice. It could be said that authority comes with Truth and those who serve It. (As manifest in a humble heart)

    So, mankind needs to see the light of the Holy Spirit dwelling/working within us, as only a humble Priesthood/Church can lead mankind away from evil, as a humble heart (Church) will never cover its tracks or hide its short comings, and in doing so confers authenticity (Holiness), as it walks in its own vulnerability/weakness/brokenness in trust/faith before God and mankind. It is a heart (Church) to be trusted, as it ‘dispels’ darkness within its own ego/self, in serving God (Truth/Love) first, before any other as the Holy Spirit (Divine Presence) cannot dwell in an untruthful heart as “The Truth” will not permit evil to hide itself. We are ALL sinners, but being honest with ourselves and others permits us to walk in humility (friendship) with the Holy Spirit, where no deception or lie is tolerated within ourselves or between each other.

    Christ reveals that the Holy Spirit will “convince the ‘unbelieving’ world of sin, and of justice and of judgement;” he will “teach…all truth;” and will “glorify” Christ.

    Words of condemnation have their place, but it is the whisper of a gentle breeze’ bearing witness to the Truth, dwelling within a humble heart, which glorifies God as it permits others to see and believe in His merciful gentle ‘living’ Face/heart, which leads others to contemplate/know/follow Him in humility also.

    “Father forgive them they know not what they do”

    Here we see His understanding of the human heart and the compassion that He had for all of mankind. Reflected in Isaiah 42:3 “He won’t break off a bent reed or put out a dying flame, but he will make sure that justice is done”

    There is no self-righteous anger, rather a call for mercy and insightfulness for all those sinners who dwell in darkness. Which was manifest in His total self-giving on the Cross, for all men.
    As with the Centurion who stood facing Him as He hung on the Cross

    “The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned”

    The divine spark had been ignited within the Centurion, a new understanding had commenced as he exclaimed

    “This man was indeed God’s Son.”

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  9. Joe O'Leary says:

    It is remarkable that in leaving to his Church a perpetual testament or memorial or monument of the meaning of his Passion and Resurrection, Jesus chose the format of a meal (as indeed the Paschal feast likewise celebrated the meaning of Israel’s deliverance in the form of a meal). Reflection on the Eucharist and how to reform or renew it must start out from reflection on the meal event. This is the strength of Fr Tom O’Loughlin’s reflections. Through the modality of a meal Jesus realizes the fullest form of his abiding Presence to his community until he comes again.

    The notion of Sacrifice is rooted as well in the meal event. A sacrifice is every work which brings about that we are united to God in a holy society (sacrificium est omne opus, quo agitur, ut sancta societate inhaereamus Deo),says Augustine (Civ. Dei X). The communal sharing is of its essence.

  10. Neil Bray says:

    Continuing in the spirit of the technical, non-sanctimonious, not judgemental.

    The Last Supper was a significant meal. Christ did link it to His upcoming sacrifice. However the apostles didn’t link the meal and the sacrifice. For that reason The Last Supper, taken in isolation was a bit of a disaster. Of course linked with Calvary and the Resurrection it was a triumph. But the apostles’ separation of the meal from the sacrifice had negative consequences. During the meal Christ found himself calling out betrayal by Judas and Peter. He found himself exposed once again to the squabbling amongst the apostles as to who had primacy. In fact the effect of this separation between meal and sacrifice added to the ordeal of Gethsemane.

    Meal is an important feature of the Bible. But it is always contingent on something else whose absence leads to negative outcomes. The contingency in question is transformation into closer relationship with God. The banquet that was Paradise did not last on foot of humanity’s effort to subvert God’s notion of reality. In John chapter 6 Christ reprimands those who were the subjects of the miracle of the loaves and fishes not once but twice. Many leave Him, again unable to see the link between the meal and the sacrifice to come.

    The article above never mentions the word sacrifice. It is not clear as to what is being proposed. One is left wondering if the proposal amounts to the reality of the Sacrifice of the Mass disappearing in favour of something symbolic. In the act of eating together are the notions of the Real Presence, of the sacrificial power of the priest, of the eschatological assumptions inherent in the Roman Missal being downplayed, left to one side, thus admitting the notion of sacrifice in an unreal or figurative sense only?

    Recognising the deep elements of faith among members of the separated ecclesial communities and interacting with and learning what is possible from them is part of the responsibility of the Catholic Church. The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission have, in effect, engaged in “re-imagining the meal Jesus bids his followers to share in his memory.” Nothing new there.

    It’s difficult to see why the separated ecclesial communities should be hurt when not allowed to participate in a Catholic exercise they don’t actually believe in. In some cases their founders regarded the concept of the Sacrifice of the Mass as an appalling horror. And why would a Catholic want to take part in an exercise that is regarded by the host denomination as more realistic than the related exercise the Catholic’s own church prescribes? Is tokenism a feature in each case? (Non-rhetorical question). If not how does the “visitor” in each case insert him/herself humbly into the spirit of the moment in a non token fashion and at the same time serve Him who is the true subject of the liturgy?
    Yes, share as much as possible.

  11. Kevin Walters says:

    Neil Bray @ 11

    “If not how does the “visitor” in each case insert him/herself humbly into the spirit of the moment”…

    Hi! Neil, I am uneducated (I know little of the history of the Church) but it appears that the problem of identity of the Catholic Mass with other Christian dominations stems from the time of Martin Luther when much of the Sacramentally functions of the Priest were rejected due to corruption and hypocrisy, while the root of the problem is elitism, manifest as a self-serving authoritarianism, which is embedded within Clericalism.
    Merriam-Webster: Clericalism; a policy of maintaining or increasing the ‘power’ of a religious hierarchy:

    So ‘clerics’, as in Clericalism is the problem’, as it is the vehicle that carries our Christian enterprise, which has systematically nullified men of integrity. So how can this underlying ambivalence to an authoritarian hierarchical Church be overcome without fracturing the credibility of the Church’s teachings.

    “So, he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him”

    “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet”

    So, humility is the key as no honest Christian (person) can deny the manifestation of true discipleship. see link


    “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  12. Paddy Ferry says:

    For as long as I can remember, certainly since secondary school, I have looked upon Christian unity as a matter of great importance. I don’t think I realised then how our church had been so implacably opposed to the idea. I was aware, certainly, of Vatican II but I had never heard of Unitatis Redintegratio (UR) and how it completely changed our position –no longer just an optional extra.

    I must have been happily unaware of the divisive nature of intercommunion, which remained despite Vat II and UR, until I came to live in Scotland. Then I quickly realised what “an ulcer of division”, as Fr. Tom calls it, this issue was. Without having any great knowledge of the theological basis of our church’s position in denying other Christians a welcoming invitation to our “table”, I quickly came to the conclusion, nevertheless, that it was misguided and wrong. Even more ridiculous still, outrageous even, I have always thought, is the fact that when we are invited to share in the eucharist of another Christian church we must refuse to share. My God !!

    What great hurt it has caused -and is still causing–in those families where partners wish to worship together but face this barrier.

    As someone who placed such importance on ecumenism and the need to continually strive to achieve unity among Christians, I feel I have been very fortunate, blessed in fact, to have been able to make a real contribution to that cause for most of my life in Scotland. Keith O’Brien became our archbishop in this archdiocese of St. Andrews and Edinburgh in 1985. It was a time of great hope and enthusiasm and renewal. Keith invited my Donegal compatriot, Fr. Johnny Doherty, CSsR to bring his parish renewal program to our archdiocese and at the end of the first year of that program of renewal I found myself leading a new body, the Archdiocese Ecumenical Core Group which later evolved to become the official Ecumenical Commission of the Archdiocese. For the next twenty eight years I chaired both the Core Group and the Commission. Apart from everything else, for me it was a journey of learning and enlightenment. As a group we studied all the historic and contemporary documents relating to Christian unity. Yet, I never found anything that was likely to change my long held view that our church’s position on intercommunion is misguided and wrong. It is very reassuring to find a scholar of such eminence as Tom O’Loughlin sharing that view. Tom was due to come to Edinburgh in September to speak on this very topic at our Newman Association which, sadly, will now happen at a later date.

    Neil @ 8&II, I have been impressed reading your posts which I may not agree with but I certainly respect your well thought out response to Tom’s piece and the fact you took the time to contribute. I have not listened yet to his interview. Now, given the great scholar priests we have in Ireland and I am sure many of them are members of the ACP and probably read these contributions on this site, I would have hoped there would have been a learned response to you.

    This is not my area of expertise or learning, Neil, but there are a few points I would like to share with you.

    First of all the early followers of Christ celebrated the original eucharist by simply coming together in thanksgiving –eucharistia being the Greek word for thanksgiving. They shared a meal together, told stories of the Lord and sang songs which they composed themselves. There were no priests present. The first record of ordinations is in the third century, circa 220. And there was no mention of magical transformations for hundreds of years.

    The complicated nature of the church’s presentation of an understanding of the eucharist gradually evolved. Scholars, especially Scholastic theologians, while accepting that the bread and wine could become the body and blood of Jesus only by a mystery and a miracle, tried to put the miracle into some kind of context that would make it more understandable.

    So, we have William of Occam and his long essay, the Sacrament of the Altar, Ratramnus of Corbie who contended that Jesus was present symbolically and Berenger of Tours who also argued for the symbolic understanding of Christ’s presence in the eucharist.

    Perhaps the most significant understanding of the eucharist held down through the centuries was that of St. Augustine. Augustine believed that what is changed in the mass is not the bread but the “holy communion” of those receiving it gathered around the altar and what happens on the altar is symbolic. He used the analogy of wheat grains coming together. It is said that Berenger’s understanding was also influenced by Augustine. In fact, many other theologians down through the centuries were also influenced by him. In Corpus Mysticum, published in 1944, the great French Jesuit, Henri de Lubac traces a line of theologians in the first millennium who drew on Augustine to provide a theory of the eucharist opposed to Aquinas’ transubstantiation.

    And so to transubstantiation. Once the Church accepted Aquinas’ doctrine as the official position everything else was stamped on. Infact, at Trent the council joined eleven pronouncements of excommunication to the formula of transubstantiation. In other words, if you didn’t accept it you were out. Hardly a great sign of confidence in the strength and validity of the doctrine, you would have to say. The problem with transubstantiation is that so few understand it and many of those who have taken the trouble to study what it is supposed to mean, don’t believe it.
    So, Neil when you wrote:
    “It’s difficult to see why the separated ecclesial communities should be hurt when not allowed to participate in a Catholic exercise they don’t actually believe in.”
    I was taken aback because it appeared to suggest that all members of our church believe it. Speaking with many well informed and educated practising Catholics, Neil, I can tell that is not the case. I have studied transubstantiation –I avoided it for a long time fearing that Aristotle’s philosophy of matter would be beyond me. Infact, I am not sure Aristotle’s philosophy is even relevant because Thomas turns the whole business of substance and accidents on its head. Or, rather he contends that at the consecration God simply changes the nature of the universe. So, Neil, I think it is easy to understand why thinking Catholics, even those who still practise, find it all rather incredible and hard to accept.

    And, then there is the whole question of Jesus as priest and sacrifice all lumped together, But I think that will have to wait for another night.
    Goodnight and God bless, Neil.

  13. Paddy Ferry says:

    Neil I noted in your post @11 your observation that “The article above never mentions the word sacrifice.”.

    I have come to realise in recent years that this concept is a really difficult and problematic area of our faith.

    Now, once again, I must point out that I am only an interested amateur but even my cursory browse through the literature quickly convinced me of the problems involved with the idea of Jesus as sacrifice and priest. So, I can understand how much more keenly scholar priests and theologians must feel this having spent their academic lives studying the issues involved.

    The source of the problem lies in the fact that only one writer in the New Testament (NT) refers to Jesus as priest and sacrifice and that is the author of the Letter to the Hebrews. For most of the first two millennia of the church’s history it was attributed to St. Paul. That is no longer the case. Nor is it now considered a letter in the strict sense but rather a sermon or speech–albeit a fairly long one –to an audience which someone else delivered for him. Scripture scholars will tell us that he –almost definitely he–is the most polished and educated writer in the NT with words and parts of speech not found anywhere else in the NT beginning the letter, for example, with a string of alliterated words.

    The other major mystery surrounding Hebrews is identifying exactly who the Hebrews are. Raymond Brown is the source of much of my knowledge on this subject and he and John Meier tell us that the “letter” was directed to one group of new Christians in Rome: the group that was “backsliding”, is the term they use, and reverting back towards the old securities of God’s promises to Moses. Raymond Brown actually identifies four groups with varying commitment to the new faith. To have become such a vital part of the NT it is interesting to note that in Rome it was not immediately accepted as part of the canon of scripture until much later than it was accepted in the Eastern Church. This was despite Rome being aware of the letter a hundred years before the Church in the East. Raymond Brown tells us it is possible to “theorize” that Rome knew it was not written by Paul whereas the Church in the East immediately attributed it to Paul. Eventually however, it became valuable in the controversy with the Arians surrounding the full divinity of Christ and the whole Church accepted that Paul had written Hebrews around the year 400 and Rome was willing to accept it as Pauls fourteenth letter. ( All from Raymond Brown)

    The writer of Hebrews is the only writer in the NT to refer to Jesus as priest. Jesus himself never did, nor did the Gospel writers nor is it claimed in the uncontested letters of Paul according to Fr. Joseph Fitzmyer SJ, another hugely respected scholar of scripture. Jesus was a practising Jew and knew his scripture and as he wasn’t a descendent of Levi, so, obviously, he knew he could not be a priest. Infact he spent a lot of his time challenging the priests of his day.

    So, the writer of Hebrews invented a new line of priesthood for Jesus and here’s where Melchizedek enters the story.
    He tells us that Jesus is a priest in the line of Melchizedek.

    Melchizdek is a minor figure in scripture who in Genesis in chap. 14 had a chance meeting with Abraham when Abraham was returning from sorting out his nephew, Lot’s enemies. The only other place he is mentioned in all of scripture is in Psalm 110.
    There are problems which undermine Melchizadek’s credibility. Scholars, including Fred Horton, author of The Melchizedek Tradition, explain how those verses in chap. 14 of Genesis, 18-20, represents an intrusion into the text as it has no connection with what follows or what precedes it. So, it appears to be an implant.
    There is a number of fallacies in Hebrews which the American historian, Prof. Garry Wills highlights.

    However the biggest problem with Hebrews is in its presentation of human sacrifice as an improvement on animal sacrifice. This goes completely against what cultural historians have held. The change from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice had been regarded as a sign of greater enlightenment and towards a greater civilisation. The opposite contention is to be found only in Hebrews. Today even animal sacrifice would land us in court.

    But leaving all scripture scholarship aside, at some stage in our lives the horror of Jesus suffering this terrible death to assuage his father’s anger over sins committed by our ancient, perhaps mythical ancestors which we all, somehow, bear the guilt of, seemed unacceptable. What does that say about a loving God! I have met people who are non-believers who will tell you how unfair this all was on Jesus. I befriended someone many years ago shortly after I came over here who was an intelligent and highly qualified musician and music teacher who taught me music. She was a non-believer but respected the fact that I was a practising Christian. We would have conversations about religion and she would always return to Jesus and how badly he had been treated. I think it was only then it dawned on me as well.

    I mentioned Fr. Joseph Fitmyer SJ above. We have already discussed here on this site the section which I am about to share. A couple of years ago Joe O’Leary and Sean O’Conaill had a very interesting and indept conversation prompted by these words of Fr. Fitzmyer and they brought into the discussion the thoughts of Rene Girard.
    I do find the words of a scholar as eminent and respected as Joseph Fitzmyer convincing. This is what he said:

    “Paul never says that Christ was sacrificed for our sake. That notion enters the later theological tradition, but it is not one that can be traced directly to Paul……The notion of Christ’s death is more tributary to Hebrews and to the Deutero-Pauline Ephesians 5.2 than to the uncontested Pauline letters.” ( from his book on Romans, p.122)

    I must confess that reading that for the first time was when I first became aware that there were such things as contested letters of St. Paul.

    Neil, you mentioned in your posts the Last Supper. I would like to share with you a letter written by another respected scripture scholar, Fr. Kieran O’Mahony OSA which appeared in the Tablet some time ago. The primary purpose of the letter was to express a view on the ordination of women. However, I thought you might be interested in what he had to say about the Last Supper. The opening of Fr. Kieran’s letter asks:

    “Has the Holy Father made a mistake in not permitting the ordination of women, even initially only to the diaconate? The exclusion of women from ministry can be traced not only to tradition but also to an erroneous reading of the evolution of “church” and its ministries.
    In common with many other biblical scholars, I would affirm the following. Firstly, the historical Jesus encountered very few non-Jews. His ministry was “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. Jesus did not foresee a separate religious movement, later given the name Christianity.
    Much less did he foresee a Church (the term is found in the Gospels in Matthew alone), with specific structures and ministries. In the New Testament, varieties of ministries are indeed evident, in particular in Paul, Matthew and Luke-Acts. Towards the end of the first century, these settled into servants, elders and overseers (the later deacons, priests and bishops). The Council of Trent, in affirming that all seven sacraments were somehow instituted by Jesus, made the mistake of accepting the way the Reformers posed the question. This was unnecessary (though understandable in pre-critical times) and brings with it insurmountable historical difficulties.
    If the above is substantially accurate, then the historical Jesus “ordained” nobody at all and the Last Supper was not an ordination service, simply because the historical Jesus did not reckon with a body separate from his own Jewish faith.
    As a result, the argument from the Last Supper that only men can be ordained makes no sense. What we have inherited, across the Christian centuries, is the Spirit-guided tradition, reflecting a graced evolution. There is no reason to think that the Holy Spirit has stopped guiding us in these critical times. Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the Churches!”

    I think it is genuinely a wonderful development, since God surprised with the unexpected miracle of Pope Francis, that scholars like Kieran and Tom now feel able to mention or not to mention whatever they like. And did you read Fr. Paul Zulehner, the Austrian theologian, recently lambasting our clericalist church for infantlising the laity?. I don’t think he would have said that out loud pre Francis as he would have known he would have risked almost immediate decapitation.

    One final thought, Neil, going back to our previous topic of our church’s position on intercommuniom. Before that miracle happened in Rome in 2013, at the final large congregational meeting of bishops, Cardinal Bergoglio, just before he entered the conclave that made him Pope, spoke of “theological narcissism” as one of curses that blights our church. I think our position on intercommunion is certainly an issue that merits that description.
    I hope you keep contributing to our site here, Neil. Sadly, there are far too few of us.
    God bless.

Join the Discussion

Keep the following in mind when writing a comment

  • Your comment must include your full name, and email. (email will not be published). You may be contacted by email, and it is possible you might be requested to supply your postal address to verify your identity.
  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger. Comments containing vulgarities, personalised insults, slanders or accusations shall be deleted.
  • Keep to the point. Deliberate digressions don't aid the discussion.
  • Including multiple links or coding in your comment will increase the chances of it being automati cally marked as spam.
  • Posts that are merely links to other sites or lengthy quotes may not be published.
  • Brevity. Like homilies keep you comments as short as possible; continued repetitions of a point over various threads will not be published.
  • The decision to publish or not publish a comment is made by the site editor. It will not be possible to reply individually to those whose comments are not published.