—could it be a real congress?

by John O’Loughlin Kennedy

Easter may be over for this year but Good Friday seems to be always with us. The Apostles lost faith, took fright, took cover, ran away or betrayed their relationship with Jesus. Only the women had courage, were faithful. We should not be too surprised to find the men who manage his church today, losing faith in his promise of guidance. While they exhort us faithful to trust absolutely in Christ’s promise to be with his church until the end of time, they behave as if everything depended on them and resort to quite un-Christ-like methods in the discharge of what they see as their duties. Whereas Paul met those who questioned his teaching and argued with them in the public square, Rome stoops to the classic responses of the tyrant. Civilised opinion no longer tolerates armed crusades or the public slaughter of unbelievers (or those who refuse to recant what they genuinely think), but honest questioning and theological reflection are met with typically secular armoury of repression, secret sanctions, silencing . . . and coercion wherever the necessary power remains.
In a monarchy, the buck stops at the top. Shrinking congregations suggest that some Catholics are compounding one failure with another by letting disenchantment with an outworn management structure distract us from the real blessing that we have received through the Church: our relationship with Jesus Christ. The Eucharistic Congress is opportune in offering Catholics the chance to re-order their priorities; to put first things first. But the management too should be prepared to review priorities.
On a practical level, Catholics need to promote the Congress. We should acquaint ourselves with the programme, book for sessions that appeal to us, register to help as volunteers, offer hospitality and, when the time comes: BE THERE!
At a spiritual level, the objective of the congress is to get people to meditate on the theme, “Communion With Christ and With One Another” and to pray, study and reflect in such a way as to deepen understanding of the incredible mystery which forms the source and summit of our spiritual life. What could be better? The chosen theme is both courageous and challenging. Courageous, because it touches on an area of church life in which management paralysis has been particularly evident for forty years or more. Challenging, because deeper understanding could uncover challenges to personal behaviour and established practices.
An elegant explanatory booklet has been published for the Congress committee by Veritas. It is an aid to meditation on the theme, written in everyday English. It presents beautiful comments about the Eucharist by several well-known Saints including Thérèse, Aquinas and Augustine among others. The insights of the saints can help us lesser mortals appreciate the extraordinary depth of the mystery involved and the magnanimity of God in gifting it to us. In particular, the capacity of the Eucharist to transform and unify the recipients comes across very strongly.
That is, until we come to Paragraphs 26-28, where the developing idea of a transforming sacrament of unity abruptly goes into reverse. We are told suddenly that union with one another through the Eucharist is not possible unless Christ’s followers are united already! They must be united, apparently, in professing the same detailed understanding of how the mystery is accomplished and further united in acquiescence to current Papal claims to infallibility and untrammelled monarchical authority. Christ’s statement, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, because you have love, one for another” is forgotten at this point. Denominational differences take precedence. Paragraph 28 states baldly that “full Eucharistic sharing among all Christians is not yet possible”.
These three paragraphs conflict directly with the earlier and later sections of the book. However, while the authors are setting out the current general discipline of the Church, they expose the divergence between that discipline and the Church’s own teaching.
In the booklet, Paragraph 27 says (without citation) that Vatican II:

“laid down two key principles which govern sacramental sharing. The first is witness to the unity of the Church and the second regards sharing in the means of grace. Witness to the unity of the Church does not as a general rule allow Eucharistic sharing by members of churches not in complete communion with the Catholic Church but the grace to be had from it sometimes commends this practice. It is not always easy to walk between these two principles. They are in fact complimentary”.

This paragraph addresses the nub of the matter, but the reasoning is feeble in four areas.

Firstly, if sharing can be a source of grace, does not charity demand sharing as a norm rather than as an exception? St Paul was unequivocal about this: “the greatest of these is charity”.
Secondly, if witness to the unity of the People of God is to be a principle, would it not be better served if we all approached one table together?
Thirdly, to ‘walk between two principles’ is difficult only to the extent that the principles are pulling us in different directions. Can one maintain that these two principles ‘are in fact complimentary’ without answering ‘yes’ to the first and second questions above?
Finally, a ‘general rule’ does not necessarily apply on a particular occasion, and an International Eucharistic Congress on the theme of ‘Union with Christ and With One Another’ must be considered a particular and very special occasion.

Not surprisingly, the quoted paragraph fails in its attempt to reconcile the teaching of the Church with its current regulations and practice. The regulations are man-made. If there is a conflict, the regulations should be changed. And they can be.
For Catholics who find the very idea of change in relation to Holy Communion shocking, it may be helpful to recall some changes from the recent and distant past.
For generations, frequent Communion was discouraged. It was seen as a reward for sanctity, rather than as the source. Even St Thérèse of Lisieux, who longed to receive her beloved Jesus more frequently, had to wait until her confessor considered her holy enough to merit daily communion!
Until the 20th Century children were confirmed before being allowed to receive the Eucharist, at which stage they would have been starting to mature. A decision by Pope St Pius X changed the order, and children were allowed to receive at a much younger age.
For centuries before Vatican II, only an ordained person could distribute Holy Communion and Catholics who intended to receive were required to fast from the previous midnight. Masses that started after 10 a.m. were celebrated as if Christ had instituted the Eucharist but kept the consecrated bread and wine for Himself! Following the Council, the practice was changed to conform more faithfully to His instructions.
Perhaps the most significant change occurred in imperial Rome itself. Public worship of the Roman gods was obligatory under Roman Law. For three centuries under varying levels of persecution the Christians celebrated the Eucharist on a domestic scale, as Jesus had done. Some Christians must have thought that domestic worship arose because Christianity was illegal. Public Christian worship could have provoked a massacre. Peter and Paul were the most distinguished among many thousands of martyrs. During the Fourth Century, however, the Roman Empire adopted Christianity. Emperor Constantine brought the intermittent persecutions to an end. Emperor Theodosius went further, banning the worship of all pagan gods which had been obligatory up to then. Public worship would henceforth be addressed exclusively to the one true God. The persecutions were over, Christians could now worship publicly in large numbers in dedicated buildings just as other Roman citizens had been doing for centuries. They were joined by law abiding Romans who dutifully became members of the Christian community. The Roman priests, who were specially trained civil servants, adapted their ceremonies in accordance with the emperor’s edict. The crowds were much bigger. The celebrant, whether a hurriedly retrained civil servant or a senior person within the Christian community, moved up to an altar which was raised so everyone could see. Christianity adopted the professional priesthood and the laity was invented.
Unfortunately, the domestic, or semi-domestic celebration of the Lord’s Supper fell into disuse. This may have been because the Christians saw it as a consequence of persecution —an anachronism now that centuries of persecutions had ended definitively. It may have been phased out with the growing professionalism of the priesthood. Whatever the reason, Christ’s way of celebrating the Eucharist was forgotten for fifteen hundred years and along with it St Paul’s teaching about the priesthood of all Christ’s followers.
Rome as the centre of the empire was effectively the centre of the world. It was also the See of Peter and the new ritual of Christian celebration spread with the faith. In the fifth century, St Patrick came to Ireland. For his first church he used a barn rather than a house. Ironically, celebration of the Mass in the home was a feature of the penal days in Ireland, but an ordained priest was required, although these were being hunted and hanged. As in communist countries in more recent times, nobody seems to have remembered St Paul’s teaching, and the shortage of priests meant that Catholics had little or no access to the most important of the sacraments.
As Catholics we believe that the sacraments achieve what they symbolise. Silently and slowly, like food building the body. This certainly calls for faith, because the effects are not often immediately evident. They are so gradual that they are hard, at times impossible, to discern.
In the Eucharist Christ left us a sacrament of unity. Again, St Paul is unambiguous: “The one bread makes us one body, though we are many in number: the same bread is shared by all” —1 Cor 10:16-17. But our leaders turn St Paul’s teaching back to front. They insist that we must be one body professing total uniformity in understanding before we share the one bread. So the leaders of the Eucharistic Congress betray a strange lack of belief in the efficacy of the Eucharist! The general rule is that other Christians must not fulfil the divine commandment “Take this, all of you, and eat of it” alongside us until after they have fulfilled two man-made conditions. First, the leaders of other Christian Churches and the Vatican have to officially approve a detailed and unambiguous agreement on the nature of the mystery! Then the faithful would have to profess belief in whatever formula of words had been agreed. After that, if indeed it were ever honestly possible, each of the ‘ecclesial communities’ would have to accept Roman governance. While the booklet accepts that sacramental sharing is desirable, and would be a realisation of Christ’s own prayer for unity, it insists on the pre-condition that the other churches be in “complete communion” with Rome.
If, contrary to the evidence above, our leaders genuinely believe in the efficacy of the sacrament, the current restrictions seem calculated to postpone Christian unity for as long as possible. Would another 500 years be enough? Christians must achieve communion on Rome’s terms before we can have communion on Christ’s terms. The Pope’s vision of “a smaller, more perfect, Church” is currently preferred over Christ’s instruction, to make disciples of “all the nations”. What then of Christ’s prayer that “all may be one”? An obsession with power and control has turned the Papacy, which should be a sacrament of unity, into the greatest single obstacle to unity. One respected Irish theologian has described it as an obstacle to faith itself.
Christ was content to define his followers in terms of love. He instituted the Eucharist in the context of dining together. We dine with those we love; with friends and with those with whom we would wish to be friends. The dinner that the President of Ireland gave recently for the Queen of England was symbolic but it had the concrete effect of promoting mutual forgiveness after centuries of enmity and mistrust.
Rome seems to believe, however, that unity is not something that the celebration of the Eucharist together can foster. Apparently, we must first create that unity for ourselves! Never mind what individual members understand, misunderstand, or believe of this great mystery, the denominations must agree a detailed formula before doing what Christ commanded. He instructed all those who were gathered for the Paschal meal to “take and eat”, and to “take and drink”. There is no evidence that the attendance was limited to the Apostles or indeed to ‘men only’. On the contrary, the Jewish Passover was, and still is, a feast celebrated en famille or by several families together if numbers are small.
It is therefore probable that others were present on Holy Thursday and that they were disciples of one kind or another. The evangelists did not consider the question important enough to be worth recording. It scarcely matters. From the earliest times Christians have understood that Jesus was speaking to all his followers until the end of time. Early recipients of the Eucharist must have had a very inadequate knowledge of the theology of what they were doing. They did not know whether they were supposed to believe in transubstantiation, consubstantiation or whatever. They did not even know such words. But they obeyed Christ’s instruction even before the first Christian priests were invented. They trusted in the truth, and the implied promise, of what He had said; while humbly accepting that they did not know how it could be. Christ did not make a condition of agreeing doctrinal details or offering feudal submission. He was prepared to accept disciples on one criterion only: love. If He were preaching to-day, He would surely be accused of indifferentism!
The two disciples on the road to Emmaus had quit Jerusalem. They had given up on Jesus of Nazareth at that stage. They did not believe in Him any more. He was dead and their hope had died with Him. They had parted from the Apostles and their companions. We could exclude them from the embryonic church. We could write them off at that stage as ‘lapsed Christians’. But not Jesus. He created an opportunity to celebrate the Eucharist with them and they recognised Him in the Breaking of Bread. Their faith was restored by the sacrament. They had a dramatic change of heart, a conversion experience. Although the day was already far gone, they promptly headed back to Jerusalem where they sought out the Apostles. To have ‘recognised Him in the Breaking of Bread’, suggests that they had been present at the Last Supper. The evidence thus undermines the theory that the attendance was limited to the Apostles as does Acts 1:13-14 and Acts 2:1-4. Jesus was a Jew who honoured tradition. In all likelihood, His Passover celebration included disciples, spouses and children. He was magnanimous. He did not favour exclusion.
Are we following the example of the Lord Jesus (a phrase coined for selective use by John Paul II) when we exclude people who are far from giving up on Jesus but who have a different understanding of the mechanics of the mystery? Christ said “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you”. Is the Roman Catholic Church being consistent with its own beliefs when it makes unity a pre-condition of the Sacrament rather than a consequence? Are we being fair to them, or indeed to Jesus, when we deny other Christians the bread of life because, in all honesty, they find they can neither profess nor ignore the more extravagant claims of the Papacy?
Is it not time to ask what kind of unity Christ prayed for? If we take Him in the general context of the Gospel, it surely must be a unity of love, and of unselfish service to others. If we love people, we do not let regulations get in the way of expressing that love.
Pope Benedict XVI has written two beautiful and ground-breaking encyclical letters on love. A not untypical extract, with emphasis added, from Paragraph 20 of Deus Caritas Est reads:

“Love of neighbour, grounded in the love of God, is first and foremost a responsibility for each individual member of the faithful, but it is also a responsibility for the entire ecclesial community at every level: from the local community to the particular Church and to the Church universal in its entirety. As a community, the Church must practise love”.

Should we not be guided by this teaching? Or must these sentiments be allowed to remain, in Liza Dolittle’s words, as ‘Words, Words, Words’? What about ‘Show me’? The real influence of the Latin Church on humanity would be greatly enhanced if the leaders allowed love to modulate their legalistic interpretations or guide the conscience of the faithful.
A congress is a coming together. In preparation for the Eucharistic Congress, Catholics should be aware that although “full Eucharistic sharing among all Christians is not yet possible”, the current detailed Roman Catholic regulations actually permit Eucharistic sharing with other Christians, as an exception to the general rule. There are three conditions: they request it, in small numbers, for special family occasions.
The organisers of the Eucharistic Congress should make it clear that, under current Catholic Church regulations, participation is open to any individual Christian who believes that Christ instituted the Eucharist, saying “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood”, that He invited those present to share the broken bread and the communal cup and that he told us, His followers, to do what He had done in commemoration of Him. In other words, the Sacrament is open to those who believe that Christ instituted it and mandated it.
If our leaders feel that they cannot legally welcome all non-Catholic Christians to our altars in the context of the Congress, individual Catholics, lay and ordained, should interpret the regulations positively and tell their Christian friends that they may request the Eucharist simply by getting in line and approaching the altar, individually or in small numbers, at any Mass around the time of the Congress and that they are welcome to do so.
What is a Eucharistic Congress but a special family occasion among brothers and sisters in Christ? God is magnanimous in allowing us to be called His sons and daughters. This must be permitted to have some meaning. ‘Faithful to the example of the Lord Jesus’, we should be no less magnanimous when it comes to marking out the boundary for His family and for ‘Communion With Christ and With One Another.

John O’Loughlin Kennedy is an economist and entrepreneur. He and his wife, Kay, started Concern in their apartment in Northumberland Road, Dublin in March 1968.

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  1. Sean O'Conaill says:

    I wish I could read this, and that the author understood the need for way-stages called paragraphs – to rest the eye and the mind and make reading a little bit less like climbing the north-face of the Eiger. Sorry!

  2. Now there’s a challenge for the Congress and all those associated with it.
    I thought the non-real-presence eucharist as a ceremony in which non Roman Catholics could participate was a disgusting and unworthy idea. It was setting a seal on the disunity of Christians.
    Now John has dug up a solution from the fundament of Christianity. And one which could let this Congress leave an enormous legacy for the future.
    Would labelling it “spiritual entrepreneurship” be sacrilegious?

  3. Mary O Vallely says:

    “Christians must achieve communion on Rome’s terms before we can have communion on Christ’s terms.” Wow! Hadn’t thought of it like that.Takes me back to this morning’s Reading where Peter says that we must obey God and not man.
    This is such an impassioned plea that I think John may be excused not having written in paragraphs. It is worth reading and re-reading and it certainly speaks to my simple, theologically illiterate, mind and heart. I hope priests and other theologians join in this debate. Thank God for voices and hearts like John O’Loughlin Kennedy! Mary V

  4. Sean O'Conaill says:

    Many thanks, John – and Mary too. The statement is now very readable, impressive and convincing. I had my own doubts about the Congress initially, but have come to see there is no reason we should not all participate, praying for the particular model of church that seems most suited to our times, and asking for the gifts that will allow us to participate in bringing that model into being.

  5. If this excellent piece is an indication of some of discussion and reflection on the Eucharist that the forthcoming Congress will stimulate, then I welcome it and wish it well. However my growing optimism is tempered by a story that keeps coming to mind. It is the well know story of the man who dies and goes to heaven; and on entering the pearly gates soon passes a room with high walls and a big locked door. Coming from the room is the sound of much laughter and singing. On inquiring St Peter explains, ‘That’s the Catholics’. They think they are the only ones here’. In the case of Croke Park and the Eucharistic Congress, there may be the same laughter and singing, but On this occasion, we possibly think we are the only ones to have Christ really present with us.
    For me, to be Catholic (and the give away is in the title itself), means to be counted as one of those who acknowledges and represents the real incarnate presence of the Christ in all – everyone and everything. If we are in any sense ‘chosen’ or ‘set apart’ it should be in our ability to ‘witness to’ and ‘celebrate’ this wonderful good news (1Peter 2:9). We are meant to be so good at this that it defines us.
    For me the much heralded new evangelisation is not the old model of our dispensing God to those conform to our understanding of who God is and who morally make the grade. Rather it is our efforts through witness and celebration, to help people discover and uncover, and make effective in their lives, the God they already possess. So if we are throwing a party everyone should be invited; and not just to observe, but to participate.

  6. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    Thanks, John. It’s an elephant under the carpet.
    The vital need to put Christian Unity right on top of the agenda with evangelisation as our mission needs to be crystal clear. If the Congress doesn’t address it, the Congress will fail in a vital area. The Church fails when it puts traditions and regulations of human making before its God-given mission. Your business project “When I Need It, Where I Need It” could apply also to the Congress theme: “The Eucharist: Communion with Christ and with one another”.
    Congratulations on being chosen as State Alumni Member of the Month by the US Department of State (http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2012/02/182858.htm).

  7. Just a small technical observation. If you got your webmaster to use the datestamp on individualcomments as a permalink to the comment, or insert a separate permalink beside the datestamp, it would make reference to previous comments, or passing on links to comments to correspondents, a lot easier.
    For example, my comment above would have the following link behind the datestamp:
    Rath ar an obair.

  8. Veronica R. says:

    To: John O’Loughlin Kennedy,
    Your Thesis on Eucharist and the Congress, is the finest piece of Theological interpretation I have ever seen! How True! How Simple! and How beautifully expressed! May your Bright Light Radiate, and produce much Fruit!
    Please consider sending a copy of this Article, to Joseph Ratsinger & Co, at the Vatican, as well as the organisers and leaders of The Congress, just in case none of them read it on this web-site! It is magnificent! Veronica R.

  9. John O'Loughlin Kennedy says:

    Thank you all for your kind comments. This is my second attempt to say thanks but the Internet defeated me . . . again.
    Again, because when I submitted the original of the essay via the Internet, it lost all the paragraphs, emphasis and indentations. No wonder some readers found it indigestible!

  10. Anne kelly says:

    I love this article Thanks. I really appreciate what you have written about understanding unity.
    Also the congress is beginning to sound surprisingly interesting.Focusing on “communion with Christ and one another”sounds very inviting and very different to what we might have expected .
    Also the Church of Ireland website says that Diarmud Martin has invited the Church of Ireland Archbishop Michael Jackson and Frere Aloyius of Taize to attend. This widening and opening windows has echoes of John XXIII
    Interestingly at the funeral of John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger as he was at the time, gave communion to Frere Roger who was a Lutheran much to the surprise of many.

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