10May Paul’s Eucharistic Challenge, by Wilfrid Harrington OP

Today   we  face  the  crisis  scenario  of  an  acute  shortage  of priests   and   the  resultant deprivation  of  Eucharist.    A  look   to   the   new   Testament   and,   specifically,  to Paul   would   suggest   that   our   problem   is   due,   in   large measure,  to  the  fact  that  we  have  got our  priorities    wrong.   Paul    offers   a challenge.  Facing   up to his challenge  could   transform  our  understanding   of   Eucharist   and   help  us  find   our   way  through   a   pastoral   crisis.


Apart   from  two  passages in  1   Corinthians   it   might   seem  that  Paul  knew   nothing   of   the   Eucharist  —  surely   a   salutary reminder   that  what  we  have  from  Paul   are  occasional letters  by  no   means  giving us his   whole  theology   or  the  full  content  of  his   preaching.   At   any   rate,             1  Cor  11: 23-26 puts beyond  doubt that the   Lord’s   Supper  had  been   part of Christian   faith  and   practice   from the  start.    The   passage is  the  earliest reference   in   the  New   Testament   to   the   Eucharist: For   I   received   from  the   Lord   what   I   also handed   on   to   you,   that  the Lord  Jesus  on  the  night  when  he   was   delivered   up   took   a  loaf  of bread,   and  when  he had  given  thanks, he  broke   it   and  said,   ‘This   is  my   body  which   is   for   you.  Do  this  in    remembrance  of  me.’   In  the  same way he  took  the  cup  also,   after   supper,   saying,   ‘This   cup  is  the  new  covenant  in  my  blood.  Do  this,   as  often  as you   drink   it,  in   remembrance   of   me.’   For  as  often  as  you  eat this bread   and drink    the  cup,  you   proclaim  the   Lord’s  death  until  he comes. Paul   solemnly   passes   on   a   tradition  which,   because   it  came  to him  through   an authentically   Christian  community,  had  come  to  him   from  ’the   Lord’.  In   fact, he is citing  an  established   liturgical   text —  likely  the usage  of the church  of   Antioch.   He reminds the Corinthians   of   this   tradition   in   the   course   of correcting   an   abuse   in   their   celebration (11:17-22). The   striking  feature  of  the   passage 11:23-26  is  that   Paul   does  not  think   of the   Eucharist  and   Christ’s  presence  in   a   static manner   as  might be suggested  by    the   formula  ‘This   is…’   Instead,   the   account   is  full   of   dynamic   expressions.   It  is  no  mere  making  present  of Christ’s  body  and blood  —  of   Christ;  it  is   a   proclamation,   and   a  memorial,   of  his   death,   of  an   event.   By   speaking   of  ‘body  and  blood’,   that  is to say,   the   self,  Jesus   is  giving  himself,  and  giving  himself   in   death.   Paul had  grasped the significance   of  the  gift  —  gift   of   ‘the   Son   of   God  who   loved  me   and  gave  himself   for  me’  (Gal  1: 20).    The   death   of   Jesus   is  ‘for  us’.  Similarly,   the   cup   is   ‘the   new   covenant   in   my   blood’,   that  is,   an   event,   the  making   of   a   covenant  that has   lasting  and  definitive  consequence   for  the life  of  the people   who   are   included   in    the   covenant.   ‘You  proclaim  the   death   of the   Lord’:  the   Supper   is  the   interpretation  of  the  death  of   Jesus.   The   Eucharist   is   anamnesis,    a   bringing   to   mind  that  is   a   form  of   presence.     The   Eucharist   is   one   fulfillment  of  the  promise   of  the  risen   Lord:  ’Remember,   I   am   with   you   always, to  the  end of the   age’  (Mt   28:20).


The   command  to   repeat  the   action  of   the Lord. ‘Do   this…’   not   only   binds   the  community   to   celebrate  the  Lord’s   Supper    regularly   and  thus   keep  alive  the  meaning  of  the  death   of   Jesus   —   the   nuance   is  ‘keep   on   doing  this  in  memory of  me’  —  but  places   upon  it the  obligation   to   proclaim  the  redemptive  purpose   of his   death.  ’Do   this   in   remembrance   of   me’:   Paul  wants  to  evoke   an  active  remembrance   that   would   make   the  past  present    by   recall of  total  commitment  to  Christ.   Significantly,   the  proclamation  of   the   Lord’s   death  is in  terms of eating  and  drinking  (in   practice,   an  eating   from one  loaf   and   a   drinking   from  one   cup)   that  implies   a   true  communion   The   joining   together  (‘in   the   same   way’)   of   the   eating  of  the   bread   and   the  drinking   from the   cup   suggests  that  they   constitute   a   single   liturgical  gesture   in   two  parts.   At   any   rate   it is  clear  that nothing  but love,  expressed   in   warm  table-fellowship,   can   serve  to  proclaim  the meaning   of  the  death  of  Jesus.   It   is  crystal clear   that, for  Paul,  celebrating  the   Lord’s   Supper   regularly   is   an   absolutely   essential  factor  of   Christian  life   and   Christian   proclamation.   A  Christian   community  without   Eucharist is unthinkable.


In   1   Corinthians   10:16  Paul  had  asked,   as   of   something   self-evident  to  Christians: ‘The   cup   of blessing  that  we  bless,  is  it   not   a  sharing   in  the  blood   of   Christ?   The  loaf  that  we  break, is   it   not   a  sharing   in  the  body  of   Christ?’    Just  here   lay   the   Corinthian  problem   which   Paul   urgently  confronts.   The   Eucharist had  been, from  the start,  on  the model  of the Lord’s  farewell  supper,  in  the  setting  of   a  community  meal.  It is likely  that  the   Christians of   Corinth  had  adapted  the practice of  fellowship  meals  in the  Hellenistic  world.   They   would  come together  for   a   festive  meal  at the  end  of  which  they  performed a  ritual  recall  of  what the  Lord  Jesus  had done  at  his  farewell  meal  on  the night  before  he died,   and would then have proceeded to  a more   general  worship   service  (see  1   Cor   14: 26-32).          At   Corinth,  however,   it  had  become  fashionable   for  the  better-off  members of  the  community   —   they owned  ‘homes’  11: 22, 34)  —  whose   time   was   their  own,   to   gather beforehand   and  dine   well   on  lavish   provision   of   food   and   drink  (11:20-21).   Later,  when  the  slaves  and  workers,  their  labours   over,  turned   up,   the  Eucharist  was  celebrated   (11: 20-21,  33-34). Or,  at  least,  these  ‘second-class’   members  had   to  be   content   with   simpler   fare.   In   Paul’s   eyes   this   was   not  only   a   glaring  abuse    but   a  perversion of  the  whole  meaning  and   purpose  of the Lord’s   Supper.   He  had  previously   declared: ‘The  cup   of  blessing  that   we  bless,  is it not    a  sharing in  the  blood  of Christ?    The   bread   that   we  break,  is  it not   a  sharing  in  the body  of  Christ?’(10:16).       His   emphasis   was    not  just  on   the one  bread and the  one   cup,  but on    the  sharing   of   the one loaf  and  the one   cup.    It  is  because,  in   sharing  mode,   they partake of the one   loaf  that the celebrants become ‘one  body’  — the   Body of   Christ:   ‘Because  of the one  bread,  we  who  are  many  are  one body, for  we  all partake  of the one  bread’  (10:17). The   Eucharist   was  meant  to  be    a    bond  of  unity;  in   Corinth   it  had   been   turned   into    a   wedge  dividing haves   and   have-nots.   No wonder  that  Paul  does not commend   the   Corinthian  practice  (11:  17, 22).


Because the precise  Corinthian   situation is   ignored,  v. 29  has  regularly  been  misinterpreted  —  ‘For   all    who  eat  and  drink  without discerning the body,  eat  and  drink judgment against  themselves.’   Traditionally,  the  verse  has  been   urged  in support   of the  doctrine  of  the   real  presence—the   sin  being   that   one   fails  to distinguish  the   Eucharist   from  ordinary   food   and  drink.  In   point   of   fact,  the  ‘real  presence’   was  not an   issue:   the  Corinthians   do  presume  that they   are   eating   and  drinking  ‘the   body  and blood of  the   Lord’  (11: 27).   The  point   at   issue  is  that what was  designed  to  unify  is being  abused  to divide.    The   ‘body’   in  question in  v.  29   is   the  body  of  the  community  (the   Body  of Christ).    The   Corinthian  celebration is not  communion.    The   sacrament of  the  body  and blood  of  the  Lord  is  being  abused  to rend the  body   of   Christ.          Paul  goes  further:   ‘When   you   come   together, it   is  not  really   to   eat  the   Lord’s   Supper’ (11:20).    A  ‘Lord’s  Supper’   that   was  not a   shared  meal, that was  not  a sharing   in    the one   bread   and  the   one   cup,   was  not,  in  fact,  the  Lord’s   Supper.   Even   though  the ritual   words  were   said  (vv.  24-25)   the lack  of  love  (vv. 21-22) meant  that  in reality  there   was no  Eucharist.   The   essence  of   Paul’s   reaction   is that there  can  be  no  Eucharist  in    a   community   whose members  do  not  love  one   another.   Eucharistic  celebration   ought  to  be  a  manifest   witness   to   unity.   Paul’s   view  that, where   such  is   not the   case  there  is no  Eucharist, should  make   us  ponder.  Is  our  eucharistic  celebration,  our  Mass,   a manifest   sign of  unity?   Is   it,   always,   truly  the  Lord’s   Supper?   Here   is one   Pauline  challenge,    There   is   another.


In  1   Corinthians   Paul   addresses    the  community   (’when   you  [plural]  come   together’)   and  not  any   individual.   The   Lord’s  Supper   is   a   community   celebration.   The   matter  of  a  presider   at   the  celebration  is ,   evidently,   not  an  issue.   Elsewhere,  Paul  has   given   a  hint   as   to  who,  in   practice,   may   have presided.   In   addressing   Philemon   he   refers   to  ‘the   church   in   your   house’  (Phm  2)   Twice,   in   alluding to  the  wife-husband    team   of   Prisca  and  Aquila,   he mentions   ‘the  church   in    their  house’  ( 1  Cor  16:19;  Rom  16:5).   In   Colossians   Paul  (or  one   in his  name)    sends  greetings  to  ‘Nympha   and  the  church   in  her  house’  (Col  4:15).    The   house   assemblies   (‘churches’)   were   no more  than common-sense   arrangements.    The initial little  Christian   groups  sought  to  gather  for  their  communal  meal  and the  Lord’s  Supper.  One member of  the  community, with   a house   of   appropriate size,   would offer hospitality.    It   is  natural   to  assume   that the  host,  or  hostess   (e.g.  Nympha)   would preside   at  the  meal   and   also,  surely,   at the  Lord’s  Supper  that  was an  integral  feature  of  it.   We  really  do not  know,  of  course.  Given,   however,   the  reality  of the house  church,   we  cannot readily   suggest  a  more   credible   alternative.   It   is   obvious,   at   any   rate,  that community   celebration   is    the   essential   factor.   The   role   of  presider   would  have been  secondary.

A  generation  or   more  after   Paul,   forms  of church  office   had   emerged.   The   pastoral   writer,    (author   of  1  Timothy   and   Titus)   instances  the   role   of   episkopos,   ‘overseer’  1   Tim  3:1-7;   Titus   1:  7-9,   as   well  as  those of   diakonos,   male   and   female  (1  Tim   3:   8-13;  see   Rom   16:1)  and   of  presbyteros,  ‘elder’  (Titus  1: 5-6).    It   is   not  easy   to   discern the  nature   of   these  offices  or where  they   differ,   as they  functioned  in  that  generation.    It   is  noteworthy   that,  in    the   whole  New   Testament,   the   term  hiereus,  ’priest’,   as   designation   of   a   community   office,   is   conspicuously   absent.    At   this   later   stage  it   is    reasonable   to suppose   that  an  episkopos   would  preside at  the  Lord’s   Supper.   Yet the   Pastoral author,  while proposing the   unfortunate model of  the   patriarchal household,   is   still    thinking   in   terms  of  household  (1  Tim  3: 4-5).   It   is   not  irrelevant to   observe   that  an   absolute   requirement  of  any  aspirant   to the   office   of   episkopos  and   diakonos   is  that  they   be married  (1  Tim  3: 4-5,  12).   On   the  other   hand,   there  clearly  could  be  no  office  requirement   which,   in   any   fashion,  curtailed   community   celebration   of    the   Lord’s   Supper.


I   think   back   to   a   time   close   to   the   opening   of   Vatican  II:  the precise  date  escapes  me.   I   listened  to  Bernard  Haring  being   interviewed   on   radio.   Already,   in   some   areas,   Christian  communities   were   without   Eucharist because no priest  was  available.   Haring  was  asked what he  thought  of   the   situation.   His   reply   was  direct and   uncompromising:   ‘The  people of  God  have   a   God-given   right  to  the   Eucharist.  On   the  basis  of human  law,  to  deprive  the  People  of   God of  the  Eucharist  is, objectively,   gravely  sinful.’   The   interviewer, obviously   taken  aback,   repeated  the   question.   Haring firmly  repeated  his  answer.  Because of the repetition,  I   recall his  words with  total  clarity   and  they have stuck   with   me.   The ‘human   law’   involved   is,  of   course,  the mandatory  requirement  of  celibacy  —   more precisely  the requirement  of maleness  and  celibacy.   Increasingly,   today,  Christian   communities   are  bereft   of  the   Eucharist.  It  is   true  that mandatory  celibacy   is not  the only  reason  for  an   acute shortage  of  priests  —  but it is  a  serious   factor.          The   basic   need   is   for   a   change   of   emphasis.   In  Paul’s   time, and   after,  the   Lord’s   Supper  was  truly  a   community   celebration;  the  emphasis   was  firmly  on  the  community.   Later, and  very  much   so   today,   the  focus  has   shifted   to  the   presider  at the Eucharist.  This is  so   much   the  case  that, in  the  Roman   church, where  there   is not   a  male  celibate  celebrant   (unless   one had,   formerly,   been   a  married   Anglican  priest!)   there  can  be no Eucharist.    A   fundamental   Christian   right  is  being   infringed.              We must  return   to this   right   of   the  community   to  the   Eucharist,   as   at  the  beginning   of   the  Church,  as   witnessed,   emphatically, by   Paul.   We   must not   continue   to   look   exclusively   to  the  presider   at  the   Eucharist.   Otherwise,  the  present  state  of  deprivation  will  persist and worsen.   In   our   current   grave and unacceptable   situation,  pious   exhortation   to   Eucharistic  devotion   rings  hollow   without  our  taking  active   steps   to  ensure   that the   community’s   right  to  the  Eucharist   is   fully   honoured.

5 Responses

  1. Eddie Finnegan

    With two venerably vibrant and intelligent presbuteroi like Fr Des Wilson and Fr Wilfrid Harrington, what need has the ACP of young vaticanophiloi, unworthy to lace or unlace their boots, or what need for embarrassment at the prevalence of greyheads, as distinct from soreheads, at the Regency on Monday? Even if I’d gained nothing else from Maynooth, I can always say I served Mass for Wilfrid in Junior Chapel in 1962.

    If Papal Legate Marc Ouellet hasn’t yet prepared his Statio Orbis homily for Croke Park, I’m sure Wilfrid Harrington will gladly lend him a copy of Paul’s Eucharistic Challenge. If Marc takes up the challenge and delivers it verbatim, he should be awarded an All-Ireland Medal together with the Sam Maguire Chalice for keeps, and the Ardagh Chalice to present to Pope Benedict.

  2. Soline Humbert

    Thank you Wilfrid for reminding us that the present Eucharistic famine with thousands of Catholic Christian communities deprived of a regular Sunday Eucharist is entirely man-made. It creates an artificial shortage where God’s love provides abundantly. It elevates the gender and marital status of the person presiding above the welfare of the community. And the sacrament of unity enshrines the discrimination against women. We have lost sight of love.

  3. Michael Simpson

    At some stage as the church expanded, it became the practice to send monks as missionaries to foreign lands. They became the leaders of the churches there and perhaps spread the monastic ideal of celibacy in the priests they ordained as a result of their missionary role making their movement about the lands easier to accomplish than married clergy. Is there any parallel within the Eastern Church?

  4. Fergus P Egan

    Wilfrid Harrington OP: “Even though the ritual words were said the lack of love meant that in reality there was no Eucharist. The essence of Paul’s reaction is that there can be no Eucharist in a community whose members do not love one another. Eucharistic celebration ought to be a manifest witness to unity. Paul’s view that, where such is not the case there is no Eucharist, should make us ponder.”

    This is so true. And is reflected in a JP II encyclical on the Eucharist in which is stated (I paraphrase) “to receive communion, there must first be communion.”

    A problem arises when there is a separation of the Real Presence from a loving fellowship of the community (com-unity). The Eucharist, in the form of the communion host in the tabernacle, could be relegated to the role of amulet – like An Cathach of Clan O Domhnaill. God’s presence could thus be presented to worthy worshippers, or withheld from the unworthy or otherwise manipulated. I question if in extreme cases (as when Communion was given to soldiers in Vietnam prior to bombing civilians) if the outward sign of the sacrament, while intact in appearance, is actually separated from the inner Sacrament. And hence, the Real Presence may not actually be present. “…the lack of love meant that in reality there was no Eucharist.”

    Harrington continues: “ In our current grave and unacceptable situation, pious exhortation to Eucharistic devotion rings hollow without our taking active steps to ensure that the community’s right to the Eucharist is fully honoured.”

    This is so true.
    But there is a power in being able to manipulate location and availability of God’s Presence.

  5. Joe O'Leary

    “”Even though the ritual words were said the lack of love meant that in reality there was no Eucharist.” That is the very thesis that got Ernesto Buonaiuti into hot water, making him the most excommunicated priest of the 20th century.