(This is Neil.) An article in the March 2007 New Blackfriars, written by the Jesuit theologian Michael McGuckian, is ambitiously titled “The Eucharist in the West.” Fortunately, Fr McGuckian tells us that he wants to “concentrate on one particular issue, the development of the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharistic elements and the correlative development of devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.” Why this issue? Unsurprisingly, Fr McGuckian notes that “this aspect of our Western Eucharistic experience is what most clearly distinguishes us from our Eastern brethren.” It might seem strange to suggest that medieval controversies can explain divergences centuries later, and, indeed, Fr McGuckian goes on to say that there are two root causes for the distinctiveness of “our Western Eucharistic experience.”
But we must start in the medieval period. What happened? It was in the West –near Amiens, in the north of France, actually – that a debate about the presence of Christ in the consecrated elements began in the ninth century. Paschase Radbert of the abbey of Corbie wrote the treatise De corpore et sanguine Domini, which can fairly be called literalistic, physicalistic, and even exaggeratedly realistic in its account of the Eucharistic presence. So another monk of Corbie, Ratramn, argued, going too far in the opposite direction, that the Eucharistic presence was “in mystery,” “in figure,” but not “in truth.” The discussion, needless to say, continued.
In 1079, Berengar of Tours, who had earlier brought Aristotle and his category of “substance” into the discussion, was forced to sign a profession of faith in which he acknowledged that the bread and wine were “substantially changed.” The term transubstantiation would be used in the profession of faith prescribed to Cathars and Albigensians at the Fourth Lateran Council, and, in the sixteenth century, this term, transubstantiation, was declared to be aptissime by the Council of Trent.
The history of devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, says Fr McGuckian, occurs correlatively. In the first millennium (generally speaking, of course), “the Eucharist was understood dynamically and, in common with all the other sacraments, the focus was on its effect in the sanctification of the people.” In the eleventh century, the heightened attention given to Eucharistic realism, and a decline in lay participation in the Eucharist, meant that the host tended to be adored, rather than consumed. In 1264, the feast of Corpus Christi began and processions and Benediction eventually led to the practice of Perpetual Adoration. Of course, the Reformation-era controversies only intensified the devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.
Fr McGuckian wishes to make two points with his quick historical summary (otherwise, needless to say, it would have to be longer and more complex). First, “there has been no corresponding development in the East.” Second, our devotion to the real presence of Christ in the sacrament has often indirectly caused the neglect of his presence elsewhere in the liturgy – in the gathered people, the proclaimed Word, and the presence of the Bishop. There has even been a “tendency of this devotion to break loose from the liturgy of the Church.” These things, I think that it is safe to say, have been discussed at length before.
A question, I think, remains: Is this medieval history of theological controversy, while perhaps necessary, really sufficient to explain the continuing distinctiveness of Western Eucharistic experience, and its more obvious difficulties?
Fr McGuckian wants to say that there are “two other aspects of Christ’s presence which would seem to be even more fundamental,” and (implicitly answering our question) goes on to say, “the different experience in the West in these areas might help to explain this particular emphasis on Christ’s presence in the Eucharist in the Western Church.”
First, “The most fundamental ‘real’ presence of Christ is in his own actual risen body in heaven, and there is doubt about the depth of our Western awareness of this primary presence of Christ in his risen body in heaven, from which the Eucharistic presence derives.” He praises the renewal of the Holy Week liturgy in the 1950s, but, tellingly, “it never really caught on as we would wish.”
This, unfortunately, means that Roman Catholics have tended to possess an attenuated sense of the reality of heavenly liturgy and the communion of saints. This is in decided contrast to the East – where the story of the Prince of Kiev’s emissaries coming to Santa Sophia in Constantinople and later claiming, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth,” is rather well-known. Fr McGuckian notes the multitude of icons in an Eastern Church. I can refer you to an earlier post of mine, where I quoted Bishop Kallistos, “through the icons the members of the Church in heaven become active participants in our earthly worship, while the walls of the church building open out into eternity.”
Most Western churches, in contrast, focus attention on the Crucifix, the Stations of the Cross, and an image of the Madonna and Child. There is “no clear reference whatever to the reality of the life of heaven.” Fr McGuckian says, “The suggestion being made here is that this lack of a sense of the heavenly liturgy is a contributing cause of the Western focus on the presence of Christ in the sacrament, and that our devotion to the Blessed Sacrament does nothing to overcome the lack.” That devotion seems to intensify our interest and reverence of the earthly Jesus, but not the risen Christ seated at the Father’s right hand. (McGuckian does acknowledge the mention of “heavenly liturgy” in church documents – presumably it never “caught on” either.)
Second, Fr McGuckian (referencing Yves Congar and Vladimir Lossky), writes, “Eastern theology never forgets the role of Christ and the Holy Spirit in the Church, whereas we in the West, on the other hand, have been forgetting it all the time.” This remains true despite the efforts of the Tübingen school of the 19th century and the renewed attention paid to the “mystical Body” in the 20th century. McGuckian recalls the researches of Henri de Lubac, who claimed that until 1050 the Church was referred to as corpus verum, and the Eucharist was called corpus mysticum. Then they reversed, signaling a real loss of sense of mystery in the Church.
But Fr McGuckian notes that Western theologians, even in the patristic era, tended to emphasize the sinfulness of the Church because of controversies. Augustine, against the Pelagians, emphasized that “the bride without spot or stain” will only be revealed in heaven. When his disciple, Faustus of Riez, argued against the Macedonians who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit by noting its seemingly equivalent place in the creed to the obviously human Church, he emphasized that the Church is human but asserted that, grammatically speaking, we never say we believe in the Church.
Furthermore, in the East, the bishops concentrated on spiritual affairs, especially since they were usually monks. In the West, the bishops became heavily invested in secular affairs, and the institutional church became the site of political struggle that inevitably “forced the sense of the mystery to atrophy and die.” The very idea of the “mystery of the Church” subsequently became a polemical point used against the institutional Catholic Church by various reformers, who themselves often identified this “mystery” with a “hidden” church of true believers. The Catholic Church subsequently “kept such a tight grip on the institution that there was no room left for the mystery.”
And, so, Fr McGuckian writes, “this loss of the sense of the mystery of Christ’s presence in the Church encouraged our concentration on his presence in the Blessed Sacrament. The Church, for us, has been a focus of disunity, and failing to find our consolation in the presence of Christ through his Holy Spirit in the Church we sought our peace in the Blessed Sacrament, and this has led to an imbalance in our spirituality.”
What to do? I suspect that there are two options:
We can agree with Fr McGuckian’s observations about the distinctiveness of the Western Eucharistic experience, but disagree with his conclusion. We can suggest that the devotion to the Blessed Sacrament successfully plays the same role in the West that the sense of the heavenly liturgy and the mystery of the Church have historically played in the East. But is this persuasive?
We can agree more completely with Fr McGuckian and conclude that we need to increase our awareness of the reality of the heavenly liturgy and the role of Christ and the Holy Spirit in the Church. The next question, then, has to do with exactly how we would do this …
Comments are always welcome.
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