The Eucharist in the West

(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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Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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19 Responses to The Eucharist in the West

  1. Liam says:

    A clarification: “In the eleventh century, the heightened attention given to Eucharistic realism, and a decline in lay participation in the Eucharist…” seems to link the two, whereas the evidence as I recall it is that the decline in participation antedates the heightening of Eucharistic realism by some centuries. If anything, the heightening of Eucharistic realism led (in a juridically zesty period of time) to requirements of at least a minimal amount of Eucharistic participation by the faithful (the Easter duty, which is about communion, not confession as such). As I noted in the earlier thread, one can question whether the Church was sufficiently ambitious in its legislation at the time, but one cannot lay the blame for non-communication at the feet of Eucharistic realism.

    As for the other things, one must refer to the development of individualism in the 11th-13th centuries, and the special modelling of Francis of Assisi (and other mystical preachers, who were many in this period of religious revival in the West) as an alter Christus and their effects on spiritual and liturgical sensibilities. And the troubles of the 14th century deepened this, and became balm for the faithful.

    It has long been said that western Christianity tends to emphasis the unity of the Trinity – by collapsing it into Christ – a feature that was accelerated by the example of Francis and others. Pace Fr McGuckian, it’s not CHrist’s presence in the Church that get’s lost in the West bu that of the Father and the Holy Spirit. We are Christ-haunted, to use Flannery O’Connor’s apt phrase. On the other hand, eastern CHristianity has long been said to emphasize the threeness of the Trinity, and that is not a bed of roses either.

    I do wonder whether it’s helpful to talk of the East and West as monolithically uniform, though. The East in particular would cover churches extending from Abyssinia to India and central China – with a lot of variation.

    As for the monks concentrating on spiritual affairs in the East: uhm, well, not quite uniformly. There were lots of busy monks in eastern lands. They exercised a lot of political power. Bishops, remember, had to be monks, too.

    Anyway, I can offer one speculation about the heavenly orientation of liturgies in the eastern Mediterranean: there’s an economic/demographic factor. In the centuries of greatest liturgical systemization – the middle and late 1st millennium – most of the western Church was in economic decline and demographic chaos. Whereas the East was far more prosperous. Even the Islamic onslaught still allowed a few centuries of prosperous development of conquered churches there (it normally took 2-3 centuries for CHristian areas to become majority-Muslim, and vice-versa upon reconquest). This allowed the churches and liturgies of the East to be much more splendid than those in the West. Rome itself was sacked on numerous occasions after AD 410. COnstantinople held out until 1204. The West faced invasions from Germanic peoples (4th-6th centuries and again in the 9th and 10th centuries in the form of the Vikings), Arabs (not only Iberia but also Italy and France, and coastal raids further north), and Asiatic peoples at the fringe (most notably the Magyars in the 10th century). The East, other than the Arab onslaught, mainly had to deal with Slavs (6th-10th centuries) and Asiatic peoples (the Turks eventually being the most important of these) but it was in the interest of those peoples to maintain the goose that was laying golden eggs.

    In any event, I would caution against viewing the eastern experience through the lense of Henry Higgins (“Why can’t a Catholic…be more like an Orthodox?”)

    I would also suggest that the benefit of the Catholic understanding the temporal sinfulness of the Church – that God’s chosen are often crucified in turn by the Body of Christ in the form of the Church – has long been a rich source of spiritual wisdom in for western Christians. It’s been the source of great vitality.

    Anyway, I am rambling on. I’ll stop.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Thanks for writing. I’ll try to quickly respond to your major points (I really should get out of the office):

    1. I do not have statistics on Eucharistic reception in the Medieval period. My sense is that the heightened emphasis on the Eucharistic presence contributed to what Timothy Thibodeau, in the Oxford History of Christian Worship (2006), calls “the reification of the eucharist into a sacred object or relic par excellence of Christ’s body, to be seen, reverenced, and adored but not regularly received at communion.”

    Thibodeau speaks of the promulgation of the Feast of Corpus Christ as a universal feast of the Latin Church in the 13th century “which threatened to undermine the celebration of the eucharist within the context of the mass.” He then says about this paraliturgical celebration characterized by processions with the Eucharist as a sacred center, surrounded by clerics, “The piety associated with Corpus Christi must be viewed against the backdrop of powerful trends in medieval Christianity that reach back to the era of papal and monastic reform: the ‘sacerdotalism’ of the twelfth and thirteenth-century Church, and the ‘high’ eucharistic theology generated by centuries of eucharistic controversies and devotions.”

    I trust that Thibodeau reflects scholarly consensus, since his essay is in a meant-to-be-standard reference work. If so, it would seem legitimate for me to suggest, following McGuckian, that ‘high’ Eucharistic theology did contribute to the view that ‘seeing’ the host was an “acceptable substitute for ‘receiving’ it.”

    2. I see no necessary reason to disagree with Thibodeau’s opinion that the Fourth Lateran Council, which emphasized Eucharistic theology even as it mandated the reception of communion only once (!) a year, at least foreshadows the view that the Eucharistic was essentially a holy object, consecrated by an ordained priest, that should be, more often than not, adored rather than received.

    3. Thibodeau, and others, do acknowledge that the high Eucharistic theology was “propelled by the intense personal devotion of some of the mendicants, principally Francis of Assisi …” The visions of Juliana of Liege are essential for the story of Corpus Christi.

    But I don’t see how this would change my narrative. It might add a certain fullness if I wanted to go over 1500 words.

    4. Your claim about Western Christianity has tended to collapse the Trinity into Christ, neglecting the Father and the Spirit is probably true (“Christomonism,” as Congar said). But it doesn’t negate the suggestion that Western Christianity has also neglected the presence of Christ in the gathered assembly.

    For instance (if I may leap out the medieval period), Fr Robert J. Daly, SJ, has suggested that the post-Tridentine Eucharistic theology of Robert Bellarmine suffers from a “lack of trinitarian perspective and massive overemphasis on the christological perspective; no mention of the role of the Holy Spirit; no statement that the Eucharistic Prayer is addressed to the Father.”

    BUT he goes on to critique Bellarmine’s Eucharistic theology, suggesting that it ALSO suffers from “minimal awareness of the ultimate (or eschatological) goal of the Eucharist, namely the reorienting transformation of the participants in the direction of the dispositions of Christ. So much emphasis was put on the real presence of the Body and Blood of Christ, so much emphasis put on verifying a real–or at least symbolic (but with graphically real descriptors)–destruction of the victim that the real goal and ultimate reality of the Eucharist–transformation into Christ–was obscured.”

    5. I didn’t mean to suggest that East and West were “monolithically uniform.” For the purpose of this short post, though, I think that it is alright to speak of the “Western eucharistic experience” in distinction from that of the East. As Robert Taft, SJ, has written (I’ll post on his article next week), the Western practice of devotion to the Blessed Sacrament – which, for Catholics, is very common, if not universal – really doesn’t have an exact parallel in the East anywhere.

    6. I don’t think that the economic/demographic theory is wholly convincing as you put it. The period from, say, 1000 to the climate change in the 1300s, was not a period of “economic decline and demographic chaos” in the West.

    7. I’m confused about your “Henry Higgins” statement.

    8. One can, I think, speak of the presence of Christ in the gathered assembly in such a way that the wounds of the Church then appear in their true enormity and irrationality. I don’t think that it would mean losing a proper sense of the sinfulness of the Church.

    Please correct me if you think that I’ve made any sort of mistake in the above.

    Thanks again.


  3. Liam says:


    Two basic mistakes in reading my comment: The period of decline in the West was in the middle and later first millennium, as I noted (while that was not true in the East, and may help explain the different development of liturgical emphases). And it is to that period that the decline in lay participation in the Eucharist and the general decline in understanding of the presence of Christ in the People would be placed. The period that followed – to which you refer in your response – was a period of revival. Even a very very modest revival in emphasis on participation in communion. But it was long after the basic liturgical structure of the western liturgy had been formed – it was largely systematized during a period of decline and chaos, in contrast to the East.

    One may indeed regret that what was lost centuries before the 13th century was not revived with the revival of the time but instead a development occurred. But it would be mistaken to attribute the earlier loss to the later development, which I fear is what is being done. The development is not the enemy and does not need to be overcome to recover what was lost. False diagnosis, false prescription.

  4. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Thanks again.

    We can certainly talk of important liturgical change in the preceding centuries, especially Charlemagne’s renovatio. But it did not proceed directly from chaos, but rather the desire for centralization and liturgical uniformity.

    We can also suggest that we do see individualism, the professonalization of the liturgy, and the infrequency of lay communion during this earlier period (Fr Michael Driscoll, in his account, reminds us that St Boniface recommended that people receive communion on Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost).

    But at least some of these tendencies (‘high’ Eucharistic theology, ‘sacerdotalism,’ so to speak) seem to be intensified during the later Middle Ages, when – as Driscoll also writes – “actual reception would be completely replaced by spiritual ocular communion.” The only evidence of “revival” in lay participation that you have given is the Fourth Lateran Council’s mandate that the Eucharist be received a single time every year. As I’ve written, I don’t see this as evidence of “revival” at all. The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries seem to be the times of paraliturgical celebrations, when the Eucharist would be at the sacred center of processions as the holy object par excellence – once more, seen and not consumed.

    I do not mean to demonize the Middle Ages or to suggest that we somehow try to erase it from liturgical history. But we do need to interrogate our past. The question that Fr McGuckian was raising is whether these developments have occurred – and, more importantly, continued – because the West has historically lacked awareness of the heavenly liturgy and the presence of Christ in the Church. Is that part of the background here?

    If that is the case (and we can talk about whether that is the case), then we should try to figure out how – with caution, of course – to increase that awareness, especially since Sacrosanctum Concilium mentions both the reality of heavenly liturgy and the presence of Christ in the gathered assembly.

    I’m writing this quickly, so please forgive a little unclarity …


  5. Liam says:


    I’ve already more that suggested that the revival of the high middle ages was not primarily directed at lay participation in the Eucharist. It is interesting that the juridical revival of the period did take at least that barest of notice of it – it did not leave it entirely alone. But the decline in participation had happened centuries earlier. Not the minimal participation that Boniface merely recommended in the 8th century, before the Viking onslaught (and the Vikings penetrated up almost every navigable river in western and much of eastern Europe – plundering and taking slaves and destroying churches; you needed to live in the mountains, far afield of navigable rivers to be safe assured, as it were; btw, Arab and Moorish pirates likewise took tens of thousands of slaves in a similar fashion in southern and western Europe).

    This is all *before* the rise of individualism and Eucharistic devotion. The supposition in the writings has been that those things *caused* the decline in lay participation. I just think that’s tenable, and I also think the implied corollary one can see in practical liturgical battles in parishes in the past generation (which I have witnessed personally, and I am far from alone) – that Eucharistic devotion is an obstacle to understanding the Presence of Christ in His People – is not only at odds with Church teaching but with the historical record. I instead would suggest that Eucharistic devotion and Pius X’s sacramental revolution have allowed us to begin to recover the sense of that Presence. It takes time. It takes generations. We should encourage it, welcome it, not drag it along at our preferred speed.

    As for the heavenly liturgy, the sense of it seems to have evaporated in much of the West during that tumultuous period of late antiquity and the early middle ages. Even Charlemagne’s renovatio was a flash in the pan; mind you, it is a perennial chestnut of historians about whether to treat Charlemagne as the last echo of antiquity (and the Ottonians as the first really “European” dynamos) or the first dynamo of the European middle ages. If one views Charlemagne in parallel to the papacy, one would see that the papacy in the 8th century was sowing seeds for things, but was still harvesting the traditions of antiquity (all those Greco-Syrian popes, after all…). After Charlemagne, with the exception of Nicholas I, the papacy becomes a debased plaything until the Ottonians start to pay more attention to it. And it’s during this time that European vernacular languages start to take formal shape (from Romance and Germanic dialects).

    With the Ottonians and revivals in northern Iberia and southern Gaul during the later 10th century, one sees the first glimpse of heavenly liturgy in systematic programs – huge cathedrals and pilgrimage churches (eventually vaster than anything in the East except for Hagia Sophia and Kiev – Kiev in its heyday being more important and vital than Paris at the same time). Lavish calligraphy and liturgical furnishings. Decorative arts – mural paintings and carvings. The start of stained glass. Statuary (here, a big difference in traditions because of the legacy of iconoclasm in the East).

    And that last category, statuary, became the medium for the revival of classical naturalism in the 13th century by the Pisani family in Tuscany, then the school of Rome, et cet. That development – and the development of Incarnational theology along with Eucharistic theology, and the vital bridging of those by the mendicant orders – led to the west highlighting how Heaven came down to earth, rather than the eastern tradition of highlighting how earth was drawn up to Heaven.

    It’s two lungs. Both work. I think the western tradition has actually helped unleash the presence of Christ in His People. One could even say, in light of the Reformation, perhaps too much?!

  6. Liam says:

    *not* tenable. SOrry for the many typos. I sliced the tip off my right middle finger, and can’t type well.

  7. Liam says:

    Actually, I also reversed the heaven/earth metaphorical distinction. That’s what I get when I type faster than I think. The emphasis in Western art and devotions became focused on how Creation was redeemed and glorified in CHrist, and, not unimportantly, through Mary’s cooperation (this is where the Immaculate Conception became an important topic and battleground between Dominicans and Franciscans – the Franciscans emphasizing on seeing Creation as God redeemed it and became part of it, et cet.) Consequently, there was less need to emphasis the otherness of Heaven. This is also a testament to the sense of Presence in the People of God.

  8. I won’t comment on the excellent colloquium that precedes this contribution, it speaks for itself–but back to the “what to do” question from the original post, I would say that what currently seems to be happening — a gradual, cautious rapproachment between East and West — is what to do.

    The West seems far less “cautious” in some ways, but moreso than in others: the East says, “reconsider some of your dogmatic assertions,” and the West says, “we can’t do that! while the West says, “y’all just come back in the room!” and the East is saying, “hold on while we talk over here…”

    But at least, the West is paying more attention to the East, and perhaps someday the wounds of the past will finally start to heal over so they aren’t so tender. And who can say what fruit the daring initiative of John Paul — to rethink the Petrine ministry — may not bear in the future?

  9. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Thanks for writing again and at such length. I’m very sorry to hear about your finger and hope that you are healing quickly.

    Can I take this opportunity to clarify things? My original post was meant to be relatively modest (McGuckian’s article is itself rather short). Would you disagree with any of the following three statements? Of course, we can talk about specifics later.

    1. In the late medieval period, in part (but doubtless not completely) because of theological developments, the Eucharist was regarded as the holy object par excellence, and ocular spiritual communion largely replaced actual reception.

    2. The Western Eucharistic experience has had historical difficulties cultivating an awareness of Christ’s presences in the gathered assembly, bishop, proclamation of the Word, and (substantially) in the Eucharist. The problem has generally been one of “imbalance.”

    3. Although Western piety has emphasized the Incarnation and Jesus’ death on the Cross, it hasn’t, for the most part, cultivated an awareness of the presence of Christ’s Risen Body in heaven.

    Are we in agreement about just these three? Thanks.

    I’d also like to thank Fr Fox for his comment – we should all try to work, I think, for a “gradual, cautious rapprochement.” I’d be curious to know if Fr Fox has been able to incorporate Eastern theology or spiritual practices in a Roman Catholic parish setting at all – perhaps the Jesus Prayer, or using Fr Schmemann’s sermons as inspiration for your own sermons, or something else.

    Must run.


  10. Liam says:


    “1. In the late medieval period, in part (but doubtless not completely) because of theological developments, the Eucharist was regarded as the holy object par excellence, and ocular spiritual communion largely replaced actual reception.”

    This is equivocal and misleading. The last clause may be errroneously read to flow from the preceding clauses. The laspe in actual reception long predated the theological developments. That’s what I’ve been hammering on and seems as yet to be elided here. One may state that the revival of the period failed to revive the emphasis on actual reception that lasped with late antiquity, but did revive appreciation for the Eucharist via spiritual communion and corporate paraliturgical and devotional life.

    See the difference?

    “2. The Western Eucharistic experience has had historical difficulties cultivating an awareness of Christ’s presences in the gathered assembly, bishop, proclamation of the Word, and (substantially) in the Eucharist. The problem has generally been one of “imbalance.” ”

    I don’t think the Western Eucharistic experience has had much trouble in cultivating awareness of CHrist’s presences substantially in the Eucharist qua Blessed Sacrament – I assume you mean in the Eucharist qua Divine Liturgy. And that equivocation does help demonstrate the imbalance. But imbalance is comparitive, and there are temporal and qualitative issues about what the comparison is with respect to. If the East or an idealized 4th century liturgy is the default comparison, I think that is a reification that disserves to both traditions and organic development.

    “3. Although Western piety has emphasized the Incarnation and Jesus’ death on the Cross, it hasn’t, for the most part, cultivated an awareness of the presence of Christ’s Risen Body in heaven.”

    Yes mostly, but not completely – I would hedge “most part” more for reasons I that are as yet pre-verbal and would take too much time here to verbalise. “In good part” is probably closer to where I’d instinctively take that statement. I still remember encountering supposedly educated Catholics who believe that Jesus can come again as a women because he stopped being a man after the Ascension.

    Just as the East has a natural wariness of incorporating Western traditions on a cafeteria-like basis into their way of being – are we likewise commending the Rosary to our Eastern brethren? – so too the West should avoid its habit of intellectual and cultural tourism by choosing to ape traditions from the East ad hoc without fully understanding what is being done in the process. Rapprochment is unlikely to proceed durably on a academic theoretical basis, where we see a deficiency here and by comparative examination find a solution over there and try to incorporate it here.

    I happen to think we are only a century into the wake of Pius X sacramental revolution. While not a blip on the radar screen, in terms of developments it’s a relatively short time. It’s still working its way through things.

    I do think that a catechetical emphasis on Patristics – something the current pope does quite well – would plant long-term fruitful seeds. That, unfortunately, is not likely to happen because many of the people most likely in a position to do that work are more interested in deconstructing the Father’s writings or reading such perspectives than encountering the Fathers unencumbered by anachronisms.

    Can you imagine Catholic kids reading select passages from the Cappadocian Fathers (let alone Ambrose, Leo and Gregory of Rome) in preparation for Confirmation?

    You couldn’t either? They’d be lucky to be treated to portions of Augustine’s Confessions.

    And Augustine is the 800 lb gorilla in the room in terms of rapprochment.

  11. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Thanks again.

    What I have read has suggested that the late medieval “appreciation for the Eucharist via spiritual communion and corporate paraliturgical and devotional life” helped continue and even intensify the decline in actual reception of the Eucharist because of its suggestion of ocular spiritual communion as a substitute. It was a *causative* factor. I am not sure of any evidence that would suggest the contrary.

    My sense is that the West has tended to dichotomize Christ’s presences. If I may use present-day examples, the tendency to emphasize Christ’s presence in the gathered assembly leads to charges of “autocelebration.” The tendency to emphasize Christ’s substantial presence in the Eucharist results in worries by (say) Sister Kubicki and Sister Susan Wood that we will remain “stuck” at the Real Presence and lose the sense of the “presence of an absence” that only ends in the fulfillment of the Eucharistic mystery when the baptized themselves truly become the Body of Christ. Both charges, I think, carry some weight.

    The danger of “imbalance” is with us, I think, without any need for a default comparison. I believe that it does have long historical roots.

    Regarding the East and West, we read the same Holy Scriptures and revere many of the same Councils, so we can certainly hold one another accountable. To take your example of the Rosary, Pope John Paul II, in Rosarium Virginis Mariae, suggested that the Rosary and the Eastern Jesus Prayer “correspond” to one another as forms of “meditative prayer.” For example, he associates the rhythmic nature of the Rosary to the “rhythm of breathing” in the Jesus Prayer. This would mean that practitioners of the Rosary and Jesus Prayer, connected by their Christological meditation, should be able to help one another, and, even, at times, correct one another. I don’t see any necessary reason why certain Eastern Christians should avoid the Rosary if it should prove to be helpful.

    I think that a catechetical emphasis on Patristics would be a good thing. We can talk about Augustine perhaps at another time.


  12. Liam says:


    My sense is that what you have read suggesting causation (as opposed to failed recovery via substitution) are based on weak historic scholarship. I no longer have any access to the kind of primary source-based materials for my sense, but it comes from my immersion in early medieval history. Doesn’t make me an expert, but my proposition to you would be: deeply distrust those suggestions unless you see discussions of evidence for high participation during the preceding period of late antiquity and the early middle ages. Unfortunately, a lot of scholars who specialise in small aspects of larger historical threads tend to make assumptions without consulting deeper information outside their immediate scope. This seems especially true of late antiquity and the early medieval period; I am constantly struck to this day on how many otherwise learned scholars continue to rely upon poor assumptions about those periods.

    As for the dichomization you illustrate, I have certainly witnessed the dynamic from the perspective of poorly understood interrelationships about the presences of Christ – sincere and well meaning in most respects, but mingled with woolly or mechanistic thinking where those trying to catechise the faithful about the presences of Christ aside from the Blessed Sacrament did it in ways the betrayed a lack of depth and complexity. For example, the condescension and even contempt poured out about and upon faithful desiring Eucharistic devotions. While pockets of this behavior reportedly still exist, I do believe the worst of that dynamic is past us (at least in the US). Now we are in the reaction to it, which will take time to absorb and correct in turn.

    I guess I have questions for you: what diagnostic tools would you use or recommend be developed to determine how the desired balance is being achieved or not achieved? What does “balance” *necessarily* look like when we are in the Land of Balance? Are diagnosis and evaluation appropriate, or are they symptoms of the Cartesian alienation of mind from experience? (That question is not rhetorical; it is sincere – I don’t have a set answer to it, only a wonder that comes from being aware that asking the right question is a key…) Is the problem resolvable in a way that we can know it is being resolved? If not, the only point of asking would be for cultivating self-awareness; which may be good enough, but we should be aware of that purpose to the question, because a lot of people would expect that such a question *would* have tangible answers and a process to get to them and they would need to be disabused of that expectation.

    As for prayers: You read well where I was coming from (yes, JP2’s connection – which I’ve read criticisms of from an Eastern perspective, and those I channelled into my question). I offer the Jesus prayer (but not as a meditative window – thus I use it for a different purpose than it is classically intended and as such betray my Western identity…) daily, but rarely pray the Rosary (I prefer the Angelus to the Rosary). Meditative prayer is not a place where I grow or am well; it’s just my way of being is different. My neurons just fire too much due to synaesthesia – I receive a lot of involuntary sensory input that other people can tune out more easily. Even in hypnosis and sleep (I am a very light sleeper – I used to sleep walk and sleep with my eyes open), I don’t get to stillness. I’ve determined that God can get through all that input without my working at meditating; the working at meditating in fact destroys the meditation. And I am hardly alone – there’s a lot of people out there who are in the closet about their lack of suitability for meditative prayer, and actually I think the Catholic tradition has been very accommodating for us, because it never fully embraced the Eastern norm of the agonistic meditative/contemplative monastic as the benchmark for the faithful. And, with the counter-Reformation saints (Ignatius, Philip Neri, Francis de Sales, Jane Chantal), Catholicism made huge strides in embracing ordinary active life as a fruitful medium for spirituality.

  13. Liam says:

    Here’s a fun question I was thinking of as I was preparing for Mass this morning: Should we lock the doors of the church (from the outside only) at the beginning of the liturgy (unfortunately, fire codes prevent us from locking from the inside through the liturgy) with the understanding that the faithful’s presence throughout the entire liturgy is a sign of the Lord’s Presence? A sign that is muddled by arriving late?

    Catholicism, you see, took a juridical approach to this, actually in an effort to *lower* the burdens on the faithful (and it is of course interesting how it is often perceived to be the opposite purpose – a viewpoint that betrays its limitations). Come as and when you reasonably can: confess your lateness, but that’s better than having to confess the grave sin of missing Mass entirely. Then there were all those questions about how to define late, which the Church actually defined more generously for centuries before the current practice was adopted in the past 2 generations.

    The emphasis in the East on agonistic spirituality (battling like Olympian spiritual athletes with the forces of darkness) was gradually lost during the transition high Middle Ages and displaced by a juridical emphasis in the West. Both have individualistic dimensions, btw, just manifested differently. The Western approach actually sets lower expectations for the faithful. And that is where there is a large disconnect from the Jesus of “But I say” – where the western Church settled for the minimisation of vice and cultivation of virtue (which the Pharisees would have applauded) instead of theosis.

    I think there you will find the source of the problem, not in liturgical developments as such.

  14. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Thanks again for writing.

    I suppose that I should try to post more on the Eucharist in the late medieval period and perhaps you can then comment more directly on the historical scholarship. I haven’t at all been struck by the low quality of what I have read. (I’m afraid that we’re going in circles here).

    Regarding my “diagnostic tools” to identify “balance” in one consideration of Christ’s presences in the gathered assembly and (substantially) in the Eucharist, I would perhaps cautiously suggest two things. As I have written before, when speaking with others, we should not notice a tendency to dichotomize the presences. Second, we all should grasp – even if our grasp is unconscious or implicit – the logic behind John Paul II’s statement in Mane Nobiscum Domine that our mutual love and collective concern for those in need “will be the criterion by which the authenticity of our Eucharistic celebrations is judged.”

    I doubt that anyone would suggest that one particular form of prayer is required. I believe that the question is merely whether one has some way to be present to the Lord.

    I’ve also heard that the juridical emphasis in the West might have set “lower expectations” for the faithful. But I really have nothing terribly interesting to say about that. Maybe later.


  15. Liam says:


    Thanks for bearing with me in our circles. A couple of points:

    1. If we explore materials about the high/late medieval period that stipulate a decline in lay participation without a discussion of evidence of high participation in the preceding periods (that is, the early medieval period and perhaps late antiquity), then my concern about assumptions will be very much at the forefront of my questions. I would need there to be some clear trend evidence that is not too localized (for example, not just something like Cluny in the 10th century) that participation was indeed high, so that decline is not merely assumed but demonstated. Then one can begin to fight over causalities; but absent demonstration of the predicate, there’s no causality to fight over. (I don’t have any access to the libraries I had in college and law school, so I am of no assistance here; my own public library is pretty poor. I keep abreast of things, buy many books, read the notes and from there try to get a sense of important monographs, but I am not as on top of things as I would like. That said, I’ve seen or read little that seems to anything like general high participation in, let’s say, the second half of the first millennium in western Christendom.)

    2. I indeed embrace the standard of mutual love and collective concern for those in need. My only problem with it is that it does not seem to correlate to how the Presences of Christ are taught to, or embraced by, the congregation. So I am not sure how it will be relevant to the issue you raised. Now, I understand how, in theory, it ostensibly should correlate; but, in my experience and what I’ve read, there does not appear to be causal correlation. The blatant counter-intuitive examples: Dorothy Day and Bl Theresa of Calcutta both were clearly weaned on preconciliar emphases on that Presence, and vast apostolates were similarly weaned and grown on it; while I’ve certainly noticed a tendency among communities that I’ve been in that emphasize the non-sacramental Presences to see their apostolates and care decline. Now, I am not positing a causal inverse correlation, either – but I do scratch my head when people get their expectations up that one thing will likely need to the other, as it were. Anyway, my approach to emphasizing all the Presences is simply that they are True, not because doing so will necessarily lead to any particular desireable result. You see the difference?

  16. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Sorry for taking a while to get back to you. To clarify:

    1. My contention (and, more importantly, those of my sources) does not require evidence of high participation in the period preceding the 13th and 14th centuries. It would suggest that low rates of participation were sustained and exacerbated by theological currents that espoused spiritual ocular communion with a holy object par excellence.

    I’ll try to post more about this when I get a chance.

    2. I would not ever say that preconciliar Catholicism failed to produce saints. My sense, though (and I would need more proof of this), is that the preconciliar Eucharist nourished holiness on an individual level. The res sacramenti – the *unity* of the Church would be less detectable, I think.

    Obviously, one should emphasize the Presences because they are true, not for any instrumental reason. But our awareness of the Presences should, I think, produce recognizable fruits. Hence, my “diagnostics,” at your request.



  17. Liam says:


    Thanks for the response, but I think the hypothesis that “low rates of participation were sustained *and exacerbated* by theological currents that espoused spiritual ocular communion with a holy object par excellence” without evidence of preceding high participation is not worth much, as it would them seem in part to be assuming what it’s purporting to prove (especially the “exacerbating” part, and even “sustained” would need to be teased out to avoid equivocation). (I would have less problems with a more limited hypothesis – I even offered a version thereof that was less problematic but for the same reason would be much less juicy for us to chew over ). So I would yet raise that issue first and foremost, just for sheer historical probity. And yes I am very aware that fine scholars can and do fall into this trap, especially when implied predicates fall outside their particular time of expertise, and reviewers these days often fail to call them out on it.

    As for the preconciliar Eucharist nourishing more on an individual level, that is my own personal instinctual sense … but … my historian’s critical voice tells me that it’s easier again to assume what we want to prove than to actually prove it. That voice says to me: are individual Catholics in, let’s say, the US today more socially networked and interwoven and fruitful on a non-individual level than, let’s say, 60 years ago? On many objective scores, probably not, and often far less. (Of course, I have seen people impliedly define “individualistic” in a way that includes things like families and localities, in other words, that only trans-local interactions count as truly social because they are more altruistic; which implication is deeply questionable.) In fact, there are them who say such things are proof that the postconciliar Eucharist is a pale reflection of the preconciliar, which I believe is wrong and it misattributes causality that should be laid at the feet of demographic changes.

    Which makes me wonder, given the existence of variables like demographic changes that occurred simultaneously with the shift in liturgical emphases, how on earth could one credibly prove anything causal from that shift? The elegance of the theory is not proof of its fruitfulness, as it were.

    Again, many thanks for kindly bearing with my crotchety critical eye, as it were.


  18. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    I think that the best thing for me to do at this point is to post some follow-up posts that look at primary sources (or closer analyses of them).

    So, more later.


  19. Pingback: “The Liturgy summons us into a new world”: Eschatology and the Byzantine Liturgy « Catholic Sensibility

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