You Really Believe that?

Dating from the Middle Ages, this feast seems to duplicate the liturgy of Holy Thursday but also looks forward to the weekly eucharistic celebrations of ordinary time. It is often celebrated with a festive procession, which can symbolize our need for the Eucharist in our own pilgrimage. Three themes permeate the readings: the Eucharist as blessing or praise of God (action of Melchizedek), as memorial of what Jesus did at the Last Supper (1 Corinthians) and the Eucharist as food for the multitudes.

An important aspect of the Catholic imagination is its ability to hold many meanings of an event in creative tension instead of isolating a single interpretation. Eastern Orthodox liturgies have constantly stressed the Eucharist as blessing or praise of God, expressed in solemn ritual and song. Catholics for centuries emphasized the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, while after the Second Vatican Council, liturgical changes accentuated the meal, symbolized by a simple altar table with the celebrant as presider or host of the meal.

Each of these valid interpretations can be distorted through exaggeration. The Eucharist is truly a banquet for the multitudes (Luke), but it is also a memorial of the last meal of a condemned person. It is a re-enactment of Christ’s sacrificial self-giving, but this view can lead to a privatistic appropriation by individual believers.

Sadly, exaggerated stress on one meaning has created not simply diversity but, at times, scandalous divisions among Catholics, as instanced by the groundless attacks by Mother Angelica and other ultra-conservative authors on Cardinal Roger Mahony’s pastoral letter Gather Faithfully Together: A Guide for Sunday Mass (1997).

Over 35 years ago I was travelling from Germany to Israel to study modern Hebrew. During a stopover in Lebanon I struck up a conversation with a young Muslim student at breakfast. He began to question me on Catholic teaching on the Eucharist. Freshly minted from theology and armed with the earliest and latest Scholastic distinctions, I thought I was responding to his concerns about Catholic belief in the real presence. None of my responses seemed to address his deepest concerns, until finally I asked, What is your most basic problem with what Catholics believe about the Eucharist? He thought for a moment and answered, Well, if they really believed they were receiving the body and blood of Christ together on Sunday, would they treat each other the way they do?

Not a bad thought for the feast of Corpus Christi.

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