The National Catholic Review
Robert P. Imbelli

In this careful, richly researched work, Wolfgang Vondey makes a genuine contribution to theological reflection on the nature and mission of the church. He does so through a single-minded focus upon the image of bread in the hope of rekindling and redirecting the ecclesial imagination.

From one point of view, then, his enterprise is a modest one, since he readily admits that “people of bread” is but one of many images—flock of God, body of Christ, temple of the Holy Spirit, among many others—none of which can exhaust the mystery of church. But from another point of view, his proposal is quite radical, for it is his conviction that recovering the image of bread can foster a truly ecumenical and indeed ecological and cosmic ecclesiology. It can guide the church beyond its more parochial fixations to embrace its truly universal mission. Indeed, his earnest hope is that his book will be a contribution toward fostering “the visible unity” of the churches.

Vondey, an associate professor of systematic theology at Regent University, Virginia Beach, Va., traces the theme of God’s people as a people of bread through a close reading of both Old and New Testaments. God’s provision of manna during the desert wanderings of Israel receives privileged attention, but so do elements within the Abrahamic cycle that extend the image of bread to underscore its implications for hospitality and companionship.

This breaking and sharing of bread among the people of God reaches a fulfillment in the ministry of Jesus, whose “last supper” with his companions was the culmination of the many meals of hospitality he hosted that were open to all, but especially the marginalized and the stranger. After the resurrection, the “first supper,” which the risen Lord celebrated with the disciples at Emmaus and later shared again with his other companions, impels them upon the mission of extending the hospitality and friendship they experience in the presence of Jesus to the very ends of the earth.

The image of a “people of bread” thus highlights the corporate and social nature of the church, countering the perennial temptation to reduce ecclesial existence to individualistic piety. It also insists on the responsibility incumbent upon those called in the Eucharist to be the body of Christ in the world, to be stewards of God’s creation, as well, and ministers of God’s blessing to all.

In many ways Vondey is wonderfully “catholic” in his theological sensibility and insight. He does not shun the challenge of a both/and imagination nor opt for a more facile either/or. His perspective is robustly Christo-centric, as when he writes: “The bread, in a real sense, is the continuing presence of the incarnate Word in the Church” (emphasis his). At the same time, as one would expect of a student of the late German theologian, Heribert Mühlen (to whom the book is dedicated), there is no slighting of the role of the Holy Spirit. Vondey espouses “a pneumatological approach to the breaking of the bread,” which suggests that “the unique finality and collective character of God’s work of salvation in the companionship of God’s people is made possible by the perpetuating work of the Holy Spirit.”

This same both/and comprehensiveness characterizes other theological claims by the author. The insistence on human companionship and hospitality is founded upon God’s prior gift of bread and covenantal blessing. The breaking of bread of material nourishment is fulfilled and transformed in the celebration of the living bread come down from heaven. The fellowship meal is made possible by the once-and-for-all sacrifice of the cross. The church that celebrates the Eucharist is charged with the divine mission of hospitality of which it is itself the fruit. Christian existence is eschatological by its nature: rejoicing in the presence of its Lord and yearning for the fullness of that presence in the banquet feast of the kingdom, when God will be all in all.

People of Bread succeeds in rekindling and stretching the imagination by helping the reader appreciate more fully one crucial dimension of the multifaceted mystery of the church.

At the same time there are some reservations that deserve to be expressed. From a stylistic point of view, the book, though clearly written, tends to be unduly repetitive. Tightening and revision would have rendered it more compelling. Further, there is a tendency to pile up quotations in a somewhat haphazard manner, especially when Vondey invokes contemporary theologians to support his case. Multiplying quotations from different authors who are writing with different theological aims and listing them with little commentary does not always add cogency to one’s arguments.

From a theological point of view, three areas of concern need addressing. First, though I welcome a Mühlen-inspired recovery of a theology of the Holy Spirit, it has not yet been integrated into a satisfactory theology of the Trinity. Having rightfully reclaimed the proper mission of the Spirit, the risk is that the continuing mission of the Word is obscured.

Second, though I appreciate Vondey’s concern to do full justice to the evangelical and social mission of the people of bread, his fear of a reduction of the Eucharist to its ritual celebration can, paradoxically, counter the radical thrust of his vision. Thus he writes at one point: “It would be inexact to speak of a ‘eucharistic nature’ of the Church.” In my view the promise lies precisely in allowing the burning bush of the Eucharist to foster and form a eucharistic vision and ethic that grounds a distinctive Catholic identity and mission.

Finally, Vondey’s commendable concern for ecumenical unity leads him to advocate full eucharistic hospitality among the churches and ecclesial communities, a stance at variance with Roman Catholic and Orthodox practice. It is not even clear whether, in Vondey’s proposal, baptism is a pre-requisite for participating in the Lord’s supper. In this regard one receives the impression that the doctrinal tradition of the church suffers benign neglect, and magisterium, so important a component of Roman Catholic ecclesiology, goes unmentioned. It seems that, for Vondey, the many diverse forms and modes of ecclesial “hospitality” and “companionship,” short of full eucharistic communion, have scant significance—a position I find problematic.

One finishes this otherwise stimulating book with a nagging sense that it has too quickly abstracted from the historical and theological traditions of the different ecclesial bodies and that for all the savory attraction of its focus upon the image of bread, one rises from the table less than fully satisfied.

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, teaches systematic theology at Boston College.

Comments

Wolfgang Vondey | 5/2/2009 - 9:49am
Authors do not often get the chance to respond to a review of their own work. In this case, I want to take the opportunity to thank Fr. Imbelli for his excellent analysis of my book as well as to affirm his main points of criticism. First, from a stylistic point, he remarks on the repetitiveness of the book’s major thesis. I agree with this observation. After all, the book tells the story of the church as the story of bread in the biblical scriptures, which count repetition among the hallmarks of their literary tools. If People of Bread is repetitive, then this facet underscores the emphasis the scriptures place on companionship and hospitality as the foundational elements of the church. Second, Fr. Imbelli remarks on my hesitancy to speak of a eucharistic nature of the church. I concur that a eucharistic vision and ethic grounds Catholic identity and mission. However, as long as that dimension is not implemented in a praxis of companionship and hospitality, we remain bound to the false distinction between the essence and the actions of the church. If we want to allow the burning bush of the Eucharist to foster and form a eucharistic essence, then the story of bread tells us to begin with the concrete actions of table fellowship. Together with Fr. Imbelli, I want to call for this vision to move outward from the Eucharistic celebration. At the same time, I suggest that we can also move toward a eucharistic vision by beginning with the everyday-practices of companionship and hospitality in the homes and sanctuaries of the faithful. Third, Fr. Imbelli sees as problematic my apparent judgment that the diverse forms and modes of ecclesial hospitality, short of full eucharistic communion, have scant significance. This is indeed a problem if we disconnect the existing practices of hospitality from the ritual celebration of the Eucharist in one particular ecclesial community. In this context I want to point out my emphasis on the need for discernment as part of the life of the churches. Unconditional communion at any cost is indeed problematic. A joint discernment of the mission of hospitality, however, reflects the vision of the church in the scriptures that is marked not only by the eschatological anticipation of full communion but by the commission to realize that communion already in the present reality of the visibly divided churches. If the reader, like Fr. Imbelli, rises from the table less than satisfied, this realization may be attributed to the fact that we continue to separate a life of companionship from an ethic of hospitality and a joint celebration of the eucharistic meal. Wolfgang Vondey Regent University