Changing Elements or People?
A highly respected confrere on the seminary faculty in the 1960’s announced one day that he was pleased and surprised that our introduction of the greeting of peace at our daily liturgies actually seemed "to make a real difference in the spirit of the house." This was an ordained and highly regarded priest announcing his surprise that sacraments had an effect! The profound ignorance of sacramental theology and of the liturgy that his comment revealed amazed many of his confreres.
The discussion last November at the bishops’ meeting in Washington on Domus Dei, the provisional title given to a document being prepared on art and architecture in the church, brought this incident from the 60’s to mind. Most of the telecast on EWTN was devoted to the bishops talking about the placement of the tabernacle.
How refreshing and reassuring it would have been had some bishop stood up to say: "Jesus did not institute the Eucharist to change bread and wine into his body and blood, but to change us into his body. The Mass is not meant to transform elements, but to transform people. When he said, Behold I am with you always, until the end of the world,’ Jesus was not referring to his real presence in the Eucharist; he was referring to his real presence in his people, the members of his body."
Directing people’s attention to the reserved consecrated elements during the action of the Mass distracts them from the primary purpose of the eucharistic action. The Eucharist is, first and foremost, an action, not a thing.
If I can lock up Jesus Christ in a little boxno matter how ornate and beautiful, no matter where it is placed and no matter with what reverence it is wrought and surroundedand if to do so is the purpose and end result of my eucharistic involvement, it makes for a nice, safe little Jesus. But the living Jesus Christ is neither nice nor little.
"Do this in memory of me." If such a phrase turns up on a paper in a good freshman composition class, the this is circled and clarification is demanded. What does this refer to? Did Jesus mean: "Say these words, use these elements and these gestures in memory of me?" By no means.
He had said, "This is my body which is given up for you. This is the cup of my blood which is poured out for you." "Do this in memory of me," means, "In memory of me you should imitate my self-giving, which is represented in these symbols of bread broken and wine poured out. When you take and eat you enter into this action and commit yourself to imitate my self-giving in your own life."
The purpose of the Eucharist is to create a community of people who live the paschal mystery. They strive to imitate Jesus’ self-giving by loving God above all and loving all others as Jesus loves them. They strive to show their love by dying to themselves so they may live and emptying themselves for others so as to be fulfilled.
Among its reforms the Second Vatican Council insisted that the study of the liturgy be given a prominent place in the seminary curriculum. Such reforms take time to implement. The liturgy courses most of the present U.S. bishops studied were probably courses in rubrics rather than in liturgy. For most of them their interests and opportunities for study run more to Canon Law and administration rather than to theology. They do, however, have the resources and the clout to organize a few crash courses for themselves so as better to fulfill the positions they occupy as spiritual leaders in the Catholic community.
No doubt adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is an authentic and valued Catholic devotion. It grew up, however, at a time when frequent reception of the Eucharist was not common, eucharistic understanding lacked depth and what we would label eucharistic spirituality was unknown. Our present understanding of the Eucharist and the present needs of the church and the world call for a more active spirituality.
When you change the way people pray, you change people. Focusing on the action of the Mass and the interaction for which true participation calls fits the needs of the time. Focus on the placement of the tabernacle does not.