July 4, 2008 Volume 22, Number 08
The Eucharist: Catholic rendezvous in Quebec
By Paul Allen | Special to ChristianWeek
Last month an international gathering of bishops and (mostly) Catholic theologians assembled in Quebec City on the eve of the 49th International Eucharistic Congress. The central importance of the Eucharist was recognized by the Vatican during the 19th century as the Catholic Church wrestled with modernism. The first International Eucharistic Congress was held in 1881 in France and such congresses have been held every few years since.
The theological symposium that preceded this year's congress attracted several star attendees, such as Cardinals Angelo Scola (Patriarch of Venice) and Walter Kasper (president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity).
Among the participating Canadians were Quebec City cardinal Marc Ouellet, who spearheaded the effort to organize the congress, Anne Fortin (Université Laval), Therese Nadeau-Lacour (Université de Québec at Trois Rivieres) and a rising star: Michael Miller, coadjutor bishop of Vancouver. Also present was John Gibaut, a Canadian Anglican who directs the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches in Geneva.
"Eucharist" is a Greek word that literally means thanksgiving. For Catholics, the Eucharist is known as an act of thanksgiving and unity: a symbolic meal that draws disciples to Christ by recalling and realizing Jesus' words "This is my body, given for you. Do this in memory of me" (Luke 22:19).
Known and understood differently as the Lord's Supper by Protestants, in Catholic theology, the Eucharist is shaped by a prayer recited in a dialogue between a priest and the gathered faithful during Mass. The word "Mass" comes from "mission," meaning that the Lord's Supper is the source and summit of Christian life, the sign of communion for those who believe in the gospel. This was captured in the 2008 Congress/symposium theme "The Eucharist, Gift of God for the Life of the World."
The Eucharist is a perennial subject of debate between Catholics and Protestants, but in fact it predates the Protestant Reformation. In 831, French monks debated whether the presence of Christ is physically or mysteriously present in the Eucharistic elements of the bread and wine.
Contrary to popular perception, the Catholic celebration of the Lord's Supper is not explained only from the concept of "transubstantiation." This is the philosophical idea that the bread and wine's transformation into Christ's body and blood is a metaphysical reality of "substances" and "accidents."
This understanding was prominent in the Middle Ages when the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle was rehabilitated for Christian theology. But it does not appear in the Catholic catechism, which draws on biblical sources instead in its teaching on the subject.
As a sign for personal inspiration and a sign of God's redemption won for us through Christ, the Eucharist mediates our spiritual search. Cardinal Sean O'Malley of the Boston Archdiocese summed it up at the symposium in a talk titled "The Eucharist and the Evangelical Life." He noted the necessity of penitence and conversion in order to receive communion. For O'Malley, we need concrete signs of God's forgiveness to be instruments of peace, and the Eucharist is that kind of sign.
The relationship between the Eucharist and the forgiveness of sins explains in part why more Catholic bishops are refusing communion to Catholics for unrepentantly promoting serious evils, such as the legislation for or collusion with abortion services. Such controversies have the potential to either demonstrate or distract from the salvific meaning of Catholic Eucharistic practice, a point of encounter with the Lord.
For more information about the 2008 symposium, visit diocesemontreal.org/hf/eng/blog/index.php or www.ecdq.tv/en.
Paul Allen is Associate Professor of Theology at Concordia University in Montreal.