Archive for February, 2009

The Eucharist: The Gift of Life

February 26, 2009

bread-wine13The recent exchange of letters between Frs. Greg Markey and Nicholas Calabro in Fairfield County Catholic (2/7 and 2/21/09) should prompt every Catholic to reflect on the meaning of the Eucharist in our lives.

During his last supper Jesus commanded his disciples to eat his body and drink his blood and to do so in his memory (Mt 26:26-28; Mk 14:22-24; Lk 22:19-20). He also stated that, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (Jn 6:53-54). The Eucharist, then, is Jesus’s gift to us, the gift of life that nourishes and sustains us. By partaking of the Eucharist we are made one with Jesus, as members of his Body.

The concept of the Eucharist as Jesus’s life-giving and life-sustaining gift to his people was obscured during the medieval centuries. As the distinction between clergy and laity was emphasized, reception of the Eucharist became so infrequent that the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 had to order every Catholic to receive the Eucharist at least once a year (canon 21). The placement of the Eucharist on the layperson’s tongue, in contrast to the ancient practice of communion in the hand, treated the communicant as a child who could not be trusted to receive the Eucharist with reverent care. In the 17th and 18th centuries the Jansenists distorted the meaning of Eucharist by stressing the unworthiness of the faithful to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.

Are we to believe, with Fr. Markey, that Jesus gave his command to take and eat only to the twelve Apostles as newly ordained priests, and not to the laity? If one follows Fr. Markey’s logic, then it would seem that Jesus did not offer his Body and Blood to laypeople. Moreover, the statement that Jesus spoke only to twelve newly ordained priests reflects a simplistic and anachronistic understanding of the origin of the priesthood. Biblical scholars point out that in the New Testament Jesus is the High Priest (Hebrews 4:14-15) and that only after his death, as the Church differentiated itself from its Jewish roots, did the ministries of presbyter and bishop emerge. Used interchangeably, those terms eventually evolved into the offices of priest and bishop with which we are familiar. Arguing that reception in the hand is an indult or exception to the rule requiring reception on the tongue, Fr. Markey adopts a legalistic stance. That stands in marked contrast to St. Paul’s affirmation: “our qualification comes from God, who has indeed qualified us as ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:5-6). Exhibiting a pastorally sensitive approach more consonant with St. Paul, Fr. Calabro treats the Catholic people as adults, offering them the Eucharist on the tongue or in the hand as they wish and trusting that they will receive it reverently and respectfully.

For all of us the Eucharist gives life and we ought not to erect unnecessary obstacles to its reception.