Eucharistic Coherence and Liturgical Parables

Who should or should not receive the Eucharist? Should anyone be denied the Eucharist? These questions have generated much controversy in recent weeks as the USCCB has debated drafting a document on this topic. The controversy seems to be focused on the politics involved (on the one hand) and the need to adhere to the teachings of the Church regarding abortion (on the other). What is left out of the conversation, it seems, are the consequences of unworthy receptions of communion, which follow from the reality of what, or rather who, the Eucharist is. I would argue that, while there are various factors for the problem of lack of belief in the Eucharist, a major contributing factor is what the current liturgy does not say.

To examine this issue, I will make use of a concept which I discussed in my recently completed Master’s Thesis, namely the concept of a liturgical parable.1  In my thesis, I define a parable broadly as “a symbolic story or action with universal significance which communicates a moral and/or spiritual truth.”2 An example of this is the story of Jeremiah’s loincloth. This story serves to illustrate that the purpose of the Law is to bring us closer to God, and that God desires us to cling to Him closer than a loincloth clings to a man’s loins. As another example, the famous Prodigal Son parable illustrates that mercy and forgiveness form the core of God’s attitude toward us, and that we have only to come to our senses and go back to Him.

Now, liturgical parables specifically will comprise actions, artwork, materials, etc., though of course the Scripture used in the liturgy makes use of parables as well. Things such as the pouring of water in Baptism, the use of oil in the Anointing of the Sick, bread and wine for the Eucharist, etc., are all parables in the sense that they are symbols which communicate a deeper reality. Note that, contra Protestant ideas, the sacraments involve symbols, but are not merely symbols. They are symbols that, as the Church affirms, effect what they signify.3 Pouring water at Baptism serves as a symbol of cleansing and regeneration, and also actually causes (together with the form and the intention) the cleansing of sins and regeneration as sons and daughters of the Father. The bread and wine in the Eucharist, being made of individual grains of wheat and grapes brought together, symbolizes the bond of charity between believers and the Eucharist actually causes a growth in charity.

There are other things the liturgical parables communicate as well. The fact that the Eucharist is celebrated at an altar rather than a table communicates that the Eucharist is a sacrifice (or, more properly, a sacrificial banquet). The usage of a golden tabernacle for the reservation of the Eucharist communicates that it is not ordinary bread being kept there. The same reason applies to genuflection to the Eucharist in the tabernacle and during Mass. Liturgical parables grow out of the belief of the Church, as expressed in the Scripture and the Tradition and point us to the essence of that belief. Thus, for example, not only do we believe and read about the majesty and greatness of God, but this is reflected in the design of churches and the language we use to speak about God.

The problem in modern Catholic practice regarding Eucharistic coherence, I would argue, is twofold. First, both clergy and people don’t hear the full teaching on the unworthy reception of Eucharist in the liturgy, nor are they taught about the importance of preserving even the smallest part of the Eucharist from profanation. Hence, the liturgical parables concerning the Eucharist don’t reflect these ideas. There are two days in the liturgical year which focus on the Eucharist: Holy Thursday and Corpus Christi. In its texts, Holy Thursday focuses more on the sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist and the institution of the priesthood, whereas Corpus Christi focuses more on adoration of the Eucharist and the mystery of the Real Presence, though there is some overlap. Before the reforms of Vatican II, 1 Corinthians 11:20–32 would be read as the epistle of the Mass on both days. In addition, this same passage would be read at Matins of Corpus Christi, and in a longer form (going to the end of the chapter) in Matins of Holy Thursday. Finally, verses 26–27 form the communion antiphon for Corpus Christi.

This passage is particularly relevant in current discussions on Eucharistic coherence. Paul warns that those who fail to discern the Body and Blood of the Lord, those who receive unworthily, are bringing condemnation on themselves. Even more sobering, Paul cites unworthy communion as a cause of sickness and death among the Corinthian community. In today’s world, it should be non-controversial to say that those who publicly, obstinately, and without remorse promote abortion and increase access to it are committing an objectively grave act. Hence, for the good of their souls, they ought not to receive communion until they repent and make amends, lest they bring judgement on themselves.

Yet to say this is controversial. The prevailing idea in some quarters seems to be that we shouldn’t politicize the Eucharist, we shouldn’t judge, and seemingly no one should be denied communion. Part of this, I would argue, stems from a lack of formation precisely in the fact that the above-mentioned passage from Paul is not read in its fullness in the modern liturgy. This passage is no longer read at all in the Liturgy of the Hours of Holy Thursday. It is read only at Evening Prayer II of Corpus Christi, and then only in a truncated form which omits the discussion of unworthy reception and its penalties. The version of the passage read during Mass on Holy Thursday and Corpus Christi contains this same omission, and in the Corpus Christi Mass this passage in its truncated form is only read every third year. Likewise, this passage does not feature at all in the antiphons of the Mass on Corpus Christi and appears in its truncated form in the communion antiphon on Holy Thursday.4 As such, the average Massgoer will never hear Paul’s warning about unworthy communion in the liturgy, nor will clerics encounter it in either the Mass or the Breviary.5

Another omission affects a different part of the Mass for Corpus Christi, namely the sequence Lauda Sion. Before the reforms of Vatican II, this sequence was mandatory on the feast of Corpus Christi and had to be read or sung in full. Now, however, it is optional, or if it is done there is the option of the shorter form. In either case, omitting the sequence or doing the shorter form, much important Eucharistic theology is lost that has a bearing on liturgical practice. In the sequence we read “Blood is poured and flesh is broken / Yet in either wondrous token / Christ entire we know to be.”6 That is, the Church professes that the whole Christ is present in both the species of bread and the species of wine.7 Hence, one does not have to receive both species to receive the whole Jesus and, in the case of the communion of the faithful, the Church formerly distributed the host only so as not to risk spillage of the Precious Blood, among other reasons.

Likewise, we read: “Bad and good the feast are sharing / Of what divers dooms preparing / Endless death, or endless life. / Life to these, to those damnation, / See how like participation / is with unlike issues rife.” Here again, the teaching of 1 Corinthians 11 is put before the faithful and clergy. For politicians who support abortion and yet still receive communion, the problem is not only that they are disobeying the teachings of the Church, but that they risk facing eternal damnation. This is a hard saying, but true charity demands caring for souls, even denying them communion in the hopes that they would repent and not be eternally lost. A final important passage from the sequence: “When the sacrament is broken, / Doubt not, but believe ’tis spoken, / That each sever’d outward token / doth the very whole contain.” The Church teaches that the whole Christ is present not only in each species, but also in each particle of the host, and each drop of the species of wine.8 This truth ought to lead to a great reverence and care for the Eucharist, lest even a crumb or the tiniest droplet fall to the ground or spill. The foregoing passages from the sequence are omitted from the shorter form. Thus, in the modern liturgy, the opportunity of the faithful to hear these truths is not guaranteed but depends entirely upon the subjective preference of the celebrant.

The teachings expressed in the Lauda Sion influenced the liturgical practice/liturgical parables of the Church as well, and bringing these practices back, along with catechesis, could help renew a strong Eucharistic faith in both clergy and faithful. Communion could be administered under only one species (as it already is in the great majority of places due to the pandemic) to avoid spillage of the Precious Blood, and to remind the faithful that Christ is present whole and entire in each species. Communion can be administered while the faithful are kneeling and administered only on the tongue. This expresses the truth, reflected in the Bible, that holy things are only touched by those who have been set apart. Hence the priest’s hands were anointed at ordination, to sanctify them to handle the Eucharist directly.

Additionally, if every knee should bow at the mere name of Jesus as we read in Philippians 2, how much more so should every knee bow when presented with His very flesh and blood! The use of communion patens can also be brought back as an additional layer of protection against accidental dropping of the Eucharist and the loss of any particles. In addition, during the liturgy from the consecration until the purification, priests could bring back the observation of the “canonical digits,” that is, keeping the thumb and forefinger joined from the consecration to the ablution. These fingers are the ones which directly handle the Eucharist, and so this practice serves to prevent any crumbs being lost. Note that, for example, receiving under both kinds or receiving in the hand while standing aren’t bad in themselves but run the risk of potential spillage of the Precious Blood and loss of particles on the hands of the faithful. Also, a habitual reception by the faithful under both species may lead to the erroneous belief that one is only receiving the whole Christ when receiving both species.

Another room for change would be the usage of extraordinary ministers of communion. Such ministers, by definition, ought to be used only when necessary, and only in the number necessary.9 However, in many places (at least before the pandemic) such ministers are the norm, often with more than are strictly necessary, which introduces more opportunities for spillage or loss of particles. It also interferes with the symbolism mentioned above, namely that in Scripture only those who were set apart as holy could touch holy things, and the priest’s hands are anointed specifically to handle the Eucharist, whereas the hands of the lay faithful are not. Hence not only do the faithful and clergy no longer hear Paul’s warnings about unworthy communion in the liturgy, but also the way the Eucharist is handled seems to reflect a lack of seriousness in respecting the Eucharist and protecting it from profanation.

When combined, these two factors, lack of liturgical teaching on unworthy communion and consequent shift in liturgical parables as a result, both contribute toward the current controversy on Eucharistic coherence. What is needed in response, I would argue, is to bring back the teaching on unworthy communion to the liturgy. Make the passage from 1 Corinthians 11 mandatory in full on Holy Thursday and Corpus Christi. Make the sequence mandatory in full as well. This in turn ought to inspire a return to liturgical parables which reflect the importance of the Eucharist, even in its smallest particles, and a strong vigilance to protect against profanation. As the saying goes, “lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi.” When we bring back Eucharistic coherence in our liturgy, it will then contribute toward Eucharistic coherence in the lives of the faithful.

  1. Alex Erickson, “With Many Such Parables He Spoke: The Liturgy as a Continuation of Christ’s Ministry in the Church,” Master’s Thesis (University of Saint Thomas: St. Paul, Minnesota) 2021. ir.stthomas.edu/sod_mat/31/.
  2. Erickson, “With Many Such Parables He Spoke.”
  3. See Catechism of the Catholic Church (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1992), §1127.
  4. As a side note: the same omission occurs in the Votive Mass of the Holy Eucharist as well.
  5. For more discussion on possible reasons for this omission, see Matthew Hazell, “The Omission of 1 Corinthians 11, 27–29 from the Ordinary Form Lectionary: What We Know, and a Hypothesis,” at New Liturgical Movement (26 June 2021) at www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2021/06/the-omission-of-1-corinthians-11-27-29.
  6. English translation taken from Saint Paul Daily Missal (Boston, MA: Pauline Books and Media, 2012), 809–810.
  7. Catechism, §1377.
  8. Catechism, §1377.
  9. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/the-mass/order-of-mass/liturgy-of-the-eucharist/extraordinary-ministers-of-holy-communion-at-mass.
Alex Erickson About Alex Erickson

Alex Erickson is a recent graduate of the Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN with a Master of Arts in Theology. His Master’s Thesis is entitled “With Many Such Parables He Spoke: The Liturgy as the Continuation of Christ’s Ministry in the Church.” Later this summer, Alex will begin his novitiate with the Dominican Province of St. Albert the Great, which covers the Central and Midwest US.

Comments

  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Alex,
    I appreciate your search for the meaning of liturgical parables. What concerns me is a reference to what was in the past. I lived that past, born in 1940. The ideal you present did not exist as you describe it. The scriptures we heard in the Mass were very limited. The words of the liturgy were in Latin; we did not understand them. So that limited the liturgical catechesis. I have to give thought to what you mean by parables; it seems that praying the rosary during Mass was pretty common and made any parable of liturgical action a bit incomprehensible.

    I have experienced participating in the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Every movement communicates meaning. What if in every celebration of Eucharist the celebrant communicated belief in the real presence, carefully with deep reverence communicated that Christ is present in the assembled community, in the Word of God, and in the Word, and the Sacramento of the Eucharist?

    Focus on the particles of the Sacrament that fall to the floor; I remember hosts falling to the ground before 1962. The holding of the fingers together, priests did that and were able to say Mass in 15 minutes before 1962.

    Your focus on abortion as the sin that prevents reception of the Eucharist leaves me wondering. What about the priests and bishops who have violated their sacred vows? What about the injustice of clericalism and injustice among the Vatican ordained clergy? What about the sin of neglecting the hungry, the prisoners, the naked that Jesus says will be the criteria of God’s judgement? Why only abortion?

  2. Avatar Peter Northcott says:

    Whose coherence? Which magisterium?

    The infighting over most of the central tenets of the faith seems to have caused a huge problem for the whole credibility of Catholic Christianity – inside and out – not just the Liturgy. The behaviours of self-absorbed academics and layfolk just seem to reinforce the notion of Christianity being a social construct, more than disavow outsiders of that view.

    For, I see a coherent continuity between the past three popes. Whereas, most of the Charismatics I meet champion only St JPII, Rad Trads, only Benedict, and Social Justice Warriors, only Francis (as each made the most quotable proof-texts supposedly supporting their tribe/worldview as superior).

    Then, after those three extremist cults trying to dominate the average parish as top dog, we have what they all disparagingly like to call the ‘average Catholics’, meaning those whom they dismiss as ‘uncommitted’, ‘ignorant’, and generally of no use:, apart from being a recruitment pool and fodder for their cause.

    For, like thousands of others over the past two years, I’ve left the Church recently as, having the space to think ‘away from church’, I just realised I simply wasn’t able to take priests seriously any more: like a compulsive liar to whom you gave the benefit of the doubt: until one more lie becomes just one lie too much. I came to realise how most priests and their groupies come across as extremely childish (not child-like), based on their behaviour, so I could no longer take, what amounted to clowns, seriously.

    Religious Sociologist, Josh Packard, has defined this new group as the ‘Dones’. For, unlike previous generations, ‘Dones’ are no longer those who were only on the periphery who’ve left – ‘the nones’ – nor those who have lost their faith, but a new group: those who have been actively committed and involved, who are now leaving, frequently ‘burnt out’, as ‘church’. That is ‘church’ – broadly a mix of fanatical ‘Rad Trad’, ‘Progressive’, or ‘Charismatic’ – now comes across as radically immanentised, and very human, devoid of any whiff of transcendence. ‘Church’ sucks the life out of you, rather than giving you any (see, ‘Rationalisation 3’ – ‘The grace/effects of receiving the sacraments are invisible’ – at the bottom).

    It is interesting that notions like ‘being moved’ or ‘being fed’ – and comments about the ‘beauty’ of the music, as one would talk about a concert – are unwittingly used by the consumers of the TLM, whilst the supposedly erudite arguments of the cognoscenti defending it, just string together proof-texts and fancy-word ridden, polemics, so the ‘Empirical proof’ of experience, and ‘Epistemological proof’ of ‘coherence’, seems to trump things like Grace and Theosis as the indicators of the ‘truth’ of a liturgy.

    My growing experience of priests, especially the new ones, indicates that too many seem emotionally and spiritually unstable/immature, not least in the way they’re great at judging the worthiness and state of souls of their ‘enemies’ – those in any other ‘tribe’ they despise, for not being in their tribe, so are considered to be in a perpetual state of Mortal Sin – and the spotless righteousness of their own tribe (‘quasi-denomination’).

    If they’re so obviously puerile over liturgy, how can we take them seriously about anything else? Most of them are as articulate as a fifty year old academic, whilst being as emotionally stunted as a stroppy teenager.

    In essence, the turf war over liturgy doesn’t come across as being about ‘orthodoxy’ at all, but about justifying personal preference and taste, and then retrospectively collecting proof texts – just like fundamentalists – and one of the tell-tale signs of fundamentalism, is they are people who are stunted in their development, and failed in individuation, so need to cling to rules and bible verses – to make up for their lack of a self, whether it is the Bible, the Qur’an, or ‘The Spirit of the Liturgy’. That is, Catholicism in most parishes now seem to have become as bad as the worst, and damaging, aspects of Protestantism, with the three major Catholic ‘denominations’ fighting each other over who’s right, and trying to claim its position as The True Magisterium™.

    If anything trivialises the liturgy – Novis Ordo or Usus Antiquior – it’s the mentality I hear (when people aren’t guarding what they’re saying, and just ‘express their heart’) which tends to view the man in funny clothes up at the front ‘confecting’ small white chocolate buttons for the good children who are being well behaved so they can eat one when the bell goes (and there are always some who complain it’s unfair the priest gets a big one): which, sadly, seems to parallel the reality of what’s going on in their minds.

    By being able to take a step back, you begin to think and observe more; and the more you see the utterly childish fiasco, or scam, the priesthood/parish is today. It allows silly, immature, yet often intellectually bright social misfits to bully, like little autocrats, fully supported (feared) by their bishops drowning in so many decades of scandal, they’re effectively ripe for blackmail and any manipulation, to prevent any of the mountains of dirty little – and not so little, and potentially explosive – secrets about their fellow priests and predecessors get out, so daren’t act against them.

    In short, most parishes are freewheeling. Because, apart from state law when you’re found out for committing a crime, as a priest you’re as good as completely autonomous. It’s how abuse has – and still does – thrive in the church. Bishops are effectively muted in the face of the horror of exposure of all the dirty laundry.

    Lastly, there seem to be three ‘ruses’ (ab)used frequently in average parish today:
    1 Ex Opere Operato
    Priests early on in the Church, like Augustine, devised clever little get-outs for themselves, like the ‘carte-blanche’ of ex opere operato (conveniently interpreted), so however evil they are, they’ll be able to receive the ‘magic bread’ whilst withholding it from anyone else they deem unworthy.
    For example, I’ve never seen a priest not receive communion at the Mass he’s celebrating. Presumably because there’s some sort of general absolution that works for the superior ordained priesthood by celebrating the Magic Mass – however evil he is – but not valid for those ‘second class priests’, through having only the inferior sacrament of baptism: or he’s simply in love with his own hype.

    2 Redemptive Suffering
    This is probably the first recorded form of ‘How to Gaslight 101’. For, it’s the most amazingly well thought-out method of enabling abuse, and getting the victim to think it’s all their problem, if there ever was one. That is, show the victim why taking full responsibility by ‘offering up’ all abuse they are undergoing for heavenly reward – is the heart of being a Christian – and if they can’t, make sure they feel guilty for despising their abuser, and make them confess it, or else, they’ll be committing more grave sin. And, for good measure, build in an idea which allows their abuser – esp. if a priest – off the hook by telling the victim by ‘suffering in silence’, supposedly ‘just like Jesus’, they’re doing all sorts of good for their own soul, the soul of their abuser, and the souls in purgatory. That is, exposing bullies, abusers, and other evil people, is only for wimps, not spiritual heroes. Jesus accepted Judas, so you must, too. Exposing the evil of abuse is implicitly ‘unchristian’, like ‘snitching’ on someone.

    3 The grace/effects of receiving the sacraments are invisible.
    The nastiest and bitter people in your parish, alienating loads of people and even causing people to leave, are rationalised under this rubric. There is no distinction made between difficult and toxic parishioners. No-one grasps the nettle. It’s another one that has enabled countless abusers and maintained their flourishing. People only tend to expose only the petty issues of those too timid to fight back, whilst overlooking all the viciousness of self-absorbed priests and lay leaders.

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