Alexander Pope once acknowledged that “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” This thesis is proved true in a recent article written by Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese. I mean this in no way to insult the intelligence of Fr. Reese—he is likely a far more learned scholar than I. However, what he tells people about the Eucharist seems to be selective of the Church’s teaching. That is to say, he seems to put forward a particular agenda highlighted by many since the Second Vatican Council while neglecting the rich history and complete theological understanding of Christ in the Eucharist.
Further, he proposes that for a true Eucharistic revival, we need to forget about the Real Presence and forget about worshipping Jesus. Reese, at best, dances on the border of heresy; he proposes some theology that actually would be harmful to the faithful and does not paint the entire picture of the Church’s understanding of the holy Eucharist.
Reese begins his article by giving a brief summary of what Catholics “used to” believe about the Mass. He makes the claim that until Vatican II, Catholics: “Believed that it was a mortal sin to miss Mass on Sunday” and further, “Catholics were taught…that the bread and wine were turned into the body and blood of Christ… For true believers, this was an opportunity to adore Christ and be sanctified in Communion. For nominal Catholics, it was a meaningless ritual to be endured.” Are these really notions to be relegated to the history of the Church? Or are these still realities to be understood by the Church today?
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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In many places, in talks that I have given and in things I have written, I often refer to the Second Vatican Council as the “often invoked, but seldom quoted council.” It seems, too often, that people want to mention post-Vatican II teachings but rarely quote the actual words of the council.1 Let’s look at what the Second Vatican Council actually teaches about the nature of the Sacred Liturgy, in particular, the Holy Eucharist: “in the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7).
Further, the council makes it clear that “the sacred liturgy is above all things the worship of the divine Majesty” (SC, 33). This means that the aim of the Sacred Liturgy is always the worship of the Godhead. It is by the sacramental life of the Church that the faithful become true “adorers” (SC, 6). Worship is the entire point of the Sacred Liturgy, as is surmised in the 1967 instruction Eucharisticum Mysterium, quoted in paragraph 1325 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The Eucharist…is the culmination both of God’s action sanctifying the world in Christ and of the worship men offer to Christ and through him to the Father in the Holy Spirit.”
Lest one believes these are notions held over from the medieval Church trapped in Aristotelian Thomism, let us not neglect the words of St. Augustine: “He walked here in very flesh, and gave that very flesh to us to eat for our salvation; and no one eats that flesh, unless he has first worshipped.”2 One can only conclude that Reese is either gravely mistaken or intentionally misleading when he states: “the purpose of the Eucharist is not to worship Jesus.”
On the contrary, the Eucharist is the perfect worship of the Godhead. An argument that the worship of the Godhead is not the worship of Jesus cannot be made without falling into Arianism (which denies the divinity of Christ) or Tritheism (which states that the Father and Son are independent divine beings), both heresies condemned formally by ecumenical councils.
And yes, it is “still” a mortal sin to intentionally miss Mass on a Holy Day of Obligation, including Sundays, unless there is a grave reason: “the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation unless excused for a serious reason…. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin” (CCC 2181). And of course, grave matter, combined with the freedom to choose the act and knowledge that the act is evil constitutes mortal sin (CCC 1857-60). And yes, mortal sin is understood to cause “exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell” (CCC 1861). So, though I hope it is unintentional, the information given by Reese is misleading the faithful in his chosen verbiage.
Reese makes the bold statement:
If you want to adore Christ in the Eucharist, go to Benediction, not to Mass. Confusing these two church practices is a big mistake. The Eucharist, based on the Jewish Passover, was instituted by Christ; Benediction was instituted by the church at a time when few people went to Communion.
It’s a shame that in neither this article nor its follow-up, “The Jewish Roots of the Eucharist,” does Reese acknowledge one of the leading contemporary experts on the very subject, Brant Pitre, who in his book of an almost identical name, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, points out that connected to the Passover was the Bread of Presence, which is placed on a golden table before the Ark of the Lord (Exodus 25). This Bread of Presence is identified to God’s people as a sign of His everlasting covenant, a “perpetual” offering to God, and a sacrifice.
There is even a Talmudic tradition of the High Priest showing the Bread of Presence to the Assembly of Israel and saying, “Behold God’s Love for you!”3 So, while it is true, in the strict sense, that Jesus said, “Take and eat,” not, “Take and adore,” there certainly is a tradition in a Jewish context of simply looking at bread offered as a sign of worship to God. Coupled with Augustine’s observation that one cannot consume the Eucharist without having first adored it, we see a clear demonstration that worship of the Eucharist is connected to not just medieval inventions but to the Eucharist itself, in the Jewish context of its institution.
We have not yet addressed the most apparently disturbing statement that Reese makes in his article:
…let me affirm that I believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I just don’t believe in transubstantiation because I don’t believe in prime matter, substantial forms and accidents that are part of Aristotelian metaphysics.
Jimmy Akin already does a good job demonstrating the issues with Reese’s claims about transubstantiation. One of which is that the term comes from Thomas Aquinas who, “used Aristotelianism, the avant-garde philosophy of his time, to explain the Eucharist to his generation.” This claim, of course, is false. Even a quick read of the Wikipedia article on Transubstantiation reveals that the term was employed theologically over a century before Aquinas. The Aristotelian terminology “accidence” is not even used in the Council of Trent’s definition of the term “most aptly” called “transubstantiation.”
While it is true, as Reese claims, one does not have to believe in the term itself, or in Aristotelian categories, to be a Catholic, one still must believe “by the consecration of the bread and wine a change is brought about of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of His blood” (Council of Trent). Reese claims a belief in the “real presence” (which he or his editor does not capitalize) is sufficient.
However, this statement is problematic. Luther (and his Lutheran followers today) believe in a “real presence” (consubstantiation). Calvin (and some Reformed today) believed in a “real presence” (a spiritual presence). Many evangelicals today will even acknowledge some form of “real presence.” Reese’s thesis that it is “Better to admit that Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is an unexplainable mystery that our little minds cannot comprehend,” as opposed to trying to find language to explain it, is just not part of the Western Catholic intellectual tradition.
Reese’s claims that we forget and recognize that the Mass is not about worshipping Jesus are not only theologically errant but these methods have shown themselves ineffective. Like many of his theological ilk, Reese praises the liturgical “creativity” of the ’60s and bemoans “liturgical renewal petered out under the papacy of John Paul II. English translations became stilted, creativity was discouraged and experimentation was forbidden.”
What he fails to acknowledge is that these creative ventures were failures. They did exactly what Reese proposes, downplayed the Sacred Liturgy as worship and underemphasized the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. You can still find these liturgies around, particularly in the American Midwest, and you will see that the majority in attendance were born before 1965. These methods do not seem effective in appealing to younger generations and therefore increasing attendance at Mass
Reese claims that for true revival we “must listen to the concerns of the laity and not just those who want the old Latin Mass back.” Well, first, I would like to ask why we should exclude those people? In a time when “progressive” Catholics are being told to seek theologies that are “inclusive” and reach those “on the peripheries,” why are we not looking at the liturgical celebrations that tend to draw the most young people?
I must admit that, as a priest, I have not ever celebrated the Traditional Latin Mass. The reason for this is mainly because the responsibility for it is largely assigned to the Fraternity of St. Peter in my diocese. But I can say that the daily TLM offered by the Fraternity has per capita the youngest congregation in my area. Perhaps we should not disregard that there is a longing for reverent worship (and again, that is what the Mass is, as we have established here) and that authentic worship is that for which faithful Catholics long.
It is also mysterious to me that many liturgists like Reese speak of the importance of returning to the liturgy of the early Church yet never mention the direction of liturgical prayer. From the art in the catacombs to the architecture of first-century Domus Ecclesiae (ancient homes modified for liturgical worship), all suggest that the presbyter or bishop who presided over the Eucharist faced the same direction as the people. Even one of the forerunners of the Liturgical Movement and one of the first vocal proponents of Mass being celebrated versus populum, Jesuit Priest Josef A. Jungmann (d. 1975), would acknowledge in his later years that “The claim that the altar of the early Church was always designed to celebrate facing the people, a claim made often and repeatedly, turns out to be nothing but a fairy tale.”4
Louis Bouyer even reminds us: “In no meal of the early Christian era, did the president of the banqueting assembly ever face the other participants.” And further, “The communal character of a meal was emphasized just by the opposite disposition: the fact that all the participants were on the same side of the table.”5 In the early Church, the communal aspect of the Eucharist was emphasized by the people and the one who presided facing the same direction. It leads one to wonder, with the lacuna in the assessment of ancient liturgies, is someone like Reese really looking for authentic renewal?
For all that he gets wrong, there is one aspect that Reese gets very right: “The Eucharist is not about me and Jesus; it is about us in the Christian community, about us being transformed into the body of Christ, about us joining in the mission of Jesus in the world.” The ecclesial element of the Eucharist, however, goes far beyond any particular community assembled in one temporal location. For “The Church which is the Body of Christ participates in the offering of her Head. With him, she herself is offered whole and entire. She unites herself to his intercession with the Father for all men” (CCC 1368).
Thus, the entire Church, those present at a particular Mass, the entire Church on earth, the saints in Heaven, and the souls in purgatory for whom we pray are present, whether a priest is celebrating the Holy Sacrifice by himself, or the pope is celebrating with hundreds of thousands of people. The communal aspect of the Eucharist cannot be limited to the action of one particular community, for the entire Church is offered to the Father in the Once and For All Sacrifice of Christ offered at the Holy Altar.
One cannot help but come to the conclusion, as evidenced here, that Reese is not after a Eucharistic Revival. He is after a Eucharistic Revolt. He wishes to return to a season of “creativity” and “experimentation”; a season that failed miserably and has continued to fail since the ’60s. In my over twenty years of working in full-time ministry in the Church, including 10 years of priesthood and extensive time in youth ministry both as a priest and as a layperson, I have found that my own Generation X, Millennials, Generation Z, and even the up-and-coming Alpha generation is not attracted to “creative” community-centered liturgical expressions that were the norm in the United States from the ’60s through the ’80s.
They are drawn to something that makes them look beyond themselves and reminds them that though we occupy this earth, we are made for the Glory of God. They want to leave the banality of everyday life and enter into the eternal kingdom. They want effective preaching that challenges them to live as citizens of the Kingdom and shows them that it is possible to live in such a way. They want to be free and expressive in their reverence and devotion before their Eucharistic Lord, both in the Holy Sacrifice and in Eucharistic devotions such as Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. They desire to love and serve fiercely in a way that can only be empowered by something supernatural and tangible. They desire to be caught up in the beauty and mystery of the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world.
This understanding of the Real Presence and action of Jesus Christ in the Holy Sacrifice is the lamp that has been hidden under a bushel by trite music, egotistical preaching, and fortune-cookie spirituality for too long. This reality is the mystery that must be displayed and rediscovered by the current generations. This rediscovery is what will lead to authentic Eucharistic Revival. The Eucharistic Revolt proposed by Reese has been tried and found lacking. The people have spoken by their walking.
- And incidentally, when such persons are confronted with the actual words of the council, they accuse those who quote them of being trapped in a static, “propositional” faith rather than a living and dynamic faith. So, refuting the false “Spirit of Vatican II” often places one in a theological double jeopardy. It’s a convenient trap.
- Augustine of Hippo, “Expositions on the Book of Psalms,” in Saint Augustine: Expositions on the Book of Psalms, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 8, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 485. [Modified from archaic English]
- Pitre, Brant James. Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist (p. 123). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
- Gamber, Klaus. The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and Background (Capistrano and New York: Una Voce and The Foundation for Catholic Reform, 1993), p. 151.
- Louis Bouyer, Eucharistie: Theologie et spiritualite de la priere eucharistique (Tournai, 1966) [trans. Charles Underhill Quinn as Eucharist: Theology and Spirituality of the Eucharistic Prayer (Notre Dame, Ind., and London: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1968)], p.55-56, quoted in Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger Collected Works: Theology of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition).