TO THE EDITOR, CATHOLIC TIMES, 20TH AUGUST 2000, SUNDAY XX(B)
FR FRANCIS MARSDEN
MYSTERIUM FIDEI - POPE PAUL VI
At Vatican II the bishops discussed the reform of the Sacred Liturgy. However in 1965, Pope Paul VI felt that clearer teaching was needed on the Holy Eucharist itself. He composed an Encyclical, Mysterium Fidei, in which he explained his pastoral anxiety:
“We have become aware that there are a number of speakers and writers on this sacred mystery who are propagating opinions that are likely to disturb the minds of the faithful and to cause them considerable mental confusion in matters of faith. Such opinions relate to Masses celebrated privately, to the dogma of transubstantiation and to eucharistic worship. They seem to think that, although a doctrine has been defined once by the Church, it is open to anyone to ignore it or to give it an interpretation that whittles away the natural meaning of the words or the accepted sense of the concepts.” (MF 10)
He goes on to rebuke those who see the Eucharist as only a symbol, not the reality of Christ’s presence. He corrects theologians who misinterpret the mystery of transubstantiation or suggest that Christ’s presence is no longer in the consecrated hosts once Mass has finished.
One experience sticks in my mind, way back in 1973, when I was an chemistry undergraduate at Cambridge. It was at one of the termly room Masses in college. An American priest celebrated the Mass for about eight of us. He used a plate and a wine glass as vessels, and a coffee table as altar, as was novel and meaningful in the seventies.
That didn’t worry me, but when we came to the end of the Mass he started chatting away, being friendly, asking us about our studies. He hadn’t consumed the remaining Blood of Christ. The wineglass, consecrated and half full, was left ignored on the table. A growing sense of unease overcame me: either what was in the glass was Christ the Lord of Heaven and earth, or we’d all been wasting our time on an empty ritual. Eventually I suggested tentatively: Father, are you going to consume what’s left over. “Oh yes, I suppose I should finish it” he said, and quickly knocked back the glassful. I came away wondering: “What does he think it is? And he’s supposed to be a priest.”
Abuse of the sacrament is sadly nothing new. In the early Church the faithful habitually took the Eucharist from Sunday Mass, to reserve carefully at home and consume during the week. Especially to strengthen themselves spiritually in times of violent persecution, or when they were living as hermits.
The writer Novatian denounces as worthy of damnation the man who “on leaving the Sunday celebration, still carrying as he usually does, the Eucharist on his person . . carried the Lord’s body about, failed to go home and ran off to the shows instead”
I know of another priest, influential in catechetics, who not long ago, when asked by a parishioner if they might have weekly Exposition, allegedly replied that “Bread-gawping went out with Vatican II.”
A learned Jesuit posed this question: “Is the Mass valid when celebrated by a priest who openly denies transubstantiation and the real presence?” For any sacrament to be valid, the priest has to intend to do what the Church intends to do. In the case of the Eucharist, he must intend to offer sacrifice and to transmute the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Normally an implicit consent is sufficient. If a priest were ill, or on medication or drunk, such that he did not fully understand what he was doing, nevertheless Ecclesia supplet - the Faith of the Church makes up the lack. The same applies for slight mistakes in the rubric.
However, when a priest has repeatedly and publicly stated that he does not believe in the Real Presence, it seems that at Mass he is not intending to do what the Church intends.- to make present and to offer in Sacrifice the Body and Blood of Christ. There is the real danger that the masses he says are no Masses, the “sacrament” he distributes is but ordinary bread, and the whole ritual but a simulation.
This elderly Jesuit knew of two separate cases where a priest several times had mentioned from the pulpit that he did not believe in the Real Presence and transubstantiation. One of the priests was very popular, because he was good at organising social functions and raising funds for the parish.
Even with the gift of faith, it is not always easy to believe that God is really there on the altar under the outward appearances of bread and wine. St Bonaventure wrote: “There is no difficulty in Christ’s being in the sacrament as a symbol. It presents the greatest difficulty that He should be in the sacrament truly, as He is in heaven. To believe this is therefore most meritorious.”
St John Chrysostom warned the faithful: “We must reverence God everywhere. We must not contradict Him, even if what He says seems contrary to our reason and our intelligence. His words must be preferred to our reason and intelligence. This ought to be our behaviour at the Eucharistic mysteries. We must not confine our attention to what the senses can experience, but hold fast to His words. For His word cannot deceive.”
St Augustine urged his hearers to maintain this conviction about the real presence in the Eucharist, “which has since ancient times been preached and believed with true Catholic faith throughout the Church [and] is still true even if it is not susceptible of rational investigation or verbal explanation.” “[The Lord] walked here in the very flesh, and He has given us that very flesh to eat for our salvation. No one, however, eats this flesh without first adoring . . and not only is our adoration no sin, but we sin if we fail to adore.”
The early Church offered the Mass for the living and for the dead, just as now: “We believe that the souls for whom prayer is offered while the sacred and awe-inspiring Victim lies present, will obtain the greatest help from this . . We too offer prayers for the dead, even if they are sinners . . .we offer Christ sacrificed for our sins, in the effort to earn merit and favour from God’s clemency both for them and for ourselves.” (St Cyril of Jerusalem)
Paul VI wanted to distinguish the different modes of Christ’s presence among us. Christ is present in the community when His church gathers together. He is present when the Word of God is preached. He is present with the bishops as they exercise their power of governance. However “His mode of presence is even more sublime when the church offers the sacrifice of the Mass in His name.”
The supreme form of His presence is in the Eucharist, which of all the sacraments has “an extra sweetness from devotion, extra beauty through understanding, extra holiness by its content,” because its content is Christ Himself.
The Eucharistic presence of Christ “oversteps the laws of nature and constitutes the greatest miracle of all in its kind.” By transubstantiation the whole substantia of the bread changes into His Body, and the whole substantia of the wine into His Blood. The Latin “substantia” signifies “that quality which makes a thing what it is.” The bread and wine are “trans-elemented.” They become something different which they were not before. A new reality is present ontologically i.e. on the level of being itself.
Only the appearances of bread and wine remain: they conceal Christ whole and entire, bodily present in His physical reality, although not in the manner in which bodies are normally present in space. The Power which achieves this transformation is the same Almighty Power which created the entire Universe out of nothing at the beginning of time.
It is sometimes alleged that transubstantiation is not a dogma of the Church. However Pius VI warned parish priests that they “should not refrain from making mention of transubstantiation, which is listed among the articles of faith.” (1794)
The Sacrament of the Eucharist is reserved in churches and oratories “as the spiritual centre of the religious community and the parish community, indeed as the spiritual centre of the universal Church and the whole of humanity.” (68) Paul VI encouraged visits to the Blessed Sacrament, attendance at Daily Mass, adoration of this “super-substantial bread” which is Christ Himself “veiled by appearances”, and processions in honour of the Blessed Sacrament.
Transubstantiation may be a medieval term, but it conveys the faith of the church from the earliest days. What did the generation immediately after the apostles, believe about the Sacrament? “The Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ; the flesh which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His kindness, brought to life.” (St Ignatius of Antioch d. 107)