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Teaching about the Eucharist at Center of US Bishops’ Meeting

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Chris-(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Fr. Patrick Briscoe, OP - published on 06/16/21

But what are the American bishops saying about the Holy Eucharist? What are their current concerns and goals?

A proposal by the US bishops to draft a new document on the Holy Eucharist has made headlines in recent weeks. The document, alleged by critics to be concerned with the reception of Holy Communion by politicians who support abortion and euthanasia, is not just about Catholics in political life, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend has insisted. “This isn’t just about President Biden, this is for all Catholics,” Bishop Rhoades said in a June 16th press conference.

The regular meeting of the US bishops, being held virtually this week, will address matters of governance in the life of the Church, such as the advancement of the causes of prospective saints and the approval of new liturgical texts.

Thursday’s session will include a debate and vote about whether or not the Committee on Doctrine should begin to compose a document teaching on the Holy Eucharist.

But what are the American bishops saying about the Holy Eucharist? What are their concerns and goals?

A Two-fold Crisis

Those hoping for a new statement by the bishops observe that a two-fold crisis has arisen in the Church. First, a Pew Research report concluded in 2019 that fewer than one third (31%) of Catholics believed in the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in  the Eucharist. And that was before the pandemic. 

Second, the health and safety measures of the COVID-19 period interrupted believers’ regular practice of Sunday worship. The required lack  from Holy Communion, given the constraints of assembly, have been a time of tremendous trial for the life of the Church. Alone and isolated from their parishes, people have suffered. But now that many restrictions have been lifted, will Sunday Massgoers return? This question has been at the forefront of the minds of every pastor. Will parishioners substitute the convenience of digital Mass attendance for real participation in worship? Bishop Robert Barron recently took the difficulty head on, saying

I realize that many Catholics during this COVID period have become accustomed to the ease of attending Mass virtually from the comfort of their own homes and without the inconvenience of busy parking lots, crying children, and crowded pews. But a key feature of the Mass is precisely our coming together as a community.

The Second Vatican Council teaches that the Eucharist is “the source and summit” of the Church’s life. In the Eucharist believers are joined together, not simply to each other, but conformed to God, drawn up collectively by His grace in the saving work of Christ’s  redemption of the world.

Eucharistic Revival project

One plan of action proposed by the US bishops has been named the Eucharistic Revival Project. The three-year strategic plan “Created Anew” describes the project’s purpose: “Such a renewal would require work at every level of Church: the parish, the diocese, the region, and the nation—to reevaluate all of her activities from the celebration of the Mass and the preaching of a homily to its ministries, social programs, evangelization of the unaffiliated, and advocacy in the public square.”

The efforts of this project may include a National Eucharist Congress, which will be discussed at the bishops’ November meeting. In his presentation to the assembled bishops, Scott Voynich, chair of the National Advisory Council (NAC), reported that some NAC members believed this initiative would be the Church’s best chance this decade to re-evangelize the Church in America and stem the tide of Eucharistic unbelief.

Other Catholic organizations have already begun to indicate their support for such initiatives. At his formal installation last week in New Haven, Conn., the new Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, Patrick E. Kelly, stated: “The  more we dedicate ourselves to Christ in the Eucharist, the more we will be a sign of unity in an age of  division and disbelief.” The Knights’ Supreme Chaplain, Archbishop William A. Lori, called on the Knights to be at the forefront of the movement for a national Eucharistic revival.

A new document?

Bishop Rhoades, chairman of the bishops’ committee on doctrine, said that he hopes the bishops will vote to approve the motion to begin to compose a new document on the Eucharist. He hopes that it would speak about “the importance of the Eucharist in our lives” and would highlight “the beauty and mystery of the Holy Eucharist.” Once drafted, the document would then undergo an approval process at the November annual meeting.

Bishop Rhoades eschewed the idea that the document might create a national norm for the application of Canon Law (Can. 915-916, in particular, which addresses who may not be admitted to Holy Communion). He clarified: “What we intend to do is to look at the doctrine and theology behind the discipline of the Church.” 

The hope for a new document is that it will  reorient Catholics to the Church’s belief. Bishop Rhoades stated, “We have talked in years past about Catholics in political life and the importance of adherence to Church teaching.” The bishop continued, “But with this new strategic plan that is going to be focused on the Eucharist…we need to teach this again on different levels.” 

Eucharistic consistency

In recent years the Church has adopted the term “Eucharistic coherence” to describe the harmony of adherence to the Church’s moral teaching and the reception of Holy Communion. This point is essential for every Catholic. One cannot be in a state of grave sin and receive Holy Communion. There must be “coherence” between the way we live and our reception of Holy Communion.

Pope Benedict XVI says in Sacramentum Caritatis: “It is important to consider what the Synod Fathers described as eucharistic consistency, a quality which our lives are objectively called to embody. Worship pleasing to God can never be a purely private matter, without consequences for our relationships with others: it demands a public witness to our faith.” The truth of the Eucharist is therefore not only a mystery of doctrine, that the Eucharist is truly the Real Presence of Jesus, but a mystery which touches the moral lives of believers.

Bishop Rhoades underscored the link between the Eucharist and the way we live.“We want to talk about the whole truth of the Eucharist…We can’t do a full treatment of the Eucharist without talking about that. Without teaching about it.” 

Previous doctrinal teaching on the Eucharist

This is not the first time the US bishops have composed an authoritative teaching about the Eucharist. In 2006, the bishops issued a document teaching the Church’s understanding of the Eucharist. Emphasizing the centrality of the Mass, the instruction teaches: “The celebration of the Mass is the center of the life of the Church. The heart of the Mass is the Eucharistic Prayer, for through this prayer Christ’s sacrifice is both recalled and made present and we give our thanks and praise to God.” 

The same document states, “If a Catholic in his or her personal or professional life were knowingly and obstinately to reject the defined doctrines of the Church, or knowingly and obstinately to repudiate her definitive teaching on moral issues, however, he or she would seriously diminish his or her communion with the Church. Reception of Holy Communion in such a situation would not accord with the nature of the Eucharistic celebration, so that he or she should refrain.”

If the bishops vote on Thursday in favor of the proposed document, a draft will be presented for review in the bishops’ November meeting. The document, in order to be ratified, will then require a two-thirds vote of the assembly.

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