The year of the Eucharist, inaugurated by Pope John Paul II in October 2004, will conclude with the meeting this month of the World Synod of Bishops in Rome. This assembly of bishops will also mark the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Synod of Bishops. While post-synodal papal exhortations have inspired many Catholics, what have the synods themselves accomplished? Are the synods, as presently structured, an effective expression of collegiality? And will the forthcoming meeting of the Synod of Bishops face real issues of universal import regarding the Eucharist, the source and center of our Christian lives?
The 250 bishops who will participate in the synod come together at a crucial time in the life of the church. They will deliberate for three weeks on the topic of “The Eucharist: The Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church.” There could be no greater theme for discernment.
The working document, called the instrumentum laboris, which will serve as the background paper and reference point for provoking discussion, is, however, disappointing. It reflects an uneven treatment of the topic at hand. At times it offers rich insights and summaries of eucharistic theology, but more often it reflects a narrow, preconciliar view unworthy of a world meeting of bishops. It fails to recognize real issues facing the church in the contemporary world. The document speaks, for example, of “shadows in the celebration of the Eucharist,” citing “a neglect by the celebrant and the ministers to use proper liturgical vestments and participants’ lack of befitting dress for Mass,” “an inadequate catechesis for communion in the hand,” “the scant architectural and artistic quality of sacred buildings and sacred vessels” (No. 33) and “the use of the communion plate...the keeping of the tabernacle key in a secure place” (No. 39). The list goes on.
These are hardly the burning issues of the day. While they are supposedly examples of “a weakened sense of the sacred in the Sacrament,” they could all be addressed by enforcing the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the authoritative document on the correct celebration of the Eucharist. There is no need for 250 bishops from all parts of the world to incur great financial cost and loss of time from their local churches to ponder these insufficiencies.
The working document spends more time looking in the rearview mirror than looking ahead and steering the church into the future. The document avoids, for example, any major treatment of the pivotal problem of lack of priests for celebration of the Eucharist. By Christ’s design the Catholic Church is a sacramental one. To continue a sacramental ministry, priests are essential. The alarming decline in the number of priest celebrants is the priority of priorities. But the working document does not assign a major place to this topic. And the platitudinous words of the document are unhelpful. The synod fathers need creative courage, as well as the grace and guidance of the Holy Spirit, to address this reality. For the Synod of Bishops not to discuss in a significant way the critical shortage of celebrants for Eucharist would be a disservice to God’s people. We pray in the Our Father “give us this day our daily bread.” “This day” does not mean when the priest comes to confect the Eucharist every other month or once in several months. And a paraliturgical service in the absence of a priest is not the Catholic tradition’s vision of Eucharist for a Christian community.
Jesus’ command “Do this in memory of me” demands the full celebration of the Eucharist, not merely a Communion service. The Lord’s command requires taking the bread and the cup to give praise and thanks to God, thereby making possible participation in Christ’s own self-offering to the Father. The full celebration of the Eucharist is the baptismal birthright of every Catholic. Shouldn’t the synod ponder ways to make this a reality?
Christ instituted the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, for the communication of grace and for the achievement of salvation. “The bread that I will give you is my flesh for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51). God’s people have an absolute right to the Eucharist for their salvation. The Eucharist is essential for the nourishment of the soul. Did not Jesus say: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (Jn 6:53)? Shouldn’t these words of Jesus be a starting point for the working document for the synod?
To transform the world, Jesus gives us a twofold method: preach the word of God and celebrate the sacraments. “But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? How can they hear without someone to preach? And how can people preach unless they are sent?” (Rom 10:14-15). To answer St. Paul’s questions for our day and age, shouldn’t there be a synodal discussion about the decline of vocations to the priesthood? This does not necessarily entail a discussion of optional celibacy, but it does invite a broad conversation on why young men are not answering Christ’s call, why many are not coming to Eucharist, and what the church can do now to minister more effectively to youth.
Recognizing that the permanent diaconate is a distinctive vocation, shouldn’t some men, who have been called and commissioned through ordination to the permanent diaconate, once adequately prepared and qualified, be ordained to the priesthood? Shouldn’t the synod at least explore this as a response for those areas where the word of God is not being preached and the sacraments of Christ are not being expended? Shouldn’t the Synod of Bishops consider a pastoral plan for the more equitable distribution of priests?
The life of the sacramental church is at stake. God’s people have an absolute right to receive the word of God and the sacraments of Christ for their salvation.
A prime example of the poor quality of theological insight referenced in the instrumentum laboris is revealed in the following passage:
An increasingly secularized society has caused a weakening in the sense of mystery. This is witnessed in misinterpretation and distorted ideas in the council’s liturgical renewal, which has led to rites superficial in nature and devoid of spiritual significance (No. 6).
The instrumentum laboris does not specify if these distorted liturgical rites are widespread or isolated, approved or unapproved. If they are unauthorized, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal applies, and there is no need for a meeting of the World Synod of Bishops to discuss them. If the comments refer to approved liturgical rites of the church, then I find this an audacious and even alarming statement!
That there has been a lessening in appreciation of transcendence in our secularized society is universally acknowledged, but to attribute this to the “misinterpretation and distorted ideas” of the Second Vatican Council’s liturgical renewal, ending in “rites superficial in nature and devoid of spiritual significance” is both disheartening and frightening. To find these words in the official working paper for the synod fathers is shocking. What is gratuitously asserted is gratuitously denied. Certainly cultural values, unbridled consumerism, relativism, secularism are formative factors in the loss of appreciation of transcendence. But the rites of the church are found in liturgical books approved by episcopal conferences and endorsed by the Holy See. How can they be labeled “superficial” and “devoid of spiritual significance”?
I suggest that the passage quoted above is an echo of chronic complainers who have an impoverished understanding of liturgy and Vatican II. The synod should not focus on this negative thinking.
For the healthy exercise of collegiality at the synod, there must be conversation, collaboration and consultation. To what extent have the priests, religious and laity been consulted? The late Pope John Paul II said, “Let us listen to what the faithful say, because in every one of them the Spirit of God breathes” (Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 1994).
Our present pope, Benedict XVI, has already made procedural changes for the forthcoming synod. Each synodal father will speak only six minutes, thereby allowing one hour for free discussion at the end of each day’s general meeting. While these changes are encouraging, one speech after another does not constitute dialogue. This approach also fails to engage participants in a mutual exchange of ideas, but holds to prepared speeches unrelated to the previous speaker’s comments. Wouldn’t a prepared schema, drafted by a commission of representative bishops and periti, similar to what was issued to the council fathers of Vatican II, be more beneficial than the present format of the instrumentum laboris? Such a schema could call for debate and dialogue centered around particular theological and pastoral statements rather than the present disconnected discussion.
Will the upcoming synod ask the hard questions? The instrumentum laboris does not. Will the synod go beyond exhortation? The instrumentum laboris does not. Will the synod have the creative courage to recommend policies for pastoral government, fulfilling the words of Paul VI, who chartered the synod, “that we...make use of the helpful service and counsel of our brothers in the episcopate for the pastoral government of the Church herself” (address of Sept. 29, 1967)?
What will the synod produce? We do not need any additional theological or disciplinary treatises on the Eucharist. The church already possesses the recently issued magnificent theological documents on the Eucharist, Mane Nobiscum Domine and Ecclesia de Eucharistia. The church is still absorbing other recent disciplinary liturgical documents: Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani and Redemptionis Sacramentum. More statements simply recasting what is already known will not be helpful to diocesan churches.
The risen Christ lives in his church. This should prompt all of us to have creative courage and confidence in facing the serious issues of the day. God’s grace is more than sufficient for the pastoral problems of the day.
Today many priests are overworked, pastoring three and four parishes or staffing by themselves parishes that once had several parochial vicars; in some countries priests have 10 or more mission stations. Acting as a circuit rider with only occasional visits to a faith community does not adequately express the presiding role of the priest at Eucharist. Such functionalism endangers the personal and the community dimensions of celebrating Eucharist: bonding with the assembly, knowing the flock, living the title “Father” with presence to the flock, involvement and regular spiritual care of the flock. Functionalism can weaken the joy of shepherding and endanger the priest’s vocation.
I would like to say to the synod fathers, first and foremost: Please remember the priests, celebrants of the Eucharist, who are spread so thin in so many directions; do not neglect them. And please remember the cry of the laity, “Give us this day our daily bread.” That the Synod of Bishops will meet the challenges and opportunity for the revitalization of God’s people through the Eucharist, we pray, we pray, we pray.