Polarised Eucharist

What the Sacrament of the Eucharist really means has become a core issue that needs to be resolved between the community and their parish priest, Fr Gerry Prindiville at St Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Redfern.

The problem revolves around a difference in outlook. The Redfern community has a spiritual outlook based on a church inspired by the practice of Jesus and his association with the lowly. Many who go to this Church have been moved by the remarkable thirty-year ministry of Fr Ted Kennedy who has deep empathy with Aboriginal people. This is a church whose members are most concerned over human rights, social justice and the plight of the poor, oppressed and the marginalised.

Their newly appointed parish priest, Fr Gerry Prindiville, however, comes from a different tradition. He is associated with the Neocatecumenate movement which focuses on how we can be saved from our sins. His homily has a single message: redemption from sin; his outlook, doctrinal.

The Neocatecumenate is a revival of the Catecumenate in the early Church. The original movement had been formed by the synthesis of Word (kerygma), liturgy and Morality. The word Catecumenate comes from catecheo meaning ‘I will make resound’ or in the passive form, ‘to listen’. The Gospel, or announcement of salvation, has apparently caused a moral change in those who listened. The moral change is consolidated through the Sacraments. Baptism is implemented in stages with the catechism used as the movement’s main tool for evangelisation. Their main target: people already baptized but lack sufficient Christian training.

This is consistent with Fr Prindiville’s new project: to begin Catechism classes for children at St Vincent’s Church.

In the early church if one wished to become a Christian, an itinerary in Christian training (the Catecumenate) had to be followed. While the Catecumenate movement disappeared in the following centuries from the time of the early Church, it has recently been revived in the ‘Neocatecumenate’ who work at the service of the bishops. With the onslaught of secularization, Vatican II and atheism, it was felt that work on Christian formation had to resume.

This is why the meaning of the Eucharist has become the battleground between the Redfern community and Archbishop George Pell’s new appointee in Redfern.

Eucharist: Celebration of the Jews’ escape from Egypt

A little background. What is the origin of the Eucharist? The word ‘Eucharist’ comes from the Greek word which means ‘Thanksgiving’. The celebration of the Eucharist is a reminder that when Jesus took bread, he gave thanks. This Sacrament can be traced to the Last Supper when a meal was shared between Jesus and his disciples before he was crucified. This sharing of the meal occurred during the Jewish Passover, a time when Jews ate a special meal to celebrate their escape from Egypt – an event seen as a great saving act of God. When Christians gather today during the Eucharist, they express their gratitude for his saving love

Eucharist: Jesus’ break with tradition

On the night before his Crucifixion, Jesus ate with his disciples and broke the bread. But he also broke tradition when he added the mysterious words, ‘This is my body,’ and then took wine and said, ‘This is my blood.’ When he gave the bread and wine to his disciples, he said, ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ When Christians attend mass on Sundays, it is in memory of Jesus. The Eucharist is at the core of their faith.

Eucharist as fellowship

The breaking of bread together was one of the key features of the early church (See Acts 2:42). The words, ‘Holy Communion’ stress the fellowship aspect of the service or meal. Sharing the bread and wine fosters communion between the people and God. The people are encouraged to think of it as a corporate experience of sharing one loaf at the Lord’s Table with their sisters and brothers in Christ. (Descriptions of the Last Supper are found in the New Testament in Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22, and John 13.)

Eucharist as service

But while the Last Supper is part of John’s Gospel, it does not describe the breaking of the bread and sharing of wine. Rather it describes how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet as an example of humble service.

The Redfern community are comfortable with the imagery of the Eucharist as fellowship through breaking of the bread and sharing of the wine in communion with all in God. They are also attracted to the idea of the Eucharist as service, especially to the downtrodden.

Hence, the question of worthiness in receiving the Eucharist was not a major issue with the Redfern community. Not until Fr Prindiville came to St Vincent’s Church. Inevitably, this question has generated differing interpretations of the Scriptures.

The question of ‘worthiness’ in receiving the Eucharist
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11:23-32), he made it clear that to eat the bread and drink the wine ‘in an unworthy manner’ was a serious matter. From then on, Christians were encouraged to prepare themselves by prayer and sometimes by fasting as a way of repentance.

Fr Ted Kennedy reflects on the question of worthiness in his book Who is Worthy?: ‘It has become clear that Paul’s frown on those who receive the body of the Lord unworthily refers to the rich who set up their own table ignoring the poor.’ (cf. Kennedy, Ted, 2000. Who is Worthy?. Annandale: Pluto Press, pp. 79-80) (my underscoring)

He cites Irish theologian, Brendan Lovett who he says presented a strong case for offering communion to all: ‘(The Corinthian communities) apparently wanted to celebrate the Eucharist in a way that was not marked by death…Whatever they may think, Paul tells them, in coming together it is not the Lord’s supper that they eat. Paul knows this because of the exclusion of the poor.’ (my underscoring)

Brendan Lovett contends that the praxis of Jesus overthrows the presumption even in the case of John the Baptist’s exhortation of ‘First Repentance, then Communion’, in the eating habits of Jesus. The Jews had no problem with forgiveness of sin or, welcoming the repentant sinner. There would have been no scandal if Jesus mingled with people who were repentant. A repentant sinner is not a sinner.

But Jesus ate with sinners.

Eucharist: stress on social rather than personal; inclusive rather than exclusive

Fr Ted Kennedy and Brendan Lovett’s theology focuses on the praxis of Jesus with emphasis on social rather than personal; inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness.

The Eucharist and Aboriginal spirituality

Aboriginal spirituality also seems to be very much attuned to the idea of inclusiveness and service. Reflecting on the significance of Christ washing the feet of the people (an aspect of the Eucharist that is emphasised in John’s Gospel), Aboriginal poet, Kevin Gilbert writes:

I’ve heard more people laughing and singing, and seen more people looking happy and well-fed than Aboriginal People who used to be well-fed and happy when they were with God 200 years ago before the Christians came; before the Whitefella came. While we’ve been laughing and feeding, a lot of Aboriginal kids, little fellas, have been out there dying, because there’s no medication, no clean drinking water.

Christ went out and washed the feet of the people. Feed my sheep. Feed my lambs. I see Blackfella walking around with a Bible in his hand; Whitefella’s Bible from the land of Israel. He’s not out there washing Blackfella babies’ and kids’ feet, he’s talking, singing and strumming guitar, right? He’s given an air-conditioned house and a big flash car, but he’s not out there where the people are. That worries me. He’s not out there where Aboriginal kids are dying. It worries me. Not out there in the camp. Worries me. He’s singing happy songs to Jesus.

But remember, before Jesus came along, there was the Word. The Word is God. Before Jesus came along God was here, in my country where the Word is. That Word never changed, never deserted us. We didn’t have any clothes to talk about shame. We didn’t need to talk about hell; there was no hell because we worked with the Law, the Word of the Law, the Word in the rocks and the trees. That’s Aboriginal Spirituality. In a way, I say I’m Christian, or I’m a believer in Christ – the fella who wiped the feet. In the same way I’m the land, I’m Kangaroo Man, that’s me. That’s real.

(cf. Kevin Gilbert, ‘God at the Campfire and that Christ Fella’ in Anne Pattel-Gray (ed), 1996, Aboriginal Spirituality Past Present Future. Victoria: HarperCollins. pp. 62-63)

On the other hand, the Neo-Catechumenate way focuses on the mystery of the Eucharist.

On this subject, Fr Gerry Prindiville wrote to his parishioners: ‘Regular communicants should be members of the Catholic Church, in the state of grace and believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the consecrated species. Only the priest, deacon or designated Eucharist minister should distribute Holy Communion. All parishioners are urged to show respect for the Eucharist at all times.’ (The Saving Word (mass bulletin), 21 September 2003). The Redfern community are incensed by the presumption that they do not show respect for the Eucharist at all times.

Over the centuries, differences emerged in understanding what the Eucharist means or precisely what is the meaning of the phrase, ‘This is my Body.’ In what is referred to as Transubstantiation, the Catholic Church teaches (See Council of Trent, 1545-1563) that the Lord Jesus Christ is really and truly substantially present in the Holy Eucharist.

To explain this, Aristotle’s distinction between substance and accident is employed. Substance refers to essence; accident to its outward appearance. Hence, the accidents of the bread and wine remain (they look and taste like bread and wine) but the substance changes (to that of the body and blood of Jesus Christ).

Other views: Martin Luther (16th Century reformers) held to Con-substantiation, that is, the substance of both bread and the body of Christ are present together. Other theologians (20th century) such as Edward Schillebeeckx, speak of Trans-signification, the idea that the consecration of the bread and wine is primarily about a change in meaning.

Other aspects of the mystery of the Eucharist can be gleaned from the sacramental language that John uses in recording a discourse following the feeding of the 5000 in which Jesus says: ‘I am the bread of life…This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever (John 6: 48-51). Or, in Paul who links the Lord’s Supper with the return of Christ in glory. ‘for whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11:26). In Matthew 26:29, Jesus tells his disciples that he will not drink wine with them again until ‘I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.’ This theme is picked up in the liturgy with the affirmation: ‘Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.’

No doubt the concept of the Eucharist or ‘Thanksgiving’ is replete with mystery. For me, the Eucharist has a real presence and consider this part of the mass as vital. I will refuse to engage in a debate with anyone, however, on what ‘real’ means for me. But I also believe in inclusiveness, the praxis of fellowship and service.

I believe in an integral theology. Not a theology that excludes (sinners and ‘Judases’) and divides the community between those who are ‘with us or against us’. I believe the Redfern community has always regarded the Eucharist with respect. We have always considered St Vincent’s Church as a sacred place and the Eucharist and the entire liturgy a sacred moment. ‘Sacredness’, however, includes how we live our lives outside the church such as how we relate with the poor and those treated unjustly by the powerful.

Considering the richness of meaning that can be derived from the mystery of the Eucharist, the source of the dispute, it seems to me comes from how narrowly or broadly is one’s embrace of the meaning of the ‘Eucharist’.

The Eucharist is a mystery. There are many nuances and shades of grey in life. How much more with something we see as ‘mystery’. For Fr Prindiville, it is simple. It is black and white. It’s about ‘the real presence’. Implied in that is knowing whether one is ‘worthy’, in ‘a state of grace’, or truly ‘Catholic’ from the institutional church hierarchy’s definition. This seems to me a top-down questioning as to who belongs or who doesn’t on the basis of gnosis (special knowledge) of mystery. This stance may easily be interpreted by others as a form of ‘Inquisition’.

Back to the central issue of Who is Worthy?. The title of Fr Ted Kennedy’s book is prophetic indeed. From the perspective of the Redfern community, one might ask: ‘who is worthy’ (to receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist), sinners or ‘saints’ (e.g. followers of the neo-catechumenate way)? No doubt on this question, the community and their parish priest, Fr Gerry Prindiville at St Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Redfern need to find common ground.

But beyond this ideological or ecclesial question is one for Archbishop George Pell: why appoint a priest who has a totally different culture and perspective from the Redfern community?

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