Father Richard Neuhaus on the Eucharist

And Its Relationship to «Communio»

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NEW YORK, JAN. 23, 2005 (Zenit.org).- The election-year controversy about pro-abortion Catholic politicians receiving Communion raises questions about the connection between «communion» and receiving Communion, according to a theological observer.

Father Richard John Neuhaus, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and editor in chief of First Things, hopes the discussion started will continue.

Father Neuhaus shared with ZENIT his thoughts on the Eucharist’s role in the Church, the New Evangelization and ecumenical relations, and the need for a comprehensive renewal of Catholic understanding and practice of the reception of the Eucharist with respect to authentic «communio.»

Q: What role does the Eucharist have in the life of the Church?

Father Neuhaus: Quite simply, it is the Mass that holds together the universal Church — which is to say, it is Christ truly present who holds together the entire Church. This is true theologically, but also sociologically and psychology.

The Mass simply is the definitive experience of Christ and his Church for Catholics. As the Holy Father has explained in various ways, we have not adequately understood any aspect of the Church’s life until we see its intimate connection with Christ in the Eucharist.

The entire structure of the Church, the purpose of the episcopate in union with the ministry of Peter, is to make sure that, from generation to generation until Our Lord’s return in glory, the Christian people faithfully «do this» in memory of him.

Q: How does the Eucharist play a part in the New Evangelization?

Father Neuhaus: It does more than play a part. One learns from, for instance, the encyclical «Ecclesia de Eucharistia» that evangelization and re-evangelization are inescapably Eucharistic. Evangelization entails not just a personal decision for Christ by individuals but incorporation into the Eucharistic community that is the Church.

Cardinal Ratzinger has suggestively noted that, for Protestants, the decision for Christ and the decision for the church are two decisions, whereas for Catholics the decision for Christ and his Church is one decision.

While the Eucharist, as St. Paul says, «proclaims the death of Christ until he comes,» that proclamation includes the explicit articulation of the saving Gospel of Christ in preaching.

In my experience and that of many others, Catholic preaching is very weak, indeed it is an embarrassment. Catholics typically do not hear great preaching, and therefore do not expect great preaching. Low homiletical expectations by the people encourage slovenly homiletical efforts by the priests.

Evangelization entails the explicit proclamation of the New Testament «kerygma» of the saving acts of God in Christ. Too often, Catholic homilies refer to vague «Gospel values» that are tantamount to little more than the exhortation that we should all be nice people.

In the Mass, the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist are complementary and intended to reinforce one another. One can, of course, be a good and holy priest but a thoroughly ineffective preacher.

But much more can and should be done to elevate Catholic preaching, remembering that every Eucharist is a call to commitment and recommitment, to conversion and reconversion. In that sense, each celebration of the Eucharist is evangelistic.

Q: What do the widespread liturgical abuses and the controversy of pro-abortion politicians receiving Communion indicate regarding perceptions of and respect for the Eucharist?

Father Neuhaus: There are two questions there. The great liturgical movement of the early 20th century, led by figures such as Henri de Lubac, Danielou, Virgil Michel and Martin Hellriegel, was formally embraced by the Second Vatican Council. Many of the liturgical «reforms» following the Council, however, departed radically from the vision of the earlier movement.

This is a very big subject with many parts, but the key problem, I believe, was the ascendancy of an instrumental view of worship. Liturgy was subjected to psychological and sociological criteria alien to the very meaning of worship.

The worship of God has no purpose other than the worship of God. While worship has many benefits, we do not worship in order to attain those benefits. The simple and radical truth is that we worship God because God is to be worshiped.

The earlier movement understood that we are to worship «in the beauty of holiness,» as it says in Psalm 96. This engages the aesthetic dimensions of liturgy, including the dignity of language, gestures, ritual and excellence in music and the arts.

In many ways, Catholic worship has been destabilized and impoverished since the Council. Today, fortunately, more and more liturgical scholars and pastors are committing themselves to what is called «the reform of the reform.» This is not to go backward but to carry forward the great vision of the liturgical movement that was, let us pray, only temporarily derailed.

As for the controversy about pro-abortion Catholic politicians receiving Communion, we must hope that the discussion started will continue. This is not just about pro-abortion politicians. It engages the much deeper question of the connection between «communion» and receiving Communion.

To be rightly disposed to receive the Eucharist is to be in communion with the Church, which includes faithful adherence to the Church’s magisterial teaching. Especially in America where there is a multitude of Christian denominations, many Catholics have assumed the Protestant attitude that the local parish is simply their religion of choice.

The parish is the local franchise of the Catholic Church, much as they might patronize the local franchise of McDonald’s. It is further assumed that everybody has a «right» to receive Communion, just as everybody has a right to purchase a Big Mac.

Obviously, this is a severe debasement of «communion» and Communion. In the Eucharist, we receive Christ and Christ receives us, incorporating us into his body the Church, which is, most fully and rightly ordered through time, the People of God in communion with bishops who are in communion with the Bishop of Rome.

To be rightly disposed entails confessing whatever in our lives contradicts or compromises that «communion» with Christ and his Church and then receiving absolution. Sadly, the sacrament of reconciliation has fallen almost into desuetude in many places, and certainly not only in the United States.

One, therefore, must hope that the election-year controversy over pro-abortion politicians will lead to a much more comprehensive renewal of Catholic understanding and practice with respect to authentic «communio.»

Q: How does the Eucharist play into ecumenical relations? Can it bring Catholics and non-Catholics together? What are some of the main theological obstacles that stand in the way for the Eucharist to be a source of unity?

Father Neuhaus: These are questions very directly addressed in «Ecclesia de Eucharistia.» What the Council and subsequent popes, most notably John Paul II, have repeatedly asserted is the Church’s «irreversible» commitment to the quest for Christian unity.

Ecumenism is necessary not in order to create unity with other Christians, but to bring to perfection the unity that already exists. As the Council declared, all who are baptized and believe in Jesus Christ are in «a certain but imperfect communion» with the Catholic Church. All the saving and sanctifying graces that are to be found outside the boundaries of the Catholic Church gravitate toward unity with the Catholic Church.

In the Catholic understanding, the goal of ecumenism is «full communion,» and full communion is unity in faith, sacraments and ministry. In his encyclical on the Eucharist, the Holy Father warns against trying to do an end-run around
the difficult work of ecumenism.

Some suggest that it would be very ecumenical for all of us, Catholics and non-Catholics, to celebrate the Eucharist together and do so now. But that, as the Holy Father notes, would be to defeat the entire ecumenical enterprise.

It would not be the resolution of our differences but pretending that our very important differences make no difference. We would end up communing together, but nothing would be changed; everyone would then go on in their separate ways.

No, says the Holy Father, we must patiently and faithfully continue the hard ecumenical work of striving for unity in faith, sacraments and ministry, in the hope of one day being led to the goal of full communion. That is the uncompromisable and irreversible goal to which the Catholic Church is committed.

The unity of all Christians in full communion may seem a very distant prospect. Some say it is an eschatological prospect, meaning that it must await the Second Coming of Our Lord. Whatever the schedule in God’s purposes, it is our present task.

Cardinal Ratzinger is surely right in noting that ecumenism today is marked by many disappointments, but he is equally right in saying that we must remain always open to a new initiative of the Holy Spirit that we cannot predict or control.

Remaining open means relentless engagement, dialogue, prayer and cooperation with other Christians. When we Catholics are joined in the Eucharist, it should be with a keen, even painful, awareness of our separation from others who are in a true but imperfect communion with us, and with a fervent prayer for that day when we will all be reconciled around one altar in obedience to our one Lord.

Q: As a convert, how did you discover the Eucharist?

Father Neuhaus: I was a Lutheran pastor for 30 years, and the Lutheran tradition has a very strong — if very different — eucharistic piety.

In the 16th century, the conflicts between Calvinists and, most especially, Zwinglians, on the one hand, and Lutherans, on the other, was centered in the Lutheran insistence upon the real presence of Christ in the Holy Communion.

So I did not «discover» the Eucharist upon being a Catholic. I entered into the fullness of Eucharistic theology and devotion, including the understanding of the Mass as the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ, an understanding that had been rejected by the Protestant, including Lutheran, leaders of the 16th century.

And, of course, in Lutheranism there was not the apostolically ordered ministry that the Catholic Church understands as essential to the Eucharist.

Q: How did your appreciation for the Eucharist change as a result of your conversion, and later, as a result of your ordination as a Catholic priest?

Father Neuhaus: I have already mentioned the Eucharist as Sacrifice.

In addition, there is the daily celebration of the Mass, whereas in Lutheranism the Lord’s Supper is observed, for the most part, only on Sundays and, in many places, only on one Sunday a month, or even less frequently.

There is also in Catholicism a keen appreciation of the Eucharist celebrated in communion with all the living and dead who are in communion with Christ. As we say in the Preface of the Eucharistic liturgy, «with angels, archangels and all the company of heaven.»

The awareness that we on earth are participating in the eternal heavenly banquet vastly expands one’s understanding of what is happening in the Eucharist.

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