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THE CATHOLIC REVIEW: Blessed Are Those Called to the Supper of the Lamb

Studying the Catholic Church’s teaching on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist

By DEACON RICK BAUER
06/16/2017 | Comments

As we will soon celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, it has always been a special time in the liturgical year for me. As a former Protestant minister, it was the Eucharist — the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ, present in bread and wine, the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 322) that drew me inexorably into the Catholic Church. To receive Holy Communion is still the greatest gift on this earth, and it is always an experience to be treasured.

The Church in her wisdom calls us to intentional reflection on this reality often, but in particular on this blessed Sunday, we need to stop and consider. We are greatly helped by the scores of books, websites, and other teaching on the Eucharist, and a few come to mind that are worthy of our time and study.

That we are often in need of remembrance and study seems a given; it was quite a shock to discover that there exists a significant portion of Catholics who are at odds with this core teaching. While the data is a bit old (and we certainly pray it does not apply in our diocese), a recent book titled “American Catholics in Transition” by William V. D’Antonio, Michele Dillon, and Mary L. Gautier (from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate), published in 2013, posited the assertion that as many as 50 percent of Catholics are unaware of the Catholic doctrine that says Jesus is fully present in the Eucharist. (Their findings are summarized in the the graphic below).

As a deacon, an ordained Protestant and now-Catholic clergyman, a student and teacher of the Scriptures, a formation leader of deacon candidates, of RCIA classes, etc., this discovery was stunning. It was a stretch to believe that there were some Catholics who were unaware, but what was more difficult to grasp was that there are Catholics who are aware of this core teaching about Christ’s presence in Holy Communion and just don’t believe it.

For those who teach, counsel, and catechize, we clearly have work to do, and all three of the books reviewed this month pertain to this topic. While unbelief is more often a matter of the will than a lack of information, we have found great resources that can help:

“Our Daily Bread: Glimpsing the Eucharist through the Centuries,” by Ralph Wright, OSB, weaves a seamless, continuous garment attesting to the Real Presence over the two thousand heard of church history. From the Gospel writings and those of St. Paul, to St. Ignatius, St. Cyprian, St. Cyril, St. John Chrysostom, through each century, including writings of St. Anselm, St Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Therese of Lisieux through the writing of Vatican II and St Teresa of Calcutta, we have a consistent message — we do not have access to the divine life promised by Christ “unless you eat.” The book is both easily read and powerfully edited, creating both a compelling and inviting argument in love of the nature and benefits of the Real Presence of Christ.

More in-depth, and still spanning two millennia of teaching, “Eucharistic Doctors: A Theological History” by Deacon Owen Cummings of Salt Lake City argues that there is no church without Eucharist. Ranging from the age of the Church Fathers to contemporary time, and embracing both Eastern and Western traditions, we are brought into the writings of Ambrose, Augustine, Newman, and even Protestant luminaries such as Wycliffe, Luther, and Calvin, to discover a unified set of convictions on the absolute centrality of the Eucharist in the Christian faith.

For those whose study runs more ambitious than most, we have Brant Pitre’s “Jesus and the Last Supper.” Released a few years ago, it is one of the most challenging and informative works on this subject we have ever encountered, and with it Pitre takes his place as one of the brightest and most thorough Catholic biblical scholars in the world. It is an in-depth study of Old and New Testament, Dead Sea material of Jesus’ time, and in deep conversation with others who have studied the relationship of the Last Supper to Christian communion. It is not so much an argument about the real presence of Christ as it is a rebuttal of more than a century of poor scholarship in Jesus studies — the “Historical Jesus” school (by and large, an ill-fated attempt to recover an “original strata” of historically reliable information in the New Testament from a collection of other information deemed less valuable because the writings are compromised by “influence of the early church” and hence not trustworthy).

Pitre wades into the morass and demonstrates that the narratives of the institution of the Eucharist in the Gospels of St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, St. Paul’s restatement found in 1 Corinthians, and the latest biblical citation, the “Bread of Life Discourse” found in St. John’s Gospel, are not the product of theological insertions from later time, but reveal a unified understanding by Jesus of the Last Supper as a recapitulation of Passover and the Exodus.

In chapters entitled “The New Manna”, “The New Passover”, “The New Moses”, Pitre creates a powerful argument that the Communion celebrated by the first century church was reflective of not only the Last Supper offered by Jesus before his death, but something that reached back into Old Testament history. Pitre shows that the Passover traditions and the eschatological hope for the messianic promise of “a prophet like Moses” would inaugurate this sacrificial supper.

“Jesus and the Last Supper” is not late-night bedside reading, but rather the kind of a book that is best read carefully — Bible open, highlighter warmed up, and a well-worn notebook rapidly filling with insights and connection. For those making the investment (and having a bit of background in the study of the New Testament), this book is a sumptuous feast of exegesis and theology. We look forward to reading more from this rising Catholic scholar in our midst (and hope to have him teach us in Colorado sometime soon!); we are greatly encouraged that there are capable men and women who are ready to teach and inspire us to be “called to the Supper of the Lamb.”

 (For more information, to reply, or to suggest a book or resource that might be helpful for Catholic Christians, please write Deacon Rick at rbauer@diocs.org)


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