With the Indianapolis 500 ready to start in less than an hour, I am taking the day to watch the 100th running of this race. I haven't missed this race on TV since ABC got the rights to televise it in 1970.
I am expecting to post tomorrow on "Morality Monday" and in the meantime I hope you are celebrating the feast of Corpus Christi and the sacrifices of our American men and women who fought that we might continue our quest to worship and enrich the world with our good works.
I'm sorry to say I will be on the road today, but I am posting a link to a news story from Nova Scotia (which I will be visiting this summer) where Catholic parishes are offering their facilities for viewings of the deceased, to help families with the high costs of funeral arrangements. This sounds like a powerful opportunity to reconnect with Catholics who have perhaps stopped their practice of the faith or to introduce the Catholic way to the unchurched.
In my lifetime, and certainly in yours, the gifts of the Holy Spirit—wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord—are genuinely spoken of as personal gifts, aids and challenges. At last night’s parish Vigil Pentecost Mass (the Sunday format, as I suspected it would be) one of our priests mused that when he says Mass and looks out over the congregation, he is moved by the thought that everyone is going through some kind of personal difficulty, struggle, or suffering. He spoke of the Holy Spirit in the highly personal way, and of course there is great truth in this.
That said, the Pentecostal event celebrated today was a group encounter with a group impact—the Spirit energized the disciples in the upper room for the expressed purpose of engaging in ministry, which is indeed what followed immediately. Today’s Pentecostal narrative at Mass reports only the first portion of the event, the actual encounter of the newly reconstituted twelve with the Spirit. It may be interesting to look at Acts 2 in its entirety, which describes what the disciples did with this new Spirit empowerment: Peter’s dramatic sermon and the baptizing of 3000 Jewish converts that every day.
Fittingly Pentecost is referred to often as the Birthday of the Church—a term that might be debated by theologians but does have an honest ring to it, for biblically speaking, one of the gifts of the Spirit is power. When Jesus breathed the spirit into the Apostles on Easter Sunday night (St. John’s description of Pentecost) he breathed into them divine authority: “whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them.” You might recall from Mark’s Gospel the assertion of the scribes, in opposition to Jesus, that only God can forgive sins. The Spirit’s infusion of divine life and legitimacy into the twelve successors of Jesus’ mission is the empowerment of the Church itself to continue the Lord’s heritage until his second coming.
Pentecost can be described not only as the birthday of the Church but as the origin of its authority as well. From Pentecost forward the Church, even in its infancy, could legitimately baptize a remission of sin and invite the living Jesus into the breaking of the bread. The Church could interpret the Hebrew Scripture authoritatively in the full light of God’s plan, and two centuries later define the books that articulate the life and meaning of Jesus by teaching authoritatively which 27 texts would form the Christian canon, what we call the New Testament. The Church could define who would continue its tradition by laying hands upon select candidates, and determine that indeed Gentiles were worthy of baptism without Jewish circumcision. The Church could correct communities in disarray, as St. Paul did with the Corinthian Church’s Eucharistic abuses.
As I noted above, we are accustomed to think of the Spirit in assisting us as individuals; it is equally true—possibly more true—that the Spirit assists the Church itself in its challenges and travails. It is not uncommon to read of or experience personally the failures of the Church as a whole and/or those sacramentally charged to lead it. Nor is it unusual to hear of those who believe the Church is on the wrong path—most notably in regard to Pope Francis, accused of undermining timeless beliefs.
If everything were crystal clear from the beginning, no Gentile would ever have been baptized, there would never have been more than two sacraments, slavery and the rights of laboring folks would never have crossed the moral radar. When Jesus told his disciples that they had much more to learn, he explained that this would happen in the age of the Holy Spirit, when the Paraclete sent by the Father would make things clear. Despite the protestations of some, I believe that the Spirit works with the Church in the same way that the Spirit works with each of us the confirmed—as works in progress, perfected in an ongoing way.
Joseph Martos, in his discussion on sacraments in Doors to the Sacred (2014), observes that one of the great insights of medieval theologians was the idea that God offers himself fully in every sacramental celebration but that divine saving grace can be frustrated without the proper disposition or intention of the recipient. Again, what is true of individuals is true of the whole—there have been times when God’s Spirit has been poured out upon leaders but the disposition to receive it was lacking—for reasons of fear, intellectual pride, power, habit of longstanding. And conversely, there are times when we as members thwart the mission of the Spirit in the Church, for generally the same reasons.
Pentecost is a splendid time to reflect upon the living Spirit’s power in the Christian community--in capite et membris, in head and members, and how full participation of the Church in the Holy Spirit is possible only when we all stand in humility in the upper room, in capite et membris.
This entry also appears on yesterday's (Saturday's) blog page, as Saturday is normally devoted to reflections on the Sacraments.
In the Western Latin or Roman Church, the last great father/theologian before the Dark Ages was St. Augustine, who summarized Church teaching on a number of matters including the concept of sacraments. Augustine summarized the sacramental theology of the four centuries prior to his own as “a sign of a sacred thing” and “always efficacious even when they were not spiritually fruitful.” (Martos, 46) Interestingly, though, Augustine’s definition of sacramental practice was remarkably broad: praying the Lord’s Prayer, reciting the Nicene Creed, making the Sign of the Cross, and receiving the ashes of penance were considered as actions that effected the presence and saving power of God.
Augustine's native North Africa was severely disarranged by Vandal invasions in the fifth century, and then later by the ascendancy of Islam on the African continent. Western Europe was similarly disrupted for the balance of the first millennium. Christianity did not come to an end, to be sure. As a rule, the Church would eventually come to grips with the new demographic, in many cases quite spectacularly if one considers the Franks (think Pepin and Charlemagne) and the Irish. Church missionaries took with them the practices of the mother church, which held the basic principle that a powerful God effected good things in particular rites, practices, and customs. At times missionary work did boil down to whose god was more practically effective; arguments over religion were not settled in university colloquies, at least not in 600 A.D. It is also true that new cultures inevitably added new interpretations and customs to the ancient Christian lifestyle. Ireland’s adaptation of personal and repeatable forgiveness is a good case in point.
In his Doors to the Sacred (2014) Martos also notes that there was a kind of interplay between the theory of the sacrament and the practice of the sacrament. Sometimes the practice reshaped the theory, or vice versa. When Augustine laid out the nature of original sin as transmitted by conception from the line of Adam, the urgency of baptizing infants became part of the Christian life, and the local (parish) priest was entrusted with this time pressured responsibility. However, the laying on of hands to confer the Holy Spirit was believed to be the obligatory responsibility of a bishop, and given the dangerous travel and distances of the time, bishops might not see their villages for years at a time. Thus the anointing of the Spirit became a “stand alone” sacrament which in turn would develop its own raison d’etre. Any of us confirmed in the 1950’s to become “soldiers of Christ” can vouch for that.
As is often the case it takes a good controversy to jumpstart a powerful theological debate, and by the 1000’s the Church could worry less about the Vikings and turn to one of the landmark sacramental developmental moments, the teaching of Berengar of Tours (999-1088 A.D.) and the Church’s response. The Wikipedia article linked here gives evidence that very early medieval churchmen and thinkers had been wrestling with the nature of the Eucharistic sacrament for perhaps a century. In brief, Berengar wrote and taught that the bread and wine consecrated at Mass did not literally become the body and blood of Christ. He did not deny that a Christian received the real presence of Christ, but that this took place in a spiritual way. To Berengar, the realities of bread and wine remained just that, signs of the Body of Christ; the communicant would receive both the real bread and wine (the sign) and the invisible but real Mysterium of the sacrament, the invisible working of God, the feeding of the soul unto everlasting life.
Berengar was a much respected churchman and scholar. He was not a renegade, though he could be pugnacious. His problems arose from his resistance to what might be called exaggerated realism in matters of the Eucharist. In the ninth century a scholar had claimed that Christ’s Eucharistic body was the same as his glorified body in heaven. Churchmen of the day understood that this proposition was not quite right, but they struggled to explain why. Berengar drew from Augustine’s definition of a sacrament as a “visible sign of invisible grace,” to provide a possible solution. For him the visible sign was the collective bread and wine; the invisible reality was union with Christ. In his thinking it was not necessary to proclaim a miraculous change of material substance.
As far as we know, Berengar himself died in the good graces of the Church. Despite several Church trials and censures, history’s final judgment of Berengar may be that he erred in attempting to achieve a kind of sacramental consistency. Augustine’s dual description—outer sign, inner grace—would not quite be enough to describe the complexity of the sacramental system, and the process of how sign and reality interworked. The Eucharist presented unique challenges in the sense that of all the sacraments, the signs becomes divine (the bread and wine become the Second Person of the Trinity.) No one ever claimed that baptismal water or sacred chrism became divine, so to speak, though the believer certainly experienced God if so disposed.
Berengar was among the first of the medieval scholars to introduce the complexities of the sacramental experience. While the sacramental model of outward sign and inward reality would maintain virtually to our present day, the precise elaboration of this process would be considerably challenging for each sacrament. One of the significant challenges of the age of the medieval universities was rethinking and reformulating a variety of aspects of sacramental life, not least of which was determining a universal understanding of what precisely which experiences were sacraments, an issue finally resolved at the Second Council of Lyons (1272-1274) with the number seven, as we know them today. (St. Thomas Aquinas died en route to this council.)
Berengar’s definition of the Eucharistic process, by the way, came to be known as “consubstantiation.” The official doctrinal Catholic term for the change of the bread and the wine was and remains “transubstantiation,” meaning that the bread and wine cease to exist in their substance as food and become the actual body and blood of Christ. Consubstantialists would hold that the bread and wine remains intact but that one communes with God all the same in the act of receiving communion. Many Protestant churches hold to some resemblance of consubstantiation in their theologies of communion.
The term “transubstantiation” calls for belief in an actual change of substance. Many historians hold that the Latin phrase from the Mass which changes the bread into the Eucharist, Hoc est enim corpus meum (or “this is my body”) became an object of ridicule among enemies of the Church, from which comes the magician’s phrase, “hocus pocus.”
To satisfy my own curiosity, I checked to see if there is research on what Catholics today believe regarding the Eucharist. I came across a CARA study in 2008 (entire study here) which addresses our issue with Berengar:
Nine in ten weekly Mass attendees (91 percent) say they believe that Jesus Christ is really present in the Eucharist, compared to two-thirds of those who attend Mass less than weekly but at least once a month (65 percent), and four in ten of those attending Mass a few times a year or less (40 percent). Among Catholics attending Mass at least once a month, the youngest generation of Catholics (born after 1981) has similar beliefs about the Eucharist as Pre-Vatican II Generation Catholics (born before 1943).
I apologize for missing Saturday's post on the sacraments. Hard to believe but Saturday's post was almost finished on Friday afternoon until the Word program temporarily cut out...I thought there was "autosave" but it didn't save me.
It has been a full weekend, beginning with my church group preparing breakfast at a local shelter on Saturday morning. Then Margaret and I took off for a lengthy hike, something of a dress rehearsal for our Appalachian Trail hike in a few weeks. We repeated a woods hike in another area today to break in shoes and equipment.
Anyway, I'll be back Monday for Morality.
On My Mind