Throughout much of my childhood and much of my early life, one sacrament loomed large, namely, the Eucharist. Of course, we never called it that, and to this day, it is not the word that most Catholics use. Instead, they talk about going to Mass or attending church.
Mass tends to be perceived as a duty and an obligation, without which salvation (in a life hereafter) cannot be obtained. And the celebration of Eucharist is not possible without an ordained priest, endowed with the divine power to bring Jesus down upon the altar, so that the people are nourished as passive recipients of salvific grace.
As a seminarian, I remember well my eucharistic theology (by a Jesuit professor) that left me in no doubt about the fact that it is the Holy Spirit of God that informs and empowers every eucharistic celebration.
The “change of the eucharistic elements (bread and wine results not from the magical words of the priest but from the epiclesis, the double invocation of the Holy Spirit, first upon the elements and later upon the gathered worshiping community). “We ask you to send your Holy Spirit to change these gifts of bread and wine.”
The agent of change is not the priest but the Holy Spirit of God. Despite that very clear and informed theology, I went on to celebrate Eucharist- for at least twenty years- before taking seriously what I had learned in seminary. Such was the influence of the widespread belief that it is the power of the priest that makes the difference and that without a priest there can be no Eucharist.
Another issue that never even dawned on me was the fact that the celebration of Eucharist was reserved to males. Only men could become priests! I faintly recall the unquestioned logic: only the twelve were at the Last Supper, and Eucharist is based totally on that special sacrificial meal that Jesus shared with the Twelve Apostles on the night before he died.
Twenty or, perhaps, thirty years on, I began to realise that Jesus shared several meals with his followers, most, it seems, with a nefarious group consisting of outcasts, sinners, and prostitutes.
There was no allusion to the kind of preparation deemed to be so essential in my early formative years: make sure you are not in a state of sin, and if in any doubt, make a perfect act of contrition! Nor were any of the participants asked to proclaim their unworthiness as occurs at a nauseating rate in the current translation of the Roman Missal.
How we ended up where we are with an understanding of Eucharist that Jesus would scarcely recognise would require a historical analysis well beyond the purview of this book. In all the Christian churches, we are at a kairos moment (sacred time) in the evolutionary understanding of Eucharist.
Originally, Eucharist was an ordinary meal, totally inclusive, empowering, liberating, and engaging the participants in a nourishing ritual in which they knew God to be intimately close and incarnationally real.
What began in early Christian times was the Christian church, of which the Roman Catholic denomination is one offshoot, albeit numerically the strongest at the present time. Catholicism, as we know it today, has departed significantly from the Gospel vision of Jesus as indeed have other major denominations.
Patriarchal power is the issue on which all Christian churches have deviated from their original inspiration. That deviation first transpired in the fourth century with Constantine’s endorsement of Christianity, a religion he moulded very much along the lines of domination and patriarchal control.
And for Roman Catholicism, there was a second major deviation, the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century.
Trent’s petrified defence
The Council of Trent began in 1545 and ended eighteen years later in 1563. Regarded by many clerical Church historians as one of the most important and auspicious councils of the Church, it marked a rupture within Christianity that has had deleterious consequences down to our own day. The council was a petrified reaction to the perceived attack of the Protestant Reformation. The council made no attempt to understand or reconcile the grievances of the Protestants. In fact, it set out to criminalise all such criticism.
While the council did move to eliminate some of the abuses that had stirred up the Reformation (for example, selling of indulgences and clerical corruption), it re-created a Church claiming a monopoly of power that seriously undermined the empowerment of the Christian Gospel.
Clerical power became a major issue at the Council of Trent, taking on a central importance also for the other denominations that emerged around the same time: Lutherans, Calvinists, and others. For Catholicism, it was very much a panic reaction. Feeling embarrassed and ashamed by the perceived betrayal of Protestantism, the Church resolved that it would do everything possible to ensure that such a departure from truth would never again happen.
To that end, Trent put in place a robust system of structure and regulation to safeguard the one and only truth, which the Catholic Church alone could deliver. A key aspect of this system was to create a superior person-in-charge, who is best described by four key words: male, white, celibate, cleric.
Male: Faithful to Aristotles’ anchropology, endorsed by St Thomas Aquinas, only males are considered to be full human beings, with God-given rational intelligence. The other half, namely, females, cannot, and must not, be trusted with serious responsibilities for the future of the Church.
White: At the time, the white Western world, which essentially means Europe, was regarded as the only civilized part of the planet. The colonisation of other parts was already at work in the Americas and in subsequent centuries was to spread to other continents. The vision of Trent and colonisation go hand-in-hand.
Celibate: Since God was viewed as asexual, those who truly represent God must be asexual as well. But there is a further nuance to the celibate state, denoting a quality of holiness equal to God himself. The priest has been granted a divine (or at least, semidivine) status.
Cleric: Fundamentally, this means a quality of power equal to God himself. So, only a cleric is authorised to speak on God’s behalf and to truly represent God on earth. Within this structure, no prospect of adult maturity among the people of God is tolerated. Even the privileged clerical few are themselves caught up in a tyrannical power game. Everybody ends up in co-dependent, dysfunctional relationships. In a sense, everybody is powerless, in a system that eventually will implode.
It can be so tightly buttressed, however, that it can endure for centuries, eventually running out of energy and fragmenting in a rather meaningless decimation. Evidence for this corrosive fragmentation is visible in all the Christian denominations today. And several of the Christian denominations don’t know what to do about it.
Those holding the power the male, white, celibate, clerics enforce their power chiefly by perpetuating a form of devotionalism the kept people passive, feeling unworthy, obedient, and subservient. Such devotionalism flourished through various movements, one of the better known being that of Jansenism”.
Original sin was highlighted as the central plight of all humanity, condemning humans to an enduring state of perversion and sin, which could be remedied only by penance and prayer, in the hope of making up to Jesus for his cruel sufferings (on the cross) caused by flawed humans.
One of the major problems with such devotions is that enough was never enough. The more penance one did, the more unworthy and inadequate one felt, and therefore, one had to keep adding additional effort.
Almost inevitably people began to internalise a tyrannical demanding God who could never be satisfied, a God that would never give the graces necessary for salvation unless we bombarded him day and night Such intense pleading with this highly manipulative, punitive God was done through repetitive prayers (for example, the rosary), novenas, fasting and other forms of bodily deprivation, pilgrimages, exaggerated use of statues and holy pictures, frequent attendance at church services, in obedience to the male, white, celibate clerics.
In this way people were kept in perpetual childish immaturity, embracing a sense of faith with little scope for adult growth and development. In the latter half of the twentieth century, many people in the West outgrew the co-dependency of such devotionalism and in several cases abandoned church practice completely.
In other parts of the world, the devotions were integrated with popular fiestas and local community celebrations, and in that process the severity of the penitential practices was reduced considerably. In communities around the world where poverty and violence prevail, such devotional practices are still prevalent as people hope against hope that God will intervene and rescue them from their awful situations.
By upholding and encouraging such devotional practices, instead of confronting on a practical level the systemic injustice and oppression of such peoples, both Church and state often collude in making the situation tolerable for the people.
In the post-Tridentine church, any disagreement with, or deviation from, official Church teaching automatically puts one beyond the pale. There was no room for disagreement or for alternative opinion. There was no acknowledgment of the hugely diverse nature of faith that prevailed in early Christian times. There was only one truth and one way to knowing and appropriating truth, and that was through the teaching authority of the Church.
During the post-Tridentine period, heresy was not merely about deviating from right doctrine. More significant, it denoted breaking the laws and rules in a Church becoming ever more preoccupied with law and canonical regulations, all leading up to the promulgation of the Code of Canon Law in 1917. Law has always been a central feature of Christianity, but with a milder and less extensive application than what happened after the Council of Trent when a new legalistic momentum came to the fore, popularly known as the Jus Novissimum (newest law).
Marriage provides a valuable example. Before the Council of Trent, marriage was not a sacrament in the formal sense. There was a blessing of the union and concern from the Church for the welfare of spouses and children, but a great deal was left to the people’s own initiative in a culture characterised by trust and goodwill.
After Trent we witness a gradual movement toward controlling every aspect of people’s marital reality, to the present situation in which an estimated one-third of the Code of Canon Law is about marriage.
Despite the negative factors outlined thus far, suggesting that the post-Tridentine period was one of regression and growing legalism, an incarnational altruism also flourished extensively. Perhaps that will remind us that despite the cultural impositions from on high, the Spirit continues to breathe amid the chaos, particularly among those perceived to be the losers.
This is an extract from Diarmuid O’Murchu’s latest book Paschal Paradox – Reflections on a Life of Spiritual Evolution. Published by Franciscan Media in Ohio and reprinted with kind permission. See www. FranciscanMedia.org for more details.