The Roman Catholic–Orthodox Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue produced a statement this past June on the vexed issue of papal primacy and the timely topic of synodality. The Alexandria statement, “Synodality and Primacy in the Second Millennium and Today,” describes the history of the split between the Orthodox and the Catholics and chronicles the efforts to bridge those divisions. Agreeing on a fair statement of what actually happened is an accomplishment. Ultimately, however, the dialogue participants signaled the need to go further. “Purely historical discussions are not enough,” they state. And in the end, they make an assertion that I find intriguing: “A eucharistic ecclesiology of communion is the key to articulating a sound theology of synodality and primacy.”
What is eucharistic ecclesiology? The document itself does not define it, but some general reference points can help to put this term into context. On the Orthodox side, eucharistic ecclesiology is associated with the groundbreaking work of the eastern Orthodox theologian Nicolai Afanassieff (1893–1966), who taught in Paris at the St. Sergius Institute, and whose thinking and writing influenced other Orthodox luminaries such as Alexander Schmemann, John Meyendorff, and John Zizioulas. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex subject, the basic premise here is that believers are united with Christ through the Eucharist, and Christ is not divided. Therefore, eucharistic assemblies are not merely “part of” a larger church. Rather, they are the Church in a qualitative way. Where the Eucharist is, there is the Church.
This argument is based upon a reading of the first three centuries of the Church’s history and presumes the presence of the bishop as the president of the local eucharistic assembly. In this view, primacy also has a place, provided it is understood as preeminence and respect. Consultation, resolution of disputes, support of the weak, safeguarding of unity, and so on, are assisted by primacy—not understood as command and control, but as a service to the mystery manifest in each local church that gathers for the Eucharist. Again, the model is taken from the apostolic church.
A “return to the sources” in the liturgical movement and through the patristic revival of the twentieth century also opened up for Catholics some intriguing insights regarding eucharistic ecclesiology that were then articulated at the Second Vatican Council. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) stated that the bishop celebrating the Eucharist, surrounded by his presbyters, ministers, and all the faithful, is the “pre-eminent manifestation” of the Church (SC, 41). The very introduction to the liturgy constitution affirms a strong link between Eucharist and ecclesiology: “The liturgy… and most of all the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church” (SC, article 2).
One also finds elements of a eucharistic ecclesiology in Lumen gentium (the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on the Church). The first draft, prepared by the Roman Curia, heavily emphasized the Church’s visible organizational structures. Authority and jurisdiction were in the foreground. The document in its final form, however, shifted dramatically in emphasis. Not only was it enriched by imagery from the scriptures—the sheepfold and flock, the cultivated field, the olive tree, the building of God whose cornerstone is Christ, and more. It also described the Church first of all as a sacrament (LG, article 1). Article 7 further explains that “really partaking of the body of the Lord in the breaking of the eucharistic bread, we are taken up into communion with Him and with one another.” As American theologian Richard Gaillardetz later commented:
This eucharistic ecclesiology would, in turn, lead the Council to affirm the theological significance of the local church. If each celebration of the Eucharist is a matter not only of Christ’s sacramental presence on the altar, but also of his ecclesial presence in the gathered community, then each eucharistic local church must be more than a subset of the universal Church; it must be the Body of Christ “in that place.”
Have Catholics actually absorbed these insights? Unfortunately, a top-down and juridical style of governance in practice continues to make it difficult for people to grasp the communal and participatory—indeed sacramental—realities the council highlighted. This accounts, at least in part, for a certain malaise that the Synod on Synodality is trying, in various ways, to address. For too many Catholics, the Church remains something “out there” that does not really, in the end, include them. They refer to the hierarchy as “the Church,” full stop, even though they are baptized members of the one Body of Christ that gathers around the altar. Can the eucharistic assembly really be foundational to our understanding of the Church if bishops are seen as branch managers of a multinational corporation, or if we regard ourselves as consumers of products the hierarchy produces (sacraments, homilies, priests, etc.)? Sadly, we have not been formed in such a way that eucharistic ecclesiology makes sense.
But we could be. In a 2018 statement on “Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church,” the International Theological Commission proposed that the shape of the eucharistic gathering is the foundation for a synodal spirituality, precisely because “the Eucharistic synaxis expresses and brings into being the ecclesial ‘we’ of the communio sanctorum” (no. 49). The statement charts the stages of this eucharistic paradigm in five steps: gathering, penitence, Word, Eucharist, and sending (no. 109). These spiritual movements embodied in the celebration of the Eucharist are the very ones we must continually practice in daily life in order to become a synodal Church.
As a liturgist, I would quibble with certain parts of the commission’s description (they’ve overweighted the penitential rite and reduced the opening of the liturgy to an “invocation of the Trinity”). Still, the game is worth the candle. Patterning our spirituality of “walking together” on the eucharistic liturgy is a noble effort. It can enlighten our vision of what we do in the liturgy and at the same time deepen our commitment to those movements of faith that “being Church” requires.