This, Too, Is My Body

WHEN DOES THE CONSECRATION HAPPEN?

This year marks the fifth anniversary of a Vatican document about which most Catholics know very little, Guidelines for Admission to the Eucharist between the Chaldean Church and the Assyrian Church of the East. It was signed on July 20, 2001, but it has had little effect on how Catholics think about the statement’s core issue: the nature of the Eucharistic Prayer, the “center and summit” of the Mass.

The document was approved by three Vatican dicasteries-the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith-and by Pope John Paul II. And it has been called “the most remarkable Catholic magisterial document since Vatican II” by Robert Taft, SJ, professor emeritus at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. It acknowledges, albeit quietly, that the ancient Assyrian Church of the East is a “true particular” church “built upon orthodox faith and apostolic succession.” But the real eye-opener is that the Vatican acknowledges the anaphora (Eucharistic Prayer) of this “true” church as valid, licit, and legitimate, and this despite the fact that this ancient prayer lacks the Words of Institution: “This is my body....This is my blood.”

The Eucharistic Prayer of the Assyrian Church of the East is referred to as the Anaphora of Addai and Mari. Addai and Mari were second-century Christians who lived in the area of modern-day Syria and Iraq. Tradition has it that Addai was sent there by Thomas the Apostle, that Addai converted Mari, and that the latter evangelized along the Euphrates River. Thus the anaphora bears their names.

As Guidelines makes clear, this Eucharistic Prayer “is one of the most ancient anaphoras, dating back to the time of the very early church,” even though the consecratory words “This is my body....This is my blood” do not appear in it. But how can a prayer be considered a true Eucharistic Prayer if the Words of Institution are not found in it?

The Vatican statement says that the prayer is valid because “it was composed and used with the clear intention of celebrating the Eucharist in full continuity with the Last Supper and according to the intention of the church....The words of Eucharistic Institution are indeed present in the Anaphora of Addai and Mari, not in a coherent narrative way and ad litteram, but rather in a dispersed...way, that is, integrated in successive prayers of thanksgiving, praise, and intercession.” In other words, although it lacks the usual consecratory form, it is a valid Eucharistic Prayer because the eucharistic intention is there. To put it another way, the entire Eucharistic Prayer is consecratory.

This is not a novel understanding. As Taft noted in Worship (November 2003), other ancient Eucharistic Prayers also lack the Words of Institution. In The Church at Prayer, Robert Cabie even quotes the seventeenth-century French bishop Jacques-Benigne Bossuet:

The intent of liturgies and, in general, of consecratory prayers, is not to focus our attention on precise moments, but to have us attend to the action in its entirety and to its complete effect...without asking whether the action has already been accomplished or is perhaps still to be accomplished.

Furthermore, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1352) states that “with the Eucharistic Prayer-the prayer of thanksgiving and consecration-we come to the heart and summit of the celebration” [emphasis mine]. Likewise, the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal (78) reads: “Now the center and summit of the entire celebration begins: namely, the Eucharistic Prayer, that is, the prayer of thanksgiving and sanctification” (emphasis mine). Both of these sources indicate that the Eucharistic Prayer itself is consecratory. What sanctifies, what consecrates the gifts of bread and wine, is the entire prayer. This is not to say that the Words of Institution as used in the Latin rite are not consecratory, but that the consecratory aspect of the Eucharistic Prayer rests in the entire prayer, not in a single component of that prayer.

Such a viewpoint has consequences. On the first Sunday our new pastor arrived, he did away with the bells after the Words of Institution. Ringing the bells at the consecration had been a longstanding tradition in our parish, so much so that one elderly gentleman inquired after Mass, “Why didn’t they ring the bells?” The Anaphora of Addai and Mari provides a good answer. If it is indeed true that the entire Eucharistic Prayer is consecratory, then highlighting a given moment by ringing bells is misleading. A participant might be correct in presuming that when those bells ring and the priest elevates the host and chalice, Christ is now substantially present, whereas ten seconds earlier he was not.

But if we follow the logic of accepting the Anaphora of Addai and Mari as consecratory, the precise moment of when we know that the bread and wine become the body and blood of the Lord is indeterminable. By faith, we know that sometime during the Eucharistic Prayer the substances of the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ by power of the Holy Spirit working through the presbyter in persona Christi. That being the case, if ringing of the bells is to be done, it should be at the Great Amen, the conclusion of the Eucharistic Prayer. This is not to say that at the moment of the traditional Words of Institution the body and blood of Christ could not become substantially present. Nor am I contesting Aquinas when he wrote “so that at the last instant of pronouncing the words [of consecration] is the first instant in which Christ’s body is in the sacrament,” although which words those may be is indeterminable.

Why have we not heard more about this important document? Other than the possibility that many people simply saw it as another Vatican yawner, the reason may be fear. The hierarchy frets about the seemingly widespread assumption that many, if not most, Catholics no longer believe they are receiving the substantial body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ at Communion. This concern about Catholics losing faith in the real presence has driven the hierarchy to focus on a very narrow, but illustrative, segment of the Mass when, with the help of bells, the actual words of Christ, and the elevation, one can pinpoint that Christ is now truly present. And by putting this emphasis on the “when,” the precise moment when transubstantiation occurs, it is hoped that individuals will better understand what happens at that moment. To bolster that effort, in recent years there has been a renewed emphasis on eucharistic adoration and on Corpus Christi processions. Again, the emphasis is on the visual-the precise place, the exact moment-so as to foster faith in the real presence. In a society awash in visual stimuli, such a course of action is not altogether unwise, though it may be myopic.

The importance of the Vatican statement on the Anaphora of Addai and Mari is that it reminds twenty-first-century Catholics that there is much more to the Eucharistic Prayer than simply the liturgy’s consecratory role. The Eucharistic Prayer is the great prayer of thanksgiving, around which lies the entire mystery of our salvation. It is much more than a tool to “bring God down onto the altar.” Rather, it is more sublime, something akin to Mary’s understanding of the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, but here coming on us all, bringing forth the mystery we call God: the sacred slipping into the profane and bearing God to humans.

I conclude with some wisdom from John H. McKenna in his Eucharist and the Holy Spirit (Mayhew-McCrimmon):

One ought to admit that one does not know precisely when such mysterious moments take place. Nor is it important that we know. That is God’s work. The assembly’s task is to celebrate these mysteries and to partake of the gifts with the firm belief that God is at work here and now and that what it is receiving is no longer merely bread and wine but Jesus Christ himself.

Published in the 2006-05-19 issue: 

Mark Plaiss, a deacon in the Diocese of Gary, Indiana, is the author of The Inner Room (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

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