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Eucharist vs. the Word

And more on forms of Absolution.
by Father Edward McNamara, LC | Source: Zenit.org

Question: Could you succinctly state the relationship between the importance of the Eucharist versus the Word of God in the liturgy of the Mass? I was on a Eucharistic retreat with a group of Catholics, when the leader of our group said that we as Catholics believe that the Word of God is as important as the Eucharist. I have always been taught that the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, but after she said this I did some research into adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and the Word of God, and it seemed that there was more than a little validity to her statement since the "Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us" ... and God speaks to us though his inspired Word, etc. Please clarify this. -- N.C., Cleveland, Ohio

A: I would like to begin this answer by recalling a conversation I had during my seminary years with an elderly Catholic layman while on vacation in upstate New York. This wise gentleman, of Lithuanian descent, rented canoes in the Adirondacks and often dealt with evangelical Christians who tried to win him over by saying they had the Good Book. He replied that as a Catholic he not only had the Book but moreover frequently met the Author.

Although one might discuss the theological precision of the anecdote, it does reflect a fundamental truth with respect to the different forms in which Christ is present to us. God certainly speaks to us through his inspired Word, and the Church teaches that he is present when the Scriptures are read. This presence, however, as Pope Paul VI teaches in his encyclical "Mysterium Fidei" is a real but transitory presence enduring while the liturgical reading lasts. It is, therefore, not of the same class as the substantial real presence found in the Eucharist.

From another angle we can also consider how Scripture is fulfilled in Eucharistic worship.

"The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us" this is the foundation of our faith. However, the same Word who took flesh in Mary's womb, who died, rose and ascended, is the same one who said, "This is my body … this is my blood," and is thus present body, soul and divinity under the species of bread and wine. In every Eucharistic celebration the entire mystery of Christ from the incarnation to the ascension is truly made present anew, albeit under the veil of sign and symbol.

From this perspective the Eucharist is thus "more important" than Scripture because Scripture's ultimate goal is to lead us to union with Christ through full participation in the Mass. The Mass is a sharing in the worship which the Incarnate Word offers to the Father in the Holy Spirit.

Yet, from a different perspective and precisely in the context of the Mass, the question as to the relative importance of Scripture vis-[-vis the Eucharist is relatively meaningless.

In every Mass we are like the disciples going to Emmaus, except we already know that Christ is present among us. Like them, our hearts should burn as we listen to Moses, the prophets and the New Covenant as they speak about Christ. At the same time we are aware that in the end we will recognize him only in the breaking of bread.

Therefore it is not a question of the superiority of one over the other but of an inseparable interrelationship and ordering of one toward the other. Precisely because Scripture is ordered toward Eucharistic worship, the celebration's external form necessarily follows the road to Emmaus. All the historical evidence available shows us that the celebration of the Word and the Eucharist have always formed a single act of worship. Likewise, Scripture is so intimately intertwined within the fabric of every single prayer that we can say that without Scripture there could be no Catholic liturgy.

Conversely, and from a historical perspective it is also partially true that without liturgy there would be no Scripture, for one of the major criteria for determining which books eventually made it into the biblical canon was whether the book was read in the liturgical assembly.

Therefore the contraposition of Word and Eucharist does not correspond to an authentically Catholic vision of their intimate relationship.

It is true that, historically, Catholics have not been assiduous Bible readers. During the greatest part of the Church's existence books were a luxury few could read and fewer could afford. The lack of direct Bible reading did not mean that there was total biblical illiteracy. Most Christians were imbued with biblical salvation history through church decorations in painting, sculpture and stained glass. The huge reredos enshrining the high altars of many cathedrals harmoniously wove in the stories of Genesis, kings, prophets, Jesus' ancestry and the principal events of the New Testament, while centering everything on the sacrifice of the altar. In this way they provided a visible scriptural background to Catholic worship.

In today's changed circumstances the Church actively encourages all Catholics to possess, read and meditate on the Good Book, while not forgetting to make frequent visits to the Author.

* * *

Follow-up: Missing or Faulty Forms of Absolution

In the wake of our discussion about a priest not using a valid form of absolution, some readers suggested that I should have also dealt with the case where absolution is denied due to some defect or impediment on the part of the penitent.

Actually, in my earlier reply I deliberately omitted this very complex subject as it would have taken me away from the immediate question. I preferred to limit myself to the question at hand because it was clearly a case of lack of proper sacramental form by the priest and did not concern his being obliged to deny absolution.

It is, however, important to remember that there are times when a priest must necessarily deny absolution. This would be the case, for example, if it is clear that the penitent lacks contrition or is subject to excommunication or some similar censure. In such cases, the priest must, in conscience, inform the penitent why he is unable to grant absolution, and then tell the penitent what he or she needs to do to be absolved.

It would be a grave injustice toward God, the Church and the penitent himself to lead him to believe he has received absolution when in fact it could not be granted. If the priest also simulates the form of absolution while not actually giving it, then he commits a grave fault.

A reader from Singapore asked what the minimal formula for absolution was. St. Thomas Aquinas and the majority of classical theology manuals held that the nucleus of the formula was the expression "I absolve you." A few also sustained that the words "from your sins" were also necessary. All agreed that the Trinitarian invocation and the other prayers were not required for validity but were necessary for the sacrament's licit celebration in non-emergency situations.

Something similar could be said for elderly priests who never learned the new formula of absolution. Any absolution formula that was once officially approved would certainly be valid. They would probably also be licit if never formally abrogated.

* * *

Readers may send questions to liturgy@zenit.org. Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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