Historic agreement on the Eucharist celebrated - Catholic Courier

Historic agreement on the Eucharist celebrated

The annual observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (Jan. 18-25) prompts us to reflect anew on the church’s abiding commitment to the cause of ecumenism. It also provides an opportunity to take stock of whatever progress has been made in recent years.

Just over four years ago, in October 2001, a historic agreement on the Eucharist was reached by the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East, which is not in full communion with Rome. The agreement was subsequently approved by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and Pope John Paul II himself.

The agreement recognizes the validity of the eucharistic sacrifice celebrated according to the original redaction (or edition) of the Anaphora of Addai and Mari, which is a eucharistic prayer without the traditional Words of Institution (“This is my body. … This is my blood”).

Recently a rear-guard action has been mounted against this agreement by those who insist that you cannot have a valid Mass without the Words of Institution. But the Vatican — from John Paul II on down — ruled otherwise.
One of the Catholic Church’s most distinguished liturgical scholars, Father Robert F. Taft, SJ, longtime professor at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome and now in emeritus status, considers the Vatican’s formal approval of the agreement to be “the most remarkable Catholic magisterial document since Vatican II” (“Mass Without the Consecration?” in Worship, November 2003, pp. 482-509).

For the Catholic fundamentalist, however, the Words of Institution have an almost magical character. Indeed, the pejorative expression, “hocus pocus,” compresses the familiar Latin formula for the consecration of the bread, Hoc est enim corpus meum (“For this is my body”).

But in the case of the Anaphora of Addai and Mari we have a eucharistic prayer which does not have those traditional Words of Institution and yet which is one of the most ancient eucharistic prayers still in existence — “a prayer,” Father Taft writes, “believed to have been in continuous use in the age-old East-Syrian Christendom of Mesopotamia from time immemorial.”
Given the theological sensitivity of the issue, the Pontifical Council on Promoting Christian Unity had circulated the preparatory document among 26 experts. Father Taft notes that this “was only prudent, considering the enormous significance and audacity of what was being proposed: a decision that would, in effect, overturn the centuries-old clich√©s of Catholic manual (Latin textbook) theology concerning the eucharistic consecration.”

The preparatory document listed several arguments in support of the validity of the Anaphora of Addai and Mari. One of the arguments pointed out that, although the traditional Words of Institution are not explicitly found in this particular anaphora, it does contain references to the eucharistic institution, to the Last Supper, to the Body and Blood and sacrifice of Christ and to the offering of the church, which indicate its fidelity to the Lord’s command, “Do this in memory of me.”

According to these arguments, the bread and wine do not become the Body and Blood of Christ simply by the formulaic recitation of the Words of Institution, but through the proclamation of the entire Eucharistic Prayer, or Anaphora.

Father Taft points out, moreover, that this particular eucharistic prayer has been in continuous use for centuries, “without ever being condemned by anyone, not by any Father of the church, nor by any local or provincial synod, nor by ecumenical council nor catholicos (a patriarchal title used in the East) nor patriarch nor pope.” Therefore, “on what basis would one dare to infer, even implicitly, that such an ancient apostolic church did not and had never a valid eucharistic sacrifice?”

Father Taft insists that the prayer of consecration is “the entire core” of the Eucharistic Prayer and “not just some segment of it set apart as an isolated ‘formula’.” This view, he writes, is entirely “faithful to the earlier common tradition of the undivided church.”

Does this mean, however, that the Words of Institution are not consecratory? “Not at all,” Father Taft replies. They, too, are part of an ancient tradition, as attested by St. Ambrose (d. 397).

But Ambrose and others of his time never said that it was only the Words of Institution that effect the consecration of the bread and wine at Mass. Not until the 12th century did the scholastic theologians in the West begin to make that claim.

The Words of Institution are consecratory, Father Taft concludes, “because Jesus’ pronouncing of them at the Last Supper remains efficaciously consecratory for every Eucharist until the end of time.”

We celebrate this historic agreement this week.

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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