Adapting the Eucharist has met world’s changing needs and context

By  Stephen Morris, Catholic Register Special
  • May 18, 2007
{mosimage}A Short History of the Mass, by Alfred McBride, O.Praem (St. Anthony Messenger Press, softcover, 120 pages, $14.70).

Anyone looking for a clear, concise history of the Mass from the upper room to the present need look no further than Alfred McBride’s A Short History of the Mass.
The book reads something like a spiritual history of the Eucharist, making it primarily catechetical in that it gears the complex history and development of the Eucharist towards deepening the faith of the reader. Short spiritual reflections and discussion questions at the end of each chapter make this book ideal not just for the casual reader, but for Rites of Christian Initiation for Adults’ candidates as well.

McBride’s overall theme is that the bones of the Eucharist today are the same as they were at the Last Supper. But along the way the church, with guidance from the Holy Spirit, has had to make adaptations to meet changing needs and contexts.

{sa 0867167440}Beginning in the upper room, McBride takes us through the first Eucharist as Jesus transforms the Passover meal by incorporating His own sacrifice into the heart of the celebration. From the Lord’s table, the ritual becomes the heart of the early church, which must address its growing pains — such as squabbles among rich and poor members that were resolved by de-emphasizing the meal part of the service (see 1 Cor. 11:20-21, 34).

As Christianity survives centuries of persecution it eventually ascends, under Emperor Constantine, to an officially tolerated religion of the Roman Empire. Once tolerated in the fourth century it comes to dominate by the sixth. With this elevated status comes a newfound grandeur as basilicas provide the new context for the Mass. But because of the huge scale of these buildings — some as large as an entire city block — nuances were introduced so as to maintain a compelling liturgical atmosphere. Music was one way to integrate the congregation into this vast space, as rich and elaborate hymns were gradually developed.

What was critical around this time was protecting the church against growing heresies from groups like the Gnostics, Donatists and Arians. So in a sense, the liturgy became a way of enshrining orthodoxy, leading to the axiom lex orandi est lex credendi (the law of praying is the law of believing), and by the sixth century the Nicene Creed was incorporated into the Mass.

With liturgical and doctrinal matters largely settled, McBride’s account turns to the middle ages, focusing on the gradual alienation of the congregation. Due to the increase in exclusively monastic and clerical Masses that shut out the participation of the people, combined with a grave spirit of penitential piety, congregants began feeling alienated and unworthy of the Eucharist, which caused Mass attendance to drop dramatically.

By the 11th century this disconnect, argues McBride, fostered a climate ripe for controversy, leading to disputes around the real presence of the Lord in the Eucharist. It took three popes and the recovery of Aristotelian categories to proclaim that, although the bread and wine looked the same after it was consecrated, it was in essence transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ.

The next major period covered is the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, characterized by soaring Baroque cathedrals and the solemnity of the Tridentine Mass, which lasted four centuries until the reforms of Vatican II. For McBride, the alienation of the congregation continues throughout this period as the Mass is said in an unfamiliar language (Latin), the altar is obscured and the priest has his back to the people.

This sets up the sweeping reforms of Vatican II, perhaps one of the most significant events in the history of the Mass. McBride celebrates the profound liturgical reforms of the council which focused on inclusivity. The Mass was now said in the local vernacular, priests started facing the congregation which now shook hands at the gesture of peace, and so forth.

But as much passion as McBride has for Vatican II, he also recognizes its dark side: some of the changes to make the Mass more inclusive have ironically alienated some conservatives who miss the gravity of the Tridentine Mass.

Misinterpretations of Vatican II also caused more extreme liberals to fade from the pews. If the church was really just the people of God (aka everybody), and there was nothing really special about the priest, what then was so special about what the priest did at church? asked the liberals. In response, McBride cites Cardinal Avery Dulles who writes, “There is a vast difference between Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and in the assembly of its members. The Holy Spirit dwells in them, but they are not transubstantiated. They do not cease to be themselves and turn into Christ the Lord.”

Navigating these polarities, McBride wisely advises us to recognize the need for authentic liturgical development while being wary of unnecessary experimentation.

Sober advice indeed.

(Morris is a freelance writer in Toronto.)

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