In the fifty years since the Catholic Church’s formal entry
into the journey of Christian unity at the Second Vatican Council, where has that
journey led us in regard to the Eucharist?
Firstly, today we possess a heritage of fifty years of
theological dialogue on the Eucharist, fruit of great scholarship, patient
listening to each other and a steadfast commitment to Christ’s will and purpose
for unity. These dialogues of genuine encounter have made possible theological
reflection that has moved beyond polemics to a sincere desire to understand
each other in our agreements and disagreements.
With the communities of the Reformation the dialogue has focussed
strongly on the nature of the Eucharist itself. Significant theological
dialogues at an international level and at a local level with the Lutheran,
Reformed, Anglican and Methodist communities have provided us with documents
that have clarified mutual misunderstandings, given us a common language to
speak of the Eucharist, and pinpointed more accurately the differences that
remain.1 These common statements speak of the centrality of the Eucharist in the
life of the Church, the theme of anamnesis (memorial), the central role of the
Holy Spirit in the Eucharist and how Christ is present in the Eucharist. Here
is but one example: the Anglican Roman Catholic Statement on the Eucharist
speaks for both traditions in its common confession on the centrality of the
When his people are gathered at the Eucharist to commemorate
his saving acts for our redemption, Christ makes effective among us the eternal
benefits of his victory and elicits and renews our response of faith,
thanksgiving and self-surrender. Christ through the Holy Spirit in the
Eucharist builds up the life of the Church, strengthens its fellowship and
furthers its mission. The identity of the Church as the body of Christ is both expressed
and effectively proclaimed by its being centred in, and partaking of, his body
and blood. In the whole action of the Eucharist, and in and by his sacramental
presence given through bread and wine, the crucified and risen Lord, according
to his promise, offers himself to his people. (Eucharistic Doctrine, 1971)2
With the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the focus of the
dialogue has been not so much on the Eucharist itself, in which we share a
common faith, but on establishing a common faith in the nature of the Church,
in order that we might share a common Eucharist to seal and perfect the unity
of the Church. This is a little of what the Eastern Orthodox Roman Catholic Dialogue
says about the Church and the Eucharist:
- The Body of Christ is unique. There exists then only one church of God.
- The identity of one eucharistic assembly with another comes from the fact that all with the same faith celebrate the same memorial, that all by eating the same bread and sharing in the same cup become the same unique body of Christ into which they have been integrated by the same baptism.3
However, and this is my second point, these rich and thought-provoking dialogues on the Eucharist yet await a fuller reception into the Church’s life. They have brought us to a certain point so far on the journey of Christian unity, but are yet to have their full impact on bringing us to a deeper understanding of each other’s eucharistic faith and practice. They are now an inheritance that we can draw upon and which can orient us as we move on. ‘Take up and read!’ They can accompany us when we dare to walk together, because the fruits of theological dialogue must go hand in hand with grassroots ecumenism. We now need fewer theological dialogues on the Eucharist and more direct encounter with each other.
Finally, the last fifty years have brought us a deeper understanding of what the Eucharist is. This brings us joy. However, it has, ironically, sharpened our sense of pain. With what spirit might we embrace our present moment when Christians are friends in many ways, but still strangers at the Lord’s Table? The Fathers of the Eastern Church speak of charmolype—‘a bright sadness’, variously translated as a ‘bitter joy’ or ‘an affliction that leads to joy’; a spiritual state underlying the bittersweet experience of yearning and failing alike in the pursuit of spiritual joy.
In regard to Eucharist and Christian unity, this point on our journey must be enfolded into our spiritual lives. As the Decree on Ecumenism (1965) tells us, ‘spiritual ecumenism’ is the soul of the ecumenical movement:
This change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement, and merits the name ‘spiritual ecumenism’. (§8)
Finding ourselves present at the eucharistic celebrations of other Christians, but not receiving Holy Communion, will help us feel this charmolype, the bitter sweetness of where we now find ourselves on our journey. We need to feel the ‘bright sadness’ that both helps us give thanks for the unity we do share and goads us to pray and live for greater Christian unity; we need to remove our complacency and indifference and deepen our love for each other, and so remove the damage to mission. ‘Father, may all be one, just as you are in me and I am in you … that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (John 17:21).
Very Rev. Fr Denis Stanley is the Episcopal Vicar for Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations in the Archdiocese of Melbourne and the Chair of the Commission. He is a member of the National Council of Churches of Australia and the Victorian Council of Churches. He is also a member of the Australian Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue.