The Pope's Encyclical on the Eucharist

The Pope's Encyclical on the Eucharist

Sr Mary Augustine OP

Time for an examination of conscience by religious orders

The Holy Father's recent encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia is a gem of Eucharistic teaching which would, if it were read by us religious, reconnect us with its timeless truths of both doctrine and praxis. It is not altogether an irresponsible generalisation to suggest that religious have, on the whole, neglected to read most of what has come out from the Magisterium since Vatican II.

Right now, we of the Catholic Church are being required by our Pope to make an examination of conscience with regard to our attitudes to and conduct of the Sacred Liturgy - and in particular the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

It is surely about time we did this, although it is very likely that those who would gain most from such a self-critique will doggedly by-pass the exercise, leaving those whose critical faculties have been working for years, almost to exhaustion and mostly without visible fruit, as frustrated as ever.

Bishops and priests

Bishops and priests should, quite obviously, be the first to examine their consciences. They are the official custodians of the Liturgy and, whatever they may think about the difficulties of educating a flock which is now into its third generation of liturgical ignorance and cultural diminishment - of trying to persuade it that in matters of faith, morals and worship the Church knows best - the responsibility of carrying out the liturgical action fittingly, conveying its meaning truthfully and dispensing its graces validly rests squarely on their consecrated shoulders.

But there is also a huge onus on all religious - brothers and sisters, monks and nuns - to honour, promote and protect the sacred mysteries of the Liturgy, and it is one from under which the general run of them appear to have ducked on a large and long-term scale.

How much of the liturgical confusion and desolation of the post-Vatican era should be attributed to their liturgical illiteracy, their apathy, their cowardice, their arrogance and their slothfulness in matters of worship will only be brought to light in the Kingdom to which that worship is directed. But in the meantime there are some factors we religious should face and, if we are to make ourselves at all honest, begin to rectify, before it is too late.

There are various reasons why religious have profound responsibilities to the Church's liturgical life. The first is related to the theological significance of the consecrated life itself. The Church teaches us that the Eucharist is the source and summit of her life. She also teaches us that the religious life lies at her heart.

In that profound mystery which is the Church, the Eucharist, that self-emptying sacrifice of Christ represented on the altar throughout history, is reflected in a very tangible way by the self-emptying sacrifice of those men and women who, throughout the Church's history, have given themselves up to God in close imitation of the Saviour's life of poverty, chastity and obedience and in union with His redeeming act of love and mercy.

Today, however, we are surrounded by evidence that religious have taken on board very little of what the Church's documents have taught, exhorted and commanded, even in things that pertain directly and specifically to their responsibilities and spiritual welfare as consecrated persons. So at this point in time, the hope that many religious will give Ecclesia de Eucharistia even so much as a nod of acknowledgement is indeed very slight.

We can add to this bleak state of affairs the even bleaker fact that the Church's Eucharistic teaching is not one with which most of us have been regaled from pulpit, sanctuary or the Catholic media. The general trend has been that of a studied downplaying of the uniqueness of the Eucharist, of its utter sacredness and of its meaning as sacrifice.

Religious, no less than their lay counterparts, have allowed themselves to be carried along on the waves of secularist thought that reduce that most stupendous of all things to be found on earth, to a mere communal meal, a commonplace meeting of friends, a man-made symbolic expression of merely man-centred values and aspirations.

They, perhaps more than all the other sectors of the Church, have been the readers of desacralised and desacralising religious literature, the chief attendees at seminars, retreats, spirituality courses and in-services where the cream of the liturgical deconstructionists bewitch their minds and seriously disorient their spiritual instincts.

Tough questions

Some appear to have worked themselves or been worked off the board both doctrinally and spiritually, but those who still remain broadly within the bounds of the teaching and governing Church, need to ask themselves some tough questions.

One would expect that, for persons consecrated totally to God, an examination of conscience apropos this great mystery might reasonably involve deep thought and some rather acute spiritual scrutiny, but such is the state of things in religious life today, that we must needs start with the most basic issues of whether or not we really believe in the Mystery of the Church, let alone in the Mystery of the Eucharist.

At best, we should scarcely get beyond questions of practical liturgical aberration or of bad taste in church. Still, as the Holy Father makes clear in Ecclesia de Eucharistia, these questions are by no means irrelevant, and all those who are disposed to light candles rather than curse the darkness, will certainly find in this document not only food for mind and soul but some inspiration for personal and communal liturgical reform.

Sr Mary Augustine is Editor of the APREL (Association for the Promotion of Religious Life) Bulletin.

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