Updated: Feb 17, 2021
“When the people are gathered…” Open a new Roman Missal (the service book of the Roman Catholic Church) and this is the first rubric one sees. Seemingly insignificant, particularly for those who grew up Protestant or, like me, grew up Roman Catholic in the years after Vatican II, this change is hugely consequential. For nearly 400 years from the Council of Trent until Pope John XXIII’s convening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, (Roman) Catholic eucharistic spirituality revolved mainly around the priest. In other words, eucharist spirituality was synonymous with priestly spirituality. The priest was set apart from his fellow Christians. He was an alter Christus, another Christ. How beautiful it was to be one of those select few with the power to invoke the Holy Spirit to change bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ! Look at an old Roman Missal and you’ll see. From beginning to end, the Mass revolved around the priest. The people in the pews are rarely mentioned. They are onlookers, gazing at the glory before them. “Look, but don’t touch” seems to be their instruction.
From the Council of Trent until the early 20th Century, the laity, i.e. those not ordained, nurtured their eucharistic spirituality primarily outside of the “priestly” domain of the Eucharist. Paraliturgical celebrations like the rosary, Eucharistic Benediction, processions, Holy Hours, Marian devotions, and other practices sustained the laity. The people rarely partook of the Eucharist. Up to the beginning of the 20th Century, it was not uncommon for the laity to receive the Eucharist twice a year. For the average Roman Catholic in the decades prior to the Second Vatican Council, this deep divide between clergy and laity may have seemed like the “way things have always been.”
Father Kenan Osbourne, OFM, in his 2007 book Community, Eucharist, and Spirituality (Liguori Publications, $14.95) argues how this type of spirituality is actually not within the historic tradition of the church. Instead, he argues it is only within a vibrant, Gospel grounded community that meaningful eucharistic spirituality can take place. A phrase he borrows from Fr. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP (d. 2013) summarizes the theme of Osbourne’s book: “There can be no eucharist in a community whose members do not love one another.”
Pictured above: Source and Summit © Lalo Garcia, 2013
As a Franciscan brother with an interest in liturgy, history, and community, I found Osbourne’s book fascinating. Although the book was written while Osbourne was a professor at the Graduate Theological Union and inspired by a lecture series he gave, I rarely found it difficult to understand. Also, although Osbourne’s book may be geared towards a Roman Catholic audience, anyone with an interest in eucharistic spirituality and its role in building up community would find much in Osbourne’s work worth inwardly digesting.
Osbourne’s book may challenge some previously held views about the Eucharist. For example, I was surprised to learn of the disagreements in the Franciscan and Dominican understanding of transubstantiation (the process by which the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus). Until now, I just assumed there was one accepted definition of transubstantiation for the whole (Roman) Church. I also found myself reconsidering the roles and responsibilities of priests and bishops. Perhaps like many, I simply assumed the roles of priests and bishops have more or less stayed the same since the earliest days of the Church. Osbourne provides a concise and informative description of bishops and priests from the 1st to 4th centuries that challenged this previously held belief. Throughout Osbourne’s book, many may find an invitation to reconsider or evaluate their views about the Church, the importance of community, or the Eucharist.
Although Osbourne died in 2019, the questions he raised in Community, Eucharist, and Spirituality are as important for us today as when this book was first released. For most of us, COVID restrictions are still in effect. Many of us are realizing that, at the end of the day, the only thing we have left is each other. We cannot take any one of our friends or companions for granted. Neither can we take attendance at Mass or Communion for granted. When we return to in-person worship once again, how will we form a community of people who really seek to love one another? It is only by doing that, Osbourne argues, that the Eucharist really comes alive. As he reminds the reader again and again, “There can be no eucharist in a community whose members do not love one another.”
Brother James Nathaniel can be reached at email@example.com