Roman Catholics and Lutherans have been in international, national and regional dialogue for a number of years. The New England Lutheran Synod and the Roman Catholic dioceses of New England have been meeting several times a year at the Lutheran headquarters in Worcester, Massachusetts. A publication on Scripture or doctrine or church ministry is chosen for discussion each year. This past year a joint publication by The Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity entitled Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry, and Eucharist was examined at the afternoon sessions. The final session focused on the Eucharist as sacrifice, the Real Presence, and Eucharistic reservation, devotion and fellowship.
Some Lutheran communities worldwide have reservations about referring to the Mass as a sacrifice. Some will accept the expression “sacrifice of praise” which connotes a celebratory enterprise rejoicing in Christ’s saving work on Calvary. Catholics however believe that every Mass not only rejoices in the saving work of Christ but actually makes present again Christ’s saving work for successive generations to encounter. Catholics stress that the Mass is certainly not a new sacrifice but a re-presentation of the unique work of Christ on Golgatha. The redemption won by Christ on Calvary is made readily and actually available at every Mass to be called upon by the faithful for their own advantage and the advantage of those for whom they pray. The Council of Trent reproved anyone who taught that the sacrifice of the Mass is only a sacrifice of praise, a bare commemoration of the sacrifice consummated on the cross. The Mass rather is a “propitiatory sacrifice,” making readily available down through the ages the redemptive benefits of Christ’s original sacrifice. Each Mass is not at all a new event but is rather a sacramental renewal of the original event.
Martin Luther and his generation certainly had legitimate gripes about excesses among the clergy which led reformers toward an exaltation of the laity. Hence, Protestant theology and services grossly underrated the role of priest and sacrifice while Catholic theology and services grossly overrated the role of priest and sacrifice. In the popular mind, lay Catholics heard Mass while the Catholic priest offered Mass. Yet, this was never true. Both priest and people offer Mass as Canon I clearly prays: “Remember, O Lord, your servants and handmaids and all here present, whose faith and devotion are known to you, for whom we offer, or who offer up to you this sacrifice of praise for themselves, their families and friends…” This community offering was indeed visually and audibly impaired as the celebrant stood with his back to the congregation muttering in an alien tongue. An active priest and a passive people sent an understandably wrong message. The Second Vatican Council’s call for active participation on the part of the laity has somewhat relieved this situation.
Transubstantiation is still an area of much discussion among the Christian churches. Catholics firmly believe that the substance, the inner reality, the inner framework, of the unleavened wheat bread and grape wine are actually and truly changed into the substance of Christ’s Body and Blood. While the accidents or outer realities remain unchanged, the inner elements are truly and not just symbolically transformed. Some might assess that this rational attempt to explain Christ’s Presence underrates the vast mystery involved. Lutheran attempts to explain the same mystery are sometimes labeled “consubstantiation” or “impanation,” by which the substances of Christ’s Body and Blood and the substances of the bread and wine both endure, “in, with and under” each other, as the Lutheran catechism instructs.
Common Catholic Church practices vividly reflect Christ’s adorable Presence in the Sacred Species, including Christ’s enduring Presence even after Mass. Consider genuflections, gilded tabernacles, gold pyxes, the sanctuary lamp, the care for sacred linens and certainly benediction with the reserved Sacrament, personal visits to Christ present in the tabernacle, the annual feast of Corpus Christi, and selected extraordinary ministers of Communion. Such Catholic exaltation of the Eucharist might reflect Protestant exaltation of the Sacred Scriptures, often enthroned on worthy mounts in the sanctuary.
Many questions remain. Should all the baptized be admitted to the Eucharist or only those in full communion? Even full Catholics have requirements: regular Mass attendance, confession of mortal sins, hour fast, authentic belief. Attempts by celebrants to explain Church rules at weddings and funerals often provoke resentment. The admission of all worshippers to Communion might emphasize the Church’s belief in the universality of salvation yet it might also diminish the need for a conversion to the fullness of truth proclaimed in the Gospels.