Love, mission and morality: a century of Eucharistic theology

Tintoretto’s depiction of the Last Supper and the first Eucharist

The International Eucharistic Congress: A Spiritual Odyssey
By John F Allen
Gracewing, 383pp, £20/$27.50

In this book Mgr John Allen, who has attended all 12 International Eucharistic Congresses since 1973, offers a masterly account of these events for the general reader. Those seeking rich Eucharistic theology will find it in Allen’s able summaries of the talks, including extended quotations: these could be read systematically or in bite-size chunks, as in lectio divina. The historical material is also interesting, and can be enjoyed as a sort of travelogue.

The themes of the Congresses are quite consistent over time: for instance, “the Eucharistic Kingdom of Christ our Redeemer” (Rio de Janeiro 1955) relates well to Dublin 2012’s “Communion with Christ and with one another”. Three other Congresses had themes referring to Christ as our love, our peace and our hope, while a further three had themes related to Christ’s self-giving in the Eucharist.

These topics relate the Eucharist, not only to theology, but to liturgy and spirituality: 24-hour adoration of the Blessed Sacrament has formed part of the Congresses from the start (Lille 1881), while almost all have had an outdoor Blessed Sacrament procession since Liège 1883. In the light of these themes, one can note the Congresses’ teaching on the Eucharist as communion in the Risen Christ, in the Church’s mission, in ecumenism and in Christian morality.

At Mass, bread and wine become in substance Christ’s risen and glorified Body and Blood. Therefore “in communion with [Christ’s] body, the Church becomes what she receives: she becomes one Body with Him in the Spirit of the new and eternal covenant” (Cardinal Ouellet, Canadian, Dublin 2012). Indeed, “the celebration of the Eucharist is above all the mystery of Easter morning, when … God’s love triumphs” (Cardinal Barbarin, Quebec 2018).

Jesus’s total, all-sufficient sacrifice in the Eucharist reflects the dimensions of his love for us. Clearly, the Eucharist lovingly transforms our life and its depth of meaning should lead us to receive Communion as frequently as we can.

One subject speakers often return to is that of mission. At Nairobi 1985, St John Paul II stressed the link between the Eucharist and mission, particularly in the context of Africa’s vigorous response to evangelisation. At Seville 1993, he spoke of the universality of the Church, noting that people from five continents were there. At Cebu 2016, Cardinal Bo from Myanmar described the Eucharist as having two eyes: presence and mission.

The urgency of applying the Church’s Eucharistic life to mission becomes clear in Cardinal Re from Rome’s statement at the same Congress, that those who do not go to Mass will eventually be so de-Christianised as no longer to be Christians, because it is there we meet Christ in the Eucharist.

Melbourne 1973, deliberately seeking to interpret Vatican II, placed a high priority on ecumenism. In particular, a large ecumenical service, held as part of that Congress, included an agape meal.

At Rome 2000, St John Paul II called for “prayer for the healing power of God’s mercy” to move Christians closer to sharing in one Eucharistic faith.

The Congresses have also addressed the link between the Eucharist and morality. Reims 1894 began to explore this by officially discussing Catholic social teaching; Budapest 1938 emphasised the relationship between the Eucharist and social and political bonds of charity.

Similarly, Fr Dermot Lane from Ireland firmly reminded Lourdes 1981 that “a powerful and creative link exists between the Eucharist as sacrifice, personal conviction, and the Christian liberation of mankind. This means … that from an ethical point of view we can no longer celebrate the Eucharist with eyes closed to the needs of others.”

As the Slovak Cardinal Tomko added at Guadalajara 2004, “… therefore, to recognise the Lord in the bread and wine and ignore Him when He becomes present in the poor, the sick and the prisoner, is to separate the Eucharist from the context of communion and the Christian life”. Understanding the Eucharist will encourage us to affirm human dignity and to oppose abortion, euthanasia and other kinds of immoral actions.

Mgr Allen offers an impressive seven-fold summary of the experiences he has had in attending the 12 International Eucharistic Congresses since 1973. He is now looking forward to Budapest 2020.