Sunday, September 07, 2008

The ecclesial nature of the Eucharist.

Late last week, I stumbled upon Torn Notebook, an excellent (though apparently defunct) weblog written by Ilyas Wan Wei Hsien, a Chinese-Malaysian Catholic convert who spent a decade in the United States before returning to Malaysia earlier this year. One post that caught my eye contains Ilyas' reflections on the rich experience of Eucharistic community that he enjoyed as a member of SS. Cyril and Methodius Russian Byzantine Catholic Community in Denver. I had the opportunity to worship at SS. Cyril and Methodius a couple of times while I was in Denver as a novice, so I believe I can appreciate what Ilyas has to say. In my view, his reflections speak very eloquently to the connection that ought to exist between reception of the Eucharist and an experience of Christian community:
Not being able to share everyday life with the people at Ss. Cyril and Methodius was one of the things I feared most about leaving the United States. They truly made the Byzantine tradition come alive for me—not only by their love for the liturgy both in terms of its essence and its forms, but also by their commitment to allow that liturgy to spill into the matter of this world. The core of my Sundays consisted in choir practice at 11 a.m., Divine Liturgy at noon, and then a fancy potluck after. I remember the days when we hurried to learn all the propers (feast days induced a kind of panic sometimes), the moments where in the services when I felt clearly the intrusion of God’s Kingdom, the Pre-sanctified Liturgy in which one of the children set her brother’s hair on fire, and the conversations at lunch that touched on everything from St. Maximos the Confessor to Ben Ruckhaus’ wrestling exploits to — yes — Borat.

I will confidently say that, until I went to Ss. Cyril and Methodius in 2006, I’d never been part of a Christian community that allowed the Eucharistic celebration to flow into fellowship, concern and an eagerness to find Christ together in the daily grind. I experienced firsthand not only the majesty and transcendence of the Byzantine liturgy, but also the ecclesial nature of the Eucharist. Until then, receiving Holy Communion was to me an individual act of piety that only remotely concerned others, if at all. Though in my head I knew that the Eucharist was something more, my experience locked that knowledge on the level of theory. During my 2 years at Ss. Cyril and Methodius, I saw for myself and lived with others what it means to say that the Eucharist makes the Church. Sharing life wasn’t always easy or pleasant, but I think we all realized that it was the only way to be Christian.
For many Catholics, I think, going to church and receiving the Eucharist remain private and purely individual acts. This isn't always a bad thing - for perfectly legitimate reasons, some people go to church to be 'alone with God,' and I believe that their right to worship anonymously should be respected. However, I suspect that many others have a need for community that run-of-the-mill parishes often fail to meet. As Ilyas' account suggests, a community that "allow[s] the Eucharistic celebration to flow into fellowship, concern and an eagerness to find Christ together in the daily grind" has the potential to transform the way parishioners think about the experience of worship and the meaning of communion.

This Sunday, I'd like to invite the readers of this blog to reflect upon your own experiences of parish life. Has partaking in the Eucharist brought you and your fellow parishioners closer to one another as well as closer to Christ? Has the community you worship with helped to nurture your faith and your sense of Christian discipleship? What have you done - or what could you do - to make the ecclesial nature of the Eucharist a more visible reality? AMDG.


At 9/11/2008 9:23 AM, Blogger Zach said...

From my point of view at a small parish in New England, members of the congregation rarely talk to one another. The small communities that do form in the Church are usually exclusive and often based on some subjective experience of the faith or just general emotionalism, good feelings.

One thing that I think contributes to this isolation is the music in our Church. It's often done in a style that intentionally produces visceral emotional reactions from people, either positive or negative. This is done for the putative reason of making Mass "more enjoyable" and "seem like a happier place", but I think it really just ends up alienating people from the Church and from each other because they are dependent not on the Eucharist for communion but on the feelings they get from the music.

Furthermore, it's difficult to experience any dimension of unity when you are trying to sing over a guitar, a bass amplifier and a drumset. The only one you really hear the lead guy who is amplified.

I think music that bespeaks transcendence would help unite our congregation and, furthermore, would accent the Mass with the high dignity and reverence it deserves.

It would also help if we had more fellowship activities that people wanted to participate in. Or people to participate in them, for that matter. There are mostly no young people who attend my parish; or, if they do, they vanish after they head off to college.

This experience has taught me something, I think. Whether or not I feel connected to others in a palpable sense is almost irrelevant. The Eucharist brings me closer to Christ and His body the Church no matter what. In this sense, the community (or lack thereof) has nurtured my faith by showing me that Christ is always with us, even in the face of great apathy.

At 9/13/2008 6:02 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


I think you're absolutely correct about music - when subjective affect is emphasized over transcendence and reverence, and when the tunes lend themselves more to virtuoso solos than to congregational singing, I think many people are left out.

Your point about parish activities is also very well-taken. In many Catholic parishes, I've noticed, the bulk of planned activities cater to two groups: children and senior citizens. The broad middle - young singles as well as young couples and middle-aged people, both married and unmarried - are left out.

Unless you live in a big city, it's hard to find parishes that provide any kind of outreach to recent college graduates or young professionals. I think this is one reason that a lot of young Catholics drop out of religious observance at this point in their lives - even if they had great experiences in parish youth groups or in college campus ministry programs, they have a harder time committing themselves to parish life when it doesn't seem to have anything to offer them in terms of fellowship or a real sense of community. Of course, the general tendency of many parishes toward the kind of isolation you describe doesn't help matters - even if a parish doesn't have specific programs for young people, a more explicit welcome still helps.

I think the size of a community is also an issue. The parishes that I've been a part of that had the strongest sense of fellowship and community were also the smallest, which leads me to think that a small size can be helpful in terms of forming a more tangible sense of Eucharistic fellowship. This isn't always the case, of course, as I've also seen small parishes that were fairly apathetic. However, I think there's at least a greater change that a sense of fellowship will be able to develop in a smaller community than in a larger one. Of course, with the push toward fewer though larger parishes - a trend fueled, I think, not simply by the falling number of priests, but by the decline in parish participation by Catholics - communities like this are probably going to be harder and harder to find.

Thanks for the thoughtful comments - keep 'em coming.


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