In Persona Christi: Eucharistic Sacrifices

by Philip Jones

The author of this blog recently attended, for the first time, a service of Mass in the Extraordinary Form, also known as the Tridentine Mass or the Mass of Ages – i.e the traditional Latin Mass.  It was organised by the Latin Mass Society, with the permission of the genial local priest.  ‘Come along out of nostalgia!’, he winkingly encouraged his parishioners when announcing the event.  Almost none did.  There were only about six in the congregation.  The parish priest himself gave the Mass a miss.

As an aesthetic experience, the Mass was disappointing.  It was quickly over.  The sublime Latin of the Roman Canon was inaudible, as the celebrant dropped his voice to a near-whisper, ‘the blessed mutter of the Mass’.  It was only possible to follow the action by the elevation of the Host and the Chalice and the ringing of the bell.

And yet, from the 6th century (or even earlier) until as recently as the 1960s, this was the Mass of the Latin Church.  Untold millions of Catholics down the centuries knew no other.  Compared to it, the new Mass, which was only introduced in 1970, is a mere blink of the eye.  It inspired the Elizabethan martyrs of England and Wales to suffer hideous torture and death (and their fellow countrymen to inflict this on them).

Today the Eucharist is generally regarded as an ecumenical success story.  The Church of England has always agreed with the Catholic Church that the Eucharist is a sacrament ‘ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel’ (Article 25), by means of which ‘the Body and Blood of Christ … are verily and indeed taken and received by the faithful’ (Catechism).  The Holy See acknowledged that, of all ecumenical issues, ‘it is in respect of Eucharistic doctrine that the [Anglican-Roman Catholic] Commission were able to achieve the most notable progress towards a consensus’ (Response to Final Report, 1991).

The principal ecumenical difficulty concerns the Eucharist as sacrifice rather than sacrament.  English ecclesiastical law at first seemed to reject any belief in a Eucharistic sacrifice.  Article 31 holds that ‘the sacrifices of Masses … were blasphemous fables, and dangerous deceits’.  All mediaeval references to the priest as sacrificer were removed from the reformed ordination rite.  (This was one reason why Anglican orders were held invalid by Pope Leo XIII in Apostolicae Curae (1896).)

Liturgical practices that suggested sacrifice were also suppressed.  Altars were replaced by ‘convenient and decent tables’ (canon 82 of 1603) placed in the chancel or in the centre of the church.  The east end, where Mass was formerly celebrated, was used to display the Ten Commandments instead.  Unleavened bread was replaced by ‘bread such as is usual to be eaten’.  And, of course, the Eucharist was celebrated in English, not Latin.

The case of Faulkner v Litchfield and Stearn(1845) 163 English Reports 1007 may be the first legally reported ritual case.  The Court of the Arches refused a faculty for a stone altar, described as a ‘table’, on the grounds that it was not a communion table within the meaning of the Prayer Book rubric and the 1603 canon.  In later cases the Privy Council held that Eucharistic vestments, unleavened bread and the eastward position were all unlawful (Hebbert v Purchas(1871) Law Reports 3 Privy Council 605), as were candles on the communion table ‘when [they] were not wanted for the purpose of giving light’ (Martin v Mackonochie (1868) Law Reports 2 Privy Council 365).  The Court of the Arches also held in Mackonochie that the elevation of paten and chalice was unlawful ((1868) 2 Admiralty and Ecclesiastical 116).

However, the Book of Common Prayer retained one phrase from the Latin Mass which describes the Eucharist as a ‘sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving’.  Citing this rather slender authority, the Bishop of Chichester, Eric Kemp, held in St Stephen’s Walbrook (1987) 2 All England Reports 578 that ‘a doctrine of the Eurcharistic sacrifice which is not that of a repetition of the sacrifice of Calvary can lawfully be held in the Church of England …’ (p.583).

The old regime of public worship was finally abolished by the Worship and Doctrine Measure 1974.  Liturgical practices that were formerly unlawful are now permitted, and many have indeed become almost universal.  Canon F2 of the revised canons continues to refer to the ‘holy table’ rather than the ‘altar’, but allows that a communion table may be made of stone, and hence indistinguishable from an altar.  In St Stephen’s Walbrook, the Court of Ecclesiastical Causes Reserved permitted the introduction of a stone altar by Henry Moore.  Bishop Kemp, who was one of the judges, held that ‘an altar falls within the wide bounds of what can reasonably be called a holy table’ (p.581)

Just as the Church of England began to rediscover the Eucharistic sacrifice, so the Catholic Church seemed to move towards the Anglican conception of the Eucharist as a communal celebration, a sacrament of unity and charity rather than a sacrifice.  The new Mass is almost always celebrated in the vernacular, it provides for active participation by the laity and it disdains the eastward position.  In this country, at least, High Mass now usually begins and ends with the singing of rousing Protestant hymns.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed 1998) noted that the Anglican-Roman Catholic ‘Agreed Statement’ on the Eucharist in 1971 (just after the introduction of the new Mass) ‘relegat[ed] the term transubstantiation to a footnote’.  Canon law also softened the emphasis on sacrifice.  A commentator relates that the original Code of Canon Law 1917 treated the sacrifice and the sacrament of the Eucharist in separate chapters.  The modern Code, promulgated in 1983, presents a more ‘integral’ treatment of the Eucharistic action (The Code of Canon Law. A Text and Commentary eds Coriden, Green and Heintschel 1985, Paulist Press, New York, p.643).  The author of this blog recalls a bright young Anglican theologian asserting, in 1985 or 1986, that the Catholic Church no longer believed in transubstantiation.

However, the 1983 Code is clear that ‘the Eucharistic Sacrifice [is] the memorial of the death and Resurrection of the Lord, in which the Sacrifice of the Cross is for ever perpetuated’ (canon 897).  The Code also provides explicitly that the priest (described as sacerdos in the definitive Latin text), acting in persona Christi, ‘bring[s] into being (conficere valet) the Sacrament of the Eucharist’ (900).

These provisions explain the Catholic Eucharistic Sacrifice.  As Bishop Kemp recognised in the Walbrook case, the Catholic sacrifice is not a repetition of Christ’s sacrifice (as the reformers may have erroneously concluded).  On the contrary, the sacrifice offered by the priest is one and the same as the sacrifice of Christ.  Hence the priest is acting, as the canon says, in persona Christi.

Today the structure and ceremonial of the Eucharist qua sacrament may be almost identical in the Catholic and Anglican Churches.  However, the Eucharistic sacrifices offered by the two Churches remain radically different.

Article 31 is entitled ‘the one oblation of Christ finished upon the Cross’. It asserts that ‘The offering of Christ once made, is that perfect redemption, propitiation and satisfaction for all the sins of the whole world … and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone’. Hence its rejection of ‘the sacrifices of Masses’.  The Prayer Book liturgy follows Article 31 by asserting Christ’s ‘one oblation of himself once offered … a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice’.

Therefore, while the Catholic sacrifice is one and indivisible,  the Anglican Eucharist is concerned with 2 separate sacrifices:

(1) the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ offered in Palestine 2000 years ago and

(2) the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving offered by the Church in response to Christ’s sacrifice.

Modern Anglican liturgies may perhaps move (1) and (2) closer together than they are in the Prayer Book, but the distinction between them never disappears.

There is a metaphysical link or bridge between (1) and (2).  This enables those who receive the bread and wine in (2) thereby to receive the Body and Blood of Christ given in (1).  However, this is subject to the recipient’s piety of disposition.  Article 28 affirms that ‘The Body of Christ is given, taken and eaten … only after an heavenly and spiritual manner.  And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten … is faith’.  Article 29 makes clear that ‘The wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press [the bread and wine] with their teeth … yet in nowise are they partakers of Christ’.

On this doctrine, the priest cannot act in persona Christi, because Christ’s sacrifice is once for all, finished.  Christ is the only true sacerdos.  So far from acting in persona Christi, the priest acts in persona ecclesiae.  He, or she, offers the Church’s sacrifice to Christ, but not vice versa.

The Anglican Eucharist, freed at last from all the restrictions imposed by the Privy Council, is often richly clothed in elaborate and colourful ritual that was originally inspired by the Catholic Eucharistic sacrifice.  This may serve to obscure the difference between the two.  The folksy informality of some modern Catholic worship may have the same effect, of course.  But the effect is superficial, not a truly ecumenical convergence.

Even though it was reduced to a footnote, the discussion of transubstantiation in the 1971 Agreed Statement is helpful: ‘The term [transubstantiation] should be seen as affirming the fact of Christ’s presence and of the mysterious and radical change which takes place … not … as explaining how the change takes place’.

The doctrine of transubstantiation is often associated with St. Thomas Aquinas and with mediaeval scholastic philosophy.  However, Aquinas and his colleagues were merely offering a rational explanation, or model, of how bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.  They were not defining any religious belief.  As this footnote makes clear, the Catholic Church believes, and has always believed, that transubstantiation does occur, but it does not require acceptance of the Thomist explanation (or any other explanation) of how it occurs.

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