Eucharist, Front and Center

VATICAN CITY — For veteran synod watchers, the early days of the 11th General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops — the largest ever to be held — have delivered something new.

Thanks to Pope Benedict XVI's initiative to dedicate an extra hour at the end of each day for free discussion among the synod's participants, a broad variety of perspectives was spontaneously offered on the synod's theme, “The Eucharist: Source and Summit in the Life and the Mission of the Church.”

Dubbed the “open forum,” the hour-long discussions allowed synod fathers to explore themes such as what it means to have a “right to the Eucharist,” the importance of “interior and exterior reverence,” and how to make Mass more interesting for those who find it “boring.”

The time was also used by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, to successfully propose an hour of Eucharistic adoration in the morning and evening for the synod.

The open forum also served as a venue for raising the hot-button issue of reception of Communion by pro-abortion politicians. In one of his first major public contributions since taking up his position as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop William Levada quoted a passage from the synod's instrumentum laboris (working document). It noted, “Some Catholics do not understand why it might be a sin to support a political candidate who is openly in favor of abortion or other serious acts against life, justice and peace.”

Archbishop Levada, who served as archbishop of San Francisco until moving to Rome this summer, said the issue had “caused some divisions” among U.S. Catholics during the 2004 presidential elections, and said he hoped to hear how other bishops would approach the problem.

However, the most recurring discussion topics in the first four days of the synod's formal, general congregations didn't involve politics. Instead, the focus was on the need for better catechesis concerning the Eucharist; the importance of making the Eucharist relevant to secular culture; the need to ensure that Catholics understand the Blessed Sacrament in the context of the other sacraments; the worldwide shortage of priests; the relevance of the Blessed Sacrament for evangelization, Christian charity and social justice; the importance of remembering the sacrament's sacrificial nature; and the need for greater reverence and preparation when celebrating the Eucharist and receiving holy Communion.

How to Receive

On this last topic, Archbishop Jan Pawel Kenga of Karaganda, Kazakhstan, advocated a change in reception of holy Communion to recover a sense of the sacred. Two innovations from the Western world, he said Oct. 4, “cloud” understanding of the Eucharist — the removal of the tabernacle from the center of sanctuaries and the distribution of holy Communion in the hand. He proposed that Rome issue a “universal regulation” to establish an official way of receiving Communion in the mouth while kneeling, with Communion in the hand “reserved for clergy alone.”

Cardinal Janis Pujats of Riga, Latvia, made similar comments a day earlier. When communicants stand, Cardinal Pujats said, he feels like a dentist looking into their mouths.

According to information released by the Vatican, Cardinal Francis Arinze, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, responded by saying that arguments could be made for both practices. Ultimately, he said, it's up to bishops’ conferences to decide what is best in each country, but he added that Communion in the hand needs better catechesis.

The cardinal added that Communion in the hand does make it easier for sacrilege against a consecrated host. He reminded bishops that a host reportedly received at a papal Mass in 1998 was put up for sale on eBay earlier this year before being withdrawn by the seller.

Confession

During one of the open forums, Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, Major Penitentiary of the Holy See and a former archbishop of Denver, highlighted the important relationship between confession and reception of the Eucharist. Several other speakers addressed the same subject, stressing that communicants should understand the need to confess regularly before receiving holy Communion.

And Archbishop Cristian Caro Cordero of Puerto Montt, Chile, called for the Year of the Eucharist to be followed in 2006 by a “year dedicated to the sacrament of penance” because of its “close theological, spiritual and pastoral relationship” with the Eucharist.

There were also calls for clearer guidelines on inter-communion, the practice of members of one Church receiving Communion in another Church, and “spiritual communion.” And several participants spoke on the need for spiritual sustenance to divorced and remarried Catholics who are forbidden from receiving the Eucharist.

Archbishop John Dew of Wellington, New Zealand, compared those who are starved spiritually of the Eucharist to the scandal of those who hunger physically.

“We must look for ways to include those who are hungering for the bread of life,” he said.

However, not all the discussions dwelled on problems in celebrating the sacrament.

Bishops from India were highly positive in their interventions, with one saying that the Eucharist's power to heal is the secret behind a dramatic increase in the number of Catholics in the country. Archbishop Maria Callist Soosa Pakiam of Trivandrum recalled the devotion of local fishermen in his diocese who pray at the Blessed Sacrament in the early hours of dawn and again at dusk.

As well as the full sessions and the open forums, the synod fathers also have been speaking in “small circles” of 25-35 participants. The Pope was present at most of the major sessions in the synod's first days.

The Vatican said there were 256 voting members of the synod — 244 bishops and 12 priests — including the four Chinese bishops who were not able to attend. Of the total number of participants, 12 came from the United States and six from Canada.

Also attending the synod but without voting rights were 32 experts and 27 auditors from around the world. The Vatican said 12 non-Catholic churches and ecclesial communities had been invited to send their representatives to the synod as well.

‘Joyful’ Spirit

During the synod's early days, few concrete proposals were broached regarding how to resolve the thornier issues raised. That process will gather steam with the collation of a list of propositions to be debated and voted on towards the end of the synod, which will conclude Oct. 23.

In the meantime, while some press accounts gave the impression of division among the synod fathers, participants said the general mood is actually positive and open.

“There's a relaxed atmosphere, a lot of camaraderie — it's joyful and collegial,” said one consultant speaking on condition of anonymity. “The Church is Catholic, and so the fathers can say whatever they like about the issues. There are very many areas of legitimate disagreement, but in the end what each bishop says is respected.”

(CNS contributed to this report.)

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.

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