It has been quite clear in recent years that some Catholics hold what would have once been considered heterodox beliefs about the Eucharist. This was, for many traditional minded people, demonstrated by Mary McAleese taking the sacrament in St Patrick’s Cathedral.
It is significant then that this book is subtitled “an aid to Christian unity” — such unity being the motive that inspired the president. In the past the Eucharist has sadly been a divisive barrier between Christians, and even between Catholics.
But an appeal back to the traditional formulas of the belief concerning the Eucharist and the meaning of “the real presence” are not always effective, especially perhaps with the younger generation.
Of course, the Eucharistic elements, the bread and wine, represent real forms of sustenance – the basic food of the Near East for thousands of years.
At the Last Supper Christ told the Apostles, as he blessed the wine cup and the broke the bread, that they should do likewise on later occasions “in memory of him”, for the elements were his body and blood. This was a new covenant, the covenant of his body and blood.
This book explores themes arising from this command. The author is a Christian Brother whose career has spanned teaching to lecturing in psychology in St John’s, Waterford. This curve suggests a move from formal exterior presentation to a responsive interior reception.
The present book owes much to the teachings of Gearóid Ó Súilleabhain, under whom the author studied at University College Cork back in the mid-1980s.
That influential course laid emphasis, not so much on the previous contrasting views of the Eucharist as sacrifice or meal, but on the notion of covenant, a sort of treaty between God and mankind.
Ideas of sacrifice and a communal meal have over the centuries dominated the thinking of Christians on the matter of the sacrament. But Pat Seaver sees these as only partial aids to understanding.
He returns to the concept of ‘covenant’, and traces this back, not only through the pages of the Old Testament, especially Genesis, but further back, as a concept, into the most ancient cultures of the Near East, to the Hittites, one of the earliest people from whom we have written records. He expounds this in a very simple but effective way, for this is a book for all readers, not just for the clergy.
We are, in effect, reminded that our religion and its beliefs are not a medieval creation as they so often seem to many, that being the era from which so much of our liturgical form comes down.
Rather they come down from some of man’s oldest traditions and beliefs, infused with an ancient sense of immanent divinity. He speaks in one passage of the “timeless” nature of our religion.
In his final chapter Pat Seaver sums up some of the outcomes that arise from what he is putting forward. The first is a more joyous celebration of the Mass, one which through gesture and song will attract and integrate a younger generation. Beyond this he looks to a further communion with other Christians who share in some way, the sacrament that derives from the Last Supper.
It is not a new teaching that Pat Seaver puts forward in the short but enlightening book. Rather he lays a renewed emphasis on what was actually said at the Last Supper about the new covenant between God and man.
Nothing heterodox here, except in so far as the accepted practices have overlaid the clear import of the scriptures. This is a call not to something fashionably heterodox, but to a neglected ancient orthodoxy.
His hopes are summed up at the end of the book. “As members of a Church where we have grown up in comfortable certainty where clear rules have governed every aspect of Catholic belief and practise, perhaps we should sometimes…ask ourselves what the mind of Christ might be and act accordingly. Personally I feel that if we move to a covental approach in celebrating the Eucharist these rigid boundaries will become less of an obstacle to intercommunion.”
But intercommunion between sects ought to be matched by intercommunion between different kinds of Catholics too. The Eucharist, rather than dividing, should unite everyone, should, he hopes, restore to all a sense of the true splendour of the Eucharist.
“Unfortunately,” he writes, “those of us who have spent time in Africa, South America, the Philippines, and so on, find on our return to Ireland, that the Mass in our local parish is from a purely affective point of view, unfulfilling. We have, for a long time, decried the way our teenagers have complained about the Mass being boring. Perhaps, we should have listened more to them and tried to understand why, as a whole generation, they had abandoned the Mass. If we had attempted to bring more life and joy to our celebrations then perhaps our Churches [like those of Africa and elsewhere] might not be empty of young people, as they are at the moment.”