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No magic words, but Christ still present. (Column).

Last summer the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, with the full agreement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, issued a series of guidelines for eucharistic sharing between the Chaldean church (which is in communion with Rome) and the Assyrian church of the East (which is not).

The guidelines are revolutionary in character. For the first time in modern history, the Catholic church has recognized the validity of a eucharistic prayer (the Amphora of Addai and Mari) without the words of institution ("This is my body. ... This is my blood"), more commonly referred to as the words of consecration.

In the popular Catholic mind, especially before Vatican II, these words have had an almost magical quality. Whenever a validly ordained priest utters them over a large host (oftentimes over a ciborium full of smaller hosts as well) and then over a chalice containing wine, Christ immediately "comes down" from heaven, taking the form of bread and wane to be received by the faithful as holy Communion, that is, his very "body and blood, soul and divinity."

There was so much focus on the words of consecration in those days that Catholic students were sometimes asked to consider what one must do if, let us say, a drunken priest stumbled into a bakery shop and pronounced the words over cases full of bread and pastry products. Some proposed that the local parish should purchase everything in the store and send it to a Catholic orphanage for reverent consumption. Others may have had different solutions, but few doubted that the bread and pastries were now the eucharistic body of Christ.

In the original Latin, the words of consecration included the key phrase: "Hoc est enim corpus maim ... "("For this is my body ... ") Anti-Catholics dismissed the rite as "hex-as pocus," which was a play on the Latin formula. It became a colloquial expression that is still employed to characterize something as nonsensical or a form of trickery. For many Catholics, the priest's power to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ through these words of consecration constituted the very basis of his dignity and status within the church. At Mass everyone -- even the ushers -- would glow solemn and silent as the celebrant approached the point when he would bend over the host and then the chalice to utter the sacred words. The priest genuflected after doing so, then raised the host and later the chalice high over his head for the adoration of the congregation, and then genuflected once again after each elevation.

When the ritual of consecration was over and the final genuflection and ringing of the bells had been completed, one could actually hear the release of tension within the congregation, in the form of coughing and the squeaking of kneelers as the worshipers shifted their weight to become more comfortable once again.

If someone had suggested then -- or now, for that matter -- that even without the words of consecration, Christ could become really and truly present in holy Communion, they would been scoffed at and dismissed as either frivolous or heretical.

But the Vatican has now ruled that this is, in fact, the case. In recognizing the validity of the Anaphora of Addai and Mari, proclaimed since the earliest centuries in poritions of the East and still used today by the separated Assyrian church of the East, the Catholic church now officially acknowledges and teaches that Christ can become sacramentally present at Mass without the traditional words of consecration.

In the end, there are no magic words. It is the church's whole eucharistic prayer that makes Christ really and truly present for us in holy Communion.

The Vatican's ruling received little or no notice among Roman Cath01ics in North America. That's not surprising. The word "Chaldean" must sound to many like something out of the Old Testament. "Assyrian" probably evokes memories of courses in ancient history taken many years ago. Although the new Vatacan guidelines suggest that the words of institution are at least implied in other parts of the Anaphora of Addai and Mad (a bit of a reach, perhaps), the bottom line is that, under certain pastoral circumstances, Catholics may now receive holy Communion in an Assyrian liturgy in which an anaphora is used that does not include the words of consecration.

This is a long way indeed from the case of the drunken priest in the bakery shop.

Fr. Richard McBrien teaches at the University of Notre Dame.
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Title Annotation:Vatican declares eucharistic prayer valid without the words of institution
Author:McBrien, Richard P.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:4EXVA
Date:Feb 22, 2002
Words:756
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