|ROME, 11 NOV. 2008 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father
Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum
Q: Could you succinctly state the relationship between the importance
of the Eucharist versus the Word of God in the liturgy of the Mass? I
was on a Eucharistic retreat with a group of Catholics, when the leader
of our group said that we as Catholics believe that the Word of God is
as important as the Eucharist. I have always been taught that the
Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, but after she said this
I did some research into adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and the Word
of God, and it seemed that there was more than a little validity to her
statement since the "Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us" ... and
God speaks to us though his inspired Word, etc. Please clarify this.
N.C., Cleveland, Ohio
A: I would like to begin this answer by recalling a conversation I
had during my seminary years with an elderly Catholic layman while on
vacation in upstate New York. This wise gentleman, of Lithuanian
descent, rented canoes in the Adirondacks and often dealt with
evangelical Christians who tried to win him over by saying they had the
Good Book. He replied that as a Catholic he not only had the Book but
moreover frequently met the Author.
Although one might discuss the theological precision of the anecdote,
it does reflect a fundamental truth with respect to the different forms
in which Christ is present to us. God certainly speaks to us through his
inspired Word, and the Church teaches that he is present when the
Scriptures are read. This presence, however, as Pope Paul VI teaches in
his encyclical "Mysterium Fidei" is a real but transitory presence
enduring while the liturgical reading lasts. It is, therefore, not of
the same class as the substantial real presence found in the Eucharist.
From another angle we can also consider how Scripture is fulfilled in
"The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us" this is the foundation
of our faith. However, the same Word who took flesh in Mary's womb, who
died, rose and ascended, is the same one who said, "This is my body …
this is my blood," and is thus present body, soul and divinity under the
species of bread and wine. In every Eucharistic celebration the entire
mystery of Christ from the incarnation to the ascension is truly made
present anew, albeit under the veil of sign and symbol.
From this perspective the Eucharist is thus "more important" than
Scripture because Scripture's ultimate goal is to lead us to union with
Christ through full participation in the Mass. The Mass is a sharing in
the worship which the Incarnate Word offers to the Father in the Holy
Yet, from a different perspective and precisely in the context of the
Mass, the question as to the relative importance of Scripture vis-a-vis
the Eucharist is relatively meaningless.
In every Mass we are like the disciples going to Emmaus, except we
already know that Christ is present among us. Like them, our hearts
should burn as we listen to Moses, the prophets and the New Covenant as
they speak about Christ. At the same time we are aware that in the end
we will recognize him only in the breaking of bread.
Therefore it is not a question of the superiority of one over the
other but of an inseparable interrelationship and ordering of one toward
the other. Precisely because Scripture is ordered toward Eucharistic
worship, the celebration's external form necessarily follows the road to
Emmaus. All the historical evidence available shows us that the
celebration of the Word and the Eucharist have always formed a single
act of worship. Likewise, Scripture is so intimately intertwined within
the fabric of every single prayer that we can say that without Scripture
there could be no Catholic liturgy.
Conversely, and from a historical perspective it is also partially
true that without liturgy there would be no Scripture, for one of the
major criteria for determining which books eventually made it into the
biblical canon was whether the book was read in the liturgical assembly.
Therefore the contraposition of Word and Eucharist does not
correspond to an authentically Catholic vision of their intimate
It is true that, historically, Catholics have not been assiduous
Bible readers. During the greatest part of the Church's existence books
were a luxury few could read and fewer could afford. The lack of direct
Bible reading did not mean that there was total biblical illiteracy.
Most Christians were imbued with biblical salvation history through
church decorations in painting, sculpture and stained glass. The huge
reredos enshrining the high altars of many cathedrals harmoniously wove
in the stories of Genesis, kings, prophets, Jesus' ancestry and the
principal events of the New Testament, while centering everything on the
sacrifice of the altar. In this way they provided a visible scriptural
background to Catholic worship.
In today's changed circumstances the Church actively encourages all
Catholics to possess, read and meditate on the Good Book, while not
forgetting to make frequent visits to the Author.
* * *
Follow-up: Eucharist vs. the Word [11-25-2008]
In the wake of our column on the Eucharist and the Word (see Nov. 11), a
Singapore reader offered the following comments:
"In this week's topic on 'Eucharist vs. the Word,' I was also thinking
about Vatican II's dogmatic constitution on divine Revelation, 'Dei
Verbum,' when I read the question posed by N.C. from Cleveland, Ohio.
"In No. 21 of 'Dei Verbum' it states, 'The Church has always venerated
the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since,
especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to
the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God's word and of
"The proclamation of the Scriptures has always been an integral part of
the liturgy at Mass. In a sense, [the] relationship between Scriptures
and the Eucharist is complementary, as expressed in 'Dei Verbum.' This
was also clearly brought out in your reply.
"The 17th General Congregation (12th Synod of Bishops) on Oct. 15, 2008,
reported in the third point: 'Eucharist, homily, community' deals with
the relationship between Scripture and the Eucharist, with the question,
which emerged from the synodal discussion, on how to privilege, among
the faithful, a more unitary perception of this relationship; the
sacramental dimension of the Word and eschatological dimension; the
celebration of the Word; the importance of the homily; art as an
analogical form of preaching; finally, the relationship between the Word
of God, celebration and community.
"Perhaps this is also the reason why, in the question asked, the reader
said he was told that 'Catholics believe that the Word of God is as
important as the Eucharist.'"
While "Dei Verbum" is a solemn conciliar text, the text from the Synod
represents a work in progress. The latter will become formally
magisterial in the degree that the Holy Father might incorporate these
suggestions into an apostolic exhortation.
It is quite possible that a misinterpretation of texts such as "Dei
Verbum" could have led some Catholics to cast a shadow on the mutually
complementary relationship between Eucharist and Word, thus leading to a
false opposition between them.
"Dei Verbum" simply recalls that the Church has historically observed a
certain parallelism between the liturgical honors offered to sacred
Scriptures and that offered to the Eucharist (incense, candles, etc.).
The point was not to produce equivalence but rather to emphasize the
fact that, contrary to certain accusations, Catholics had always
venerated the Word. After all, the same Second Vatican Council had
earlier proclaimed the liturgy, and especially the Eucharist, as the
summit and source of the Church's life.
The Synod's recommendation of a more unitary perception of the Word in
its relationship with the Eucharist should also be seen in continuity
with previous doctrine. At the same time, a fuller and deeper vision of
the various dimensions of the Word in Catholic life and worship can only
lead to a fuller appreciation of the importance of the Eucharist as the
fulfillment of Scripture.