Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI: “In Defense of Daily Eucharist”

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Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMIThe Long-standing Catholic practice of daily Eucharist is today being questioned:  on the one hand, less and less people are going to daily Eucharist and many parishes in fact no longer even offer it. As well, more and more theologians, liturgists, and priests are becoming less enthusiastic about promoting it – indeed, sometimes even positively opposing its practice.

How is it being questioned? Some question its origins, suggesting that the practice has neither a sound biblical nor theological basis, but arose more as a private devotion within the Roman Catholic church. Eucharist, they argue, should ideally be the celebration of the larger community since its very function is to form and mould that larger community, and not to give individuals a little shot of private grace. Eucharist, properly understood, they contend, really only fully occurs when the larger community gathers – which happens precisely on Sundays, big feast days, and on occasions such as funerals, weddings, and the like. The Eucharist should not be turned into a private devotion and its celebration daily – often done in a quick, rote-like ritual attended by a very small number of pious faithful – tends to make it just that. Moreover, this argument continues, such an over-emphasis on celebrating Eucharist tends to downplay the importance of celebrating the Word, thus creating a situation wherein it seems we cannot gather and celebrate unless we have the Eucharist. In their view, you can be “over-eucharist-itized”.

What’s to be said in response? Is the practice of daily Eucharist on shaky theological ground? Does celebrating the Eucharist daily run the risk of turning the Eucharist into a private devotion? A strong critique can be made in reverse:

First, one can make an argument from the testimony of the saints. The practice of daily Eucharist is a time-honoured, saint-sanctioned, tradition. From many of the saints of old, through the Mother Theresas and Henri Nouwens of our own time, many of our most gifted spiritual persons have spoken of it as the central force within their own lives. It has also sustained many of our monasteries and convents throughout their histories. In my own life, most of the people who have been most influential in giving me the faith believed strongly in daily Eucharist – from my parents and grandparents, to the nuns who taught me in my youth, through my theological and spiritual mentors in the seminary and beyond. Not bad as a criterion. But there are also theological reasons.

Biblically this practice draws upon John’s Gospel. As we know, there is not only one theology of the Eucharist in the Christian Scriptures. In the Synoptic Gospels, the institution of the Eucharist is situated within the context of the Last Supper and grounds itself strongly there. It is no accident that some Christian groups still call it “the Lord’s Supper”. John, however, presents things differently. In his Gospel, he does not connect the Eucharist to the Last Supper in the same way. For John, the Last Supper is in fact not so much a supper at all, but a long farewell discourse by Jesus. Into this context, John inserts a powerful Eucharistic motif, the washing of the feet of the disciples by Jesus, suggesting that what this gesture symbolizes is the true meaning of Eucharist. However, he also links the Eucharist to Jesus’ discourse on the bread of life, suggesting that the Eucharist is the new manna, the new bread that God gives us as a daily feeding. Scholars, such as Raymond Brown, suspect that John’s community celebrated the Eucharist daily, while some other first-century communities had it less frequently – quite parallel to the differences in Christian practice today. The Roman Catholic practice of daily Eucharist takes it theological foundation from John’s Gospel.

Then too the practice of daily Eucharist makes senses anthropologically. The Eucharist is a family meal (not to mention that it is also a sacrifice). Family meals normally have a natural rhythm, big banquets (for high occasion and holidays) alternating with simple, quick family dinners on weekdays. Any family that tries to gather for each meal as if it is a major banquet soon finds that most everyone is trying to avoid the table. Not without good reason. No one has the energy to celebrate in big way on a daily basis. Yet we need to eat every day. The relationship between Sunday and daily Eucharist follows this same, sound anthropological pattern.

Finally there is the question of ritual itself. Some rituals, particularly certain initiatory ones, are designed to transform a community or a person precisely by over-heating the psyche, through a certain intensity. That is not always, nor even normally, true for the Eucharist. Like a family meal, the Eucharist has a certain rhythm that runs the gamut from high banquet to quick snack … and a family is as much formed and held together by a humdrum meal on an ordinary week-night as it is by a big banquet on its special days.