Table vs. Altar: A Creative Tension

The USCCB’s recent document “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church” set off a wave of commentary among liturgists here at Pray Tell and elsewhere. The document’s focus on the eucharist as sacrifice brings up once again a perennial debate in eucharistic theology: table vs. altar, meal vs. sacrifice.

For their part, the document’s authors seem very keen to hold the two together—at least, that is what is stated in paragraph 15: “[The eucharist’s] fundamental pattern is found in the Jewish celebration of the Passover, which involves both a meal and a sacrifice”(italics original).

In practice, however, the document places much more emphasis on the sacrificial character of the eucharist than on its meal character. This, coupled with its stress upon the individual’s personal worthiness to receive communion, has struck some readers as misplaced.

Teresa Berger confesses to a feeling of “Eucharistic non-coherence,” especially while reading this text alongside Mary McGann’s recent book, The Meal that Reconnects: Eucharistic Eating and the Global Food Crisis (Liturgical Press, 2020). McGann focuses almost exclusively on the eucharist’s meal character. She has very little to say about the eucharist as sacrifice, which suggests she doesn’t find much applicability in “altar theology” for today.

Meanwhile, Timothy Brunk criticizes the document’s narrow focus on the liturgical sacrifice. He offers instead an ecclesial reading of eucharistic sacrifice through Augustine that offers a more expansive vision than the document itself provides.

The recent book by Eugene Schlesinger, Sacrificing the Church: Mass, Mission, and Ecumenism (Rowman and Littlefield, 2019), draws from the Augustinian sources mentioned by Brunk and takes the notion of sacrifice even further, with intriguing results. Bringing this book into conversation with McGann’s can provide a framework for a renewed and productive conversation between table and altar.

Mary McGann on Meal

McGann’s book, The Meal That Reconnects–which, as Berger mentioned, is a must-read–asks the question: what does the eucharist have to do with the global food crisis? For McGann, at the heart of the food crisis is a deeper one: a crisis of broken relationships. The food crisis is a symptom of the broken relationships between humans and the earth, humans and each other, and humans and God. What the eucharist can offer in this dire situation is a context for healing those broken relationships.

McGann turns to early Christian eucharistic meals, and Jesus’s own use of meals in his ministry, as inspirations. Meals, in these settings, were contexts for healing, forgiveness, and empowerment of the disadvantaged, especially when contrasted with meal practices of the surrounding Greco-Roman society.

By emphasizing the meal character of the eucharist, Christian communities today can be sites of healing and restoration, and contribute meaningfully (even if in small ways) to rethinking values surrounding food consumption and production. The eucharist can enable us to see food as gift rather than as commodity, and act accordingly.

What is striking about McGann’s book is just how far she leans into the “meal” side of the meal vs. sacrifice impasse. It an exciting testament to just how much promise there is in stretching “meal theology” as far as it will go, and seeing what it can do.

But what about the eucharist as sacrifice? Does this metaphor have anything left to say? Or is it merely a nostalgic and anti-ecumenical throwback to an old-fashioned theology, as Fr Kevin Irwin suggests? Can table and altar still speak to each other?

Eugene Schlesinger on Sacrifice

If Mary McGann takes “meal” to its limit, then Eugene Schlesinger takes “sacrifice” to its limit, when it comes to the eucharist. He writes, drawing from Augustine and others, that “sacrifice” denotes the entire process by which humanity unites with God: in its liturgical life, its moral life, and its ecclesial life. All of these aspects are united and participate in Christ’s sacrifice, which is itself eucharistic.[1]

According to Schlesinger, the sacrifice of Christ is an instantiation in time of the eternal, sacrificial love that is God. But if God is sacrifice in God’s own triune life, then it means that “sacrifice” does not ultimately denote abnegation, but is fundamentally a positive reality. Sacrifice means gift, not loss.

Sacrifice is also non-violent. It is only when the eternal reality of sacrifice enters the finite realm, damaged by sin and evil, that it is experienced as painful and limiting. All the things the church does in its liturgy and its mission (works of mercy and solidarity with the poor, the marginalized, and the earth) must be informed by and unite with Christ’s non-violent, creative gift of self. A eucharistic theology of sacrifice is indispensable because it frames the eucharist as that which symbolically binds all Christian action together under the rubric of gift of self for the life of the world.

Schlesinger rarely discusses the eucharist as meal. Yet his sophisticated presentation of eucharist as sacrifice provides a pathway for bringing table and altar into conversation, especially in the context of the global food crisis. For example, Schlesinger’s notion of sacrifice as non-violent gift could complement and deepen McGann’s stress on eucharist as a way of seeing food as gift rather than commodity.

Wary of the ecumenical risk of using sacrificial language in this context, Schlesinger, a lay Episcopalian who teaches at a Catholic institution, also argues that the notion of sacrifice can inform ecumenical dialogue. Sacrifice, which “names a fullness, rather than a deprivation”(150) should inspire all parties at the ecumenical table. Even as each one may be called to give something up for the sake of unity, their gift need not be understood as a loss but as a discovery of fullness in sharing in Christ’s sacrifice and sacrificial way of life.


The tension between table and altar in eucharistic theology need not be a divisive one, but can be a creative one. To bring them into fresh and fruitful dialogue with one another, we can take a cue from these two recent books, which take one and the other theology and run as far as possible with it, ending up in surprisingly complementary places.

[1] Schlesinger notes that crucifixion itself had no cultic connotations; it was Jesus who gave it those connotations at the Last Supper.

Image: Last Supper, Mosaic, Cathedral of Santa Maria Nuova, Palermo

Rev. Dr. Mark Roosien is Lecturer in Liturgical Studies at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School and a deacon in the Orthodox Church in America. His most recent book is a translation of Sergius Bulgakov, The Eucharistic Sacrifice, released this year by University of Notre Dame Press.



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38 responses to “Table vs. Altar: A Creative Tension”

  1. Alan Griffiths Avatar
    Alan Griffiths

    I welcome this really eirenic attempt to bridge the artificial gap between ‘sacrifice’ and ‘meal.’ It is good to see an acknowledgement that ‘sacrifice’ has a very broad reference, both cultic and ethical, and is not limited to the forensic/penal emphases that would have been typical of an earlier Roman Catholic theological approach. It is also good to see the broad and serious implications of Christian Dining set out.

    I would add to this an architectural remark. It is clear that there is a diversity of design for altars that has characterised our history of building places for the Liturgy. One can see elements both of table and solid ‘sacrificial’ block in many of them, both ancient and more recent.

    The traditional language of both East (The Holy Table) and West (the ‘Mensa’) illustrates this ability to allow both readings of the Eucharist to be read together and be mutually enriching.

    As your article intimates, there should be no distinction. The ‘Altar’ is a table for a meal whose Author interpreted it as both anticipating, and realising, his identity as Sacrifice. That’s not just what Jesus does, it is what he is in his relationship to the Father and to the world, for whom he ’emptied himself to assume the condition of a servant.’ So the built object speaks both themes.

    It is bad polarisation to take one or the other idea in opposition to the other. Our history in the Western Churches should have taught us that.


  2. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
    Anthony Ruff, OSB

    Very good, Mark.

    Sometimes in theology class an undergrad, struggling to think new big thoughts about Christology, will exclaim “So he’s 50% human and 50% divine and we have to keep it balanced!?” It breaks my heart to have to say that that is actually two heresies in a row, he’s 100% of each.

    I think it’s similar with meal and sacrifice. It’s not a balancing act where one side detracts from the other. The more the Eucharist is 100% fully a meal, the more sacrificial it becomes because that is the purpose of this meal. The more the Eucharist is 100% fully a sacrifice, the more fully the meal character comes out as the most proper form of this self-giving, self-emptying sacrifice. It’s not a zero-sum game.


    1. Paul Inwood Avatar
      Paul Inwood

      The more the Eucharist is 100% fully a meal, the more sacrificial it becomes because that is the purpose of this meal. The more the Eucharist is 100% fully a sacrifice, the more fully the meal character comes out as the most proper form of this self-giving, self-emptying sacrifice.

      Yes, yes. And on similar lines, this is precisely why those prelates and others who refuse to allow people to refer to bread and wine after they have been consecrated misunderstand what they have been taught. If the Body and Blood are not still bread and wine, they actually can’t be the Body and Blood. The Body and Blood of the Lord are there to be consumed, as well as offered. If they’re no longer bread and wine, this can’t happen. The meal disappears.

      1. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
        Fr. Anthony Forte

        That the bread and wine are changed into the actual Body and Blood of Jesus, and are thus no longer bread and wine, is not mere theological speculation but the defined and inerrant teaching of the Church. To deny this is to enter into heresy and can in no way be justified by Vatican II. Sacrosanctum Concilium explicitly states that he dogmatic principles which were laid down by the Council of Trent remain intact.

      2. Paul Inwood Avatar
        Paul Inwood

        I think we’re back into the differentiation/overlap between physical presence and sacramental presence, between substance and signs of presence.

        I refer once again to the late and great Herbert McCabe on transubstantiation:

      3. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
        Fr. Anthony Forte

        I will stay with the teaching of the Church, confirmed by Vatican II, rather than private speculation.

      4. Paul Inwood Avatar
        Paul Inwood

        In case of misunderstanding, I note that In its 13th session ending 11 October 1551, the Council of Trent defined transubstantiation as “that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood – the species only of the bread and wine remaining – which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation”.

        The species remain, even though the substance has changed. What is happening in the cases cited, however, is that the continued existence of the species is being denied. The species of bread and wine have to remain in order for the Body and Blood of the Lord to be consumed.

        We commonly refer to the presence of the Lord under/in the form of bread and wine”, not denying the change of substance but rather acknowledging the continued existence of the species.

      5. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
        Fr. Anthony Forte

        With respect, it is you who are misunderstanding Trent. You are confusing “species” with “thing.” The species is the appearance. It is also you who are confusing “substance” with “physical presence.” What Trent—and thus the Church—is saying is that what the Eucharist is changes completely from bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ while its appearance alone remains that of bread and wine; there is no longer any actual bread and wine. In the end this is a mystery that is beyond human understanding. All attempts to reduce this to the human mind, whether by Aristotelian philosophy or that of more modern theologians, will necessarily fail. Best just to accept the Church’s teaching in its simple terms and be reconciled that we could never really explain it.

      6. Paul Inwood Avatar
        Paul Inwood

        I am certainly not confusing “species” with “thing”, nor “substance” with “physical presence”. I am, however, distinguishing between physical presence and sacramental presence.

        And to dismiss the writings of McCabe, a fine Dominican theologian, as “private speculation” simply serves to demonstrate that you did not actually read his paper, which was precisely aimed at dispelling the kind of confusion that we have been talking about and does it very well.

      7. Fritz Bauerschmidt Avatar
        Fritz Bauerschmidt

        I’m trying to understand the disagreement here. Perhaps it is what one means by “species.” If what Paul means is that by “species” we don’t mean simply “appearance” in the sense of a disguise, but rather all of the physical properties of bread and wine, then it seems to me that what he is saying certainly accords with Aquinas and Trent, and I can’t imagine Fr. Forte disagrees. Perhaps what is really at issue is the pastoral question of whether it is advisable to refer to the consecrated species as “bread” and “wine.” On the yes side we have St. Paul speaking of “the bread that we break” being the body of Christ. So clearly calling the consecrated elements “bread” (and, by extension, “wine”) is not beyond the pale. But I do think doing so as a habitual or even exclusive practice could mislead people as to what we actually believe. I’m guessing Paul’s judgement is that this is not a line that we are in significant danger of crossing, whereas Fr. Forte thinks that this is a danger. Which is all to say that this seems to me more a prudential disagreement about where we are as a Church than one about doctrine.

      8. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
        Fr. Anthony Forte

        Trent does not address physical presence. It has only two terms: species (what it looks like) and substance (what stands underneath\what it is). Substance here does not imply either stuff or physical presence. In the formula of Trent:

        Before the consecration: the species (what it looks like) = bread and wine; the substance (what it is) = bread and wine.

        After the consecration: the species (what it looks like) = bread and wine; the substance (what it is) = the Body and Blood of Christ.

        There is nothing here about either stuff or physical presence. This is forcing modern use of “substance” onto the definition of Trent. Nor does Trent’s endorsement of the term “transubstantiation” mean that it is endorsing the Aristotelian/Thomistic explanation of how the species and substance relate to one another. Trent does not address this question. All Trent is saying is that the term itself rightly describes that fact the the substance (what it is) has changed. Perhaps it would be best to accept this as a mystery and not seek further explanation, all of which would fall short and fail.

  3. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
    Fr. Anthony Forte

    Combining these two aspect, meal and sacrifice, just brings us back to the understanding and setting of the Passover, meal and sacrifice. It is the joint participation in the sacrifice that gives the meal its meaning; it is the participation in the meal that makes the sacrifice present.

  4. Devin Rice Avatar
    Devin Rice

    A sacrifice is a food that is offered to a deity to bless. Then the offer partakes of the offering to have fellowship with the god. All sacrifices are meals (but not all meals are sacrifices). The sacrifice vs meal distinction is about who continuous/discontinuous a sacrificial meal should be with a secular meal. Which is another way of arguing about how the Eucharistic sacrifice creates unity between God and neighbor.

    Traditionalists emphasize how the mystical meal/communion unites the believer to God and from there creates communion with neighbor and a metaphysical connection with universal Church. It also atones for sins and evil of the world. Progressives tend to place more emphasize on how the meal/communion sacrifices creates bonds of fellowship w/ among the congregation which creates communion with God. Acts of service flow naturally from the fellowship created to their wider community and all the world.

    In the abstract these viewpoints can be “Both/And” but in terms of practical liturgics (especially in combinations with other beliefs such as the sinfulness of the world vs God speaking through the sign of times, the hierarchical nature of the Church vs the dignity of all the baptized), differing beliefs lead to differing decisions on the degree of openness to inculturation, choice and translation of texts, what the rubrics should be and how closely to follow them, etc.

  5. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
    Jordan Zarembo

    I strongly suspect that the newest directive from the bishops places the emphasis on sacrifice in order to instruct the faithful. Catechesis about the eucharist has been deplorable at best and simply absent at worst. I had to educate myself as an adult on the meaning of the Sacrifice of the Mass. The preparation for Confirmation outright neglected the topic. There is no doubt in my mind that the current crisis of the laity with respect to the Sacrifice of the Mass (“it’s [the eucharist is] just a symbol”, etc) stems from the inexcusable absence of this crucial education. Shame on those priests who fail to preach on the doctrine of the eucharist! I have rarely heard a priest give memorizable, succinct instruction about the truth of the Mass. There should be no lament, then, that the bulk of the laity has no clue about what is transpiring before them.

    Yes, Holy Mass is a meal. More precisely, the Mass is a “sacrificial banquet”. Yet crucially the Mass is the unbloody re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary for the infinite benefit of the living and the dead. Why is this so intimidating to state? I am convinced that this is partly because a good confession is the necessary precursor to a worthy communion. Why do priests not want to instruct the faithful to confess their sins before receiving Holy Communion? Were the Cure of Ars and Padre Pio misled to hear confessions for hours and hours each day? No one, especially myself, is truly worthy of Holy Communion, but at least some of us attempt to be worthy.

    The Church is in this mess because of catechetical neglect and nothing else. This is simply a crime.

    1. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
      Fr. Anthony Forte

      This problem, unfortunately, goes back years. Early in my priesthood, 25 years ago, I was having a conversation with a young man of the parish who was about to get married. I had asked him if he went to Mass regularly. When he replied no, I gave him a short catechism on the Real Presence and the Mass as a sacrifice. When I was finished he responded that after going to Catholic schools for twelve year, Catholic grade school and Catholic high school, that he had never heard that before. The faithful just do not understand Church teaching on the Eucharist because they have not been presented with it.

      For many years there has been a purposeful neglect of Catholic teaching regarding the Eucharist, reducing it to merely a meal. One of the hallmarks of the post-Vatican II church is an overreaction that rejects traditional, and still valid, teachings of the Church. Vatican II did not intend to change or reject past teaching, only to bring out some neglected aspects as an accompaniment to it.

      1. Jack Wayne Avatar
        Jack Wayne

        As a layman I have also experienced this when talking to peers. I was taught nothing of the sacrificial nature of the Mass, but easily understood it as a meal that kind of play-acts the Last Supper. I found out about the idea of a “Sacrifice-Banquet” as an adult. When talking to other Catholics my age (now in our 30s), there is absolutely no sense of the Mass as a sacrifice. One friend I talked to agreed that of course the Mass is a sacrifice because we have to get up early on a Sunday and sit in church instead of doing something else – it is solely a sacrifice *we* make of time, talent, and treasure. I wonder if that is what a lot of people think when they occasionally come upon sacrificial language in the Mass or when it is described as “The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.”

        The Mass as Meal is a more literal and obvious concept, and is strongly reinforced by the liturgical reform and the music that sprang up around it. The Mass as Sacrifice is a very abstract idea that needs to be explained and reinforced in some fashion, but it largely is not. If we are to agree that the Mass is 100% meal and 100% sacrifice, then to totally neglect the more difficult concept is to ignore 100% of the Mass’s true meaning.

      2. Todd Flowerday Avatar

        The young man is an illustrative point. We might be sure he didn’t hear this teaching. I might surmise he wasn’t listening either. Catechesis since the Council has been excellent. The problem is less about content or even ideology and more about cultivating an environment where people want to listen.

        The problem is also far beyond the alleged ignorance of the laity. The problem is also in the clergy. Alas, many priests conduct Mass as if it were neither a meal nor a sacrifice. It is a frame for their preaching. It is a means to collect money to sustain the parish. It is an obligation imposed by canon law. It is something they do when they would rather be doing something else. Sometimes the “something else” is worthy on its own merits: counseling people, teaching, reading or studying. Sometimes not so much: the game, drinking, smoking a cigar, eating lunch.

        One of the hallmarks of clericalism is to blame the poor, stupid laity. Sometimes, personal confession is better than accusation.

      3. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
        Karl Liam Saur

        “We might be sure he didn’t hear this teaching. I might surmise he wasn’t listening either. Catechesis since the Council has been excellent. ”

        I take you are trying to mirror an opposite leap here, but that said, the first sentences two do not necessarily flow in an individual case from the general assertion with nested assumptions in the third sentence.

      4. Todd Flowerday Avatar

        What I’m asserting: poor catechesis is an unproven premise. Perhaps the results are less than optimal in many, likely most cases. I don’t think critics can be sure the results were better in, say, 1947 or the 1800s.

      5. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
        Fr. Anthony Forte

        Being familiar with the material that has been use for the past 30 years, I will assert that poor catechesis is a major problem. The emphasis has been placed on the Eucharist as a meal and Christ’s presence in the gathered assembly to the near exclusion of the Mass as a sacrifice and the unique Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. One only has to look at the reaction here at Pray Tell to the bishops’ simple restatement of Church teaching on the topic. This is also reflected in the manner in which the Mass is celebrated at most places.

        As for 1947 or the 1800’s, yes it was markedly better because these beliefs where central to Catholics’ identity. To deny the real problem that exists today is to deny reality. The reaction I had from that young man, unfortunately, was not unique. We need to stop pretending that the latest poll on Catholic belief is somehow flawed and unreflective of the true level of understanding by the laity. Nor is this the fault of the laity; it is the fault of those who have been charged to teach them.

      6. Todd Flowerday Avatar

        Well, I think your assessment is wrong. I’ve also seen catechetical materials, and I don’t require the priestsplaining on it.

        The bishops are a bit off not because of their emphasis on sacrifice, but on the lack of self-examination and their inattention on liturgy. What their clergy do says a lot more about the Mass than what anybody says about it.

      7. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
        Fr. Anthony Forte

        The fact that only 30% of Catholics (and yes, that number is unfortunately reliable) believe in the Real Presence is a clear indication that the present catechesis is inadequate. The same is true of the low numbers of Catholics who go to Mass any given Sunday.

        I do, however, agree with you that the way the Mass is celebrated is also a major problem. But this problem is not merely one of slovenly priests. It is primarily of deliberate choices made on how the new Mass is celebrated: 1) versus populum, 2) Communion standing and in the hand, 3) proliferation of lay ministries, 4) the elimination of genuflections while crossing in front the tabernacle, and 5) a general informality on the way the Mass is celebrated. The overall effect has been to overemphasize of the Mass as merely a communal meal and the work of the gathered community to the exclusion of the Mass as the work of Christ and the re-presentation of his sacrifice offered to the Father. Note that, with one exception, this is not a critique of the new Mass per se, but only the manner in which it is celebrated.

        Of all of the above, the most detrimental is Mass versus populum. The impression it gives, whether intended or not, is that the the Mass is only a re-presentation of the Last Supper, and not a sacrifice. The question I must ask, why is it so important at this point in the Mass, when the priest is addressing God the Father and not the faithful, for him to be facing the people?

      8. Todd Flowerday Avatar

        Yawn. No. It’s about clergy and lay people treating the Mass as pedestrian no matter how they observe the celebration. The casual carelessness has roots in the 1570/1962 Low Mass.

        Nope. Not only am I calling fake news on poor catechesis, I’m doubling down and blaming the Tridentine Mass.

      9. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
        Karl Liam Saur

        Fr Forte

        “Of all of the above, the most detrimental is Mass versus populum.”

        I would disagree that that is the worst of the list you suggested. Rather, of your list, it would be “a general informality on the way the Mass is celebrated” in many but not all places.

        Even if one hews to cherising the so-called meal “dimension” of the representation of the Paschal Mystery, it’s not a quotidian meal, but a banquet that ought have more gravitas – for lack of a better word – than the greatest banquets we experience in ordinary life: most typically the wedding banquet in First World cultures. (I suspect many of the contributors here, including Todd and you, would likely be in some form of agreement about that.)

        Informality was not a missing problem before the Council (as you intimate). Rapid-fire sub-whispered delivery of much of the music-free Low Mass – especially when Mass times were squeezed between 6AM and noon to maximize opportunities for fulfilling Sunday precept – was formal at a surface level, but informal at a more fundamental level: the informality of the pragmatic and perfunctory. (The “veil of silence” argument has failed to persuade me that it is not more rationalization than reality; and I am perhaps more open than is typical to the idea of contrapuntal liturgical participation, as it were.)

        As for me, I hew to the reformed liturgy. That said, I don’t see versus populum as a hill to die on, nor reception of the Blessed Sacrament standing and in the hand (though I deeply miss my ability to kneel without strong support for my upper body to rise safely – getting down ain’t the problem, it’s getting up, since I tore my hamstrings permanently rising from kneeling on a wooden confessional floor 15 years ago, perhaps my true penance). If forced to have a triaged list to present for reconciliation with traditionalists, the 4 first things on your list are not things I’d fight hard about, depending on what they really mean, and I’d probe the reasons of those on my “side” who’d rank them among the highest group on their respective lists.

        A blessed Christmastide to you. Peace.

      10. Todd Flowerday Avatar

        “Even if one hews to cherising the so-called meal “dimension” of the representation of the Paschal Mystery, it’s not a quotidian meal, but a banquet that ought have more gravitas – for lack of a better word – than the greatest banquets we experience in ordinary life: most typically the wedding banquet in First World cultures.”


        I think Fr Forte and his allies have missed the boat, not only on this point, but on their caricature of the aspiration to Isaiah 25:6ff. When they and the bishops are willing to engage the Bible and the Christian mystical tradition more fully, then I think we can move past silly tension. The lion’s share of the tension I see is in the baiting and dishonesty in the discussions on the Eucharist. Granted, I’d say there are silly propositions coming from liturgical so-called progressives. But generally not from scholars.

        Scrolling back to bishops, I think if they took care of things on their end, starting with the so-called slovenly priests (not a term I’d use) I think we’d make some progress in a decade. Their document is a dead-end, a fact in which I wouldn’t rejoice. What the laity need from their bishops is inspiration, to be shown the potential and power of the sacramental life. Bishop Barron and others harp on beauty, but they seem incapable of delivering on that promise.

        At worst, the clergy treat the Mass as neither banquet nor sacrifice. That must be confessed. And changed.

      11. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
        Fr. Anthony Forte


        You say that you blame the Tridentine Mass, yet those who attend the traditional Latin Mass have high numbers that believe in the Real Presence and the Mass as a sacrifice; I would say approaching universal. Indeed they are very vocal about it and cite it as a major motivation for coming to the Latin Mass. Furthermore, when the old Mass was the norm this belief was also very high. Please explain.

      12. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
        Fr. Anthony Forte

        One way to bring beauty to the Mass would be to restore Gregorian Chant and Sacred Polyphony, which Vatican II called for.

      13. Paul Inwood Avatar
        Paul Inwood

        I’m getting very tired of this claim that most people attending postconciliar liturgies don’t really believe in the Real Presence, whereas preconciliar adherents do. It’s all tosh. The language of the infamous questionnaire was at the least ambiguous, at worst slanted, so that the results are skewed.

        I am sure that Fr Forte doesn’t really think that his brother clergy are incapable of conveying the doctrines of the faith in their preaching. I’m also sure that he knows full well that the majority of Catholics at postconciliar celebrations actually believe what he believes. There would be little point in their attending if they didn’t.

      14. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
        Fr. Anthony Forte

        The Pew survey was of all Catholics, not Mass going Catholics. This would be consistent with the fact that only 20% of Catholics go to Mass. But we must remember that for the past 50 years nearly all Catholics have been formed by the new Mass. How much of all this, however, is a result of the catechesis over that period and who much is a result of how the Mass was celebrated is an open question. What cannot be doubted, however, is that there is a serious problem that did not exist before.

      15. Devin Rice Avatar
        Devin Rice

        1) I agree with Liam completely (his comment on December 19, 2021 at 1:00 pm)

        2) It is important that we don’t idealize or place blame on any period in Church history. Catechizing, discipleship, and dealing with sin and error have been issues since the Patristic Age with clergy and dedicated laity trying to inspire greater faithfulness to the Gospel (both in deeds and understanding the faith) among their peers. There have been varying levels of success in all periods of Church history whether it is post-Trent, Post Vatican I, or post Vatican II.

        Prior to Vatican II, a majority of parishes celebrated low mass without incense and congregations usually sang hymns instead of using of Proper’s with their psalms (although of course the clergy quietly would recite these). And there are preconcillar documents and attempts trying to encourage these practices that fell on deaf ears. Post Vatican II most masses lack incense and the use of propers (whether in the vernacular or Latin) and there are plenty of documents and attempt encouraging both of these. Some of which have come from the current Pontiff. Again falling on deaf ears.

        It doesn’t mean we should stop attempting to encourage these liturgical practices (or better catechetical teaching). Just the opposite. But playing the blame game solves nothing. Slow and steady with hearts full of peace and charity will always win the race.

      16. Todd Flowerday Avatar

        Two things:

        1. I blame the Tridentine Low Mass as a pale shadow of the possibilities of good liturgy. It removed both banquet and sacrifice from the Mass, and emphasized obligation, expediency, and indulgence. (And no, I don’t mean the ecclesiastical practice.) I don’t blame the era; I criticize the fruits.

        2. As for “Furthermore, when the old Mass was the norm this belief was also very high.” I suppose we’d like to think that is so. Some people would like to think it still holds true. The thing is, I’m not aware of any pre-1963 poll of Catholics. We suspect. But we don’t know.

        I would favor a simple survey: Yes or no: is Jesus present at Mass? If pressed, perhaps a multiple choice: a) banquet b) sacrifice c) obligation — 1. state your priority as to how you see the Mass. 2. State your pastor’s priority. That might be really interesting.

      17. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
        Fr. Anthony Forte

        If your complaint is about the low Mass, then it is not about the old Mass per se because the same complaint can be made about the new Mass. Nor was the solution a rewriting of the missal since that did not solve the problem.

        I can see how you might say that the idea of the banquet was missing from the old Mass, but sacrifice? Indeed the usual critique is that it was the overemphasis on the Mass as a sacrifice that obscured the idea of the Mass as a banquet.

        No, there were no polls back then but we can still know that there was a high level of believe in the Real Presence and the Mass as a sacrifice. First, these were emphasized much more than they are today. Further, at the time the self-identification as Catholic or Protestant was much more important and marked than it is today and these beliefs were important markers of what it was to be a Catholic. We can also see it in the earlier reluctance to receive frequent Communion lest one commit an unworthy Communion. And finally, there was the commitment to go Mass every Sunday. And please spare me the canard that they were only going out of a sense of obligation. Obligation was not filling the seminaries and novitiates, unlike today.

        Your simple survey question, “Is Jesus present at the Mass?” hides the problem rather than reveal it. A Protestant could easily answer yes. That question confuses the distinction between Christ being present at the Mass with the belief that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ. Belief in the former is not enough; the latter is a sine qua non of being a Catholic. Reducing Church teaching that the bread and wine changes and becomes the actual Body and Blood of Christ to just the belief that Christ is present at the Mass is the problem.

      18. Todd Flowerday Avatar

        Fr Forte,

        “If your complaint is about the low Mass, then it is not about the old Mass per se”

        No. It is about the “law of prayer” expressed in the expediency of the Low Mass, and wherever that attitude is grafted onto the modern Roman Rite. My view and interpretation is that every Sunday, holy day, or major celebration of Mass should be modelled on the best of the intent behind the former High Mass.

        “I can see how you might say that the idea of the banquet was missing from the old Mass, but sacrifice?”

        Yes. My premise is indeed the preconciliar Mass was seen as obligation, rather than sacrifice or banquet. My critiques don’t always align with others you’ve heard.

        ” … we can still know that there was a high level of believe in the Real Presence and the Mass as a sacrifice.”

        Prove it.

        Your Protestant/Catholic distinction is ignorant of what many non-Catholics believe. I’ve known many Episcopalians and Lutherans for whom the problem is Peter, not Jesus.

        This has been an interesting conversation. Moving forward, even through a creative tension, will require a searingly accurate diagnosis of what is going on. Not subjective hopes or opinions, even of clergy, or even the pope. Until we get clarity on what people are really experiencing at Mass, or outside of it, our solutions will be grasping at phantoms.

    2. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
      Fr. Anthony Forte


      You said:

      No. It is about the “law of prayer” expressed in the expediency of the Low Mass, and wherever that attitude is grafted onto the modern Roman Rite. My view and interpretation is that every Sunday, holy day, or major celebration of Mass should be modelled on the best of the intent behind the former High Mass.

      Could this not have been accomplished by promoting the Sung or Solemn Mass in the old rite. Again, your critique seems to me to be one of how either rite is celebrated rather than one of the old rite itself.

  6. Father Jack Feehily Avatar
    Father Jack Feehily

    For nearly 50 years I have made it clear both in words and in ars celebrandi that the Mass is a Sacrificial Meal. It is a meal because we literally are invited to “eat and drink” and actually do so. But we eat and drink to remember the sacrifice offered by Jesus on the cross. Like our Jewish ancestors who celebrated a perpetual memorial of their deliverance from bondage in the passover meal (pesach), we follow Christ’s command at the last supper to “do this in memory of me”. Through enacting the covenant in Christ’s blood, we are able to participate in his once and for all sacrifice that released us from the bondage of sin. Isn’t this why the church came to speak of his real presence in the Eucharist? If Christ is not present then there is no sacrifice and no meal worth participating in. He is present purposefully to unite us with him and one another and to consecrate us for our sharing in his mission. The reformed rite makes it palpably clear that worshiping God in spirit and truth involves both words and actions. In our standing and in our seating, in our spoken and sung prayers, in our kneeling and in other acts of adoration & reverence, in our processions and in our attentive listening. All of these are elements of a truly Sacrificial & Eucharistic meal that is a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.

    1. Michael Marchal Avatar
      Michael Marchal

      It is a dead end to connect the Mass solely with the Last Supper and Calvary. The Pascal mystery embraces the resurrection and the parousia. Our meal is also linked with Emmaus, the breakfast on the beach, and the meal appearances in the upper room. Otherwise our focus is always backwards and not forwards towards building the kingdom.

  7. Peter Haydon Avatar
    Peter Haydon

    Am I too late to ask a question?
    I understand that all are welcome to attend Mass regardless of faith, status as baptised or in a state of sin and so on. Not all of those welcome to attend are invited to take Holy Communion.
    It would be strange to welcome a visitor to a meal but to refuse to offer food.
    To me the congregation join in “my sacrifice and yours” and do not necessarily eat or “participate” in the ritual meal unless they take Communion except perhaps as waiters at the table.
    Am I misunderstanding what happens?
    Friendly greetings to all.

  8. Jonathan Day Avatar
    Jonathan Day

    Most people have an intuitive understanding of what a ‘meal’ is, even a ‘banquet’. I would guess that few have a similar comprehension of ‘sacrifice’, except in contexts like chess or football. Even more so for words/concepts like ‘re-presentation’ or ‘oblation’. And why, unbelievers will ask, does God require a ‘sacrifice’ for our sins, obvious as they are? The animal sacrifices in the Hebrew scriptures involved giving up something of far more tangible value than a wafer of bread or a spoonful of wine – handing over something as a way of appeasing a God who would otherwise be offended.

    This is why I think these surveys and polls can become sources of shibboleths more than of understanding. The Pew Research question was “Which best describes Catholic teaching about the bread and wine used for Communion?” Respondents could choose option a, “They actually become the body and blood of Jesus”; or option b, “They are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus.” But – and I am a strong believer in the real presence – I would want to tick both options. With due respect to Flannery O’Connor, the Eucharist is a symbol, but not only a symbol; it is the ultimate symbol, a sign that becomes what it signifies.

    More and better instruction is certainly needed. It always has been. I love McCabe’s subtlety, and think that the piece Paul Inwood cited is thoroughly orthodox. But most folks in the pews – or outside the Church – aren’t going to dig into McCabe.

    These things need to be explained with humility in the face of an overwhelming mystery, yet in terms that people can grasp and connect with. Parroting “real presence”, “not a symbol”, etc., isn’t going to help.

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