Eucharist: Vatican II’s challenge to restore the prophetic character to our celebrations, challenging us to unity and care for the poor.


Arguably the greatest impact of the Second Vatican Council has been the change brought about in the celebration of Sunday Eucharist. Even the very language we now use in relation to worship indicates a different approach to the central activity of Catholic life. Before the Council, Catholics ‘heard the Mass’, while Father ‘said Mass’, the clergy ‘administered the sacraments’ and we ‘received them’. We described the Mass in terms of Private, Dialogue, Sung, Solemn or High. Now we tend to speak about the Eucharist in terms of celebration, as the activity of all of us. We are more inclined to speak of the bishop or priest who leads this celebration as presider or chief celebrant of our Eucharist.

Anyone who is old enough to have ‘heard Mass’ in the 50’s would have memories of churches that differ considerably in appearance from those today. The central focus of the church was the altar and tabernacle, above which usually hung a large crucifix and perhaps a painting depicting an artist’s image of the heavenly realm. The sanctuary was sometimes guarded by angels, and included statues of Our Lady and other saints. The high altar was adorned with candles and flowers on lace cloths. During Mass the priest and altar boy faced the altar against the wall, and was separated from those of us in the pews by communion rails. As a child I was caught up by the mystery of the experience. I enjoyed the sound of Latin, the smell of beeswax and incense, and the chance to pray quietly to Jesus in the tabernacle. Sometimes I tried to follow the prayers of the priest with the aid of my missal. On other occasions I would see how many rosaries I could say or I’d lose myself in books of prayers. I especially loved the chance, as I grew older, to don a blue cloak and a netting veil and to join the other Children of Mary. On one Sunday each month my family had to wait around chatting to friends while I joined the others in the sodality to recite the Office of the Virgin Mary immediately after Mass.

By the 70’s I was a young religious teaching in a primary school and preparing school and class Masses. There were books available to help us prepare. These usually contained suggestions for Masses focused upon themes. In contrast to my own school days where we went to Mass on special feast days and were rewarded for good conduct, the children who lived two decades later experienced Eucharist in a very different way. They were encouraged not only to prepare the prayers and songs, to decorate the space: whether class room or church, but also to take an active part in the celebration. It was usually possible, with a class of thirty, to find some activity for each to do, whether as reader, prayer leader, or the one who played the triangle or tambourine. I also occasionally accompanied the youth of the parish to weekend camps. The highlight of these gathering was the celebration of Eucharist, often late at night in a very informal setting, sitting upon the floor around campfire and candlelight. These celebrations were often spontaneous and included lots of singing accompanied by guitars. Liturgical celebrations were usually flavoured with contemporary songs; offertory procession may include footballs and school books in addition to bread and wine, and altar and presider were sometimes vested with colourful images created by young budding artists. We celebrated Mass in homes and classrooms or outdoors as well as in churches. We often decorated our liturgical spaces with children’s’ artwork or even streamers and balloons. In the heady time following Vatican II there seemed no end to the possibility of adaptation and experimentation.


At the beginning of the twenty-first century we have yet a different story to tell about Eucharistic practice. From my experience of celebrating Eucharist in many parishes, it appears that we now take for granted that the faithful will be involvement in liturgical ministries. But how do Catholics in the pew understand their role as participants in the Eucharist? To revisit our experiences of Eucharist does remind us of the vast shifts in liturgical practice since 1963. But many describe the current climate of worship in the Catholic church as something of a liturgical battlefield. We hear cries from some that the Council compromised the Roman tradition and now it is time to restore orthodox Catholic liturgy. Others believe we should not continue to dwell upon the past but move forward with ever continuing innovation and creativity. Some have opposed the reform all along. Still another group of people born around or after the Council advocate a return to a past practice that they can only imagine because it is beyond their lived experience. The critical question that demands our consideration, I believe, is what did the Council mean when it called the assembly to full participation in liturgy. To do this we must revisit the writings of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council.


The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, was the first document ratified by the Council Fathers in December 1963. However, the reform of the Roman liturgy was begun many decades before. Pius X in 1903, Pius XI, and then in 1947 Pius XII who wrote the Encyclical Mediator Dei: all contributed significantly. History records that liturgical reform was discussed, debated and progressed by scholars all over the world for many decades before the historic convocation of John XXIII. It is important to stress however, that the seeds of the liturgical reform were not sown in universities and monasteries, but rather amongst the grass roots laity in parishes. The forums and liturgical weeks that ensued were motivated by and centred upon pastoral problems and concerns. (See Botte: 1988, Bugnini: 1990).


The reform of the liturgy is tied closely to ecclesiology, and so we need to examine what the Council had to say about the church. Pius XII in his encyclical Mediator Dei reflected upon church as Mystical Body of Christ. This image was echoed by Lumen Gentium, ‘The Constitution on the Church’ (hereafter LG): “By communicating his Spirit, Christ made us his brothers and sisters, called together from all nations, to be mystically his own Body.” (LG 7). The many biblical images of church named in the document serve to remind the faithful of the richness of Church in the tradition. The Council Fathers grappled with an expanded notion of church and finally agreed to rearrange the final schema of this document, so that the chapter on the People of God (chapter II) preceded that of the hierarchical structure and episcopate (chapter III). This radical understanding of church had the effect of changing the notion of the laity from being passive recipients to active members. No longer did the church refer only to hierarchy: pope, bishops, priests, and perhaps nuns, but the Fathers reinstated the biblical understanding of church as people of God. It was no longer simply the priests and nuns who were called to live according to ‘the perfect state’, but all Christians were called to holiness as the baptised, and called to engage in the public work of liturgy.


The Constitution on the Liturgy makes it clear that the liturgy is an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. Christ is the only priest who offered the sacrifice once and for all. That same Christ, the one priest, calls the people of God to assemble as church. Both Lumen Gentium and Sacrosanctum Concilium restored the idea of liturgical assembly or ecclesia to its rightful place. The Constitution on the Liturgy stated that it is by virtue of baptism that the faithful are to participate in Christian worship. “All who are made children of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of his Church, to take part in the sacrifice, and to eat the Lord’s Supper”. (SC 10) Prior to the Council Catholics had been instructed in their obligation to attend or hear Mass as silent witnesses at most. Now Catholics were to understand themselves no longer as spectators but as significant participants who, through the gift of baptism are called to gather to celebrate Eucharist on the Lord’s day.


The Body of Christ, the head and members, perform liturgical celebrations. The Holy People of God continue to participate in the action of redemption when they assemble as Church for the Eucharistic memorial. It is in the celebration of the holy sacrifice that the assembly both manifests the ‘mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true church’. (SC 2) The Council Fathers reminded us that Christ is truly present in his church and especially in its liturgical celebrations. Christ is therefore present in the action of the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of the minister and under the Eucharistic elements, but also in his Word, and in the assembly who prays and sings. (SC 7) It is clear from the documents that liturgy is the work of Christ celebrated by the holy people of God, who are so designated through baptism.

The Church is a holy people of God made one in Christ through baptism and the Church is a priestly people, consecrated as a ‘spiritual house and holy priesthood.’ (1 Pet 2: 4-10)

“The Church earnestly desires that all the faithful be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations called for by the very nature of liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’ (1 Pet 2:9) is their right and duty by reason of their baptism. In this reform and promotion of the liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else. ” (SC 14)


For this principle to be realised certain practices had to change. For example, to fully participate the assembly must be able to pray using a language that could be understood. While Latin has remained the official language of the Roman Rite, the Council restored the ability for the assembly to pray in the vernacular: the contemporary language of the culture. (SC 36)


With full participation of baptised Christians in worship came the re-appropriation of liturgical ministries that serve the assembly. The prominence of the Word as presence of Christ brought with it the task of proclamation for the deacon and the baptised. The Council wished to promote “warm and living love for Scriptures” amongst the faithful. (SC 24) The Council expressly encouraged opening up the treasures of the Scriptures for our people and this became our lectionary. (SC 51) The richness of this expansion of the lectionary and the emphasis upon biblical preaching called the homilist to careful and prayerful preparation so that the word of God truly nourished the assembly. The baptised were also called to lead the assembly in song, and as frequent communion became the norm, to assist the ordained with the distribution of the consecrated bread and the cup. Above all, the reform intended that the assembly would be the primary minister of the liturgy. Through their participation in the holy work of God Christ is present. This holy work of God is manifest in the action of assembling, of listening, of celebrating the Eucharist, as well as through the ministries of service to the assembly.


In the period immediately following the Council, the notion of participation was taken seriously by many Catholics. People were invited to proclaim the Word in the assembly. This was accompanied by a much greater familiarity with the Scriptures, whether in schools, through bible study groups or Lenten programs. Other ministries were initiated. The role of commentator became essential in an environment where direction was needed as changes occurred. One major change in practice was the introduction of frequent communion. This led to a situation where priests needed assistance in the distribution of Communion. In 1971 Paul VI responded to this pastoral concern by issuing the Instruction Immensae Caritatis, that enabled the faithful to be deputed to assist the priest with the distribution of Communion. At about this time the minor orders were revised and lectors and acolytes were instituted without necessarily leading to ordination. No dioceses in Australia chose to institute readers but some dioceses installed acolytes. Pastoral reasons determined these decisions. Both ministries were reserved only to men, and were deemed by many bishops to be exclusive. Some parishes continued with choirs but many did not. Artists became banner makers and attended to the environment of the church. People also took an active role in the preparation of liturgy and so liturgy committees emerged in parishes. But was this really full participation?


Often this explosion of ministries was interpreted by the faithful as “full, conscious and active participation”. Parishes boasted (and some still do) of the large numbers of ministers of Word or Communion. When some priests discovered the value of acolytes they encouraged this ministry to the extent that one could be forgiven for assuming that there is an ‘order of acolytes’. At a recent funeral of an acolyte the other acolytes in the parish turned out in force, vested for the occasion, sat together between the altar and the assembly; and ceremoniously placed an alb on the coffin of their dead brother. Language such as the presiding acolyte or chief acolyte, and the physical proximity to the ordained in the celebration – even to sitting on an identical chair – have led to confusion as to the purpose of this ministry. While ministries appeared to be created overnight, the music ministry experienced a great upheaval. A prolific amount of music was written in a popular genre, much of which has not stood the test of time. The various styles of music also led to sharp distinctions between young people and adults, so that in many parishes it was common to have a youth or rock Mass as a regular feature of parish worship. One sometimes wondered whether the assembly was attracted to church by worship or simply a free concert. Even today there is a tendency, especially with Masses where there are many children to find ‘jobs’ for them to do. But is this the liturgical participation of the assembly that the Fathers intended?


The Second Vatican Council led us back to a fuller understanding of the public work of liturgy. The activity of the Church includes worship and also proclamation and works of charity. “To believers the Church must ever preach faith and penance, prepare them for the sacraments, teach them to observe all that Christ has commanded, and invite them to all the works of charity, worship, and the apostolate.” (SC 9). While we tend to understand liturgy synonymously with worship, the early tradition had a broader understanding, as the Catholic Catechism reminds us:

“In the New Testament the word ‘liturgy’ refers not only to the celebration of divine worship but also to the proclamation of the Gospel and to active charity. In all of these situations it is a question of the service of God and neighbour. In a liturgical celebration the Church is servant in the image of her Lord, the one ‘Leitourgos’; she shares in Christ’s priesthood (worship)’ which is both prophetic (proclamation) and kingly (service of charity).” (CCC 1070)


Active participation as the right and responsibility of the baptised as ministers of Word and servers of the table has deep implications. The work of Sunday liturgy begins as Christians leave home on the Lord’s day to assemble as God’s people, as Christ bearers to each other. Consequently, as the members of the church gather at the building that bears the same name, they greet the Christ present in each other. The many members gather together as one body and this very act of gathering witnesses Christ’s presence no longer as individual, but as ecclesia, the one body of Christ. The Constitution speaks of the Church as the “sacrament of unity”, the holy people united with its bishop. (SC 26) To be truly the sacrament of Christ, the assembly must be one in fact. Unity must be more than in appearance only. As Matthew states: “if you are bringing your offering to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother first, and then come back and present your offering.” (Matt 5:23-24). One must leave one’s gift at the altar and first be reconciled before approaching the sacrifice. Reconciliation with one’s neighbour is an essential prerequisite for prophetic or authentic worship.


But what is the gift that Christians bring to Eucharist? Christians offer the gift of their own self-sacrifice. The early Christians brought to the Sunday celebration food and drink, bread and wine. The finest of these gifts was chosen for the Eucharistic table and the remainder was collected by deacons and later shared at the tables of the poor. It is not appropriate to approach the banquet table empty-handed. Christians’ mindfulness of others must include almsgiving. We learn from Matthew that unity in the community requires more than harmonious relationships alone. Christians also bring gifts to the altar. These gifts are shared with those who depend upon the generosity of the community – including church leaders and the poor. This sacrifice is usually money in today’s celebrations, and accompanies the bread and wine that is presented at the altar of memorial.


Christ is present through the person who is proclaiming and the faith response of the community who hear. Those who serve at table minister Christ to the Body of Christ gathered in unity around the table. But these action cannot be separated from daily life. The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Church’s life. (SC 10). Christians bring to Eucharist “the joys and hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted.” (Gaudium et Spes: The Constitution of the Church in the Modern World 1) The church’s worship belongs to the whole world:

“For since Christ died for all, and since all human beings are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all human beings the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, alone, in the paschal mystery.” (GS 22)

It is only when the community gathers in love that it is able to recognise and so to name before God the grief and anguish, the joys and hopes of all of creation in the prayer of the faithful, the priestly prayer of the assembly. (General Instruction of the Roman Missal 45). This is because the assembly recognises the collective cry of Christ in the poor and oppressed.


What is symbolised in the action of the Eucharistic memorial must flow into Christian life. In the action of liturgy Christ is present. All Christians are to present themselves as living sacrifices and always witness to Christ in their lives. (LG 10, 11) As Christians gather as assembly, as the chosen of Christ they are the sacrament of the Body that has no distinctions, not sexual, socio-economic, cultural or physical. While each is a unique human being with a particular history, at the assembling all become members of one Body in Christ. It is one Body united with its head, Christ, who listens, praises, blesses, remembers, takes and shares. In faith and with the action of the Holy Spirit Christ becomes most significantly present in the celebration of Eucharist. The holy priesthood of believers proclaims the great prayer of praise and thanksgiving to the God of all creation who is ever faithful and bounteous. Christians recognise the presence of Christ in the action of eating and drinking where they unite fully to Christ and each other. Strengthened and nourished by the food of the Word and the food of Eucharist, Christians leave the table for mission.


Personal devotions hold a very significant place in our tradition, but these must always be experienced in harmony and accord with sacred liturgy. The Mass is by its very nature communal:

“Liturgical services are not private functions, but are celebrations belonging to the whole Church. Therefore liturgical services involve the whole Body of the Church; they manifest it and have effects upon it; but they also concern the individual members of the Church in different ways, according to their different orders, offices, and actual participation.” (SC 26).

While Sacrosanctum Concilium highly endorsed popular devotions, it is clear that there is no place for private devotion or individual piety in the celebration of Eucharist. One feeds and nourishes the other but there is a clear distinction between these different forms of prayer, and the document clearly states that “the liturgy, by its very nature far surpasses any of them.” (SC 13) “Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy”: a recently translated document from the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (December 2001) endorsed this principle. “The faithful should be made conscious of the preeminence of the Liturgy over any other possible form of legitimate Christian prayer. While sacramental actions are necessary to life in Christ, the various forms of popular piety are properly optional.” (11.) Christian witness calls for action on behalf of others. It is virtuous to gaze upon the face of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, and yet this very mystical experience must challenge us to recognise the presence of the Body of Christ manifest in others. It is essentially truthful Christian Eucharistic witness to recognise that same Christ in the poor and oppressed and to serve Christ through them in a tangible way. Christian liturgy must involve an option for the poor, because to fully participate means to be open to conversion, to the service of Christ in word and action. To the extent that Christians enter more fully and actively into participation of Eucharist will they also witness through ethical responsibility to society and the preservation of creation.

The Church’s worship is never reduced to a set of texts and rubrics recorded in books but is always the living prayer of Christians. As the Constitution states:

“Pastors of souls must, therefore, realise that, when the liturgy is celebrated, their obligation goes further than simply ensuring that the laws governing valid and lawful celebrations are observed. They must also ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite and enriched by it.” (SC 11).

Have we in our age become so preoccupied with getting the liturgy right that we have forgotten the fact that the liturgy is the means of our salvation? Christians gather on Sunday to celebrate the paschal mystery to give meaning to life and to become strengthened to live according to God’s reign. Perhaps the liturgy will more truly reflect Christ’s intention if we make the effort to enter fully into the mystery both at Mass and in our daily lives.


The mission of Christ’s Church is to bring about the reign of God. As Christ liberated all of creation through his passion and death so Christians go out to continue this work of redemption by lives of prophetic witness. The suffering Christ is remembered at the altar of sacrifice and so Christ is also recognised in the suffering of the poor and dispossessed be they refugees or prisoners of substance or abuse. As Christians experienced the unity and communion of Eucharist so Christians live as one people, offering both respect and dignity to all of God’s creation and especially to other human beings. It is only when the assembly fully participates in Eucharist that it can also fully participate in the mission of the Church. This I believe is the prophetic challenge of the Council when it stated that full conscious and active participation is the aspect of the liturgical reform to be promoted “before all else”.


That the liturgical reform has been embraced by Christians all over the world is not disputed. While mistakes have been made along the way, we can but rejoice in the signs that are evident. The frequency of communion and a deeper understanding and love of the Scriptures are but two of these signs. No one can dispute that the laity have an ownership of the liturgy is a way that has not been experienced in many centuries. Some forty years later Catholics continue to study and implement the liturgical reform with a wisdom that grows as we delve deeper into the documents and those produced since the Council. I believe that as long as we are only prepared to equate liturgy with worship, and in particular the period of time we spend at Sunday Eucharist, we have yet to endorse and implement fully the liturgical reform.

It is to be hoped that in this age of the reform the words

of Paul VI can still be ours:

“The new rites and new prayer forms introduced into the liturgy have added to the splendour of the age-old and beautiful sacred patrimony of the Church and we observe with joy a new flowering in divine worship everywhere because of a more lively participation of the faithful.” (1968)


As Christians have realised their baptismal call this has led to an explosion of ministries, both directly connected to worship and those that serve the internal needs of the church. This has sometimes proved challenging for the ordained, especially when the Council did not provide a clear theology of orders. Two issues emerge:

A perceived clericalization of the laity where some Catholics adopt a clerical model of ministry rather than an outward focus upon mission.

A greater tendency now more than ever since the Council to promote a church where all authority rests with its clerical members.

The evolution of the liturgical reform alongside a new understanding of local church brought great excitement and challenge as episcopal conferences set about implementing the reform, including the revision of liturgical texts. Our current experience is of a centralised dominance of the Roman Curia where local churches are rendered almost powerless. An example of this is the recent refusal by the Office of Worship and Doctrine to accept the Australian Bishops’ English Translation of the Roman Missal.

If liturgy is the work of a people in a certain place and time, then a challenge remains for those of us in countries like Australia, where our nation is a rich composite of people from many cultures. There seems little evidence that we honour the diversity of our assembly in current Eucharistic practice. There is also a question about the suitability of bringing in ‘visiting priests’ to preside over an assembly where they have no pastoral leadership.

There is a tendency within our leadership today to urge the faithful to practice private devotions. In fact some would believe that Catholics find their identity in traditional devotions such as prayer before the Blessed Sacrament and the rosary, rather than in the full, conscious and active participation in the Sunday Eucharist and sacraments. This becomes a confusing distortion, especially for young Catholics, and creates an artificial divorce between liturgy and life. Personal devotion does not necessarily call one to responsibility for others. The magnified importance of popular devotions rather than the primacy of liturgical prayer also leads to conflict regarding the principals of church architecture.

A continued preoccupation with the rubrics of liturgy has led to misunderstanding of the true spirit of the liturgical reform. Some people seem preoccupied with the need to ‘get the liturgy right’. This has resulted in liturgical practice that is highly formal and exact but inhibiting of true participation. It also focuses upon the law rather than the spirit of liturgy. An example of this distortion is the practice of deacons who do not complement their liturgical functions with their social and ethical responsibilities as co-workers with the bishop. On the other extreme a lack of understanding of liturgical principles has led to impoverished celebrations where certain innovations and accretions threaten to distort the very essence of Roman liturgical tradition. This is somewhat ironic when we remember that the Council Fathers endeavoured to simplify a cluttered celebration.


(Carmel Pilcher RSJ is a Josephite Sister. She has an MA in Religious Education and has submitted a PhD thesis in December 2001 entitled “The Prophetic Character of the Eucharist”. Currently, she is Director of Liturgy in the Archdiocese of Sydney and a consultant to the National Liturgical Commission.)