Is the Consecration Gradual?

Author: ZENIT



ROME, 25 NOV. 25 2003 (ZENIT).

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

Q: I serve as a member to the RCIA team in our parish and recently it was asked, Why don't they ring the bells anymore at Mass? The answer that was given by the DRE was something I have never heard before. It was stated that there is not one magical moment, and that the bread and wine gradually become the Body and Blood of Christ through all the prayers at Mass. Have you ever heard of this? — S.G., Youngstown, Ohio

A: First, there is no reason why a bell should not be rung at the consecration. This is still the practice at papal Masses and is explicitly foreseen in the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 150, which states: "A little before the consecration, when appropriate, a server rings a bell as a signal to the faithful. According to local custom, the server also rings the bell as the priest shows the host and then the chalice."

As to the theological hypothesis of a gradual consecration given by the director of religious education: To put it mildly, it would appear to overstate the conclusions of certain valuable contributions to eucharistic theology which have sought to emphasize the advantage of considering the Eucharistic Prayer in its entirety, rather than limiting one's attention to the formula of consecration, in order to achieve a fuller and richer concept of the eucharistic mystery.

Concentration on the moment of consecration tends to privilege above all the aspect of the Real Presence, while taking the entire Eucharistic Prayer into account brings out more fully other aspects such as the Eucharist as memorial of Christ's sacrifice, his resurrection and ascension, the role of the Holy Spirit, the aspect of mediation, its role in building up the Church, etc. In many ways this is the procedure used by the Holy Father in his recent encyclical "Ecclesia de Eucharistia."

The use of this method, however, in no way contradicts traditional Catholic theology as to a specific moment in which the bread and wine are changed into Christ's body and blood at the consecration. The concept of a gradual transformation from bread to Eucharist is no more sustainable than the idea of a nonhuman embryo becoming an almost human, or a not quite human, fetus, gradually transforming itself into a human being. There can be no stages in the eucharistic mystery: It is either bread or it is Christ, there is nothing in between.

This truth is also indicated by the rubrics of the Mass which explicitly state that the priest genuflect in adoration after consecrating the bread, and again after the consecration of the wine. This rubric would be senseless, not to say idolatrous, if Christ were not already fully present from that moment. ZE03112520

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Follow-up: Gradual Consecration? [from 12-9-03]

Our response on the possibility of a "gradual consecration" (see Nov. 25) generated some very illuminating and informative correspondence. As our readers will appreciate, the brief nature of this column precludes my entrance into the more arcane aspects of eucharistic or sacramental theology, but I will do my best to clear up any doubts while hoping not to contribute to further confusion.

A writer from St. Louis, Missouri, while expressing overall appreciation for the response found the following expression problematic: "the concept of a gradual transformation from bread to Eucharist is no more sustainable than the idea of a nonhuman embryo becoming an almost human, or a not quite human, fetus, gradually transforming itself into a human being. There can be no stages in the eucharistic mystery: It is either bread or it is Christ, there is nothing in between." ....

My intention in this statement was to draw an analogy between the arguments of pro-abortion writers who sustain that the embryo is not human and becomes so later, and of those who propose a gradual or progressive consecration in which bread and wine gradually become Christ's body and blood.

My point was that neither argument held up. I thought that the point was obvious, but the very fact that a very perceptive reader did not see it proves that I was not as clear as I should have been.

Another source of confusion seems to be the oft-repeated statement that in a way the entire Eucharistic Prayer is somehow consecratory and that this is not limited to the essential words of the sacramental rite "This is my body" and "This is (the cup of) my blood."

It is suggested that this thesis is proved by the fact that the Catholic Church recognizes the validity of certain ancient eucharistic prayers, such as that of Addai and Mari, still in use in some Middle Eastern churches, which does not contain an explicit formula of consecration.

Here we touch upon some very difficult questions regarding the power of the Church to determine the essential elements of the sacraments, questions which are in some cases not yet fully resolved.

From the point of view of settled Catholic doctrine, if by consecration we mean the moments in which the bread ceases to be bread and the wine ceases to be wine and becomes the body/blood, soul and divinity of Christ, then these moments are the words: "This is my body" and "This is (the cup of) my blood" (see the Catechism, Nos. 1353, 1376 and 1377).

This idea does not contradict the concept that the entire Eucharistic Prayer is somehow consecratory. But we [are] asking a different question which goes beyond the sacramental Real Presence and involves the full richness of the eucharistic mystery taken in its entirety as memorial, sacrifice, thanksgiving, mediation, communion, etc.

Once more the Catechism enlightens us as it deals with the institution narrative within the context of the entire Eucharistic Prayer and indeed of the celebration as a whole (Nos. 1348-1355).

The idea of the Eucharistic Prayer as consecratory is also an important element in some disputed questions such as if it is possible for a priest to consecrate using just the essential words outside the context of the Mass. Some theologians provide solid and persuasive arguments against this possibility, but the question has not been definitively settled by the Church.

While the Church has defined what is essential for the consecration in her own rites she does not thereby declare that this is the only possibility. And thus she has recognized the validity of those very rare exceptions of ancient eucharistic prayers that consecrate in another way and in which it is not possible to determine a precise moment.

On a less theological plane a correspondent from Los Angeles sent me a reply on ringing bells from the Secretariat for Liturgy of the U.S. bishops' conference asking if this response should be considered more "official" than mine:

"The ringing of bells during the eucharistic prayer is no longer required by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. In a day when the people could neither see nor hear what the priest was doing, bells provided a 'signal' that something important was about to happen. This need is no longer present. The Order of Mass shows a keen appreciation for the eucharistic prayer as the one 'great prayer' of priest and people. It is indeed the entire eucharistic prayer which is consecratory. In order to foster an appreciation of this seamless character of the eucharistic prayer, the ringing of bells is optional."

Almost any reply to liturgical questions could be considered more official than mine as I make no pretensions to authority beyond that of the official documents I cite.

Regarding the above reply I think that there is a difference of emphasis, perhaps conditioned by the way in which the original question was framed. Thus whoever replied on behalf of the secretariat emphasized the non-obligatory character of ringing a bell during the consecration; I stressed the fact that it was still permitted.

Whether omitting the bell for the institution narrative fosters an appreciation of the seamless character of the Eucharistic Prayer is a debatable point. From a pastoral standpoint it could aid in strengthening faith in the Real Presence which several surveys have shown to be in jeopardy among many Catholics.

Certainly, as stated above, the eucharistic mystery is far greater than the Real Presence, but if this aspect is undermined it is futile to hope to foster the others…. ZE03120922  

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