I sometimes wonder what would happen if I devoted as much of my intellectual, emotional, and spiritual energies to appreciating the Eucharist as I do to reading, writing, and fellowship with other Catholics. In the recently published The Eucharist: Mystery of Presence, Sacrifice, and Communion by Lawrence Feingold, professor of theology and philosophy at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, I think I have my answer. I would be a more prayerful, more thoughtful, and more saintly Catholic, drinking deep from what St. John Paul II called “the Church’s treasure, the heart of the world, the pledge of the fulfillment for which each man and woman, even unconsciously, yearns.”
Though intended as a textbook for theology students, Feingold has succeeded in what may seem an impossible task: a 670-page tome that is both accessible and intellectually elevated, both theologically sophisticated yet spiritually nourishing. Those bold enough even just to dip into it will not be disappointed. Feingold moves expertly through a wide variety of writings on the Eucharist from Holy Scripture, the Church Fathers, medieval theologians, the Protestant Reformers, to contemporary thinkers.
The book rests upon three fundamental principles: (1) God dwelling with his beloved, manifested as the mystery of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist; (2) God giving himself for his beloved, manifested as Christ’s sacrificial offering of Himself to God the Father on our behalf; and (3) God’s gift of self to his beloved, manifested in His gift of Himself to the Church in Holy Communion.
This work serves many purposes. A Jewish convert to Catholicism, Feingold exhibits a keen awareness of Protestant theology and its conception of Communion. His treatment of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, for example, is thorough and a great resource for discussing the Eucharist with Protestants. Likewise, his treatment of the Council of Trent (which addressed many Protestant misunderstandings of the Eucharist) succinctly summarizes the most salient teachings from that council on the Real Presence. Indeed, summaries and tables are frequent fixtures of the text, underscoring Feingold’s skills as a teacher.
Apart from apologetics, this work also provides much-needed clarity on a host (pardon the pun) of topics of interest to contemporary Catholic readers. Feingold addresses communion under both species, the role of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, the placement of the tabernacle, and, of course, a section on the Magisterium’s post-conciliar teaching on Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
He even works through the much-debated paragraph 305 of Amoris Laetitia, arriving at conclusions that are consistent with the doctrine of St. Pope John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, while also being fair towards our current pontiff.
This is also a text that will spiritually nourish and theologically inspire. Feingold’s discussion of the four ends of the Sacrifice of the Mass, the fruit thereof and its effects, are all particularly edifying. He cites a fascinating letter by J.R.R. Tolkien to his son Michael:
Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. . .there you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death. By the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste – or foretaste – of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires.
There are few weaknesses here. Perhaps one is how Feingold ends his section on the Church Fathers – an otherwise fascinating journey through the early centuries of the Church, providing insight into the remarkable consistency of the early Church in its understanding of the Eucharist.
From the Didache (late first-century?) through St. John Damascene (7th century), Feingold’s selection of quotations proves a universal consensus on the Real Presence, the Eucharist as a sacrifice, and its intimate connection with the episcopal office. Yet he ends the chapter by quoting Newman’s oft-cited remark, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” I agree with Newman, and I understand why Feingold quotes him here. Yet at this point in the book, he hasn’t introduced Protestant thought on the Eucharist.
Moreover, there are Protestants who affirm – in their own way – all three of the marks of the common consensus. What is faithful to the tradition and what departs from it in Protestant thought needed to be more closely argued, if the goal is to repair a faulty understanding.
Feingold also neglects the role that Aristotle played in the medieval Catholic conception of the Eucharist as transubstantiation. He mentions traditional terms such as substance and accidents but the Greek philosopher – so important to Catholic thought – appears only in a few passing references in the entire book.
A Catholic theology student (or an interested Protestant) may wonder how it is that “the philosopher,” as St. Thomas Aquinas repeatedly refers to him, became so influential in Catholicism.
Similarly, when Feingold addresses “Communion under both species,” he makes no mention of Jan Hus, the Bohemian priest viewed by many as a proto-Reformer, who himself demanded that Communion be distributed via both bread and wine. Given the controversy over Hus, and his role in the Protestant imagination, his absence is glaring to this former Calvinist seminarian.
If these criticisms, particularly the last, seem nit-picky, it is only because Feingold’s work is so superb that it deserves the careful attention of both Catholics and Protestants alike. There is much here to learn, for the layman, armchair theologian, or serious scholar.
More importantly, there is much here that will motivate many a Catholic to see the Eucharist for what it truly is, and run to it with abandon. To quote St. John Paul II once more, “Holy Mass is the absolute center of my life and of every day of my life.”