Eucharistic Church, Eucharistic Formation – In memory of Father Anthony Schueller, SSS

I met Fr. Anthony Schueller, SSS for the first time at the Cathedral of the Madeleine, Salt Lake City, where I was serving as Director of Religious Education and as deacon, in 1993. During our brief conversation on that occasion, he invited me to submit three articles for Emmanuel to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the magazine, a great honor. We continued to remain in touch over the years since then, especially when Fr. Schueller was editor of the magazine. I am so grateful for his friendship and support of this fledgling author and this essay, reflecting now twenty-five years teaching theology at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon, is offered in memory of Fr. Schueller. In this reflection I am taking “Communion ecclesiology” and “Eucharistic ecclesiology” as essentially intending the same reality.


Communion ecclesiology is really nothing more than the great tradition of a Christ-centered Trinitarian faith and its visible embodiment in ecclesial life, centered on the Eucharist as it makes the church, praising God from whom all blessings flow. It is the vision of the church that flows from the documents of the Second Vatican Council and it contrasts with a more juridical understanding of the church that prevailed for various reasons from the sixteenth century Council of Trent to the mid-twentieth century. It is not a rigid form of ecclesiology but rather opens up into various ways of thinking about it. One constantly has to keep in mind some sentiments of the Scottish Dominican theologian Fergus Kerr who writes, “The Roman Catholic Church is not the monolithic entity that her enemies and her most zealous members believe. Beliefs are not held univocally, or with clarity, or across the board.”[1] Kerr underscores the fact that Catholics do not all think in exactly the same uniform way, nor have they ever. Over the 2000 years of the Christian tradition, and perhaps especially today, the informed student of Christian theology will recognize a certain pluriformity-in-unity. In other words, among Catholics there are different ways of thinking theologically, and, as we shall see, there are different ways of thinking about communion ecclesiology/Eucharistic ecclesiology.

These ways should be thought of as complementary rather than as contradictory or competitively. For example, in an important book with the title Communion Ecclesiology: Vision and Versions theologian Dennis Doyle begins with two early nineteenth century theologians, the Catholic Johann Adam Möhler from Tübingen University and the Protestant Friedrich Schleiermacher of the University of Berlin.[2] From quite different Christian traditions of thinking both of these men were attempting to commend the church to their contemporaries in terms of what we might call Communion ecclesiology. Doyle then goes into the mid-twentieth century French theologians Charles Journet, Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac, and then on to the immensely influential Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar, before ending up with the more contemporary Jean Tillard and John Zizioulas (among some others). I am citing Doyle’s book to demonstrate that there are different ways of thinking about “Communion ecclesiology,” as a kind of proem to describing our way at Mount Angel Seminary.

Integrating the Curriculum

Probably all theological schools offer a curriculum that includes: Scripture, both the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament and the New Testament (including the study of the Biblical languages); systematic theology, the study of Christian doctrine; church history; liturgy/worship; pastoral and various practical ministerial studies, and so forth. Where the emphasis falls will depend on the traditional identity and purpose and perhaps even the particular history of the theological school. Given the plurality of fields and disciplines, it seems to be a very important goal, however, that students of theology who are intent upon pastoral/ministerial service to their faith communities should have an integrated vision of their various studies within the field of theology. It certainly is possible to come out of graduate studies in theology with developed and developing skills in the various disciplines. However, the challenge is to find a way of integrating all of these various skills so that in the mind and practice of the pastoral minister, ordained or lay, they fit together and do not simply stand as different skill sets which they have acquired. To some extent this is the existential challenge for the individual student. He or she has to reach towards this integration for themselves. At the same time, a school whose primary mission is the formation of students for priestly service to the church should surely assist in the development of this integration. The integrating focus of Mount Angel Seminary’s graduate curriculum in theology is what we call “Communion ecclesiology.”

Every academic discipline has its own specialized vocabulary and that is true of theology also. At times, however, the vocabulary of theology, and perhaps the concepts expressed, remain opaque and unintelligible to many ordinary Christians and, of course, it is for their sake that theology and theologians exist. I would argue that theology, as distinct from religious studies, is parasitic upon the worshiping community. Without the worshiping community theology might just as well be museum studies. Theology, therefore, must make sense to the person in the pew, and so often it does not. In trying to describe Communion ecclesiology this attempt will try to avoid technical language as much as possible and, if it needs to be used, every effort will be made to explain it as carefully as possible.

“Communion ecclesiology” for us at Mount Angel Seminary is a way of doing theology that takes its point of departure from the conviction that “the Eucharist makes the church.” This expression comes from the French theologian Henri de Lubac, SJ, from his detailed research into patristic and medieval theology.[3] Perhaps for some this phrase “the Eucharist makes the church” may sound quite novel, but in fact it is very ancient. De Lubac focuses on a phrase from the Confessions of St. Augustine, moreover a phrase which he describes as “the genius of St. Augustine.” Augustine hears Christ speaking to him and the Lord speaks these words: “You will not change me into you, as you do with the food of your body. Instead you will be changed into me.”[4] “You will be changed into me” or “The Eucharist makes the church.” Our Lord Jesus Christ himself is the body whose food those who eat it become. That is Communion ecclesiology, perhaps at its most succinct. A passage from the Irish Jesuit liturgical theologian, Raymond Moloney, seems to me to pull this together very well and is worth citing at some length:

What is the incarnation for? The Eucharist is so central to Christianity and to our Lord’s plan in the incarnation that to ask what the Eucharist is for, is to ask what the incarnation is for. Briefly and bluntly, the incarnation is for the transformation of the world. It is our Lord’s great project to take over the whole world, thereby to achieve the salvation of the entire race, and so to hand the kingdom back to his Father at the end of time… In this project for taking over the world, our Lord’s great means is the church. If the transformation of all things is the end or goal, the church is the means…[5]

However, apart altogether from St. Augustine and the researches of theologians like Henri de Lubac, the phrase “the Eucharist makes the church” is one of the most obvious things about Catholics, that is, they celebrate the Eucharist as an ordered community every Sunday, and often more frequently, even daily. “Communion ecclesiology” as we understand it here at Mount Angel Seminary affirms that the church is most fully itself in the celebration of the Eucharist, and that all of theology may be found within the frame of the celebration of the Eucharist, the Mass. This being the case, the Eucharist is arguably the most obvious integrating focus for theology, for its practitioners, and especially for deacons and priests.

The Eucharist and the Master Themes of Theology

In terms of studying theology, and of viewing the Eucharist as the integrating focus for theology we might ask the question, “What does this Communion ecclesiology actually look like in practice?” To answer this question, I will draw upon two authors, one ancient and one modern. The author from Christian antiquity is St. Hilary of Poitiers (310-367), from his treatise On the Trinity:

We believe that the Word became flesh and that we receive his flesh in the Lord’s Supper. How then can we fail to believe that he really dwells within us? When he became man, he actually clothed himself in our flesh, uniting it to himself forever. In the sacrament of his body he actually gives us his own flesh, which he has united to his divinity. This is why we are all one, because the Father is in Christ, and Christ is in us. He is in us through his flesh and we are in him. With him we form a unity which is in God.[6]

In this remarkable passage we find beautifully interwoven the Trinity, the Incarnation/Christology, the Eucharist and ecclesiology. The Eucharist is the centerpiece of this doctrinal tapestry. That is a fine description of Communion ecclesiology. Put in more summary form, “An ecclesiology of communion, as now practiced, may be described as a Eucharistic ecclesiology which has been extended so as to show the Christological and Trinitarian foundation of church and Eucharist alike.”[7] Or again, in summary form, “Among the many traditional conceptions of the church, one of the most ancient and enduring is that of a communion of human persons with the triune God and, consequently, with one another in God.”[8]

Our modern author is Abbot Jeremy Driscoll who provides a very fine picture of the Eucharist as the integrating focus for theology in his eight “master themes.”[9] These are as follows:

Master theme 1. The first master theme is ecclesiology, that is to say, the study of what it means to be church. “(The) action (of the Eucharist) causes the church to be; to do Eucharist is to be church… All have received their faith through others who have believed before them and passed it on. This is being church, and the passing on of faith has this celebration as its ultimate point of arrival.” Let us call this theme “sociality.”

Without the worshiping community theology might just as well be museum studies. Theology, therefore, must make sense to the person in the pew, and so often it does not.

Master theme 2. The second master theme is the Word of God, holy Scripture, with Word and sacrament understood as intrinsically belonging together, never separate, and ordered to one another. “The first major ritual action after the rites of assembling is the proclamation of the Word of God. Much of the theological enterprise is devoted to understanding the sacred Scriptures, but it is in the liturgical assembly that the deepest encounter with the Word is achieved. Here the believer realizes that Scripture is not so much a book as a living word from God…” Let us refer to this theme as the liturgy of the Word, or ecclesial listening and speaking.

Master theme 3. This is the paschal mystery. The term “paschal mystery” refers to the entire event of our Lord Jesus Christ finally centered in his death-resurrection-ascension-descent of the Holy Spirit, and all of this has as its purpose “to gather all peoples into (Christ’s) one body.” Specifically, in theology this takes us to Christology and Trinitarian theology. Let us name this as God-in-Christ-through-the-Spirit.

Master theme 4. Anamnesis, epiclesis, and eschatology.

Anamnesis and epiclesis are technical terms which in their strictest application name parts of the eucharistic anaphora. Anamnesis is a celebrative narration and remembering of the events of Christ’s paschal mystery — his death, resurrection, ascension, his coming again in glory — and an offering of these to the Father… Within the liturgy epiclesis is the invocation of the Father that he send the Holy Spirit upon the gifts for their transformation and that the Spirit fill those who receive the gifts… In the epiclesis the view moves beyond the limits of a strict chronology and understands the event of the liturgy also as a visit from the future. The risen Christ already stands in that definitive future in which he is established by his glorification, and through him the Spirit descends from that future in a new Pentecost upon the worshipping assembly and makes it to be one body, one spirit in him.[10]

In slightly different words but with exactly the same meaning theologian Paul McPartlan writes:

A future gathering is revealed and each of us samples an identity that we shall not fully possess until the last day. Because of our regular celebration of the Eucharist, the future is no stranger to us. Through the Eucharist, it becomes the foundation upon which we build our daily Christian lives.[11]

Because of the intense devotion of Catholics to the eucharistic presence of Christ, it may sometimes be challenging to recognize and fully accept that the transformation of the eucharistic gifts, of bread and wine, into the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ comes about in order to bring about our transformation. As theologian Rowan Williams has stated,

It is not just that we ask the Holy Spirit to effect a miraculous change in the bread and wine. We ask the Holy Spirit to effect a miraculous change in all of us, to make us capable of receiving these gifts, and as we receive them to go out, ‘in the power of the Spirit to live to God’s praise and glory’… The Eucharist is somehow a revelation of God’s final act and purpose. It is, we might say, the beginning of the end of the world … In the Eucharist we are at the center of the world: we are aware of Christ, the Son, who gives his life to his Father in the Spirit. And in the Eucharist we are at the end of the world: we are seeing how the world’s calling is fulfilled in advance; we are seeing ourselves and our world as they really are, contemplating them in the depths of God, finding their meaning in relation to God.[12]

Master theme 5 is “the manifestation of the trinitarian mystery through the eucharistic action. The mystery of the Holy Trinity is the central content of Christian revelation.”[13] The entire celebration of the Eucharist is shot through with reference to the Trinity: the sign of the cross at the opening of the Mass, the Gloria which is a hymn of praise to the Trinity, the Creed, the direction and orientation of the Eucharistic Prayer, and the Trinitarian blessing at the dismissal.

Master theme 6 has to do with the moral life flowing from the celebration of the Eucharist. We might call this “eucharistic ethics.” This is the actual living of the Christian moral witness in all its dimensions – personal, social, economic, political – and it has very clear implications for the Christian approach to the complex issues of social justice, biomedical ethics, immigration, etc. This is living the liturgy publicly.

Master theme 7 is the spiritual life and spiritual theology. Clearly, there is a very personal aspect to the spiritual life, but the point being emphasized here is that in order for there to be connection between one celebration of the Eucharist and the next there must be acts of personal awareness of God-in-Christ-through-the Spirit, whatever shape these actions taken in the life of a given person. They keep the dots connected, as it were.

Master theme 8 is mission. “The church does not exist for herself but for the sake of the world.”[14] Let us refer to this as “dismissal.” Now the corporate witness of the church re-commences as we leave the assembly, our growth in Christ deepened and invigorated, our commitment to all that is involved in mission reconfirmed.

It should be pointed out that in the celebration of the Eucharist these eight master themes do not stand on their own, as it were, in some kind of isolated fashion but are intertwined as if in a very rich tapestry.

What it means to be human

Obviously, our thinking and our language about Communion ecclesiology is clearly Christian – Eucharist, church, moral action, and witness. At the same time, I wish to suggest that this thinking and language has a certain universal appeal because it speaks to the condition of every human person. In other words, one might say that there is a transcultural dimension to Communion ecclesiology. How is that so? There are four movements in the celebration of the Eucharist: the assembling rites or gathering rites, the liturgy of the Word, the liturgy of the Eucharist, and finally the dismissal. Each one of these movements has its own specific characteristic. In the gathering rites we acknowledge our assembly together, we gather as an assembly, as the Body of Christ, and not simply as the individual persons which we are. In the liturgy of the Word we listen and then speak. In the liturgy of the Eucharist we eat and drink. In the dismissal we leave with purpose and intent to live as the Body of Christ.

Arguably the life of every human person is marked by four necessary characteristics: sociality, listening and speaking, eating and drinking, and being dismissed, and these correspond to or correlate with the four movements of the eucharistic celebration.[15]

1. Sociality. This may appear at first to be a rather strange word but actually it refers to something very ordinary and very commonplace, that is to say, the human person is thoroughly social and relational from the first moment of life to the last moment of life. We are not on our own and we are not by our own. Our very being comes into existence through the agency of others, our parents, not through our own agency. We should then imagine the human person as developing through a series of concentric circles of relationality, or what I am calling here sociality: from our parents, from our immediate and extended nurturing community of the family, through those who educate and school us (recognizing that education and schooling are not necessarily the same thing), through those who become our life companions and what we might refer to as our own very particular “community of the heart.”[16] One contemporary theologian, echoing some very famous words of the seventeenth century poet and theologian John Donne, puts it like this: “We are, it may be said, loved into selfhood… We are not only not islands, we never were… ‘I’ is itself a learned word…”[17] This corresponds to the notion of assembly in the gathering rites.

2. Listening and speaking. Long before the human person speaks, we listen. Listening to the many others noted in “sociality” above develops our capacity to speak. Initially we learn to say words like “Mamma,” and “Dada.” We then move on to more complex ways of speaking, and we may even become as skilled in our speaking as the great speakers of our cultural-linguistic tradition, for example, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Borges, etc. There is a primacy to listening, that is, without it we cannot learn how to speak. This primacy to the skill of listening finds a classic expression in the opening word of the Rule of St. Benedict. The Rule begins with the word Ausculta, “Listen!” There is an equal primacy to listening to others after we have learned how to speak, and this often is particularly difficult. Think of people (of ourselves!) who are so certain of their own positions, opinions, and judgments that there is a genuine lack of openness to the other. We are so often poor listeners, and our poor listening always leads to more intense problems and situations. Listening is a very challenging skill to develop.

Our Lord Jesus Christ himself is the body whose food those who eat it become. That is Communion ecclesiology, perhaps at its most succinct.

The centrality and primacy of careful listening in human life is captured superbly by the American philosopher Kenneth Burke in these words: “Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion vigorously in progress.”[18] Everyone will recognize immediately what Burke is talking about. Conversation is absolutely essential to human development, but there is a certain primacy to listening before talking. Before we can speak at all we have to hear others sounding out words for our imitation and later for our comprehension. There is no speaking without first listening. This corresponds to the liturgy of the Word.

3. Eating and drinking. Eating and drinking are so obvious. Without eating and drinking quite simply we die. Eating habits and nutritional traditions vary throughout the world but eating and drinking as such remain constant and universal. Eating and drinking are more than the satisfaction of hunger and thirst. The food we eat meets many hungers, not least the hunger for companionship, a word that means in Latin “eating bread together.” Companionship is sacred. Companionship in eating and drinking brings a self-evident richness and depth to these very basic physical and biological activities. Jeremy Driscoll, OSB, writes, “We produce our food together, we consume it together, we share it with one another. It is an expression of love and desire. It aims at communion… With food we tell one another that we love one another, that we depend upon one another, that we desire the other to live and be well.”[19] The nourishment afforded by companionship in communion, a more intense form of what was earlier described as sociality, transforms the physicality of eating and drinking. This corresponds to the liturgy of the Eucharist climaxing in holy Communion.

4. Being dismissed. Once we have been formed in the womb for nine months we are dismissed into life. “Being dismissed” sounds a bit clinical but the choice of words might make more sense as we proceed. Dismissed from the womb we move into the social circle of the family. Then the time comes for us to be dismissed from the family to the social circle of the school. The school is really a series of concentric circles – from elementary school to middle school, from middle school to high school, and perhaps on to college and graduate school. Each one of these “graduations” is a kind of dismissal from the previous state or situation. Then we move into our working lives and perhaps experience a series of dismissals as we move from one working situation to another. Eventually, the time comes for most of us when we are dismissed from working through retirement. Hopefully after some years of productive and joy filled living in retirement, we are dismissed in death from life itself. Thus, being dismissed is a feature of every human life quite literally from beginning to end, and this has its own certain correspondence with the dismissal at the end of the Eucharist.


I think we now have at least a summary understanding of “eucharistic church, eucharistic formation,” — “The Eucharist makes the church” or “You will be changed into me.” Furthermore, we might say then, there is a powerfully persuasive correlation between the master themes of theology centered in and from the Eucharist and the fundamental constitutive elements of what it means to be a human person. In my judgment, this is what eucharistic formation is all about.

I would like to end this reflection with three challenges. First, is the ecumenical challenge. The language of eucharistic church/eucharistic formation has made its way across the denominational boundaries of Christianity. Many instances may be found among individual Christian theologians from different denominations: for example, Metropolitan John Zizioulas (Orthodox), Geoffrey Wainwright (Methodist), and Nicholas Sagovsky (Anglican), but perhaps the clearest and most recent institutional example is the 2013 text The Church: Towards a Common Vision, Faith and Order Paper, No. 214 from the World Council of Churches. If the vision of a eucharistic church is to make real headway, however, it needs to be talked about, taught at our local community levels, and not just in the theological academy. We need to become passionate about it ecumenically.

Second, is the inter-religious challenge. I mean by this, “How does eucharistic formation relate to the various wisdom traditions/religions of the world, and to the ever-growing “nones”? This is no abstract challenge. If your local pharmacist is a devout Hindu, one of your physicians is a Muslim, and the owner/manager of the local convenience story is a Sikh, and your next door neighbor is nothing in particular, a “none,” then somehow or other we need to relate eucharistic formation across the religious divides. Not to do so would leave our Christian-Catholic faith isolated, and to coin a phrase “no religion is an island entire of itself.” We need to become passionate about eucharistic formation inter-religiously, however difficult this may be.

Third is the personal challenge. “Have I appropriated communion ecclesiology for myself?” Going beyond books and articles and texts and studies, am I incorporating this vision of eucharistic formation into my own personal life and practice, into my thinking and acting? This, I believe, is the most difficult challenge of all, and it is a challenge with which Fr. Anthony Schueller would have found himself in agreement.


  1. Fergus Kerr, OP, Twentieth Century Catholic Theologians (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 203. Kerr goes on to and further helpful clarifying comments: “The notion that, ‘in Catholic doctrine there exists an order or hierarchy of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith’, while regarded quite widely as one more Vatican II innovation, a concession to ecumenists, is actually only a description of what has always been the case.”
  2. Dennis Doyle, Communion Ecclesiology: Visions and Versions (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000).
  3. The phrase comes from the French theologian Henri de Lubac in his great work, Corpus Mysticum. Although he finished the book sometime between 1938 and 1939, it did not appear in print until 1944, a particularly difficult time in German occupied Vichy France. It then appeared later in 1949. The English translation, published jointly by London’s SCM Press and the University of Notre Dame Press, came out in 2006. For a brief introduction to de Lubac, see Owen F. Cummings, Popes, Councils and Theology, From Pope Pius IX to Pope Francis (Eugene: Pickwick Publications/Wipf and Stock, 2021), 194-212.
  4. St. Augustine, Confessions 7.10. De Lubac’s reference to the genius of St. Augustine occurs in the English translation of Corpus Mysticum, 178.
  5. Raymond Moloney, SJ “The Eucharist Builds the Church,” in James McEvoy and Maurice Hogan, ed., The Mystery of Faith (Dublin: Columba Press, 2005), 125.
  6. The passage is taken from the Office of Readings, Wednesday of the Fourth Week of Easter.
  7. Aidan Nichols, Theology in the Russian Diaspora (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), x.
  8. Avery Dulles, “Communion,” in Nicholas Lossky and others, ed., Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement (Geneva: World Council of Churches and Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 206.
  9. Jeremy Driscoll, OSB, Theology at the Eucharistic Table (Rome and Leominster, UK: Sant’ Anselmo and Gracewing, 2003), 13-28.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Paul McPartlan, Sacrament of Salvation (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1995), 6.
  12. Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 56-59.
  13. Jeremy Driscoll, OSB, Theology at the Eucharistic Table (Rome and Leominster, UK: Sant’ Anselmo and Gracewing, 2003), 13-28.
  14. Ibid
  15. The material in this section comes in part from my Liturgical Snapshots (New York-Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2012), 70-77.
  16. This term comes from David F. Ford, The Shape of Living London: Collins, 1978), passim.
  17. George Pattison, The End of Theology and the Task of Thinking About God (London: SCM Press, 1998), 44-45.
  18. Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form, 3rd edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 110-111.
  19. Jeremy Driscoll, OSB, What Happens at Mass (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2005), 64.

About Owen F. Cummings

Owen F. Cummings is the Regents’ Professor of Theology at Mount Angel Seminary St. Benedict, OR. He is a longtime contributor to Emmanuel.