Eucharistic Absence

What can we do about the increasing number of people who rarely come to celebrate the Eucharist, who seem to live quite well without it? Can those who deeply appreciate this sacrament make a difference here?

In a recent collection of his poetry the Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney included a piece about the Eucharist entitled “Like everybody else. . . .”1:

Like everybody else, I bowed my head
during the consecration of the bread and wine,
lifted my eyes to the raised host and raised chalice,
believed (whatever it means) that a change occurred.

I went to the altar rails and received the mystery
on my tongue, returned to my place, shut my eyes fast, made an act of thanksgiving, opened my eyes, and felt time starting up again.

      There was never a scene
when I had it out with myself or with another.
The loss occurred off stage. And yet I cannot
disavow words like “thanksgiving” or “host”
or “communion bread.” They have an undying
tremor and draw, like well water far down.

The poem narrates a familiar experience for Catholics, at least for many Catholics. “Like everybody else,” Heaney describes Catholic eucharistic piety—bowing the head during the consecration, raising the eyes at the elevation of the eucharistic gifts, receiving holy Communion, making a personal prayerful thanksgiving with eyes closed. He demonstrates an awareness of what is going on during the celebration—“a change occurred” —and he acknowledges mystery. We can all easily identify with this poetic description. In the second part of the poem Heaney appears to be describing what initially, seemed to go unnoticed. And yet finally Heaney affirms that the traditional eucharistic words and terms—“thanksgiving,” “host,” “communion bread”—retain a strong and perduring appeal for him. These words “have an undying tremor.” There is behind them the deep mysterium tremendum et fascinans.

“We Cannot Live without the Lord’s Supper”

In his apostolic exhortation, “The Sacrament of Charity,” Pope Benedict XVI draws our attention to the martyrs of Abitinae in North Africa: “At the beginning of the fourth century, Christian worship was still forbidden by the imperial authorities. Some Christians in North Africa, who felt bound to celebrate the Lord’s Day, defied the prohibition. They were martyred after declaring that it was not possible for them to live without the Eucharist, the food of the Lord.”2 It is a beautiful expression of the centrality of the Eucharist to Christian life—“We cannot live without the Eucharist.”

However, an increasing number of Catholics today seem to be able to do just that, to live without the Eucharist. Yes, it is possible to live one’s life, to get on with one’s life without regular participation in the Eucharist. But I want to argue in this article that one’s life is poorer from deliberate and chosen eucharistic absence. Indeed, if this were not argued, the entire reality of Catholicism would vanish. The Eucharist is necessary to living, but in what sense? Why the necessity of the Eucharist? One way of putting it is to recall the words of the second century bishop, Irenaeus of Lyons: “Gloria Dei, vivens homo,” “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” The operative word here is not “alive” on its own, but rather “fully alive.” There are degrees of being alive, different intensities of vitality. Or, to put it in Irenaeus’s terms, we will recognize degrees of vitality centered on the Eucharist.

We could not be more fully alive than when we are living with the Jesus life, and his eucharistic life in us.

Why the necessity of the Eucharist? Because the Eucharist goes back to Jesus himself. This is God’s chosen way to divinize us, to provide a share in God’s own life. We could not be more fully alive than when we are living with the Jesus life, and his eucharistic life in us. That is what our faith tells us. A Catholic, however, looks also for reasons. Is there a reason for the centrality and necessity of the Eucharist? Yes, because the Eucharist goes straight to the heart of what it means to be human. The Eucharist, if you will, rehearses in its very ritual what it means to be human, or what it means to be fully alive. The fundamental constitutive elements of what it means to be human, or fully alive, are ritually laid out for us in the Eucharist, and thus, participation in the ritual also enables a deeper perception of our humanity and of vitality.

The fundamental constituent elements of what it means to be human are: assembly, listening and speaking, eating and drinking, dismissal.

“Assembly” affirms that we are essentially social or relational beings. Very obviously, our life in this world comes to be through others, literally through their assembly. In fact, everything that is significant about us as human beings is dependent on our inter- relating with others, or, in my terms on “assembly.” One theologian, George Pattison, puts the point very finely: “We are, it may be said, loved into selfhood. . . . We are not only not islands, we never were. . . . ‘I’ is itself a learned word. . . .”3

Acknowledging our radical relationality demands the consequent acknowledgment that everything is gift. “Gift is the principle on which the Creator has based human existence; it is the most pervasive, even if little noticed, reality of our lives. We have life itself by others’ gift of procreation, pregnancy, and childbirth. We are sustained in life by the good things of nature and by the labor, generosity and society of other human beings. We are educated by the self-giving of our teachers. We are sustained constantly by gifts—love, forgiveness, reconciliation, pleasure. Our whole life is a fabrication of gifts received, and we ourselves contribute our gifts to the life of others. “4 Thus, assembly and gift go together.

Listening and speaking come next in this description of what it means to be human. Much of our life is about listening. There is a marvelous passage from the philosopher and literary critic Kenneth Burke that captures the listening dimension of our lives:

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 here, 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.5

In this passage Burke draws attention also to speaking, but notice the primacy given to listening. There cannot be, quite literally cannot be any speaking without listening. Eating and drinking are obviously basic to human life and require no real comment. Without eating and drinking we cannot live. And yet here too the fundamental dimension of relationality comes into play. “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 are dependent upon one another, that we desire the other to live and be well.”6

Finally, there is dismissal. Once one stage of life is complete, life dismisses us, sends us forth and on to the next stage. The womb dismisses us at the time of birth; we are dismissed from the family, in a sense, when we move on to the stage of schooling. We speak of “graduation” from schooling, that is to say, about taking the next gradus or “step.” We are dismissed from employment when we move on to retirement, and then finally our life in this world comes to an end. There are many endings before the end, in each of which we have an experience of being sent out, of being dis-missed.

So, if one would grasp what it means to be human, one needs to take hold of these fundamental constitutive elements. Being human has to do with assembly, listening and speaking, eating and drinking, and dismissal. But those fundamental constituent elements of what is to be human are precisely the choreography of the celebration of the Eucharist. There is no private Eucharist just as there is no private person. Relationality is intrinsic to Eucharist. As John Baldovin puts it, “Whatever else the church is, it is the assembly of God’s people who have been called together as one in the name of Jesus the Lord.”7

There is no Eucharist without assembly, not just the empirical assembly of those visibly present, but including the heavenly assembly of the angels and the saints. Once the assembly is gathered together, we listen and speak. We listened to the great narratives of the Liturgy of the Word, a listening like all authentic listening that is not passive but intensely active. This listening leads us to discovery of God, and in a sense to self-discovery as we hear about the vast and variegated human congerie that makes up the biblical story. Robert Barron writes:

Christians discover who God is, what constitutes a sacred world, who they are and ought to be, precisely by listening to the oddly textured narratives of the Bible. They learn to be holy by attending to the cast of characters—saints, rogues, prophets, sinners—displayed in the biblical stories, and especially by watching the great Character who acts, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, in every story.8

We speak in response in words of prayer and psalmody, in hymns. We move on to eat and drink. Fed through active listening at the Table of the Word, we move on to eat and drink at the Table of the Eucharist, “the twinned tables in the refectory of the Incarnate Logos, one for his word, the other for his flesh.”9 Finally, after eating and drinking, we are dismissed. “The mass is ended. Go in peace.” We are sent forth, dismissed, to be in the world what we have further expressed and become in the assembly, the body of Christ. We are dis-missed to be that body in our circumstances, in our place. Recognizing the correlation between the description of what it means to be human and the ritual choreography of the Eucharist, theologian Nicholas Lash concludes: “Perhaps we could say that there are, anthropologically, few levels of meaning deeper, in the celebration of the Eucharist, than the celebration of life shared in the taking together of food and drink, although, of course, the heart of the matter, theologically, is that what is celebrated is the grounding of the possibility of such trust, such sharing, through the life-giving death and resurrection of the Crucified.”10

“The Loss Occurred Off Stage”

What about those who can seem to live without the Eucharist? How can we help them to understand that they lose something important and significant theough their absence? How can we help them grasp something of Irenaeus of Lyons’s vivens homo, “the human person fully alive.” Seamus Heaney’s poem has the title “Like everybody else. . .” The assumption is that his eucharistic experience was much the same as everyone else’s. And perhaps we might add that it is a common assumption that eucharistic doctrine, piety, and practice have been solidly uniform throughout the entirety of the Christian tradition until our own troubled days. Without in any sense detracting from the pastoral challenges of today, it is important to recognize that there have often been challenges to regular and popular participation in the Eucharist. The challenges did not begin in our time. Recall some words spoken in 1962:

In the daily exercise of our pastoral office we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, nonetheless, the teacher of life.

These words come from Pope John XXIII at the opening of the first session of Vatican II.11 They are as relevant now as they were then. Or recall some words uttered in the 19th century:

This is a world of conflict, and of vicissitude amid the conflict. The church is ever militant; sometimes she gains, sometimes she loses; and more often she is at once gaining and losing in parts of her territory. What is ecclesiastical history but a record of the ever-doubtful fortune of the battle, though its issue is not doubtful? Scarcely are we singing Te Deum, when we have to turn to our Misereres: scarcely are we in peace, when we are in persecution; scarcely have we gained a triumph, when we are visited by a scandal. Nay, we make progress by means of reverses; our griefs are our concolations; we lose Stephen, to gain Paul, and Matthias replaces the traitor Judas. It is so in every age; it is so in the nineteenth century; it was so in the fourth. . . .12

These words come from John Henry Cardinal Newman, introducing his sketches of church history. Pastoral challenges are with us always.

How can we help [those who can seem to live without the Eucharist] to understand that they lose something important and significant theough their absence?

One thinks of the schismatic situation of the early Corinthian community described by St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians. The Eucharist seems to have been celebrated within the context of a community meal, and a meal at which social and class differences were apparent. This leads St. Paul to say “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor 11:29). This earliest Christian description of the Eucharist, some twenty years or so after the resurrection of the Lord, shows a community singularly challenged about “discernment of the body,” discernment most especially about the ecclesial body of Christ.

If we move to Sunday in St. Augustine’s Hippo in the early fifth century, then here too we will find significant eucharistic challenge. Recall the marvelous passage about the Sunday Eucharist in Frederik Van Der Meer’s Augustine the Bishop:

It is a cool Sunday morning; a continuous muffled noise echoes through the white capital city, for except for the ascetics and for those who are both free and well-to-do, there is little in the nature of Sunday rest from servile tasks. Slaves trot through the back streets, the shops are open and the market gardeners and muleteers watch the faithful go up to the great church. . . . Bishop Aurelius Augustinus, with his flaming dark eyes and shaven head, is at this moment sitting in the secretarium surrounded by his clergy, and is just concluding his short morning audience, which he is in the habit of giving before Mass. . . . Then Augustine follows a long row of assistants, . . . passes under the updrawn curtain between two pillars and ascends the apse. . . . The doors still stand open and still the people stream in, but now there is a sudden silence, and from the steps of the apse Augustine greets his people. “The Lord be with you.” “And also with you.”13

This word picture of Augustine’s church on a Sunday morning is so well drawn one can almost see it! But notice also what Van der Meer is saying—not everyone is going to Mass. Sunday morning is much like any other work day morning for many people. It would seem that not the entire community is present, nor indeed could it be present. This is how a recent biographer of St. Augustine, James J. O’Donnell, describes the situation:

Augustine’s own largest church in Hippo at its greatest extent was about 120 feet by 60 feet inside. Even if we make allowances for standing-room only crowds, it could scarcely have held more than a tiny fraction of the population of the city. Who attended? The argument that presents itself most obviously is that the congregation was made up of the upper classes of landowners, merchants, and officers, and that the bulk of the Christian population made do without the weekly inoculation of ritual.14

Yale historian of the Roman Empire, Ramsay MacMullen, confirms this perspective. Having examined the great preachers of the latter half of the fourth century, and paying particular attention to the details of their homilies as well as to such data as are available about church buildings, he reaches the following conclusion: “In no city was the church (or world of churches, plural) able physically to accommodate at one time any large majority of the total resident population, even after several generations of post-Constantinian growth of congregation and ecclesiastical building. It was a selection that came to worship, just as it had always been a selection (quite tiny) that attended Roman popular assemblies.”15

There is no obvious and immediate panacea for eucharistic absence. Perhaps people have to experience great vulnerability before thinking seriously about God, church, Eucharist.

Let’s move on some 800 years or so to Humbert de Romans, a Dominican who died in 1277 after a very busy pastoral career.16 Through his sermons we are presented with a picture of the very ordinary people of his day. Humbert rails against their obsession with money and sex. He comments on their ignorance of the faith. He speaks of those who are obdurate and who “turn away their ears” when Christ is mentioned. He tells us that there are people who “rarely pray during the day,” seldom or never attend church, and, if they do, it is once a year for the Eucharist. And even among those who do come for the Eucharist, there are some who do not stand for the proclamation of the gospel or do not sign themselves with the cross. These are some of the eucharistic challenges in this century that produced the outstanding eucharistic theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. The point of these examples—and examples could be culled from the entire history of the Christian tradition—is not to induce or to confirm a sense of pastoral complacency about eucharistic attendance and participation. The point is to recognize that there is no golden age in the observance of the Dies Domini and in the celebration of the Eucharist.

Eucharistic Absence

Having acknowledged something of an historical perspective, it remains for us now briefly to engage the phenomenon of absence from the Eucharist. This is a complex and multifaceted challenge and at most, I can offer here but a few personal thoughts that only begin to address the issue. Immediately, I want to see the absence of Catholics from the Eucharist as a challenge for us who cannot live without the Eucharist. I wish to dissociate myself from the perspective of those who are dismissive of the eucharistic absentees who nonetheless remain our sisters and brothers. This is the dismissive attitude of those who maintain, and sincerely maintain, that the church “needs to be trimmer and purer.” My alignment is with those who think that “the church is a family, and a family keeps embracing even when members don’t come home a lot.”17

Having worked in a quasi-chaplain mode for decades with young people in university, the Irish Jesuit theologian, Michael Paul Gallagher, SJ, writes: “The problem is that many people have encountered the Christian vision only in tired language and in frozen forms. The hope here is to awaken the sleeping beauty of our wonder so that we can be more ready for the greater wonder that is Jesus Christ.”18

Perhaps we need to develop our own capacity to be surprised by grace as much as we need to produce better programs to induce Catholics to return to the eucharistic community.

The majority of people around who are absent from regular contact with the church and the Eucharist seem not to do so because of some intellectual argument against their Catholic faith. Rather, they seem to have drifted away because their imagination, and perhaps also their loves and hopes have been untouched by the community of the church and the experience of the Eucharist. It is not so much a matter of blame. Society produces for us opportunity, virtually endless amusement, and what might be called “thick” distraction.19 There is no obvious and immediate panacea for eucharistic absence. Perhaps people have to experience great vulnerability before thinking seriously about God, church, Eucharist. But perhaps also we might respond on two levels.

On one level, we might seek to explore the pre-theological or the pre-religious reflective experiences of such persons. It needs to be recalled that God is ahead of us in this, that God is never absent and that people are incessantly being lured by this passionate loving God even when they do not recognize him nor name him. Michael Gallagher puts it like this:

We have an inner core of Spirit-guided desire before we arrive at explicitly Christian interpretations of our experience. Our hearts are being drawn towards love prior to finding the face of Love in Christ. There is a risk of rushing into the world of explicit religion without pausing on what is more fundamental in each of us—the experience of searching, of struggling to live genuinely, of being slowly transformed by the adventure of life. Here in silence and even in secret we are being shaped as lovers. . . .20

If we as church, as those who cannot live without the Eucharist, were seriously to engage our sisters and brothers who are not with us, were seriously to listen to them—in their searching, in their struggle to live genuinely, in the slow process of transformation, without any manipulation—and if we lived out our understanding of the Eucharist more fully at both the theological and divine level as well as at the anthropological level, who knows what might happen? Perhaps we need to develop our own capacity to be surprised by grace as much as we need to produce better programs to induce Catholics to return to the eucharistic community.

If active listening is constitutive of what it means to be human, then a fortiori there is a need to listen to those whose lives are not explicitly eucharistic. The satirist and author Tony Hendra makes this comment: “The only way to know God, the only way to know the other, is to listen. Listening is reaching out into that unknown other self, surmounting your walls and errors; listening is the beginning of understanding, the first exercise of love.” He learned the importance of the virtue of listening from English Benedictine Dom Joseph Warrilow, his spiritual mentor. Dom Joseph said to Hendra: “None of us listen enough, do we, dear? We only listen to a fraction of what people say. It’s a wonderfully useful thing to do. You almost always hear something you didn’t expect.”21

Circles of Engagement

On a second level, we might recognize that any living eucharistic community is made up of concentric circles of commitment and encounter. One author refers to “circles of engagement”: “People engage with church at different levels and the intensity or otherwise of this engagement is dependent on many factors. . . . In exploring this it may be appropriate to look at engagement in terms of circles rather than levels, ‘circles of engagement.’”22 The pastoral response is to meet these people within their own circle of engagement with a welcome and an openness.

We might speak of four circles of engagement. First, is the inner circle, the circle of the true believers whose participation in the church is central to their self understanding. This is the heart of the church, the community that holds the center. The church has no choice but to devote its primary energy to the life and sustenance of this particular circle of belonging because this is the center and it must hold. The furthest reaches of the periphery need the center because without the center there is no periphery. In our terms, these are people who cannot live without the Eucharist.

Second is the circle of human and spiritual connection. This is a large group of people, who regard themselves as spiritual, and yet do not feel the need, for whatever reason, to participate fully in church or the Eucharist. They often describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. What if pastoral encounter with such people took the shape of a receptive seeking to understand without any immediate expectations?

Third is the circle of consolation. “People are fragile and they need a place beyond home, hospital and clinic where they can take their brokenness their loneliness or their grief to have its soothed among hymns and candles and psalms and scent. They may simply need to sit in silence or be in the warmth of a crowd. . . . They simply want a space, populated or unpopulated where they can find gracious consolation. The church can offer such space in a way that most other agencies, bodies and organizations cannot.” This is a pressing need for most people, the circle of consolation; and those who cannot live without the Eucharist, bodied and blooded with Christ, in Cyril of Jerusalem’s terms, are well-placed to be the place of consolation.

Fourth, the circle of ritual. “People need ritual to mark the significant times like birth, marriage, illness, partings and death and this is an area in which the church has real wisdom, experience and expertise. It has enormous richness and beauty and its rituals of passage. It marks and honors the significant milestones of life with grace, depth and elegance in ways that opened people to a deeper sense of what it means to be a human being.”

There is a school of thought that believes access to the church’s rituals should really be for the fully participant members of the church, for circle one. This seems very shortsighted and exclusive.

There is a school of thought that believes access to the church’s rituals should really be for the fully participant members of the church, for circle one. This seems very shortsighted and exclusive. “Graciousness on the church’s part and the use of imagination when it comes to providing ritual for non-practicing members of the broader community is one of the greatest services the church can offer to that community. This gracious sharing of the church’s expertise and experience in honoring the significant moments of life could paradoxically be a space of real witness and evangelization.”23 The then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in an extended interview with the journalist Peter Seewald made the following comment:

I have nothing against it if people who all year long never visit a church go there at least on Christmas Night or New Year’s Eve, or on special occasions, because this is another way of belonging to the blessing of the sacred, to the light. There have to be various forms of participation and association; the Church has to be inwardly open.24

This is “circles of engagement” thinking about the church. Liturgical-sacramental-ecclesial growth can no more be demanded than psycho-social growth. A welcoming ecclesial attitude optimizes in every way possible the movement and development from mere physical location in and around the church’s rituals—if there is such a thing as mere physical location!—towards conscious choice for ecclesial and sacramental participation.


The concluding sentence in Seamus Heaney’s poem is: “They have an undying tremor and draw, like well water far down.” The “they” refers to eucharistic words—“thanksgiving,” “host,” “communion bread.” Could these same words not apply also to the eucharistic assembly? Could the eucharistic assembly not also be described appropriately as “eucharistic thanksgiving,” “eucharistic host,” “eucharistic bread”? It is the challenge of the eucharistic assembly so to live these words that the tremor and the attraction/drawing will continue to be experienced among the people from whom Christ is never absent, even if they are absent from the assembly. The water may be far down the well, but we cannot live without it.


1 Seamus Heaney, District and Circle (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2006), p. 45.

2 Pope Benedict XVI, The Sacrament of Charity (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2007), par. 95.

3 George Pattison, The End of Theology and the Task of Thinking About God (London: SCM Press, 1998), pp. 44-45.

4 L. William Countryman, Forgiven and Forgiving (Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing,

5 Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form, 3`d ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), pp. 110-111.

6 Jeremy Driscoll, OSB, What Happens at Mass (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2005), p. 64.

7 John F. Baldovin, SJ, Bread of Life, Cup of Salvation (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), p. 63.

8 Robert Barron, The Strangest Way (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), p. 160.

9 Aidan Nichols, O.P., The Service of Glory: The Catechism of the Catholic Church on Worship, Ethics, Spirituality (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1997), p. 57.

10 Nicholas Lash, Holiness, Speech and Silence: Reflections on the Question of God (Burlington, VT and London: Ashgate Publishing, 2004), p. 56.

11 Cited from Meriol Trevor, Pope John (New York: Doubleday, 1968), p. 80.

12 John Henry Newman, Historical Sketches (London, 1906), volume 2, p. 1.

13 Frederik Van der Meer, Augustine the Bishop (London: Sheed and Ward, 1961), pp. 388-389, cited in Owen F. Cummings, Eucharistic Doctors (New York-Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005), p. 74.

14 James J. O’Donnell, Augustine, A New Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), pp. 31-32. See Ramsay MacMullen, “The Preacher’s Audience,” JTS, 40 (1989), pp. 503511.

15 Ramsay MacMullen, “The Preacher’s Audience (AD 350-400),” Journal of Theological Studies 40 (1989), p. 510.

16 The following examples are taken from Alexander Murray, “Religion Among the Poor in Thirteenth Century France: The Testimony of Humbert de Romans,” Traditio 30 (1974), pp. 285-324.

17 The words come from Ronald Rohlheiser, OMI, “Knock It Off: A Challenge to Polarized Catholics,” U.S. Catholic (April, 2007), p. 15.

18 Michael Paul Gallagher, SJ, Dive Deeper: The Human Poetry of Faith (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2001), p. 4.

19 Adapting some thoughts from Ronald Rohlheiser, OMI, “Knock It Off,” p. 15.

21 Tony Hendra, Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul (New York: Random House, 2004), p. 181.

22 Jim O’Brien, “The Church: Circles of Grace,” The Furrow 58 (2007), pp. 141-143.

23 Jim O’Brien, “The Church: Circles of Grace,” p. 143.

24 Joseph Ratzinger, God and the World, A Conversation with Peter Seewald (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), p. 442.


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.