When Boston College theologian Edward J. Kilmartin, SJ, one of Catholicism's foremost liturgical scholars, died five years ago, he left an unfinished manuscript urging a radical shift in Catholic teaching on the central part of the Mass, the Eucharist.
Fortunately, Fr. Kilmartin's friend and literary executor, Prof. Robert Daly, SJ (Theology), was able to assemble the book in publishable form. The result, The Eucharist in the West: History and Theology , is, in Fr. Daly's view, a landmark work that offers Catholics and Protestants common ground on the Eucharist.
"I could conceive of this being one of this century's most important books on the Eucharist," Fr. Daly says. "It brings Catholic theology much closer than it has been to the best and most Catholic insights of the Protestant reformers."
Fr. Kilmartin (1923-94) considered Church teaching on the Eucharist to be fundamentally flawed, explained Fr. Daly. He argued the Roman Mass since medieval days had wrongly emphasized words spoken by the priest as effecting the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. He held that the Holy Spirit should properly be invoked as the agent of transformation of the Eucharist, as in Eastern Orthodox rites, according to Fr. Daly. The Eucharist's origins in ancient Jewish meal celebrations, he maintained, made active participation of the faithful and the reception of communion essential to the sacrament.
Prof. Robert Daly, SJ (Theology)-"I could conceive of this being one of this century's most important books on the Eucharist." (Photo by Justin Knight)
"You ask yourself, does the transformation of the body and blood take place so that Christ can be lying out there on the altar? Is that the ultimate goal of the Eucharist?" said Fr. Daly. "No - the ultimate goal of the Eucharist is our union with God."
In The Eucharist in the West , Fr. Kilmartin argues the Catholic theology of the Eucharist as generally understood today is a "splinter" tradition, one that has developed "out of contact" with earlier Christian tradition and the rest of the Christian Church, said Fr. Daly. The author urges a rediscovery of the sacramental role of the Holy Spirit, for centuries ignored in the Western Canon, in a renewed eucharistic theology that Fr. Daly maintains would be truer to biblical and patristic foundations and would hold ecumenical appeal to both Orthodox and Protestant Christians.
"What Ed Kilmartin is saying is that the Catholic theology of the Eucharist is poor theology - it is bankrupt," said Fr. Daly. "He is not saying what we believe is wrong, but that the way we understand and explain it is wrong. What he's saying is we need to do a better job of explaining the faith."
Eucharist in the West is a work of great scholarly breadth, examining the development of Catholic eucharistic theology over the centuries, said Fr. Daly, with detailed analysis of the contributions of scholasticism, the Council of Trent and St. Thomas Aquinas.
"The book is anything but radical - it is profoundly traditional," said Fr. Daly.
According to Fr. Daly, the book has struck a chord at recent theological conferences among some Protestant colleagues, who have said its argument for a Trinitarian approach to the Eucharist could help heal a breach between Catholics and Protestants dating to the Reformation.
"They say, 'This makes obvious sense,'" he said, with a smile. "'If we had known about this 450 years ago, we could have spared ourselves an awful lot of grief.'"
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