Word and Spirit: Yves Congar’s Account of Church and Eucharist – Part 4

Word and Spirit in the Eucharist 

This study now reaches its goal of discussing Congar’s account of the relation between Word and Spirit in the Eucharist. The pattern that has been discerned thus far is maintained in Congar’s treatment of the Eucharist, that is, he correlates an objective pole associated with the Word and a subjective pole associated with the Spirit. Congar’s treatment of the Eucharist is both rich and fragmentary, and perhaps rich precisely because it is fragmentary. Justice cannot be done to it as a whole, and the following will be limited to three specific concerns. First, the difference between the church as a whole and the ordained ministry in the Eucharist will be explored. Second, the difference between consecration and communion will be discussed. Finally, Congar’s account of the Eucharist in terms of upward and downward movements will be examined. 

First, what of the relation between congregation and priest in the Eucharist? Congar thinks of the whole church as a mystical union with Christ and with each other produced by the Holy Spirit.[1] It is in this sense that the whole church is the body of Christ. Each member within the body of Christ has a task to perform, and each member has received from the Holy Spirit a grace or charism for that purpose. It is in this way that Congar is able to approximate the reformational doctrine of the priesthood of all believers when he writes, “Every cell in the body is priestly.”[2] However, within this priestly body is a class whose task it is to serve the mission of this priestly body in a special way. This is the hierarchical priesthood, and Congar directly connects this priesthood to the sacraments. Whereas the common priesthood of the church is one of spiritual self-sacrifice, “A liturgical and sacramental sacrifice requires a liturgical and sacramental priesthood.”[3] 

This leads directly into the second topic, which had to do with the difference between consecration and communion. In keeping with the difference in priesthood between the hierarchy and the church as a whole, consecration of the eucharistic elements is a function of the hierarchy while communion with Christ through the elements is an act of the church as a whole. Further, Congar understands the eucharistic elements as the Word / objective pole and communion as the Spirit / subjective pole. Insofar as the elements are the body and blood of Christ, “the Eucharist…brings about a corporeal unity, just as the Spirit brings about a spiritual unity,”[4] with Christ and with each other. Consecration establishes the eucharistic elements as objective reality, and communion is the subjective activity by which this reality is received and realized in the communicant. 

What is the relation of Word and Spirit in the consecration of the eucharistic elements? When thinking about consecration one has to do not only with the relation between Word and Spirit but with the relation of the priest to both Word and Spirit. Congar is right: “The one real priest is in heaven.”[5] The work done by human priests is not done on the basis of “powers inherent” in the priest; rather, Christ “himself is the sole priest upon whom every valid action that takes place in the sphere of reconciled existence…depends.”[6] Congar demonstrates this way of thinking with direct reference to the Eucharist when he explains that there is “only one Eucharist – the one celebrated by Jesus himself the night he was betrayed. Our Eucharists are only Eucharists by the virtue and the making present of that Eucharist.”[7] In the present, the priest acts in persona or in nomine Christi to make that one Eucharist present, and this is understood as Christ’s own act. In this way, the priest can even be spoken of as a sacramental reality.[8] 

The relation between the priest and the Word, Jesus Christ, now becomes apparent. The priest, as part of the hierarchical structure of the church, acts in the name of or in the place of Christ in consecration and thereby the eucharistic elements are offered to the congregation as the body and blood of Christ. But, the priest is also related to the Spirit, just as we have seen the pairing of Word and Spirit throughout this study. Congar affirms both that the effects of the Eucharist belong to the Holy Spirit and that the consecration of the elements such that they become Christ’s body and blood belongs to the Holy Spirit.[9] The priest, then, acts in the Eucharist according to his ministry in the church, a ministry given and affirmed by the Holy Spirit. In the act of consecration, Word as embodied by the priest but as definitive in Christ and the Holy Spirit work together to present the eucharistic elements as Christ’s body and blood. This is the meaning of eucharistic epiclesis, although this epiclesis no more produces the effect than do the words of institution.[10] 

Word and Spirit, focused upon the priest, are both operative in the consecration of the eucharistic elements. What of this relation in terms of eucharistic communion? Here, the Word / objective pole is the body and blood of Christ offered in the eucharistic elements. The Spirit / subjective pole is the proper reception of these elements by which Christians are put in touch with Jesus Christ’s physicality and thereby with the salvation that he has wrought.[11] Proper reception calls not simply for the communicant’s physical reception of the eucharistic elements, but also for the communicant’s spiritual reception of the body and blood. This inner or spiritual reception is the work of the Holy Spirit.[12] 

It is now that the third and final theme of this section arises. Congar’s understands of the Eucharist in terms of upward and downward movements. First, the upward movement is the movement made by the church as a whole on the basis of its common priesthood. The church offers itself as a spiritual sacrifice to God. Congar is even able to speak of the priest’s activity in persona ecclesia with reference to this upward movement.[13] Thus far Congar understands the church to be in continuity with ancient Israel’s relationship to God. The new thing about the church, as per Congar’s understanding, is that there is now a new priesthood “coming from above, whose function is to communicate the good things…given once for all time in Jesus Christ.”[14] It is in this sense that the priest acts in persona or nomine Christi. This movement from above to below is decisive in the Eucharist, and this is precisely the point of transubstantiation for Congar:
[I]n the Eucharist, and precisely, in transubstantiation, it is the essential point of God’s purpose that is fulfilled; our approach to him suddenly concludes because it has been met with a gift from above.[15]
While the Word / objective pole is to be found in the downward vector, the Holy Spirit is active in both vectors. On the objective / downward side, the Holy Spirit, along with Christ, instituted the new priesthood from above and continues to work with this new priesthood to make the body and blood of Christ present in the eucharistic elements. On the subjective / upward side, it is the Spirit who enlivens the church’s spiritual self-sacrifice to God and also works subjectively and interiorly within the communicants what is offered to them objectively and externally in the eucharistic elements. It is through eucharistic contact with Christ’s physical reality by the work of the Holy Spirit that the eucharistic “expression…of our ‘return’…is changed….into the expression of [Jesus Christ’s] own return,” and the church’s offering to God becomes acceptable because Jesus Christ becomes the church’s offering.[16]
  1. Congar, Holy Spirit, 2:15.
  2. Congar, Gospel Priesthood, 96.
  3. Ibid, 93.
  4. Congar, Holy Spirit, 3:35.
  5. Congar, Gospel Priesthood, 183.
  6. Ibid, 182.
  7. Congar, Holy Spirit, 3:233.
  8. Ibid, 3:235.
  9. Ibid, 3:250.
  10. Ibid, 3:228. Congar thinks it a false dichotomy to oppose epiclesis and the words of institution. He understands them as intimately related.
  11. Cf. Congar, Mystery of the Church, 130.
  12. Cf. Congar, Word and Spirit, 34.
  13. Congar, Holy Spirit, 3:236.
  14. Congar, Revelation of God, 186.
  15. Ibid, 177.
  16. Ibid, 178.


Luke said…
Hi Travis.
Interesting your Congar exposition.
I am not sure about the priest description you draw. In my opinion, is a too idealized picture.
Hi Luke,

I'm not much of a fan of it either, but I'm fairly convinced that it is what Congar says. :-)
Luke said…
Was Congar a priest?
Yep. Eventually a Cardinal shortly before he died.
Anonymous said…
I studied with Congar in 1968 when he lectured in Le Saulchoir between sessions of Vatican II.
In one of his lectures he made reference to a papal [or church] ruling at the time of the crusades when knights were dying on mountainsides or in open fields etc. They were told to take a ledf from a tree or a blade of grass, say the words of consecration over it and put it into their mouth and that this would be equivalent to the eucharist for them. I have never been able to find a reference to this, either in Congar's own writings [which would be after 1968, I imagine] or in any documented officialdum on behalf of the Church . . . would you be able to put your finger [digitus Dei] on any such stipulation?

Thanks in anticipation,
Hi, Mark - thanks for sharing your reminiscence! Unfortunately, I'm not aware of a source. However, this fits with standard eucharistic dogma in the Catholic tradition where intention often stands in for the details of the rite in extremis. Best wishes!

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