Synodalia: Fathers, here’s a thought.

Synodalia: Jottings on the margins of the Synod

Many of us will remember that much of the justification for the liturgical reform lay in an appeal to the early Church, a return to the sources and primitive purity, when liturgy had not yet acquired the accretions and “useless repetitions” of more recent centuries. It is more than open to debate that the subsequent reform has been successful. In part this is due to a failure to see that rituals can legitimately develop as the understanding of their significance expands. Some might argue that the liturgical reform’s exaltation of the primitive involved selling off a Porsche 911 in order to obtain a Model-T Ford.

However, with Christian truth, there can be no change. We might understand it more fully, express it in a more accessible way, apply it more fruitfully as time goes on – but truth remains true. So for theology it is legitimate to look back to the early Church to see the sapling form of our doctrinal oaks of today.

So, for example, the Synod Fathers might like to look back to the Didache, among the oldest extant pieces of Christian instruction dating from the mid-1st century and pre-dates most, if not all, the New Testament. Some labour its significance in some areas, but it is clearly written by Christians still in touch with at least one of the apostles. There are two clear principles (at least) about the Eucharist and ecclesial communion that might help the Synod today.

The first is simply and quickly put: Regarding admission to Eucharistic Communion, the teaching is from our Lord Himself: Do not give what is holy to the dogs. (9:5) Clearly, not everyone was admitted to the Eucharist even then. Now, it might be argued, that this comes explicitly in the context of excluding the non-baptized. However, a little later it teaches When gathering on the Lord’s Day, break bread and make Eucharist, confessing your sins beforehand so that your sacrifice may be worthy (14:1). As the Orthodox still proclaim before the reception of Communion,  it is a case of Holy things for the holy.

Surely the modern obsession with avoiding any possibility that people might feel excluded or isolated is not totally new. Surely even in the early years of the Church there were some who felt a keen sympathy, even pity, for the public sinner doing penance or the non-baptized enquirer who was dismissed from the Mass after the homily. Both were not permitted to approach the altar to receive. Were they so hard of heart that they rigidly applied doctrine without a second thought?

In fact, the Didache reveals that early Christians acted far more in authentic solidarity with those not in communion than those who advocate an open-table for those in grave sin or outside communion. The relevant section is brief and spare, but pregnant with significance:

And prior to baptism, both he who is baptizing and he who is being baptized should fast, along with any others who can. (7:4)

So not only was the one preparing to enter communion told to fast, but so too the clergy and as many of the congregation as possible. This was their act of solidarity with the one not yet admitted to communion, and Communion. It is not a private matter for the neophyte alone. Says the scholar Thomas O’Loughlin:

If one accepts the notion… that they imagined a universe where spiritual benefits could be transferred from one person to another, then it may be that the fast of the various members of the church was to produce a benefit that could be transferred from them to their new brother/sister to enable the initiate to turn away from his or her sins and to enter Christ. […]

… the involvement of the minister and preferably others in the community points to the fast being a collective act of intercession for the candidate. If the demons are to be confronted and ejected, then all involved must work together to bring about their casting out from the individual. (1)

Now, this is nothing but a reference to the treasury of the Church’s merits as we understand it today. The Church offers prayer and fasting in order to prosper the admission of the neophyte to the Church and so to the altar. The Church, in the tangible form of her members, stands in active solidarity with those not yet in Communion. It hardly needs to be pointed out that this works also for those outside Communion due to sin. The Church can offer prayer and fasting that the sinner might be freed from his or her sin and restored to Communion.

From the catacombs of St Callistus
From the catacombs of St Callistus

So, instead of fabricating false solutions or running down dead-end paths, why could the Synod not exhort the Church to show real solidarity with the active homosexual or the remarried divorcee: to pray earnestly and fast fervently that they might be liberated from sin and restored to Communion. They do not need a sop to their feelings, but help to their salvation.

It’s just a thought….


(1) Thomas O’Loughlin ‘The Didache as a Source for Picturing the Earliest Christian Communities: The Case of the Practice of Fasting’ in K. O’Mahony ed., Christian Origins: Worship, Belief and Society [Journal for the Study of the New Testament: Supplement Series 241], Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2003, p.97.

6 thoughts on “Synodalia: Fathers, here’s a thought.

  1. PS – “It a provate matter for the neophyte alone.” Father, I imagine you meant to write “It is *not* a pr[i]vate matter for the neophyte alone.” Which seems to naturally follow from the Didache’s argument.
    It’s just a small typo, but alters your intention, I think. Correct me if I’m wrong.
    On the general subject of the trivialization and even abolition of Sin, and more importantly, of the entire idea of sinfulness, I’m reminded of the Hassidic joke-parable about the village’s local Miracle Rabbi, who is said to be such a wonder-worker that he is able to travel by train on the Sabbath. As the story goes ‘As our Miracle Rabbi speeds on his way from Lodz to Warsaw, there is Sabbath to the left of him, and Sabbath to the right of him – but where our Rabbi sits, oh wonder of wonders, there is no Sabbath at all!’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Egad! Why did not the red line appear under “provate”? Surely that is not a word. Thank you for spotting my hideous error, which is now corrected. The dangers of posting in haste. Indeed the typo did take all the force away from the point I was trying to make.

      That story about the Polish rabbi is a keeper. I shall be using that at some stage, thank you! 😉


      Liked by 1 person

  2. Something that has long puzzled me is how some denominations which practice an ‘open table,’ admitting even the unbaptized and unbelievers to receive communion along with the rest of the congregation, is when they say that ‘Jesus practiced an open table, and so do we.’ When of course, though Jesus often sat down to enjoy a meal with others, or indeed fed the multitudes, presumably believers and non-believers alike, he only admitted his closest disciples to receive his eucharistic body and blood, or even to so much as be present when it was confected. Surely this latter fact could serve as a reliable guideline, not only for the ‘open table’ people, but for Catholic congregations too.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. *** The painfully slow process of uncovering the child abuse that happened within the Catholic Church continues. The members of the church continue to try and protect the wrong people, at the expense of victims, their families and the American people. ***

    The Archdiocese of Chicago has voluntarily released documents related to 36 Archdiocesan priests who have at least one substantiated allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor. These documents are in addition to those released in January on 30 other priests. This release, together with the January release, covers priests who have substantiated allegations of sexual misconduct with minors identified on the Archdiocese’s website as of November 2014. Documents pertaining to two priests, former Rev. Daniel J. McCormack and Rev. Edward J. Maloney, are not included, due to ongoing processes that do not permit release.

    Inquiries may be directed to the Office of the Protection of Children and Youth, Archdiocese of Chicago, PO Box 1979, Chicago, IL 60690.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.