My parish does not offer the cup at communion. Unfortunately, this issue has been the cause of some division in the Catholic Church at large. Rules and norms vary from parish to parish. Yet for the first thousand years of the church, the Precious Blood was indeed distributed to all the faithful, not just consumed by the priest. Why the change and the fuss?
In the first half of the last millennium, along with the growing division between the clergy and laity (even physically within the worship space), the consumption of the eucharistic wine became a privilege of clergy alone. It became a symbol—intended or not—of what sets apart the clergy and the laity. Liturgical theologian Mary Collins talks about how symbols like these are meant to show the contrasting divinity and humanity of Christ, as well as his eminence and lowliness. Christ’s high and low natures have traditionally played out in symbols like male (high) vs. female (low) or the hierarchy(high) vs. laity (low). I believe reserving the chalice for the clergy alone became such a symbol.
What has happened after Vatican II is that some of these traditional symbols are no longer effective in conveying their original meaning. Women are now more active than men in parish life. Lay people distribute communion along with their priests and pastors. There is greater participation in the life of the Church, as Vatican II called for. Still, the residue of traditional symbols of Christ’s eminence and lowliness can create “liturgy wars” where people fight over whose theology is “correct”.
The problem with theology is how grey and varied it is. There is never just one theology, one way of interpretation, or even one way of worship. When I asked my pastor about why the chalice was not offered, he told me it was mainly because there were not enough eucharistic ministers to offer it at their seven weekend Masses. When I brought it up to another priest on staff he said this wasn’t the reason; it was not being offered because it wasn’t necessary. “Some people are confused about the theology,” he said. “You don’t have to receive the Precious Blood to receive the fullness of Jesus—the host is all you need.” While this is true, such a response (which I’ve heard a number of times) dismisses another important theology: fullness of participation.
When Vatican II made provisions for local bishops to decide whether or not to offer the cup, it was in the spirit of fullness of participation in the eucharistic meal. Not offering the cup to everyone present at Mass is like me inviting you to dinner and serving wine only to myself, not to you. Yes, you’d still be nourished by the meal—you don’t need the wine. But you wouldn’t be fully participating in the entirety of the meal.
Early eucharistic meals were real meals, centered around table fellowship, communion with one another. The US Bishops even say that “sharing in both eucharistic species reflects more fully the sacred realities that the Liturgy signifies.” That sacred reality is the full sharing in the Lord’s supper and its deeper meanings. By removing the chalice, the symbol is incomplete.
With the recent synod discussion on whether divorced and re-married Catholics should be able to receive communion, it is important to reflect fully on the many ways communion divides our churches (an oxymoron if I ever heard one). Pope Francis realizes that theological differences are not the only reasons for divisions. He also includes dogmatic and moral principles, “pastoral differences, political motives and self-interest to the point of clashing due to resentments and personal ambition.” At a recent Wednesday audience, the pope recalled his own first Communion and said that full communion is full participation in the Body and Blood of Christ. “The Church is tempted by evil, which tries to divide her,” he said. Communion is not about division; it is about welcome.
I’m not sure if my parish will ever offer the cup at Mass, but I sure do miss it. My greater concern is that my pastor will not acknowledge the laity’s yearning for full participation in the eucharistic meal. My participation in the Catholic community is not about certain religious pieties or church politics; it’s about my full participation within the Body of Christ where there are no haves and have-nots at Christ’s table.
Andy Otto is the creator and editor of God In All Things.