Presentation in the Catholic-Lutheran International Seminar: Communion in Growth. Declaration on the Church, Eucharist, and Ministry.

A Sufficient Differentiated Consensus for the Uplifting of the 16th Century Doctrinal Condemnations? A Lutheran Approach.

Catholic-Lutheran International Seminar: Communion in Growth. Declaration on the Church, Eucharist, and Ministry.

Centro Pro Unione & The Pontifical University of Holy Cross, Rome, January 18th, 2019

Bishop Dr. Jari Jolkkonen, Diocese of Kuopio, Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland




The Eucharist is at the heart of the spiritual life for both Roman Catholics and Lutherans. This fact is based on our common conviction of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. After the consecration and by the Power of the Holy Spirit, the Lord Jesus Christ is truly and substantially present in the bread and wine. Therefore the Eucharist is a true medium salutis: it offers us the forgiveness of sins and unites us to Christ, with each other and with the all saints in heaven, that is, to the ecclesia militans and ecclesia triumphans.

However, it is a painful fact that the medieval Lutheran and Roman Catholic confessional writings contain mutual doctrinal condemnations concerning the Eucharist. They are not just a footnote. For example, according to the Smalcald Articles the questions regarding the Eucharist as a sacrifice and the practice of selling and buying Masses should be the most important issue of the then-planned Church Council. Although today we don’t have to put too much weight on these condemnations, at the same time we can’t ignore them. It is necessary that the reconciliation of these condemnations forms one part of the way of reconciliation between our churches on our pilgrimage to visible unity.

Our hope is that the Finnish report “Communion in Growth can be a gift from one local dialogue – along with the other local dialogues – to the international dialogue. It attempts to further our common path to visible unity. It reflects our conviction that visible unity cannot be based on cheap compromises but on our humble and firm commitment to listen to the Divine revelation and to be faithful to the tradition of our churches.

The medieval condemnations concerning the Eucharist can be divided into three elements: 1) the doctrine of transubstantiation or the mode of Eucharistic presence, 2) the Eucharist as sacrifice and 3) specific liturgical practices especially related to the communal character of the Eucharist.

Transubstantiation and the Mode of the Real Presence of Christ

In our report “Communion in Growth” we suggest that the question of the doctrine of transubstantiation or Eucharistic presence is not church-dividing. Both churches share the common conviction that the body and blood of Jesus Christ is truly and substantially present in the consecrated bread and wine through which the Lord gives himself to us. This presence is real, unique and objective. It is not based on the faith of the communicants nor worthiness of the minister. It is based on the power of the Word of God, the promise of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit in the consecration. Therefore, worship and adoration are appropriate before and during the reception. This is why, in my church, we stand during the Agnus Dei, receive the sacrament kneeling, and bow after receiving the Eucharist. Furthermore, after the distribution the consecrated elements must be handled with reverence either by consuming them or reserving them separately for the communion of the sick.

According to Martin Luther and the Lutheran Confessions, the doctrine of the real presence is a necessary condition for the unity of the church. However, the mystery of Christ’s real presence can be described in a manner faithful to Divine revelation, by means of different expressions without a close connection to Aristotelian philosophy. This also seems to be the understanding of the Council of Trent.

In the De captivitate ecclesiae babylonica Martin Luther writes that he found the critiques regarding transubstantiation within medieval catholic theology itself, namely from the Fourth Book of Sentences of Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly. Luther articulated four arguments against the concept:

1) Biblical: The oldest name of the Eucharist is “breaking the bread” (Acts 2:46) and the New Testament seems to refer the word “bread” even to those elements over which Christ “gave thanks” (Mt. 26:26; Mk. 14:22; Lk. 22:19; I. Cor. 11:23).

2) Historical: In the Reformation era, the concept of transubstantiation was relatively new and utilized only in the western church, not universally. For the 1200 years preceding the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), the Universal Church had believed correctly in the real presence. “Transubstantiation” was and is alien to Orthodox Christians.

3) Pastoral: ordinary or “simple” people can believe correctly in the real presence of Christ without sophisticated Aristotelian metaphysics which they don’t understand and never will.

4) Philosophical: It is better for the Church to define the Sacraments of Christ independently without the help of Aristotelian philosophy, but loyal to her own tradition. This can be done with the help of the Chalcedonian principle: Just as the divine and human nature are united in the person of Jesus Christ, so the the Body of Christ and the bread are united in the sacramental union on the altar – which does not imply a second incarnation.

Despite these critical points, Luther never states that transubstantiation is contrary to Revelation. Strictly speaking, the condemnations contained in the Lutheran Confessions are directed against the idea of “annihilation” of the substance of the Eucharistic bread and wine, according to which the bread and wine lose their natural essence This would mean that their accidents exist independently without their substance. Literally, the Lutheran condemnations are not directed against the real presence of Christ but the real absence of bread.

According to our understanding, the same distinction between the mystery of Christ’s real presence and  our efforts to express it in human words can be made about the council of Trent: The “change” (conversio, mutatio) of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ is necessary to faith and church unity. However, this mystery of faith can be described either with the word “transubstantiation” – which is said to be apptisime, the “most fitting” word – or with other concepts. The Tridentine word apptissime logically means that there are also room for other fitting ways to describe the real presence of Christ.

Our conclusion is that both church bodies share the conviction the that real presence of Christ in the consecrated elements is one necessary condition for visible unity. There is, however, room for different ways of expressing this truth of faith in human words.

Eucharist as Sacrifice

Lutherans and Catholics have often disagreed on the way in which the unique sacrifice of Christ in Golgotha is or is not related to the Eucharist. On the one hand, there must be some connection between the two, otherwise the Eucharist could lose its meaning as a medium salutis which communicates the fruits of Christ’s Sacrifice to us. For Lutherans, a challenge lies in how to understand and describe this connection in a positive way. On the other hand, the Mass cannot  be an autonomous and independent propitiatory sacrifice. Otherwise, the Sacrifice of the Cross would lose its unique and complete meaning. For Catholics,  the challenge has been about how to understand and express this distinction in such a way that the completeness of the Cross will be secured and the Mass will not be understood as a competing sacrifice number 2, 3, 4 and so on.

In our report we repeat what the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Commission has said together in the document The Eucharist: We agree that: 1) the sacrifice of Christ for sins is unique and sufficient, and that this sacrifice cannot be continued, repeated, replaced , or complemented; and that 2) the Lord is present in the Eucharist as the Crucified One and that his sacrifice at Golgotha becomes present and effective in the celebration of the Eucharist. This means that the fruits, effects and gift of the Cross are given personally to the communicants. Furthermore, in chapter 103 of this document we list seven different meanings in which Sacrifice and Eucharist are related.

Eucharistic Practice

According to the Lutheran Confessions, the sacrament should be distributed to all in both kinds (utraque specie) for two reasons: the Confessions seek to be faithful to the institution of Christ, who said “eat and drink”. Furthermore, the sign of the sacrament is perfect when both the Body and Blood of Christ are used. According to Martin Luther’s early sermon on the Eucharist, in biblical symbolism the bread is a metaphor for blessing and the chalice is a metaphor for suffering. When the believing community shares the signs of both blessing and suffering, it also implies that misfortune and tribulation should be common and shared.

The Lutheran Confessions condemn as an abuse the withholding of the chalice from the laity. However, they never say that the giving of the chalice to the laity is necessary for salvation or for a valid sacrament. The validity of the sacrament is based on consecration, not on the use of the sacrament. Although the utraque species is the norm, according to the Guidelines of the Bishops’ Conference of Finland, in certain cases it is acceptable for pastoral reasons to use only one species, for example, when the communicant is an infant or a person suffering from alcoholism. Because in certain cases Lutheran practice allows for giving Communion in one kind, this practice implies that according to Lutheran understanding, the whole Christ is also received under one kind.

Today in the Roman Catholic Church the chalice is no longer “prohibited” to the laity. Even though giving Communion under one species is a legitimate practice, The Second Vatican Council (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy §55) and the Instruction on the Roman Missal §14 and §56) encourage distribution of the Eucharist in both kinds in various contexts. Lutherans warmly welcome this new development by the Council.

Secondly, for both sides the Eucharist is a communal meal, not simply a private matter. It unites us to Christ and his church. Therefore, in Lutheran practice both an ordained minister and the assembly are necessary for the celebration of the Mass. Lutheran ministers are expected to pray and read the Bible privately, but not to celebrate the Eucharist alone without the people (sine populo) or at least one communicant. On the other hand, an assembly is never allowed to celebrate the Eucharist without a minister ordained to priesthood by a bishop. According to the Second Vatican Council, a communal way of celebrating the Mass and other sacraments “is to be preferred” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy §27). According to the Catholic understanding, every Mass, including those celebrated by a priest for his own devotion, in itself possesses a public and social nature.

A third practical question is related to the duration of the real presence and the use of the consecrated elements after the Mass. The Lutheran Confessions condemned the practice in which the element of the sacrament was used for other purposes than the original intention of Christ. If, for example, baptismal water or consecrated bread was used to heal leprosy or bodily pain, that was “outside the original use” and intention (extra usum). This is why the Confessions say that the sacrament must always be use according the intention and institution of Christ: that is, for baptizing a person or for eating and drinking.

Therefore, Lutherans have raised some theological questions on the adoration of the Eucharistic host outside the context of the celebration of the Mass, which has been and is an important part of Roman Catholic spirituality. At least some of this disagreement could lose its gravity, because according to the Council of Trent the devotion to the Sacrament extra Missam is a “custom” (consuetido) and a “usage” (mos). According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the tabernacle was first intended for the reservation of the Eucharist for the sick and those absent outside of Mass (CCC 1379). Therefore, the custom of praying before it is an “extension” of the oldest custom. The General Instruction on the Roman Missal and the Catechism of the Catholic Church defend the adoration of the sacrament, but add that this custom should not obscure the meal character of the Eucharist and its orientation towards communion.

Although the Lutheran Confessions have reservations about the adoration of the Eucharist outside Mass, they do not wish to define the duration of the real presence of Christ in the bread. In a private letter to the Lutheran pastor Simon Wolferinus, Martin Luther urges Wolferinus to consume all the consecrated elements after the Mass. Luther notes, “Then we are free from possible scandals and difficult questions which are difficult to answer”. Michael Agricola, Luther’s student and the Reformer of Finland, gave the same instructions. The Guidelines for High Mass in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, approved by the Bishops’ Conference, state that the goal should be that only as much of the elements as is needed should be consecrated. After the distribution, all the consecrated elements should be completely consumed or reserved separately for later use (Guidelines 102). The instructions of the Church of Sweden and the ELCA are quite the same. Unfortunately, it is possible that some ministers might not always follow these instructions. What is needed here is not new instructions, but better discipline on the Lutheran side.