The Eucharistic Vocation of a Catholic School

Once a year, when I was a doctoral student, each of us submitted a dissertation proposal. The exercise, intended to alleviate stress, produced plentiful anxiety as our fellow doctoral students and faculty publicly debated the merits of our ideas. One year, I suggested the possibility of writing a dissertation on the Eucharistic vocation of the Catholic university. The proposal was immediately dismissed by one faculty member who noted that the Catholic university was too ecumenical, focused on intellectual dialogue, to attend to something so peculiarly Catholic as the Eucharist.

Perhaps, many faculty and administrators feel something similar about the Eucharistic nature of both primary and secondary education. Yes, the Eucharist is important to the Catholic school insofar as it is a sacrament regularly celebrated over the course of the school year. Yes, it is especially important for Catholic faculty and staff who should have a Eucharistic faith. But can the Eucharist be a privileged source of renewal and identity for the school today?

We must therefore ask the question: what does the Eucharist have to do with the Catholic school? During this period of the Eucharistic Revival, this is a pivotal question, especially as our institutions continue to discern what it means to be Catholic today. What follows is intended to function as a primer on this topic, built around four key theses related to the Eucharist and Catholic education.

Thesis #1: A Catholic school has a vocation to be Eucharistic, which does not mean giving up its identity as a school

Catholic educators can easily misunderstand what it means to speak about the Eucharistic identity of a school. After all, Catholic schools are educational institutions, and while the Mass might be regularly offered in this setting, the Eucharist may be perceived as far too intramural of an activity to be integral to the identity of an educational institution. Further, many Catholic schools now educate many students who are not Catholic at all: does this mean that such persons are excluded from participation in the life of the school if this school finds its raison d’être in the Eucharistic mystery?

These objections are important to consider. As the recent Directory for Catechesis notes about the Catholic school:

No less than other schools does the Catholic school pursue cultural goals and the human formation of youth. But its proper function is to create for the school community a special atmosphere animated by the Gospel spirit . . . and finally to order the whole of human culture to the news of salvation so that the knowledge the students gradually acquire of the world, life, and man is illumined by faith. . . . In brief, the following characteristics stand out: harmony with the formative aims of secular schools; the originality of the educational community permeated by evangelical values; attention to young people; concern for teaching the integration of faith, culture, and life (Directory for Catechesis, §309).

A school functions as a school not by passing on the rudiments of liturgical practice to students. The school has a social and cultural goal akin to its secular peers—it is a formation into the task of being fully human. This goal is expressed through initiation into the various disciplines that make up the sources of human wisdom as well as forming students to function as members of the broader social order. But, as the Directory underlines, there is a distinct vocation of a Catholic school to think about education, considering the Gospel spirit and the life of faith.

In that sense, the Eucharist (especially during this time of Eucharistic Revival) should be a source of more richly understanding the vocation of a school in our own age without giving up the uniqueness of the academic environment of the school qua school.

Thesis #2: To approach the school according to this Eucharistic vision, we need to have a richer account of the Eucharist, that is, the Eucharist is integral to Catholic identity in toto; we are not simply talking about the regular celebration of the Mass

When the word Eucharist is used, the first thought of many Catholics may be the celebration of the Mass that unfolds in parish churches each day. Some may think almost exclusively about the reception of the Eucharist, that is, Christ’s Body and Blood. In both cases, one can certainly understand why many Catholics would see a Eucharistic vision around Catholic education as not quite as robust as one may find in such doctrines as the human person created in the image and likeness of God; in the doctrine of the Trinity, that is, the intrinsic relationality of the God in whose likeness men and women are created; even the sacramentality of the created order where we recognize the hidden presence of God in the totality of creation.

The problem with the above concerns is that the word Eucharist is being used in too thin of a sense, referring primarily to the celebration of a rite or the reception of a sacrament. The Church speaks about the Eucharist in another sense, related to the flourishing of the human person who is taken up into God’s life. It may be helpful to turn to Benedict XVI’s Sacramentum caritatis, where he addresses the Eucharist as giving form to the totality of Christian life. He writes:

Here the eucharistic celebration appears in all its power as the source and summit of the Church's life, since it expresses at once both the origin and the fulfilment of the new and definitive worship of God, the logiké latreía. Saint Paul's exhortation to the Romans in this regard is a concise description of how the Eucharist makes our whole life a spiritual worship pleasing to God: “I appeal to you therefore, my brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). In these words the new worship appears as a total self-offering made in communion with the whole Church. The Apostle's insistence on the offering of our bodies emphasizes the concrete human reality of a worship which is anything but disincarnate. The Bishop of Hippo goes on to say that “this is the sacrifice of Christians: that we, though many, are one body in Christ. The Church celebrates this mystery in the sacrament of the altar, as the faithful know, and there she shows them clearly that in what is offered, she herself is offered.” Catholic doctrine, in fact, affirms that the Eucharist, as the sacrifice of Christ, is also the sacrifice of the Church, and thus of all the faithful. This insistence on sacrifice—a “making sacred”—expresses all the existential depth implied in the transformation of our human reality as taken up by Christ (cf. Phil 3:12).

Benedict XVI is retrieving a fundamental sense of worship as used by St. Paul in the New Testament—namely, that worship is the reasonable or logical offering (logiké latreia) of our flesh and blood selves, the sacrificial return gift to God of the very self. Sacrifice, in this sense, is not a matter of pain or suffering. Rather, sacrifice is that task of making sacred, of letting every crack and crevice be transformed by divine love. Creation was made for love, and our worship is a return gift—it is gratitude—for the original goodness God intended for the cosmos. Worship, therefore, cannot be reduced to a single moment of attending Mass but is a whole attitude toward the world, a recognition that every aspect of human life can be redeemed in Christ.

For this reason, Benedict XVI continues in Sacramentum Caritatis:

Christianity's new worship includes and transfigures every aspect of life: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). Christians, in all their actions, are called to offer true worship to God. Here the intrinsically eucharistic nature of Christian life begins to take shape. The Eucharist, since it embraces the concrete, everyday existence of the believer, makes possible, day by day, the progressive transfiguration of all those called by grace to reflect the image of the Son of God (cf. Rom 8:29ff.). There is nothing authentically human—our thoughts and affections, our words and deeds—that does not find in the sacrament of the Eucharist the form it needs to be lived to the full. Here we can see the full human import of the radical newness brought by Christ in the Eucharist: the worship of God in our lives cannot be relegated to something private and individual, but tends by its nature to permeate every aspect of our existence. Worship pleasing to God thus becomes a new way of living our whole life, each particular moment of which is lifted up, since it is lived as part of a relationship with Christ and as an offering to God. The glory of God is the living man (cf. 1 Cor 10:31). And the life of man is the vision of God.

Benedict XVI is addressing a very different understanding of worship than tends to operate in American society. We tend to view worship exclusively as a merely subjective and private act: I choose to worship God, because I find it fruitful. If I do not find it helpful, then there is no need to worship. And that decision is ultimately a private one, having nothing to do with how I act in the world. But Eucharistic worship, as Benedict XVI, is intended to shape a whole life. Through Christ’s sacrifice, which is given at Mass, I am invited to make of my life a return gift back to the Father through the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Nothing human is to be left behind.

The implications for the Catholic school should be patent. Study, friendships, sports, communal life, whatever initiation into human culture that is performed in the life of the school can find a place in the Eucharistic worship of the school.

Thesis #3: The Mass, therefore, is important to the school not as a private devotional activity but as providing a prophetic vision of the school’s mission

The Mass, therefore, is important to the life of the school because it provides a prophetic vision of the school’s overall mission. As the philosopher James K.A. Smith has argued in his trilogy on liturgy and education, everybody worships something. You can worship achievement, you can worship power, prestige, the pursuit of fame and fortune. It is not an option to worship something, and every cultural institution proposes something or someone that must be worshipped. The Catholic school, by placing the Mass at the center of its existence, notes that the source of our worship is the God-man, Jesus Christ. But that also makes our approach to education a prophetic one.

First, Catholic education is principally a giving of thanks for the created order. Study is not ultimately about mastery or control. Rather, just as bread and wine are recognized as gifts given by God, gifts transformed by human activity (baking and fermenting), so too our study must arise from this sense of gratuity.

Second, though, Catholic education is an act of remembering. The Eucharistic liturgy gives thanks through remembering the wondrous works of God. This giving of thanks is based on the very structure of how the Church prays: we remember what God has done not as a past event but as a past event that effects the present, leading us to hope in the wondrous future that God will accomplish at the end of time. That is, worship for a Catholic is an initiation into wisdom: a way of remembering the past, which has repercussions for how we view the present, and even how we think about the future. Studying the history of texts, ideas, and concepts is therefore not just about knowing lots of concepts or facts. It is a seeking of the wisdom of the past for the sake of present understanding, which leads to a new way of perceiving the world in the future.

Third, Catholic education is necessarily contemplative. The temptation in the present educational ecology is to focus exclusively on the pragmatic. The student learns x, y, or z so that he or she can do x, y, or z. The purpose of learning is so that we have the kind of scientific understanding that creates new inventions, technological innovation that contributes to the growth of the economy. Such an approach tends to reduce the world to an object to manipulate, rather than to receive as a gift, to wonder at. But in the Eucharist, we Catholics see bread and wine that already mean something more: bread and wine were created to become the Eucharist. And that bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. This change is not a tangible one: you cannot measure it. Rather, it is one that is known only through the contemplative eyes of love, which pause before the Eucharistic species in an act of wonder. Godhead here in hiding whom I do adore. Such seeing is not a matter of immediately grasping but the result of a festive contemplation that seeks deeper understanding of the gift that is given. Catholic schools, therefore, learn from the Eucharist a slow way of teaching and learning, not being taken up at once into the frenetic pursuit of achievement and accomplishments.

Fourth, through the Eucharistic mystery, Catholic education must recognize that there is a personal, internal dimension related to the mystery of the person we are teaching. In the Eucharistic mystery, God comes to feed the person, and the individual comes to commune with the living God. There is a moment of silence after reception of the Eucharist in which the individual communicant enters the interior space of the heart, giving thanks for the marvelous gift that has been received: God has nourished me with God’s very self, taking me up into God’s very life in this act of eating. Catholic schools, therefore, cannot be spaces of social engineering in which the freedom of the person is eliminated. The school recognizes the dignity of the student as a free person, someone who is invited to lift up their hearts to the Lord.

Fifth, in the Eucharistic mystery, we are given an image of the kind of communion that the community of the school is called to. As Benedict XVI noted, one of the dangers of forming communities in our age is that said communities are formed primarily around ideologies, which tend to exclude someone from that community. You are out of the community because you are not wealthy. You are out of the community because you have a disability. You are out of the community because you are not from this neighborhood. But in receiving the Eucharist, we are invited to another way of viewing communion: all are welcome, because all are called to the supper of the Lamb. We love one another, not because we have written a mission statement that says we should, but because God first loved us. In celebrating Mass, in receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, we are called to a renewed sense of community life as participation in communion. Not a communion we created but a communion made possible through the gift of divine love.

Thesis #4: The Eucharist Provides a Contemplative Space for Considering a Catholic School’s Unique Mission.

It should be clear that if one takes seriously the Eucharistic mission of the school, then there are consequences for the curriculum (both implicit and explicit), pedagogy (the kind of ways we lead young people into an act of worshipful wisdom), and the governance of the school (how we shape the whole life of the school in a way that promotes the freedom of the student in communion with one another).

But those consequences are not immediately patent, which is why we must address these questions in the first place. Such consequences require engagement with an array of educators, who seek to instantiate the unique mission of Catholic schooling in a variety of settings. When that mission is understood more deeply, every Catholic educator will be able to adopt the maxim of St. Irenaeus: the Eucharist shapes our way of thinking, and our way of thinking conforms to the Eucharistic mystery.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This lecture was originally given at the first session of the conference of the McGrath Institute for Church Life, The Eucharist and Catholic Schools, held from June 10 through July 24, 2024. The results of the conference will be published upon its conclusion.

Featured Image: Taken by , Jozef Mehoffer, Eucharist, stained-glass window Fribourg Cathedral; Source: Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Timothy O'Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley is the Director of Education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life, where he also serves as Academic Director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy. He teaches and researches at Notre Dame in the areas of liturgical-sacrmental theology, catechesis, and aesthetics. He is the author of numerous articles and books, most recently, the forthcoming Divine Blessing: Liturgical Formation in the RCIA.

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