Who Presided at Eucharist in the Early Church?
Fr. Dan Donovan, August 22, 2011
(Fr Daniel Donovan is a priest of the Archdiocese of Sydney NSW. He holds degrees in Theology and Education. He has worked in parishes in Australia and the United States. He has worked in teacher formation programs teaching theology and Religious education at University level. He is involved with religious programs on National Television and Radio networks. He continues to pursue his pastoral and academic interests through retreats, lecturing and conference work especially in aspects of spirituality and faith development.)
Whether the Churches were Jewish or Gentile, it is clear that there was not any cultic priesthood which lead the Eucharist in the first century. There were at least three reasons that the early Christians did not require priesthood.
- The Jewish community was “a community of priests and a holy nation” [Exodus 19: 6] and the priest represented the people in his cultic role.
- Early Christians did not feel the need for priests as they had access to Jewish priests at the Temple before the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.
- Jesus was the supreme priest [Hebrews 7-10 especially Hebrews 7:17-21]. Not until the second century as bishops took charge of a number of church assemblies was there a need for the order of presbyters (priests).
Whatever the reason, the terms “bishop, priest and deacon were somewhat fluid in the apostolic age, by the beginning of the second century they had achieved the fixed form in which they are used today to designate the three offices whose functions are clearly distinct in the New Testament.” Authors such as Gunther Bornkamm and Hermann W. Beyer believe that there was never one bishop/elder/pastor in any oneChurch and “they led as servants by way of example rather than as worldly lords” [Lk 22: 25-27: 1 Pt 5: 1-5: Mt 20; 25-28; Mk 10: 42-45]. Likewise the Pastoral Epistles would tend to confirm the role of the bishop within the community as a servant rather than as an office of power [1 Tim3:2 and Tit 1:7]. Not until the early part of the second century (circa 110 A.D.) in the writings of St Ignatius of Antioch does the role of “the monarchic bishop” begin to emerge.
On the other hand, the early Church did not require the person who presided at the Eucharist to be ordained. In the Didache – Teaching of the Twelve Apostles prophets still presided at the Eucharist [Didache 10:7] which was still celebrated in conjunction with the agape [Didache 10:1, common meal] to which Paul refers in 1 Cor 11: 20-22. Fr Edward Schillebeechx concludes that the New Testament did not reserve the right to preside over the Eucharist to any specific group within the assembly. Edward Schweitzer reaches a similar conclusion about ministry in the early Church and the right to preside at the Eucharist suggesting that serving bishops and deacons “carry out for you the ministry of the prophets and deacons” [Didache 15:1]. Therefore it would be safe to conclude that in the Didache, the bishop does not necessarily have a liturgical function but rather his role is better understood as an “unremunerated public service” (leitourgia). Perhaps the persecutions which plagued the Church until AD 310 were the catalyst for the concentration of powers in one leader including the right to preside in the liturgical assembly?
Vatican II and “the Gathered Assembly”…
In the liturgical renewal of Vatican II, the Council Fathers returned to the early Church and its emphasis on the gathered Assembly [Mt 18:20; Lk 22:23-26; 24:13-31; Jn 13:3-17] because recognition of the risen Lord in each other is the precondition for cognition or knowing him in his sacramental presence. In the Assembly each person has his or her unique function in the ecclesial act of worship in which specific roles were always undertaken by the minister in the name of the Assembly even today the dialogue before the Eucharistic Prayer between the priest and people in which the priest seeks the assent of the people for him to offer this Prayer on their behalf. St John Chrysostom (349-407) taught that if any member of the Assembly was not present at the liturgy then the sacrifice could be considered deficient because it was not offered by the whole body of Christ. The author of the post-baptismal catechesis in First Peter writes “Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” [1 Pt 2:4-5].
Again the author of First Peter refers to the gathered people as “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” [Exod 19: 4-6] and God will make a new covenant with them [Jer 31: 31-34]. Eucharistic Prayer III reiterates the meaning and the purpose of the gathered Assembly when it prays:
Father, you are holy indeed and all creation rightly gives you praise. All life, all holiness comes from you through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, by the working of the Holy Spirit. From age to age you gather a people to yourself, so that from east to west a perfect offering may be made to the glory of your name.
This opening prayer of praise clearly states that God gathers the Assembly for the purpose of making a perfect offering to God. The Assembly is holy because it is gathered by God, the Father through the Son by the working of the Holy Spirit. The creative Spirit overshadows the Assembly (as Mary in Lk 1:35; Jesus at the Jordan [Lk 3: 22]; the gathered disciples [Acts 2: 4]) so that the “perfect offering” is the whole Christ (head and body) made to the glory of God. The Eucharist is holistic — its primary symbolism is to transform the celebrating community which is expressed as follows in Eucharistic Prayer III: “Grant that we, who are nourished by his body and blood may be filled with his Holy Spirit, and become one, body, one spirit in Christ.” The secondary symbolism is the transformation of the gifts into the sacramental presence of Jesus. As the members of the Assembly eat the body and drink the blood, they proclaim that they are the body of Christ and are prepared to serve as Jesus served [Mk 10:45], or as Eucharistic Prayer III states “may he make us an everlasting gift to you”. The people are gathered through the Spirit so that they might proclaim and celebrate the paschal mystery (mystery of faith) in word and sacrament and that they might go back into the world to be Eucharist.
The mode of participation of the Assembly…
James Dallen provides four verbs which indicate the mode of participation of the Assembly in the four parts of the Mass: GATHER, LISTEN SHARE, SENT. The graphic below will serve to illustrate a more inclusive and Catholic explanation of the community action and role of the whole Assembly in the Mass.
- The visual has three concentric circles. Circles in themselves are symbolic in representing God’s action because circles do not have a beginning or an end. The outer circle represents the “working of the Holy Spirit” in the history of Israel; and in Jesus’ life; death, resurrection and the Church. The arrow heads on the circles signifies energy or the dynamic activity of the Spirit.
- The second circle represents the created world and human culture. Sacraments draw upon the created gifts of God to become the visible symbol of the invisible grace of God so the Church anoints with oil, baptises with water, eats and drinks bread and wine, etc., to facilitate the encounter with the risen Lord. Also, cultures and human meanings assist understanding “fruit of the earth and work of human hands … become our spiritual food and drink”. The Spirit’s dynamic energy and power is not confined to the Church but also drives human cultures and their institutions. The early Christians were able to draw upon the cultural practices and workings of their times to catechise their converts.
- The inner circle represents the Assembly. There are two arrows at the bottom of the figure, the left arrow represents God’s initiative gathering the Assembly through the Son by the working of the Holy Spirit. The people are gathered from their work and life in creation and culture and gather to be the “spiritual sacrifice” the perfect offering to the glory of God. Note Jesus is present [Mt 18: 20] when the Assembly GATHER at the Introductory Rites. Their union with and in him is “the perfect offering”. At the Liturgy of the Word, the people LISTEN. Jesus is always present in his word as “he carries out the mystery of salvation, he sanctifies us and offers the Father perfect worship.” SHARE in obedience to Jesus’ command, Do this in memory of me, the gifts of bread and wine are presented to the priest who will lead the Assembly in the Liturgy of the Eucharist (taking, blessing, breaking and giving/receiving) through the exchange of gifts the people share in Jesus’ self-giving to the Father and for his people and bonding them in the new covenant in his blood. Their “Amen” at communion professes their identity as the “body of Christ” and their responsibility to be Eucharist in their lives and to work for the “coming of God’s Kingdom” for all peoples. In the Concluding Rite the Assembly is SENT: returns to their lives in the world. Christ is present in the sending. The right arrow balances the “gathering” [Mt 20: 18] with “sending” [Mt 28: 20], the rhythm of Christian life as the people, the Church (ekklesia) becomes the sacrament of God’s salvation in the world [Jn 3: 16].
Vatican II structured its Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (LG) with Chapter 2 on the people of God prior to the chapter on the hierarchy because it was reasoned that before a person could be a member of the hierarchy, he must first be a member of the people. In doing this, the Council restored the traditional importance of the Sacraments of Initiation. Through baptism/confirmation and Eucharist the person is incorporated into the people of God and becomes a member of the body of Christ. These sacraments are not only the foundation for membership of the Assembly but are the doorway to valid reception of the other sacraments, even Holy Orders. Therefore before a person can assume a position of leadership in the Assembly he/she must be a member of it.
Secondly it would appear that leadership in the Church developed gradually, over the early centuries. From the fluid leadership of the years following Jesus’ ascension the established ministries of bishop, priest and deacon developed. The community chose members [Acts 6:3-4] who were prayed over with the imposition of hands to fulfil community ministries “to equip the people for the work of ministry” [Eph 4:12]. By the second century, the bishop and clergy had been confirmed in liturgical role within the community.
Thirdly the clergy and the sacrament of Holy Orders (bishop, priest, deacon) were not over the community or a privileged class but were rather servants and models of the Christian life for the people [Lk 22:25-26; Heb5:1]. Throughout the history of the Church whenever there is a resurgence of clericalism there is a corresponding de-emphasis on the dignity of God’s people and their participation in God’s mission.
Fourthly, and most importantly, the Holy Spirit is the bond of unity within the Church making it “a perfect offering to God”.
 Catholic Answers, “Bishop, Priest and Deacon”, Acts 11:30 (Jerusalem Church); 14:23 (Paul’s early work); 15:2,4,6,22,23 (Council of Jerusalem); 16:4; 20:17,18; 21: 18 (Paul’s latter missionary work); Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 5; 7; Tit 1:5: Heb 13:15; Jas 5:14 (Pastoral Epistles witness to the growing importance of the three orders in Pauline churches). http://www.catholic.com/library/Bishop_Priest_and_Deacon.asp See also Mark M. Mattison, “The Rise of the Clergy”, http://tgulcm.tripod.com/ohc/clergy.html
 Mattison, ibid. http://tgulcm.tripod.com/ohc/clergy.html
 William R. Schoedel quoted by Mattison would argue that “…Ignatius does not actually place the bishop in the place of God but depicts him rather as one sent by God.” See Schoedel William R., (1985), Ignatius of Antioch, Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, pp. 22-23. As the single bishop emerged during the second century, there were mixed blessings for the local assembly. One bishop meant in most cases “stronger leadership” especially in times of persecution but Beyer points out that it also produces “authoritarian bishops in direct antithesis to the recommendations to elders in 1Pt 5:2-3.” See Hermann W. Beyer in Geoffrey W. Bromily, ed., (1985) Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridgedin One Volume, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdsmans Publishing Company, p.933. The role of the clergy developed during the third and fourth centuries in the writings of Clement of Alexandria (191-208 AD), Hippolytus of Rome (215 AD), Origen (234 AD) and in local Councils such as Elvira (300 AD) and the First Council of Nicea (325 AD), and John Chrysostom (402 AD).
 Scholars disagree about the precise date of the Didache with some placing it as early as AD 50 while others would place it as late as the third century. It is a book of Church order and lacks a specific theology or interest in theological issues. The Didache was discovered in a Constantinople monastery and published by P. Bryennios in 1883. Didache in Michael W. Holmes, (2006), Editor, The Apostolic Fathers in English, Third Edition, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, pp.157-171.
 The Didache 9:1 uses the Greek word eucharistia which has the sense of “thanksgiving” in the New Testament Acts 24; 3; Phil 4:6; 1 Thess 3; 9. The word became the “technical term” for the Lord’s Supper by the second century Ignatius of Antioch to the Smyrnaeans 6: 2; and Justin Martyr’s First Apology, Chapter 67. The structure of the Eucharist as described by Justin Martyr follows a similar structure to that of the Didache. Justin in chapter 67 of his First Apology names various ministries in the assembly the people, the reader, the deacon and the president who “verbally instructs and exhorts to imitation of these good things.” The president also “offers prayers and thanksgivings (the word for the Lord’s Supper) according to his ability, and the people assent, saying “Amen.” Finally, the collection “is deposited with the president…” It would seem that even at the time when Justin was writing that the president at the Eucharist was not necessarily a bishop or an ordained cleric.
 Aaron Milavec, (1989), The Dediche: Faith, Hope & Life of the Earliest Christian Communities 50-70 C.E., Mahwah, N.J.: Newman Press trademark Paulist Press Inc., Part II Ch 6 “How and Why the Didache checked Meddling Prophets?” pp. 423-491, p. 479. In Acts 27: 35-38, Paul uses bread to give thanks to God and his actions would indicate that he intended it as a memorial meal. Also in Acts 21: 8-9 Philip is called an evangelist and is said to have “four virgin daughters who prophesied.” If then this pericope of Acts 21: 8 is read in conjunction with the Didache 10: 7 then these women could preside at a Eucharist.
 The New Testament confirms that in the “house Churches” the head of the house presided at the Eucharist.
 This is the Prayer of Invocation (epiclesis) of the Holy Spirit whose “workings” were the context for the whole Eucharistic Prayer and who is present in the gathered Assembly. This Prayer has two Invocations of the Spirit, the first invocation is over the gifts of bread and wine; “We ask you to make them holy by the power of your Spirit, that they may become the body and blood of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ…”
 Hoffman, Op Cit, p. 128, Lectionary for Mass Introduction LM Intro #4.
 Paul A. Feider, (1986), The Sacraments: Encountering The Risen Lord, Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press. This text provides an outstanding introduction to the historical and theological foundations of the sacraments. The timelines illustrate the historical development of each sacrament over the centuries. Figure 1 (sacraments of initiation) and figure 2 (Holy Orders) Feider, pp. 14, 30, 104 . Each sacrament is an act of the body of Christ (the risen Lord and his people) so the plant is a living entity for Jesus said “I am the vine and you are the branches” (Jn 15: 5). The roots of each plant are firmly embedded in the living Tradition of the Church while remaining open to continued growth within the life of the Christian Assembly. Sacraments must never be fossilised memories of bygone times but must always be present encounters with the risen Lord and the participation of his body in that “dangerous memory” of Jesus who gave himself for all so that his people might do likewise.
Note in Figure 1 that the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist had lost their intimate union by AD 500, as baptism was administered to infants soon after birth to eradicate the effects of original sin in a time of high infant mortality. The western Church held over the sealing of baptism for the bishop and different communities administered confirmation at different ages between 8-14 years.
Baptism/confirmation is one sacrament, a bath of water for the forgiveness of sins and an anointing with chrism for the reception of the Holy Spirit, as in Jesus’ baptism (Lk 3: 21-23). Gradually baptism/confirmation became two sacraments. Eucharist completes initiation with full participation and membership in the life of the Assembly. The final disconnect between the sacraments of initiation resulted from the withholding of Eucharist from newly baptised infants (severing the union between baptism and Eucharist) because infants have a problem of reflux and could regurgitate it. Some Eastern Rite Catholic Churches did not drop Eucharistic reception for infants.
Later it became common practice to introduce children to penance at 5 and Eucharist at about age 16. Pope Pius X (1835-1914) complicated the reception of the sacraments further when he allowed children to make their First communion at age 7. Pius’ reform further disrupted the unity and order of the sacraments of initiation after 1910 with baptism at birth, penance and Eucharist at 7 and confirmation later about 10 years of age. This new order of the sacraments suggested “a link” between penance and Eucharist while further undermining the union between baptism and Eucharist in the process of initiation. The Rite of the Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1972 restored the importance of initiation as incorporation into God’s people and the body of Christ. The separation of the sacraments of initiation into three separate rites weakened the identity and dignity of the Assembly and allowed the emergence of a hierarchically organised Church rooted in Holy Orders. The clerical control in the Assembly is a direct result of the decline in and break-up of the rite of initiation.