There was a student exchange program with the Methodists and the Roman Catholics when I was at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio. Most guys, by my recollection, signed up for Biblical studies at the Methodist seminary, a much shorter drive. Boring, I thought. I instead hauled myself up to the Pontifical College Josephinum and signed up for Mariology in Ecumenical Dialogue and Sacramentology.
There was precious little dialogue with Mary, but I did enjoy the class. I had to dig through the Augsburg Confession and its Defense and some of Martin Luther’s stuff to understand what we Lutherans actually did say about Mary, which was more than I expected and, on some points different than what the instructor supposed we had said. I discovered Martin Luther’s deep reverence for the Virgin and the rather high view we officially hold toward Mary. Did you know Lutherans concede that Mary prays for the Church, and the saints do too? Well, it isn’t even a concession; it’s more like “Well, duh? You think we don’t know that?”
At the time I didn’t know it, and I have, through the years, discovered many Lutheran pastors who still don’t. Mary isn’t very big academically with Lutherans, and as far as piety goes, forget it. It was not until I took Mariology that I discovered the real Lutheran view. We will happily pray in company with Mary and the saints and we’re very glad to have their prayers, and that was a little bit of a surprise to the instructor. Anyway, I no longer get bent when I hear of prayers to Mary. God can eavesdrop, I figure, and since she and the saints do pray with and for the Church, I can’t say there is anything wrong with telling them thank you now and again.
The class turned out to have a practical application for a first-year pastor. It was the custom at a Lutheran-related nursing home where I visited regularly to conduct a communion service in the chapel for the residents and then carry the sacrament to those who could not leave their rooms. The aide led me to the bedside of a nice lady. I asked if she would like to receive Holy Communion. “Yes, in memory of my dear late husband, George.”
George? This stumped me for a few seconds. My Eucharistic theology at the time didn’t include anybody named George. Then it dawned on me: She was Roman Catholic and was thinking of an intention. I told her I wasn’t a priest but a Lutheran ringer, though I’d be happy to call the go-to priest, Fr. Callus, if she wanted. She never batted an eye. “No, you go right on ahead. George won’t mind.” Somehow my mind raced to Mary and the communion of all saints, all of us in this thing together. Well, I thought, if George really doesn’t mind, it’s okay by me.
But the class at the Josephinum that really rocked was Sacramentology. It was taught by Fr. William D. Lynn, S.J. As a teacher, pastor, and friend, he was a very gentle guy and a very good lecturer. We corresponded from time to time thereafter, and as a gift I once bought him a subscription to Forum Letter, a Lutheran publication then edited by Richard Neuhaus. I recall a post card from Lynn: “I wrote to Neuhaus. He wrote back!”
I was the only Lutheran in a room brimming with seminarians from the Salesian Society, and it was my first real introduction to Roman Sacramentology from the mouths of real Romans. What surprised me and disturbed my centered core of Lutheran smugness was the discovery that Lutherans and Catholics talk about the Lord’s Supper in almost identical language. Again, this was one of those experiences that forced me to actually dig through things.
Our one issue of serious contention was Fr. Lynn’s insistence that Lutherans, since they did not teach transubstantiation, must instead teach consubstantiation whether they intended to or not. I knew that was wrong. “Sacramental union” is the doctrinal term we prefer when we are not quoting Luther’s Small Catechism.
Luther’s catechism was written to instruct children so he used language describing the Real Presence as Christ “in, with, and under” the elements of bread and wine. He also used it in the Large Catechism written for adults. “In, with, and under” is supposed to indicate the comprehensiveness of Christ’s presence, no loop holes, but in the hands of subsequent Lutheran generations it often did turn into a functional sort of consubstantiation. (This would have the virtue of giving Lutherans an advantage over other Christians who say it is all one thing or all the other. If it is a Body/bread and Blood/wine arrangement, clearly we get twice as much as everybody else. Well, we would if that is what we taught. But it’s not, so, alas, we don’t.)
Growing up Lutheran, in the simple ways of my early years I never had any of the ontological or philosophical problems the Real Presence came to represent in seminary. That’s because I knew Pastor Reinfeldt. He was a World War II Romanian refugee straight from Transylvania with a genuine Béla Lugosi Dracula accent. He had black hair slicked straight back and vested only in a black cassock. All he needed was a cape. I swear, when he told you to “take and drink, the blood of Christ,” you damn well did and you didn’t question it.
A little knowledge combined with seminary and Fr. Lynn’s persistent poking shattered my innocent Transylvanian belief system. I have more reason these days to twist myself into knots theologically. Questions on exactly how long the Presence of Christ may last and to what degree it persists are sometimes pressed to limits I never thought of when communing under Pastor Reinfeldt’s ministrations.
Once, for instance, during my one-year pastoral residency, I was assisting the pastor in communion distribution. I was distributing the hosts from an open paten. One table had just left the rail and another was preparing to come and kneel. That’s when my trick knee buckled; it only knows one trick and it’s not a very good one. I reached my hand down to brace myself against the communion rail. I missed and I fell, flipping over the rail, paten and communion hosts (which looked like a shower of confetti, as someone told me afterward) all ascending as I was descending. Once my knee was back in place, the ushers and I picked up the errant hosts; I reserved them and saw to it they were consumed after the service. I think we got them all.
Then there are questions bothering me yet about elements that are inadvertently added to the elements. I have reluctantly swallowed a fly (wasn’t much way to avoid it) from the chalice while prayerfully offering it up to the glory of God’s church. I know it wasn’t there during distribution because as I was clearing the vessels I saw it dive directly into the cup. Sometimes if there is more wine remaining than I like, I will ask the assisting minister to help consume it. He had seen the fly as well and wasn’t having any of it. I remember dreaming of Vincent Price and The Fly that night.
And I think I have distributed consecrated weevils, all blessed with the power of the Word. One Lent I was preparing my communion kit for a series of calls among the homebound and noticed the hosts, reserved from Sunday’s service, had odd snaky lines running through them. I held one up to the light and, yes, a weevil at the end of the tunnel. There were lo! many weevils for there were many hosts. I opened a new package, ripping through cellophane only to find the entire package was infested. I didn’t make any communion calls that day, nor any day until a new order arrived. And I sure didn’t tell any parishioners they possibly had received weevils “in, with, and under” the Body of Christ. If there is a heaven for weevils, I know of several in blessed rest awaiting the consummation of time.
These are mindless questions but they do occur to me and I lay the blame squarely on Fr. Lynn’s prodding on the consequences of a Eucharistic faith. Was the Body of Christ flying as I flipped? How much of a fly became the Blood of Christ? Was the grace of God in the weevil? A fellow pastor at least put the weevils in perspective for me. “Remember the psalm,” he said. “‘I shall fear no weevil.’”
A pastor of the North American Lutheran Church, Russell E. Saltzman lives in Kansas City, Missouri. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.
Lutheran Marian Theology
Augsburg Confession and Defense
Lutheran Eucharistic doctrine, see Arthur Carl Piepkorn, Profiles in Belief, vol. 2, pp. 78–84