Eucharist Encyclical


In April 2003, Pope John Paul II released the fourteenth encyclical of his pontificate, Ecclesia de Eucharistia. It focuses “on the Eucharist in its relationship to the Church.”

The importance of the topic for all Catholics, the Pope explains, is that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist . . . The Second Vatican Council rightly proclaimed that the Eucharistic sacrifice is ‘the source and summit of the Christian life.’ ‘For the most holy Eucharist contains the Church’s entire spiritual wealth: Christ himself’” (EDE 1; cf. Lumen Gentium 11; Presbyterorum Ordinis, 5). He emphasizes that “the Eucharist, as Christ’s saving presence in the community of the faithful and its spiritual food, is the most precious possession that the Church can have in her journey through history” (EDE 9).

Yet today correct doctrine and practice regarding the Eucharist is threatened. While noting positive signs of eucharistic faith and love in the Church, he acknowledges that “unfortunately, alongside these lights, there are also shadows” (10), which are his reason for writing.

THE SACRIFICE OF THE MASS

One Catholic doctrine that has been under threat is the sacrificial nature of the Mass. Some have tried to portray the Eucharist simply as a fellowship meal among Christians in which we receive Jesus. But it is more. The Pope stresses:

“The Eucharist is a sacrifice in the strict sense, and not only in a general way, as if it were simply a matter of Christ’s offering himself to the faithful as their spiritual food. The gift of his love and obedience to the point of giving his life is in the first place a gift to his Father. Certainly it is a gift given for our sake, and indeed that of all humanity, yet it is first and foremost a gift to the Father” (13).

Against the horizontal or community-centered approach taken in many parishes, the Pope reminds us that the primary dimension of the Eucharist is vertical or God-centered: The Eucharist makes present Christ’s sacrifice in which he gives himself in love to the Father for our sake.

Christ clearly intended the Eucharist to be understood as a sacrifice, as the Pope points out: “In instituting it, he did not merely say: ‘This is my body,’ ‘this is my blood,’ but went on to add: ‘which is given for you,’ ‘which is poured out for you.’ Jesus did not simply state that what he was giving them to eat and drink was his body and his blood; he also expressed its sacrificial meaning and made sacramentally present his sacrifice which would soon be offered on the Cross for the salvation of all” (12).

THE REAL PRESENCE

Another doctrine that has been under threat is the Real Presence of Christ and, in particular, the fact that the bread and wine are transubstantiated. In some places the Real Presence is affirmed while transubstantiation is ignored or denied, leading the faithful to think that Jesus is merely present “in the bread and the wine.” Other times the uniqueness of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is subverted by emphasis on Christ’s presence “in the community,” as if this were equal to his presence in the Eucharist.

To counter these, the Pope emphasizes: “The sacramental re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice . . . in the Mass involves a most special presence that—in the words of Paul VI—‘is called “real” not as a way of excluding all other types of presence as if they were “not real,” but because it is a presence in the fullest sense: a substantial presence whereby Christ, the God-Man, is wholly and entirely present’” (15; cf. Mysterium Fidei, 39).

Further, at the consecration the bread and wine cease to exist, leaving only their appearances cloaking the Real Presence of Christ. John Paul II explains: “There remains the boundary indicated by Paul VI: ‘Every theological explanation that seeks some understanding of this mystery, in order to be in accord with Catholic faith, must firmly maintain that, in objective reality, independently of our mind, the bread and wine have ceased to exist after the consecration, so that the adorable body and blood of the Lord Jesus from that moment on are really before us under the sacramental species of bread and wine’” (EDE 15; cf. Solemn Profession of Faith, 25).

ADORATION AND EXPOSTITION

At times the horizontal emphasis on “community” and the subversion of the Real Presence have led to an emphasis on the Mass as “an action of the community” to the exclusion of traditional forms of eucharistic devotion outside the Mass. In many places, eucharistic adoration has been discouraged, whether in the form of praying before the tabernacle or before the host in eucharistic exposition.

Against these tendencies, the Pope reminds us that “the worship of the Eucharist outside of the Mass is of inestimable value for the life of the Church” (EDE 25).

He exclaims: “It is pleasant to spend time with him, to lie close to his breast like the beloved disciple and to feel the infinite love present in his heart. If in our time Christians must be distinguished above all by the ‘art of prayer,’ how can we not feel a renewed need to spend time in spiritual converse, in silent adoration, in heartfelt love before Christ present in the Most Holy Sacrament? How often, dear brother and sisters, have I experienced this, and drawn from it strength, consolation, and support!” (25).

The Pope underscores that “this practice, repeatedly praised and recommended by the Magisterium, is supported by the example of many saints” and states that pastors must encourage it, including by their own example: “It is the responsibility of pastors to encourage, also by their personal witness, the practice of Eucharistic adoration, and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in particular, as well as prayer of adoration before Christ present under the eucharistic species” (25).

THE ORDAINED PRIESTHOOD

The Eucharist cannot be consecrated without a validly ordained priest. Yet some have tried to blur the line in the Catholic Church between the clergy and the laity. This has been done by overemphasizing the role of the congregation in the Mass, sometimes even encouraging lay people to say the words of the Eucharistic Prayer. Other times it has been done by trying to normalize having lay people in pastoral roles in parishes that lack a priest.

Against these tendencies the Holy Father emphasizes that the Eucharist “is a gift that radically transcends the power of the assembly. . . . The assembly gathered together for the celebration of the Eucharist, if it is to be a truly eucharistic assembly, absolutely requires the presence of an ordained priest as its president” (29).

“It is the ordained priest who, acting in the person of Christ, brings about the eucharistic sacrifice and offers it to God in the name of all the people. For this reason, the Roman Missal prescribes that only the priest should recite the Eucharistic Prayer, while the people participate in faith and in silence” (28).

In the case of parishes that lack a priest and use laity to lead Communion services, the Pope emphasizes: “When a community lacks a priest, attempts are rightly made somehow to remedy the situation so that it can continue its Sunday celebrations. . . . But such solutions must be considered merely temporary, while the community awaits a priest.

“The sacramental incompleteness of these celebrations should above all inspire the whole community to pray with greater fervor that the Lord will send laborers into his harvest. It should also be an incentive to mobilize all the resources needed for an adequate pastoral promotion of vocations, without yielding to the temptation to seek solutions that lower the moral and formative standards demanded of candidates for the priesthood” (32).

Those laity who do serve in such parishes “have a responsibility, therefore, to keep alive in the community a genuine hunger for the Eucharist, so that no opportunity for the celebration of Mass will ever be missed, also taking advantage of the occasional presence of a priest who is not impeded by Church law from celebrating Mass” (33).

PROTESTANT SERVICES

The blurring of the fact that a validly ordained priest is needed to celebrate the Eucharist has led some, out of a well-meaning but misguided sense of ecumenism, to treat Eucharists as valid among Protestant groups, which lack the sacrament of holy orders.

Against this the Pope argues: “The Catholic faithful, therefore, while respecting the religious convictions of these separated brethren, must refrain from receiving the communion distributed in their celebrations, so as not to condone an ambiguity about the nature of the Eucharist and, consequently, to fail in their duty to bear clear witness to the truth. This would result in slowing the progress being made toward full visible unity” (30).

“Catholics may not receive communion in those communities that lack a valid sacrament of orders” (46).

In the same way, the Pope stresses, Catholics cannot satisfy their Sunday obligation by attending Protestant services: “It is unthinkable to substitute for Sunday Mass ecumenical celebrations of the word or services of common prayer with Christians from the aforementioned ecclesial communities, or even participation in their own liturgical services. Such celebrations and services, however praiseworthy in certain situations, prepare for the goal of full communion, including eucharistic communion, but they cannot replace it” (30).

RECEIVING COMMUNION

Eucharistic Communion is both an expression and an intensifier of communion with the Church. As a result, there are limits to who can receive Communion. In Ecclesia de Eucharistia, John Paul II points out that communion with the Church is both visible and invisible, and both are needed to receive the Eucharist.

Visible communion with the Church “entails communion in the teaching of the apostles, in the sacraments, and in the Church’s hierarchical order” (35)—in other words, accepting Catholic doctrine, receiving the Church’s sacraments, and being subject to its governance. In short, being a faithful Catholic.

Invisible communion with the Church, “in Christ and through the working of the Holy Spirit, unites us to the Father and among ourselves.” Union with God is achieved through the state of grace, which is thus indispensable to receiving eucharistic Communion. Though some have tried to deny this or to water down the fact that every mortal sin destroys the state of grace, it remains true.

Thus the pontiff states that “along these same lines, the Catechism of the Catholic Church rightly stipulates that ‘anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of reconciliation before coming to communion. ’ I therefore desire to reaffirm that in the Church there remains in force, now and in the future, the rule by which the Council of Trent . . . affirmed that, in order to receive the Eucharist in a worthy manner, ‘one must first confess one’s sins, when one is aware of mortal sin’” (36; cf. CCC 1385).

This means that some Catholics are not allowed to receive Communion. This is a particularly sensitive issue when it comes to those who live in objectively immoral situations, such as invalid marriages. These can arise when a Catholic marries outside the Church without a dispensation or remarries after divorce without an annulment.

In regard to such cases, the Pope stresses: “The judgment of one’s state of grace obviously belongs only to the person involved, since it is a question of examining one’s conscience. However, in cases of outward conduct that is seriously, clearly, and steadfastly contrary to the moral norm, the Church, in her pastoral concern for the good order of the community and out of respect for the sacrament, cannot fail to feel directly involved. The Code of Canon Law refers to this situation of a manifest lack of proper moral disposition when it states that those who ‘obstinately persist in manifest grave sin’ are not to be admitted to eucharistic communion” (EDE 37; cf. CIC 915).

NON-CATHOLICS AND COMMUNION

Because non-Catholics lack visible communion with the Church, it is not normally possible for them to receive Communion at Mass. However, there are certain situations in which they can. The pontiff explains that “in this case, in fact, the intention is to meet a grave spiritual need for the eternal salvation of an individual believer, not to bring about an intercommunion that remains impossible until the visible bonds of ecclesial communion are fully re-established” (EDE 45).

The required conditions are set forth in the Code of Canon Law. In the case of Eastern Christians, who have valid Eucharists, the Code provides that they may receive reconciliation, Communion, or the anointing of the sick “if they ask on their own for the sacraments and are properly disposed” (CIC 844 §3).

In the case of Protestant Christians, however, the requirements are more extensive. Due to the absence of valid holy orders in their communities, Protestants do not have valid Eucharists. They also frequently do not share the Church’s beliefs concerning the Eucharist.

As a result, the Code provides that “if the danger of death is present or other grave necessity, in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or the conference of bishops, Catholic ministers may licitly administer these sacraments to other Christians who do not have full communion with the Catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and on their own ask for it, provided they manifest Catholic faith in these sacraments and are properly disposed” (§4).

In his encyclical, the Pontiff stresses that “these conditions, from which no dispensation can be given, must be carefully respected, even though they deal with specific individual cases. . . . The faithful observance of the body of norms established in this area is a manifestation and, at the same time, a guarantee of our love for Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, for our brothers and sisters of different Christian confessions—who have a right to our witness to the truth—and for the cause itself of the promotion of unity” (46).

LITURGICAL ABUSE

The Pope is very concerned with the problem of liturgical abuse: “It must be lamented that, especially in the years following the post-conciliar liturgical reform, as a result of a misguided sense of creativity and adaptation there have been a number of abuses that have been a source of suffering for many. A certain reaction against ‘formalism’ has led some, especially in certain regions, to consider the ‘forms’ chosen by the Church’s great liturgical tradition and her magisterium as non-binding and to introduce unauthorized innovations that are often completely inappropriate.

“I consider it my duty, therefore to appeal urgently that the liturgical norms for the celebration of the Eucharist be observed with great fidelity. These norms are a concrete expression of the authentically ecclesial nature of the Eucharist; this is their deepest meaning. Liturgy is never anyone’s private property, be it of the celebrant or of the community in which the mysteries are celebrated” (52).

The Pope goes on to note that “priests who faithfully celebrate Mass according to the liturgical norms, and communities that conform to those norms, quietly but eloquently demonstrate their love for the Church” (52). He also warns that consequences are forthcoming for those who refuse to celebrate the liturgy properly, stating: “Precisely to bring out more clearly this deeper meaning of liturgical norms, I have asked the competent offices of the Roman Curia to prepare a more specific document, including prescriptions of a juridical nature, on this very important subject. No one is permitted to undervalue the mystery entrusted to our hands: It is too great for anyone to feel free to treat it lightly and with disregard for its sacredness and its universality” (52).

The document to which he refers is expected out in late 2003. In an interview with Inside the Vatican, Francis Cardinal Arinze, head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, summarized its message as “the do-it-yourself Mass is ended. Go in peace.” Ecclesia de Eucharistia’s emphasis on traditional Catholic faith and practice regarding the Eucharist offers a preview of what is to come.