|The Eucharistic Spirituality of the Church
I believe that the most beautiful gifts the Holy Father, Pope John Paul
II, has given the Church in the 25th anniversary of his Pontificate are
his Apostolic Letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, and his Encyclical
Letter, Ecclesia de Eucharistia. In these two Letters we find a
profound sense of faith personally lived and witnessed by the Pope.
He thus communicates to us not so much a compendium of teaching as his
own spiritual experience. On every page of these two Letters we cannot but
note the greatness and depth of a soul strongly attached to Jesus in the
Eucharist; and to Mary, Woman of the Eucharist, who at the foot of
the Cross, and while sharing in the sacrifice of her Son, fulfilled her
This pedagogy of sharing in a faith lived personally is visible above
all in the Pope's words: "Allow me, dear brothers and sisters, to share
with deep emotion, as a means of accompanying and strengthening your
faith, my own testimony of faith in the Most Holy Eucharist. Ave
verum corpus natum de Maria Virgine, vere passum, immolatum, in cruce pro
homine! Here is the Church's treasure, the heart of the world, the
pledge of the fulfilment for which each man and woman, even unconsciously,
yearns.... Here our senses fail us: visus, tactus, gustus in te
fallitur... yet faith alone, rooted in the word of Christ handed down
to us by the Apostles, is sufficient for us. Allow me, like Peter at the
end of the Eucharistic discourse in John's Gospel, to say once more to
Christ, in the name of the whole Church and in the name of each of you:
'Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life' (Jn 6:68)"
(Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 59).
The Holy Father's personal role in liturgical renewal
The Pope follows the example set by the Apostles who always sought to
place first what they had seen and experienced personally (cf. I Jn
1:1-3), and speaks of a world troubled by doubt and uncertainty, seeking
to reassure it.
Furthermore, the Pope unfolds before us the spiritual mysticism that he
himself lives daily in the celebration of the Eucharist: "For over a half
century, every day... my eyes have gazed in recollection upon the host and
the chalice, where time and space in some way merge and the drama of
Golgotha is represented in a living way, thus revealing its mysterious
contemporaneity" (ibid., n. 59). These words are imbued
with faith, offered to us as an incentive for building our own faith in
the Eucharistic Christ
Indeed, as we know, the content of the Catholic Creed is not merely a
collection of abstract teachings, but rather the result of a faith lived
and shared by the Church, a community of disciples of Christ. The Creed
expresses the faith that men and women have personally lived and passed
down from generation to generation.
The Pope asks us to draw from that inexhaustible source, which he
describes as a "school of saints", in order to deepen our
Eucharistic faith: "Let us take our place, dear brothers and sisters,
at the school of the saints, who are the great interpreters of true
Eucharistic piety. In them the theology of the Eucharist takes on all the
splendour of a lived reality; it becomes contagious and, in a
manner of speaking, it warms our hearts. Above all, let us
listen to Mary Most Holy, in whom the mystery of the Eucharist
appears, more than in anyone else, as a mystery of light. Gazing
upon Mary, we come to know the transforming power present in the
Eucharist (ibid., n. 62).
The Pope's invitation is clear: follow the example of Mary and the
saints who, in their heroic lives, reflected the splendour of the
spiritual power of the great gift of the Eucharist.
The pedagogy the Pope uses is none other than re-presenting the
perennial Eucharistic faith of the Church, as he provides a spiritual and
theological meditation on its content, enriched by what he himself lives,
and asks everyone to rediscover the inner riches of the sacrament. The
Pope's reflection causes him deep concern about today's "shadows"
and visible abuses in this context, which seem to cloud "sound faith and
Catholic doctrine concerning this wonderful sacrament" (ibid., n.
10). These "shadows" lead to "an extremely reductive understanding of the
Eucharistic mystery" (ibid.), with negative consequences for the
Church's life and mission.
The situation, therefore, calls for his clear and definitive
intervention. As the Pope says, "the Eucharist is too great a gift to
tolerate ambiguity and depreciation" (ibid.). He hopes that "the
present Encyclical Letter will effectively help to banish the dark clouds
of unacceptable doctrine and practice, so that the Eucharist will continue
to shine forth in all its radiant mystery" (ibid.).
The Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia is thus a
definitive Papal intervention, not only to dispel the "shadows" in
doctrine and the liturgy which cause a deviation from the noble
Eucharistic spirituality, but also to strengthen ecclesial faith in
Christ, the Living Bread, as an indispensable means for true ecclesial
Liturgical reform and the Most Holy Eucharist
The Church has always declared and maintained the central place of
liturgical life and especially of the Eucharistic celebration. We are
familiar with the classic formula: "lex orandi, lex credendi". For
this very reason, the Church has always continued to encourage liturgical
research to find new and up-to-date formulas that will make her faith
To speak of recent times, we know well that even before the Council a
very energetic process of liturgical reform was occurring in the Church.
It was blessed and encouraged by various Pontiffs in pre-conciliar times.
The Second Vatican Council continued this tradition, reasserting the
central place of the liturgy in ecclesial life when it declared that "the
liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed;
it is also the fount from which all her power flows" (Sacrosanctum
Concilium, n. 10).
Recognizing, therefore, the importance of liturgical reform for the
renewal of the Church, the Council sanctioned and promoted the pre-conciliar
process that was already under way.
The same Document also says in this regard: "In order that the
Christian people may more certainly derive an abundance of graces from the
sacred liturgy, Holy Mother Church desires to undertake with great care a
general restoration of the liturgy itself" (ibid., n. 21). The
general lines are clearly indicated. A reform: yes, but with precise
regulations, because it is too dangerous to allow it to deviate.
These rules include the following:
— The guidance of this reform is the task of the hierarchy. "No
other person, not even a priest, may add, remove or change
anything in the liturgy on his own authority" (ibid., n, 22 § 3).
— Revision must take place only after "a careful investigation -
theological" (ibid., n. 23).
— "The general laws governing the structure and meaning of the liturgy
must be studied in conjunction with the experience derived from
recent liturgical reforms and from the indults granted to various
places" (ibid.): (this refers to reforms already initiated by the
pre-conciliar liturgical reform).
"There must be no innovations unless the good of the Church
genuinely and certainly requires them... [and] any new forms adopted
should in some way grow organically from forms already existing" (ibid.).
In the meantime, the Council also decreed the steps to take with regard
to the Eucharistic celebration and how to proceed (cf. ibid., n.
The Second Vatican Council intended to be very clear about the
gravity with which the process of reform was to be carried out. The
Council was convinced that the longed-for renewal of the Church, which set
out "to impart an ever increasing vigour to the Christian life of the
faithful" (ibid., n. 1) and for which it had been convoked, was in
need of an effective liturgical reform.
The current situation regarding the liturgy
Forty years have passed since the promulgation of the Constitution on
the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, on 4 December 1963. In
an appraisal of the ground covered by the post-conciliar liturgical
reform, we note that many "steps forward" have been taken.
Among them, I list the more conspicuous use of biblical texts in the
liturgy and the more active participation of the faithful in particular:
they now respond and take part in the various prayers and invocations,
they participate in the singing and in various readings, they understand
better what is happening on the altar, they use the vernacular and do not
behave as passive spectators,
Different local cultural elements have been introduced that contribute
to the inculturation and indigenization of the liturgy. Among the many
innovations in the celebration of the Eucharist, the principal changes
were: the Novus Ordo Missae in 1970, the new lectionaries, the
exclusive use of the vernacular, the priest standing versus populum
(facing the people), the possibility of reception of Communion in the
hand, lay participation in the different roles of Holy Mass, and a more
incisive integration of local cultural elements, especially with regard to
aspects of song, liturgical decor, architecture, sculpture and painting
In Ecclesia de Eucharistia, the Pope expresses his appreciation
of the positive results of the reform. He states: "Certainly the
liturgical reform inaugurated by the Council has greatly contributed
to a more conscious, active and fruitful participation in the Holy
Sacrifice of the Altar on the part of the faithful" (n. 10).
At the same time, we cannot but also note "backward steps" that are
still an obstacle to the true renewal of the Church. I think these are
what the Pope calls the "shadows" and "abuses" which have
contributed to clouding sound sacramental faith.
Despite the "steps" taken to stimulate a true ecclesial renewal, we
note with sorrow a considerable falling away from religious practice and
Christian commitment in various parts of the Church. It is said that
instead of protecting and strengthening the faithful to withstand the
temptations of secularism and religious indifferentism, very visible in
these contexts, the changes introduced have aggravated the current crisis
since the reasons for them were unclear.
The Pope rightly regrets the presence of these "shadows" and "abuses",
especially in connection with the Eucharist. He states: "It must be
lamented that... as a result of a misguided sense of creativity and
adaptation there have been a number of abuses which have been a
source of suffering" (ibid., n. 52).
In addition, he lists certain "shadows" that have negative effects on
the Eucharistic spirituality of the Church. These include the fact that
"in some places the practice of Eucharistic adoration has been almost
completely abandoned" (ibid., n. 10); "abuses have occurred,
leading to confusion with regard to sound faith and Catholic
doctrine concerning this wonderful sacrament" (ibid.); "an
extremely reductive understanding of the Eucharistic mystery" (ibid.):
"stripped of its sacrificial meaning, it is celebrated as if it
were simply a fraternal banquet (ibid.); "the necessity of
the ministerial priesthood... is at times obscured" (ibid.); "the
sacramental nature of the Eucharist is reduced to its mere effectiveness
as a form of proclamation" (ibid.); "here and there...
ecumenical initiatives... indulge in Eucharistic practices contrary to
the discipline by which the Church expresses her faith" (ibid.);
and "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 which are
often completely inappropriate" (ibid., n. 52).
To counter these situations, the Holy Father insists on the greatness
of the Eucharistic mystery and warns that "the Eucharist is too great a
gift to tolerate ambiguity and depreciation" (ibid., n. 10); "The
'treasure' is too important and precious to risk
impoverishment or compromise through forms of experimentation or practices
introduced without a careful review on the part of the competent
ecclesiastical authorities" (ibid., n. 51). "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" (ibid., n. 52).
Thus, not everything has gone well. The great liturgical reform does
not seem to have given rise to the desired reawakening and reinforcement
of the faith, especially in the ancient Christian Churches.
In addition, it is also true that the waning religious interest is not
only to be attributed to what has gone wrong in the liturgical
reform. There have also been other reasons, often social and cultural,
which at least in some countries have generated a religious crisis.
In any case, it is clear that on the whole, the changes in liturgical
matters have not had the much hoped-for effect, and certain changes were
not even in tune with the conciliar mentality.
The foundational roots of a crisis
At this point, I believe we need a preliminary evaluation of what, in a
certain sense, has deviated the process of post-conciliar and especially
The Council was a marvellous opportunity to prepare the Church for what
awaited her in the contemporary world. Her spiritual renewal and overall
reinvigoration could have become the impetus for a new epoch of
evangelization. Modern developments offered immense opportunities; but
things went differently.
One wonders why it is that the Church was unable to make the most of
the fruits of the Council for a full reawakening of ecclesial faith.
Indeed, people appeared who interpreted the Council Documents as a
justification for counter-reformist attitudes, that is, the attitudes of
those who took the reform to be a relaxation of regulations, which only
weakened the Church and took her backwards. Pope Paul VI complained that
certain people exploited one or other Council teaching to "impede
evangelization" (Evangelii Nuntiandi, n. 80).
I think that the general problem was an erroneous idea of the purpose
of the Council. Indeed, speaking of the conciliar reforms, Cardinal Joseph
Ratzinger says: "The [Council] Fathers wanted to update the faith,
indeed, to present it with its full impact. Instead, people
gradually formed the idea that the reform consisted merely of throwing out
the ballast, in other words, of divesting it so that in the end the reform
did not appear to radicalize the faith but to dilute it" (Il
Sale della Terra, p. 86).
This erroneous attitude gave rise to theological schools which, by
down-playing the importance of Tradition and the ecclesial Magisterium in
theological direction and research, have advanced confusing opinions,
The same situation has more or less plagued sacramental and especially
Eucharistic theology. New approaches of certain other theological
disciplines, such as those concerning ecumenism and interreligious
dialogue, have influenced events. These bewildering theological opinions
on the nature of the sacrament have subsequently given rise to not a few
Despite all this, we know that the Eucharist is a mystery: the mystery
of the faith that our minds cannot fully grasp. As the Pontiff himself
explains in his Encyclical Letter, the Eucharist is the gift par
excellence of the Lord, the "gift of himself, of his person in his
sacred humanity, as well as the gift of his saving work" (Ecclesia de
Eucharistia, n. 11).
This is the real commemoration of the Lord's death and Resurrection,
the central event in our salvation, the saving sacrifice that is relived
sacramentally every time it is celebrated.
The Eucharist is also the banquet in which is celebrated Christ's
offering of himself as the Living Bread, who enters into intimate
communion with those who receive him and nourishes them with sanctifying
grace. The Eucharist builds, sustains and fortifies the Church, increasing
spiritual communion and charity among her members. It is also the pledge
of future glory. It is a mystery of inexplicable riches.
Sacramental and sacrificial aspects of Eucharist
In other words, the Eucharist is the sublime summit of our being as
Christians, Indeed, Ecclesia de Eucharistia explains in detail the
grandeur of this wonderful sacrament, opening up to us the whole spiritual
treasure it contains. The Encyclical is truly a spiritual hymn to the
glory of the Blessed Sacrament.
It is therefore regrettable that one encounters in theological circles
reductive interpretations of the greatness and deep significance of
Some people, forgetful of its essentially sacrificial aspect, reduce it
to a fraternal banquet. Some confuse the separate role of the ministerial
priesthood with the common role, reducing Holy Mass to community prayers
over which the priest presides; some also no longer believe in the
continual presence of the Lord, and behave inappropriately during and
Such attitudes have contributed to weakening the Eucharistic faith of a
great number of our faithful and to causing this serious crisis concerning
the central place of the Eucharist.
A further cause of the negative effects of the liturgical reform is the
arbitrary spirit eager for experimentation and adventure that has guided
certain sectors of the Church, especially at the height of the reform.
At that time everything seemed acceptable. The dominant trend was to
experiment with all aspects of the celebration. Some experiments were
carried out without careful research, for reasons that were not really
serious or valid, as a reaction to formalism or even to the authority of
the Holy See.
A reform based on such considerations cannot be effective or valid.
Intense faith and great love for the Church alone must animate every
reform, and especially a liturgical reform.
The erroneous interpretation of the meaning of the role and importance
of the local Church and her relationship with the universal Church has
also contributed to undermining the Eucharistic liturgy.
The Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, is one, holy, catholic and
apostolic. She is fulfilled in every local Church as well as in the
universal Church. She is not a confederation of different Churches, but
organically one, since Christ, her Head, gives life to her wherever she
may be. This is why, as Lumen Gentium states, "[The Bishops must
safeguard] the unity of the faith and the unique divine structure of the
universal Church" (n. 23).
In the difficult post-conciliar years, certain theological trends
sought to present these two manifestations of the same reality as
opposite poles. Some, therefore, justified certain experiments in
liturgical matters as "a right" of the local Churches, without even
considering the universal nature of the Church and the damage such
experiments could cause.
I also believe that another cause of the crisis is neglect of or
insufficient insistence on the aspects of the mystery and the mysticism of
the sacrament. What happens on the altar really is a mystery for it is
invisible to our eyes. Jesus in the Eucharist gives himself ceaselessly to
the heavenly Father and to his brothers and sisters, while he becomes
God-sacrificed-for-us and our spiritual and heavenly food. The bread and
wine are truly changed, through a mystery of faith, into the real Body and
Blood of Christ. He continues what he began on Calvary, offering himself
as a sacrifice for the expiation of our sins in a continuous process of
cosmic liberation, hence creating the "new heavens and a new earth" (II Pt
What occurs, therefore, is all that is most mystical, heavenly and
inconceivable to our senses. Through the celebration of the Eucharist we
are associated with what Christ, the High Priest, minister of the heavenly
sanctuary and the true tent (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 8),
brings about for the salvation of the world.
Consequently, it is not the priest celebrant who is the focus of what
takes place on the altar. The priest renews, so to speak, the sacrifice
which Christ fulfilled on Calvary, mystically continuing Christ's act of
Unfortunately, this mystical dimension of the Eucharistic celebration
is not sufficiently stressed. All too often people are under the
impression that Holy Mass is a moment of encounter, a fraternal banquet at
which the celebrating priest presides and at which the events of the
Lord's Pasch are merely commemorated.
The Eucharist is not only a commemoration of the Last Supper. It
is above all the Paschal Sacrifice relived. If, therefore, it is
celebrated solely as a friendly social encounter, it will become an
impoverished and superficial experience, and the priest will feel that he
is the author of what happens and even has the right to change the forms
of the celebration arbitrarily.
Indeed, it is sad to note that certain Eucharistic celebrations
resemble theatrical performances more than true moments of devout and
pious Eucharistic celebration. Some priests behave as masters of the
altar, inventing a whole range of improvisations and distractions. Such
celebrations are a cause of scandal rather than of spiritual edification.
Do they not know that on those altars too it is the Sacrifice of Calvary
that should be celebrated?
Ecumenical and catechetical considerations
Ecumenical considerations have also exercised an influence on the
reform of the Eucharistic liturgy. Although this has never been expressed
in official Documents, the air of openness and a lofty sense of ecumenism,
prevalent in the times of the Council, were regarded negatively in various
Church sectors. Some thought that by changing the liturgical forms,
especially of the Eucharist, and by making them more acceptable to those
who are not in communion with us, that ecumenism would be facilitated.
However, we know well that the reality is quite otherwise.
Achieving Christian unity, now fragmented because of human weakness, is
far beyond our own feeble forces and theological formulations. Ecumenism,
therefore, is far from easy and will be served by intensifying the
mystical communion that occurs in it, rather than by making the
Eucharistic celebration more attractive to our separated brethren.
Let us not forget that Jesus did not desire the external unity of his
followers so much as unity acquired through an intensification of our
communion with the Father and the Son: "that they may all be one... in
us" (Jn 17:21).
I likewise believe that the lack of an adequate formation and
catechesis to prepare the different sectors of the Church for what the
liturgical reform had initiated played a negative role in what actually
happened. Enthusiasm for change overwhelmed everyone like a hurricane, so
that before examining and reflecting on what ought to have been done, many
things had already gone beyond the phase of experimentation.
Moreover, certain practices were made official post factum by
those responsible in the matter merely because their use was already
widespread. Was this a wise way to proceed, I ask myself?
In every phase of the reform a thorough examination of each proposed
change is essential, together with a decision on whether it is appropriate
to introduce it, based on the principle of what best serves the cause of
the edification of faith; it is necessary to form and catechize properly
all the sectors of the Church, pointing out the nature and importance of
what is contemplated, and then to follow its progress attentively and
evaluate its fruit.
Experimentation on possible changes should only be permitted under
precise regulations, in specific sectors of the Church and for a specific
time. Moreover, these experiments should be followed with great attention.
From a detailed analysis of what happened in the Church in the years
following the Council and above all in the liturgical reform, it is clear
that despite certain "steps forward" to make the liturgy the vehicle of a
true ecclesial renewal, there have also been some "backward steps". These
are especially those changes in the liturgy that were effected hastily
without proper research or due reflection.
More dangerous was the emergence of an erroneous or only partially true
Eucharistic theology that was not in keeping with the Church's teaching. "Lex
orandi" is "lex credendi", as we well know. Therefore, seeing an alarming
diminishment in spirituality and Eucharistic devotion, and their negative
effects on the Christian faith and witness in our time, the Pope, as
Successor of Peter, exercising his role of "strengthening the brethren" (Lk
22:32), promulgated Ecclesia de Eucharistia to effectively dispel
"the dark clouds of unacceptable doctrine and practice, so that the
Eucharist will continue to shine forth in all its radiant mystery" (n.
Furthermore, the Pope considered necessary "a more specific Document,
including prescriptions of a juridical nature, on this very important
subject" (ibid., n. 52). He entrusted this task to the
Congregations for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and
for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The Document Redemptionis Sacramentum, which the Pope approved
on 19 March 2004, is the result of their important work. I believe that
those who toiled to make it possible deserve to be congratulated.
Of course, the Document's main purpose was not to rewrite all the
liturgical norms nor to offer a compendium of doctrine or a complete
evaluation of what has or has not been achieved thus far. It is a
continuation of what the Pope wrote in his Encyclical Letter Ecclesia
de Eucharistia and therefore has a very precise aim: to reenforce
discipline concerning the ways to celebrate the Eucharist and to safeguard
the nobility and dignity of this sacrament.
An attentive perusal of the Document will rightly reveal the Holy See's
deep concern about certain practices, irregular or even offensive to the
dignity of the Blessed Sacrament. The Holy See is likewise worried about
the negative consequences of these practices.
Hence, the Document reasserts or reformulates, explaining or
completing, the usual instructions for a decorous and complete celebration
of the Eucharist. It insists on the sacred nature of all that is done,
indicates the persons responsible for carrying out various duties in the
liturgy and the dispositions they must obey, explains the various
practical directions for specific acts, such as how the sacred objects
should be handled, what provisions to make to ensure the holiness of what
is celebrated and the required sense of decorum and seriousness. Lastly,
it mentions the various responsibilities of the persons who are authorized
and bound to exercise their guidance in this context.
I believe that Redemptionis Sacramentum is a timely and valid
Document because it meets the need to correct in some way what I would
call the "backward steps", introduced not necessarily by those who were
responsible for the post-conciliar liturgical reform but which have caused
considerable damage to the Eucharistic faith of the Church.
We should thank the Lord for this gift, that the caring concern of the
Successor of Peter, Pope John Paul II, a Pope with a profound Eucharistic
faith, has prompted him to give us.
It is important that this Document not remain simply an object of
study, confined to the shelves of bookshops or libraries. It is a vital
step towards a true reform of the Church.
At the same time, I believe that for an attentive implementation of
this Document's instructions, a process of formation and extensive
catechesis on its content and on the Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de
Eucharistia will be essential, in all the contexts of the Church and
especially among the Bishops, priests, deacons, and men and women
Moreover, I maintain that a process of continuous assessment of the
results achieved is indispensable.
The Eucharist, as the Pope says, is too great a gift to leave the
initiative in the hands of experts or theologians alone. The Holy See must
continue its indispensable role as guide, because to give up would be to
May the Blessed Virgin Mary, the "Woman of the Eucharist" who was so
close to the Lord, whose "yes" was fulfilled at the foot of the Cross
where she was taken to fulfil the saving sacrifice of Christ, inspire and
fortify us always.
"Verbum caro, panem verum
verbo carnem efficit:
fitque sanguis Christi merum,
et si sensus deficit,
Ad firmandum cor sincerum
Sola fides sufficit".