Ecclesia de Eucharistia
The Eucharist and the Calling Down of the Spirit
The Church rediscovers herself and constantly grows in her identity "by
celebrating the Eucharist". When, in the course of the centuries, people
had the idea of deepening the "mystery of the Church and of the Eucharist"
only from the classroom bench and apart from the movement and vital
dynamism of the lex orandi, they also distanced themselves from
that rule of faith (lex credendi) that the Church lives as an
"assembly gathered for prayer and for celebration", which proclaims and
makes present "Christ himself, our Passover and living Bread. Through his
very flesh, made vital and vitalizing by the Holy Spirit, he offers life
to men. They are thereby invited and led to offer themselves, their
labours and all created things together with him" (Presbyterorum
Ordinis, n. 5).
Only by celebrating the events of the Incarnation and of Easter, of
which the Eucharist is the "Sacrament par excellence", can the Church
explore this "mystery" more deeply and proclaim the death and Resurrection
of Christ until his second coming, building communion in one Body among
those who believe in him.
The Eucharistic Prayers are the heart of the celebration of the
profound unity between mystery and proclamation that makes the
Eucharist the centre of the life of the Church and her missionary
expansion in the world. However, the full scope of these Prayers must not
be restricted simply to benefit the moment of consecration.
From time to time, a justifiable concern to defend the truth of the
"real presence" has led to endless disputes as to "when" and "how" it
comes into effect in the words of the consecration. They often end by
distracting attention from the value of the complementary movement of the
prayer and liturgical gesture, in addition to separating the action of the
priest, celebrating and acting in the "Person of Christ", from the active
participation of the whole Church, praying as "a chosen race, a royal
priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare [his]
wonderful deeds" (I Pt 2:9). It is only in this way that the Church, while
on the one hand she celebrates the Eucharist, on the other, in celebrating
it, is built up and grows.
When looking at the deep bond between the Eucharist and the Church, it
is essential to remember that every celebration through which the
Redeeming Sacrifice of the Lord is really made present with his Body and
his Blood, is not an objective in itself but aims at building up the
Church, transforming everyone, in Christ, into one Body, in which all
partake of the one bread (I Cor 10:16-17).
Hence, there is an increasing need to meditate and reflect upon the
Mystery par excellence of our faith, following the great tradition of the
Fathers who held that the Eucharist should be studied by way of
contemplation and celebration, deepened "in worship" and "starting from
worship", in a prayerful understanding of this great sacrament. The
Church, the celebrating community, is in fact the "place of faith", the
Cathedra, the Throne of the Altar, on which the lex orandi is
enthroned and from which she teaches us what the Eucharist is by making us
live from it.
I. 'Epiclesis' in the context of the Liturgy of the Eucharist
In the context of the movement of the Eucharistic prayer, starting with
the confession (jadah) of the fidelity of God's grace, we are led
from the awareness and recognition of our sins to the ever vital and
revitalized expectation of redemption, asking God to grant that through
our communion with the sacramental Body of Christ we may become "one
The most important moment of the Eucharistic Prayer that contains the
account of the Institution of the Eucharist and the Anamnesis1
crowns this movement of petition which includes a twofold epiclesis
(the invocation of the Holy Spirit upon the gifts and upon those who are
offering them). This phase is the very heart of the Eucharistic Prayer in
which the presence of the Spirit, Creator and Sanctifier, reveals the full
impact of his consecratory and sanctifying power, together with the Word
of Christ for whom the Spirit, invoked by the Word and with the Word,
brings about the transformation of the gifts.
The "Second Eucharistic Prayer" expresses the first moment of the
epiclesis with these words: "We humbly 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, at whose command we celebrate these
In this first act of the epiclesis what is accomplished through
the Invocation of the Holy Spirit is actualized, not only according to the
classical tradition of the Eastern liturgy, but also to that of the West,
so that he may come down upon the offerings and transform them into the
real presence of the Body and Blood of Our Lord, as Augustine said in
De Trinitate IV, 4, 10: the element that we place upon the altar "is
consecrated to become so great a sacrament by the invisible work of the
In the Middle Ages, Pascasio Radberto reaffirmed this liturgical
tradition: "The true Body of Christ is consecrated on the altar by the
priest with divine power, in verbo Christi, through the Spiritum
Sanctum (De Corp. et Sang. Domini, IV, 3).2
Thus, the order of the words of consecration of the Eucharistic Prayer
spoken by the ordained minister3 in the first epiclesis highlights
the power of the Holy Spirit, solemnly invoked with the imposition of
hands. "To have made this epiclesis explicit (it was, as it were,
'latent' in the Roman Canon) is not without ecumenical significance,
especially for our Eastern brethren"4 who, however, are accustomed to
placing their epiclesis not before but after our consecration.
It is necessary to understand the full importance of this "pneumatological
invocation" since, with its deep ecclesial meaning, it testifies at the
level of worship to the indivisible unity of the events of Easter and
Pentecost, as emerges in the "second epiclesis" after the
consecration. Taken as a whole, the dual invocation of the epiclesis
testifies to us in the celebrative Eucharistic Prayer that the real
sacrificial presence of the Crucified and Risen Christ in sacramental
worship, and especially in the Eucharistic adoration of the Church, due to
the Word and to the Holy Spirit's action of divine power, effectively
leads communicants to live in a full harmony of communion with the
Priestly Mystery of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, and with one
This reference deserves special attention, as we are taught by the
Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia (nn. 23-24), which cites the
words of the Liturgy of St James (PO 26, 206): "In the
epiclesis of the Anaphora, God the Father is asked to send the Holy
Spirit upon the faithful and upon the offerings, so that the Body and
Blood of Christ 'may be a help to all who partake of it... for the
sanctification of their souls and bodies'".
The prayer of the epiclesis in the Eucharist witnesses to the
conviction of prayerful faith that the act of consecration, through the
Word and the action of the Holy Spirit, not only aspires to bring about
the transformation of the offerings and the sanctification of believers,
but also to deepen their unity as the "Mystical Body of Christ". The
"Third Eucharistic Prayer" clearly emphasizes this: "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".
We must also say that in this profound "Eucharistic communion" the
Church is built and strengthened in her unity not only as "fraternal
communion" in Christ, but also as the "Priestly People" for whom she
exercises and lives the baptismal priesthood of all the faithful, making
herself "a living sacrifice in Christ in praise of your glory"
(Eucharistic Prayer IV and Eucharistic Prayer II, first part), precisely
through the gift of "being filled with [the] Holy Spirit" (Eucharistic
Prayer III). Indeed, the Holy Spirit makes us active, personally and
communally, in communion with the Sacrifice of Christ, making us "one
sacrifice" with him, one "offering", one priestly people (cf. I Pt 2:9).
Taking up the idea of the Medieval theologian Thomas Netter of Walden
(d. 1430), it is possible to suggest that through Eucharistic communion
individual Christians are, as it were, mystically transubstantiated in
Christ so as to form his ecclesial Body. This is why, whereas "the
epiclesis over the offerings asks God the Father to send his Holy
Spirit to transform the bread and the wine into the Body and Blood of the
Lord Jesus, the epiclesis over the communicants asks for the
transformation into one body of those who, together with the whole Church,
are preparing to make this offering pleasing to the Father. The two
requests are not independent but constitute de facto one and the same
Hence, one can say, in a certain sense but fittingly, that the ultimate
end of the Eucharistic celebration is not the "sacramental Christ" but
"the ecclesial and total Christ"....
II. The Spirit's 'Epiclesis' in the Incarnation and the Eucharistic
The Eucharistic epiclesis reveals its important connection with
the mystery of the Incarnation and of the hour of the Paschal Mystery. The
document Ecclesia de Eucharistia stresses this aspect when the Holy
Father says: "The Eucharist, while commemorating the passion and
Resurrection, is also in continuity with the Incarnation" (Ecclesia de
Eucharistia, n. 55).
In light of this essential reference, I would first of all see in the
Eucharistic epiclesis a continuation, at the sacramental and
cultural level, of the epiclesis of the Incarnation. The Angel's
announcement: "the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the
Most High will overshadow you" (Lk 1:35), in the words of the Mass is not
only recalled as a distant memory, but is perpetuated and actualized in
the today of the Church's liturgical invocation, through the consecration
of the true Body and true Blood of Christ, conceived through the Spirit by
the Virgin Mary: "Christ's first coming was brought about through the
power of the Spirit; through his power is brought about the mystery of the
celebration (the epiclesis of consecration in the Eucharistic
Prayer); it is through his power that man is progressively integrated into
this mystery until Christ's return".6
In it, therefore, the great "mystery of faith of the Incarnation"
continues, the mystery in which the Holy Spirit has worked his first
personal epiclesis. Furthermore, it also appears as the special
place to which the Blessed Virgin Mary is entitled by her Divine
Motherhood, brought about by the same Spirit and made present in the
Eucharistic consecration in communion with the act of consecration by the
In a Catechesis at a General Audience, therefore, Paul VI equated in
the Eucharist Mary's action to that of the ordained priest, regarding both
as "instruments of saving communication between God and men", although in
a different way: "the Blessed Virgin through the Incarnation, the priest
through the power of Orders".7
A second important consideration unites the Eucharist, the sacrament of
the Paschal Mystery, in the open perspective of the second epiclesis
prayer which completes the first. The gift of the Spirit, active in the
Incarnation and in the Eucharistic Consecration, is not depleted in the
real constitution and representation of the God-Man. It is extended and
fulfilled in the formation of the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the
Church, both in its visible sacramental and ministerial structure and in
the sanctification of every believer, both as an individual and as a
The outpouring of the Spirit which, together with the Word pronounced
by the ordained minister, brings about the transubstantiation of the bread
and the wine into the Body and Blood of Christ and builds up the Church as
his Mystical Body, is extended further in the history of the world, in the
evangelization of cultures and in the depths of each person's heart (cf.
Gaudium et Spes, n. 22), eternally bringing about the saving
encounter of the Incarnate Word, Crucified and Risen, with all humanity.
In this sacrament, through which the action of the Spirit continually
regenerates the Church by opening her bounds to the universal horizon of
history, Mary's maternal action becomes active and present as she guides
us "towards this most holy sacrament, because she herself has a profound
relationship with it" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 53). In
describing it, John Paul II draws "a profound analogy between the Fiat
which Mary said in reply to the Angel, and the Amen which every
believer says when receiving the Body of the Lord" (ibid., n. 55).
Consequently, "if the Church and the Eucharist are inseparably united,
the same ought to be said of Mary and the Eucharist" (ibid., n.
In the "words of the Eucharistic Prayer", the Holy Spirit is therefore
invoked in his "fullness", not only so that the great event of the
Incarnation may follow in the transubstantiation of the offerings, but so
that, through them the sanctification of the participants may be brought
about in order that they become Eucharistic in Mary, "'a woman of the
Eucharist' in her whole life" (ibid., n. 53). It is because of her
closeness as a mother (Paul VI, Marialis Cultus, [nn. 11, 32, 50,
56]) to the mystery of the Cross (Jn 19:25-27) that "the Mother of the Son
of God introduces us into the mystery of his redeeming sacrifice. In this
way she becomes Mediatrix of the graces that flow from this offering for
the Church and for all the faithful".8
The crucified and risen Christ superabundantly pours out the gift of
his Spirit upon the Church personified in Mary, who is "uniquely
associated with Christ's priestly sacrifice.... She was the first to share
spiritually in his offering as sacerdos et hostia, and did so most
She calls us to welcome and live the moment of epiclesis of the
Eucharist for the edification of the whole Body of Christ in a ceaseless
journey towards its full revelation in the final coming of its Head, when
all things will be subjected to him and the Son himself will also be
subjected to the Father, so that "God may be everything to every one" (I
1 Cesare Giraudo, La struttura
letteraria della preghiera eucaristica, PIB, Rome, 1989, in
particular: Il rapporto tra la sezione anamnetica e la sezione
epicletica nell'anafora, 273ff. By the same author: Conosci davvero
I'Eucharistia? Qiqajon, Community of Bosé, Magnano, Belluno, 2001.
Manlio Sodi, Celebrazione, NDL, ed. Pauline, Rome, 1984, 243.
2 M. Augé, Eucarestia, NDL, 499.
The italics in the quotation from Pascasio are my own.
3 The Word of Christ becomes effective as
an act of the ordained minister who, through apostolic succession, makes
this Eucharist apostolic, since it is celebrated "in conformity with the
faith of the Apostles" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 27).
4 Giraudo, op. cit.
5 Giraudo, Conosci davvero I'Eucarestia,
op. cit., 67.
6 M. Sodi, op. cit., 243.
7 Paul VI, General Audience of 7 October
1964: Insegnamenti di Paolo VI, 2 (1964), 958. See
Congregation for the Clergy, Instruction: The Priest, Pastor and Guide
of the Parish Community, 4 August 2002, p. 8.
8 John Paul II, Introduction to Holy
Mass for the Memorial of Our Lady of Częstochowa, L'Osservatore
Romano English edition [ORE], 29 August 2001, p. 1.
9 John Paul II, Catechesis at the
General Audience of 30 June 1993; ORE, 7 July 1993, p. 11, n.