The Eucharist forms the centre of ecumenical dialogue
For some time now the Eucharist has been receiving considerable attention
in bilateral and multilateral ecumenical dialogue (for example,
Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry, 1982, by Fede e Costituzione).
Since it is the source and supreme manifestation of the Church's unity,
the Eucharist must be the centre of this dialogue.
The title of the Encyclical Ecclesia
de Eucharistia already announces that the Eucharist builds the
Church, which is one. "Eucharistic Communion also confirms the Church in
her unity as the Body of Christ" (n. 23). This unity of the Church must
recapitulate in Christ the whole universe, for the time being in
concentric circles: "By its union with Christ, the People of the New
Covenant, far from closing in upon itself, become a 'sacrament' for
humanity" (n. 22). This is why the Holy Father can say that "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" (n. 59). In the
Eucharist "there is a truly enormous 'capacity' which embraces all of
history" (n. 5). It "embraces and permeates all creation" (n. 8). As a
source of unity in the world, the Eucharist is even "also the source and
the summit of all evangelization" (n. 22); united by these aims,
Christians must do their utmost to join forces to achieve them.
Sign leading to full unity
The Eucharist, which brings about and shows the unity of the Catholic
Church in the strict sense, is a treasure which "impels us towards the
goal of full sharing with all our brothers and sisters to whom we are
joined by our common Baptism" (n. 61). The hope of full unity in Christ is
also an aspiration to sharing the Eucharist. But until full unity exists,
joint Eucharistic participation will remain impossible. This sorrowful
situation, coinciding with the pain of division, is due to the fact that
"the Eucharist, as the supreme sacramental manifestation of communion in
the Church, demands to be celebrated in a context where the outward bonds
of communion are also intact" (n. 38).
Certain infelicitous ecumenical initiatives stem from an erroneous or
incomplete understanding of the Eucharist (cf. n. 10). The Eucharist
"requires that the bonds of communion in the sacraments, particularly in
Baptism and in priestly Orders, be real. It is not possible to give
Communion to a person who is not baptized or to one who rejects the full
truth of the faith regarding the Eucharistic mystery" (n. 38).
In addition to the need for the bonds of communion, therefore, three
elements are needed for "normal" participation in the Eucharist celebrated
in the Catholic Church. The first concerns the minister: his ordination
must be valid. The other two concern those receiving Communion: they must
be baptized and have faith in the Eucharistic mystery.
As for the minister, he is crucial: "The celebration of the
Eucharist... absolutely requires the presence of an ordained priest as its
president" (n. 29). A baptized person becomes a minister through
ordination by a Bishop; this shows that the ministry comes down through
history from Christ. This requirement has involved the communities of
separated brethren in many ways. The Churches (especially the Eastern
Churches) where the episcopate is recognized by the Catholic Church can
validly celebrate the Eucharist, although for now, the absence of full
communion prevents their common celebration and intercommunion. The
Eucharist celebrated by these Churches contains in itself a dynamic that
carries them towards full communion with the Bishop of Rome (cf. n. 39).
Those Ecclesial Communities that are more or less directly linked to
the Protestant Reformation do not have a sacrament of Orders as such that
is recognized by the Catholic Church. They often deny the existence of
Orders as a sacrament, or at least the need for it. The Encyclical recalls
the teaching of the Second Vatican Council: that the Ecclesial
Communities, "especially because of the lack of the sacrament of Orders...
have not preserved the genuine and total reality of the Eucharistic
mystery. Nevertheless, when they commemorate the Lord' s death and
Resurrection in the Holy Supper, they profess that it signifies life in
communion with Christ and they await his coming in glory" (n. 30).
Ecumenical dialogue on the Eucharist is closely linked to dialogue on the
ordained ministry, but this is not the topic of the Encyclical.
There are then the two requirements that concern the faithful who
receive the Eucharist: they must be baptized and believe in the
Eucharistic mystery. The first has nothing directly to do with ecumenical
dialogue, given that what is meant by "ecumenical" is a dialogue between
baptized persons (except in rare cases of non-baptized Christians). The
fact that certain Protestants are beginning to receive non-baptized
persons at the Holy Banquet, however, poses a new ecumenical problem. The
most sensitive point is the requirement of Eucharistic faith that involves
recognizing the Real Presence (it is no longer the bread and the wine that
are present but the Body and Blood of Christ [cf. n. 15]) and the
Eucharistic sacrifice (ecumenical dialogue has taken several steps towards
a clearer mutual understanding of the bond between the one sacrifice of
the Cross and the Eucharistic sacrifice).
Eucharist must be celebrated in communion with the Bishop, who is in
turn in communion with the Pope (cf. n. 39). Normally, therefore,
celebrating the Eucharist expresses an already full communion which it
helps to deepen (cf. n. 35). Do cases exist where Eucharist can be shared
with separated brethren? A distinction must be made on one hand between a
concelebration of ministers of various Churches, and on the other, of the
admission to Communion of individual members during a Church's
celebration: "While it is never legitimate to concelebrate in the absence
of full communion, the same is not true with respect to the administration
of the Eucharist under special circumstances, to individual persons
belonging to Churches or Ecclesial Communities not in full communion with
the Catholic Church. 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 which remains impossible until the
visible bonds of ecclesial communion are fully re-established" (n. 45).
Concelebration is thus never possible: far from encouraging unity, "any
such concelebration would not be a valid means, and might well prove
instead to be an obstacle to the attainment of full communion, by
weakening the sense of how far we remain from this goal and by introducing
or exacerbating ambiguities with regard to one or another truth of the
faith" (n. 44). The admission of individual non-Catholics to Eucharistic
Communion is possible in certain cases, in order not to deprive them of
spiritual help. These separated brethren must "greatly desire to receive
these sacraments, freely request them and manifest the faith which the
Catholic Church professes with regard to these sacraments. Conversely, in
specific cases and in particular circumstances, Catholics too can request
these same sacraments from ministers of Churches in which these sacraments
are valid" (n. 46, in which the Holy Father cites the Encyclical Ut
Unum Sint that refers to the Directory for the Application of the
Principles and Norms of Ecumenism of 1993; this applies to those
separated brethren who for moral or physical reasons are unable to have
recourse to their own ministers; cf. Ecumenical Directory, n. 131,
EV 13/241; CIC, c. 844).
Thus, it is not a question of real intercommunion, but a help in case
of need. The Encyclical does not state that in these cases the rule of the
requirement of confession should be applied to non-Catholics in all cases,
but only to those conscious of having committed a serious sin (cf. nn.
36-37). This matter deserves further thought. The 1993 Ecumenical
Directory provided a possibility for separated brethren to receive the
sacrament of Reconciliation as well as the Eucharist in case of need (cf.
n. 129, EV 13/2410), but without developing the bond between the
two. The Council of Trent, in one of the two paragraphs quoted in the
Encyclical (Denz. 1661, cited in n. 36), denied that faith alone
was sufficient preparation for the Eucharist and thus insisted on
confession (cf. Denz. 1647, also cited in n. 36).
Perhaps today, in the exceptional cases in which a non-Catholic can
receive the Eucharist, especially in articolo mortis, it would be
possible to point out the rule "in the Church", which "remains in force,
now and in the future" (n. 36). This rule originates in I Cor 11:27-29:
"Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an
unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the Body and Blood of the
Lord... anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the Body eats and
drinks judgment upon himself". The reception of non-Catholics at the
Eucharist, as an exception, must be a spiritual help for them; it must not
become the risk of a very grave sin for someone who, perhaps, in his life
has never had an opportunity to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation.
Our separated brethren
often do not understand the impossibility of intercommunion, which they
perceive as a judgment of the internal forum, the casting of doubt on
their sincere faith in Christ. This deep suffering must be understood and
respected. But respect for suffering and helping the sufferers also
entails explaining the position of the Catholic Church. What many do not
realize is that the Eucharist is not only an interior link with Christ.
Eucharistic Communion is at the same time communion with Christ and with
Declaring Catholicity in Eucharist
There is no more solemn and profound way of declaring oneself Catholic
than by receiving the Eucharist at a Catholic celebration; wanting to
declare oneself Catholic yet saying one is non-Catholic is a
contradiction. Both communion with Christ and communion with the Church
have their visible as well as invisible dimensions (cf. nn. 35, 49-50).
Separating the two dimensions expresses an erroneous anthropology, an "angelization"
of the human person. God enters into relations with human beings mindful
of who they are: beings at the same time both spiritual and physical.
Certain other topics of the Encyclical have an ecumenical dimension,
although they are not explicitly treated in this perspective. For example,
one can see how juxtaposing "Mary and the Eucharist" (n. 57) unites
Catholics and the separated Eastern brethren, but surprises most
Protestants. The same can be said of Eucharistic Communion with the saints
in heaven (cf. n. 19). Another potentially ecumenical theme is the
recommendation of daily Eucharistic celebration (cf. n. 31). On this
point, the Catholic Church also differs from the Orthodox Churches, in
which the discipline of fasting and confession, quite apart from the
length of the celebrations, induces them not to celebrate the Divine
Liturgy every day. This difference is not new; indeed, it dates back to
before the schism and is not a cause of division but a subject for
dialogue. St Ambrose suggested that this point should be the topic of
fraternal dialogue with the Greeks: why shouldn't a sick person receive
his medicine daily (cf. De Sacramentis, V, 25).
Finally, Eucharistic adoration outside Mass, so dear to Catholics and
warmly recommended by the Encyclical (cf. 25), is a Catholic feature;
dialogue must also be an occasion to present to separated brethren this
Catholic response to the friendship of Christ (cf. St Thomas, Summa
Theol., III, 75, 1: "Because it is the special feature of friendship
to live together with friends, as the Philosopher [Aristotle] says,
[Christ] promises his bodily presence as a reward.").
The Eucharist, the source and sign of unity par excellence, is also a
sign of division. This paradox is found in all the key points of the
faith. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini noted, on 25 January 1963, that
"we come to realize that a strange phenomenon exists. What should lay the
foundations of union
thought, doctrine, our common faith
instead of being a subject of union is an impediment, an obstacle to
unity. Faith divides us".
First of all, it is Christ himself who divides people even in families,
Christ, the maximum principle of unity! And how many people, even in the
realm of the profane, are divided in the name of love? The most unitive
things are also the most divisive, even if the dynamism that impels them
toward union may come first. Today the Eucharist is first and foremost the
ultimate instrument and sign of Christian unity, the action of grace for
unity that is already real.