A close bond exists between Eucharist and Penance
Not only is the Encyclical Ecclesia de
Eucharistia an extraordinary testimony to faith in the Eucharistic
mystery; with its important themes it also sheds new light on the
sacrament of Penance, today frequently neglected.
According to the Pope's teaching, "the Eucharist and Penance are very
closely connected" (n. 37). Both are rooted in the same soil, that is, in
the Church as a community of the baptized, unique in its kind. Thus, it is
possible to understand the connection between the two sacraments and the
relationship existing between them only if the nature of the Church as
communio is properly recognized; indeed, "communion" is the structural
basis of the Encyclical Letter for all theological statements regarding
Visible and invisible 'communio'
This communion has a "visible dimension", since it represents
"communion in the teaching of the Apostles, in the sacraments and in the
Church's hierarchical order" (n. 35); yet it is also an "invisible"
reality since it presupposes "the life of grace, by which we become
'partakers of the divine nature' (2 Pt 1:4)" (n. 36), as well as "the
practice of the virtues of faith, hope and love. Only in this way do we
have true communion with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit" (ibid.).
Highlighting the viewpoint of the Catholic faith, the Pope succinctly
writes: "Nor is faith sufficient; we must persevere in sanctifying grace
and love, remaining within the Church 'bodily' as well as 'in our heart'"
(ibid.). He urges the members of the Church, in the words of St
Paul, to have "faith that works through charity (Gal 5:6)" (ibid.).
By her true nature, the Church is a communion of grace in the image of
the Triune divine life; she is the "communion of saints" on earth to which
the blessed and angels also belong.
To counter any false modern interpretation that is bent on reducing the
Church as we understand her to a social or religious association for the
improvement of the human world, or on declaring that by her very nature
she is "a sinful Church", here the Church is recognized, despite the
sinners in her midst, as a community sanctified in Christ and in his
Spirit. Sinners should be thought of as members of the Body of Christ who
are sick but must not and cannot remain in this state of sickness and
This description of the nature of the Church, however, contains an
important phrase for understanding the connection between the Eucharist
and Penance. Indeed, the "invisible communion" of grace and love is said
to be "by its nature always growing" (ibid.). For this reason the
communion of grace of the Church's members, with Christ and among one
another, is not automatically unchangeable, passive or permanent.
Rather, it is something that grows like an organism, longs for greater
completeness, aspires to a peak where earthly unity must be fulfilled and
shown eschatologically in the heavenly union to come, This exaltation,
this realization of the communion of the Church's earthly grace, will be
brought about through the very sacrament in which the Lord's announcement
to his disciples is most strongly made concrete: "Lo, I am with you
always, to the close of the age" (Mt 28:20). This sacrament is the
The Eucharistic sacrament is a sign and instrument of the loftiest
union in this world of the "saints", in other words, of the justified,
with Christ and with one another. It succeeds in scaling these heights and
developing so supreme a unifying power because the Lord is present and
active in it in the most perfect way: as the One who presides at the
banquet, the One who celebrates the sacrifice and as a sacrificial
offering with his Body and his Blood, sacramental yet real, represented by
his sacrifice on the Cross.
The justified may partake of him and receive the fruit of his
sacrifice, the Lord himself, and thus achieve union with Christ and with
one another in a marvellous exchange, in a way so supreme that it is
unequalled on this earth.
Bond between Penance, Eucharist
If the Eucharist is the supreme means of fulfilment for the Church and
her members on their journey towards a growing unity, we can understand
that it is impossible to receive it without being properly integrated into
both the visible and the invisible Church. We cannot reach the peaks of
faith, love and unity if we do not already belong to the growing community
and are not based on its foundations; we cannot reach the centre of the
circle without walking the entire length of the radius, that is, without
making the journey of faith and love together with all the members of
Christ's Body; it is impossible to reach the sancta sanctorum
without entering the sacred enclosure.
We must be in deep communion with "the Church" (n. 36) if we are to
reach the Most High with her. This is why, in principle, those who do not
belong to the visible Church are generally barred from participation in
the supreme sacrament of the Church.
However, since the Church is holy by nature, what is important above
all is that her members may only receive Communion if they are in a state
of grace. For this very reason, in a simple theological explanation, the
Holy Father describes the Eucharist as the (supreme) "sacrament of the
living". It cannot, therefore, be received by those who are "dead" to
grace, that is, who know they have committed a mortal sin.
Yet sinners, as members of the Body of Christ, are also called to a
renewed sanctification. They too continue to be oriented admirably to the
supreme sacrament, but they are unable to reach it now unless their
iniquities have previously been wiped away, unless they are expiated and
delivered from their personal sin. This is why Jesus Christ, who was
already aware of his disciples' propensity to sin, gave to the Church a
sign of himself, the sacrament of Reconciliation, of Penance and
By faithfully following Christ, who took upon himself God's
condemnation of human sin and completed it through his death for love, the
Church has pointed since her very beginnings to reception of the sacrament
of Penance as an indispensable condition for the proper reception of Holy
Communion. In his Encyclical, John Paul II recalls this prerequisite when
he quotes St Paul's words: "'Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the
bread and drink of the cup' (I Cor 11:28)".
To protect the Blessed Sacrament from improper reception of the
Eucharist the Pope also cites the warning of the Father of the Church, St
John Chrysostom: "I too raise my voice, I beseech, beg and implore that no
one draw near to this sacred table with a sullied and corrupt conscience.
Such an act, in fact, can never be called 'communion', not even were we to
touch the Lord's body a thousand times over, but 'condemnation', 'torment'
and 'increase of punishment'" (n. 36).
Thus, the supreme Pastor of the Church also recalls the binding
teaching of the Council of Trent, which states that "one must first
confess one's sins, when one is aware of mortal sin" (n. 36).
This request is not addressed to Catholic Christians as it were "from
outside" or by the ecclesiastical authority. It stems from the Eucharist
itself, which is "a continuous need for conversion" (n. 37) and
reconciliation. It is necessary to respond to this need in every case in
which a believer has committed a serious sin. It acquires special
significance in this day and age when we are witnessing an erosion of the
awareness of sin.
Understandably, it appears particularly urgent in the case of "outward
conduct which is seriously, clearly and steadfastly contrary to the moral
norm", as with those "who 'obstinately persist in manifest grave sin'" (n.
37); indeed, by receiving the Eucharist in this way, the sacred order of
the Church established by God and the respect for the supreme sacrament
suffer an obvious denial that can be of no help in the salvation of the
persons involved but becomes fatal to them.
Early Church understandings
These principles were most strictly observed in the early Church:
during the public act of penance, the Church, which as a communion of
grace had been wounded by sin, threatened sinners with "excommunication",
which means exclusion from the Sacrament of the Altar, in order to then
readmit them to the supreme sacrament of the Eucharist after a sufficient
period of penance and by a solemn act. The sacrament for the remission of
sins was celebrated as "exclusion" (excommunicatio) from the
Eucharist and "reconciliation" (reconciliatio) with the Church and
her centre: the Eucharist.
Despite the external changes in the rite, essentially and inwardly this
order has been preserved. It allows for a recognition of the connection
between the sacraments of Penance and Eucharist that has remained
unchanged despite the constant evolution of external conditions: Penance
serves to raise men and women from the debasement of sin; Eucharist lifts
them to the peaks of sanctification; Penance brings deliverance from
spiritual death and the Eucharist leads to the greatest possible union
with the life of Christ; Penance repairs the communion of grace with the
Church and the Eucharist brings it to its loftiest fulfilment in communion
with the crucified and risen Lord.
For the human being as sinner, the Eucharist is the shining goal and
Penance, the demanding journey to it. However, it will never be possible
to reach that shining destination without first having made the difficult
journey, nor is it possible to reach out for life without distancing
oneself from sin.
Therefore, in the Church afflicted by sin, these two sacraments are
united as the alpha and the omega, the starting point and the goal, the
ascent and the summit.
The Encyclical, whose constant aim is the participation of human beings
when they receive the sacraments, always recalls this important
circumstance from the viewpoint of pastoral theology, which holds that the
Last Judgment on grace and on sin is a question of conscience for which
the person directly involved is responsible.
This should not be understood, however, in the sense of a so-called
"autonomous" conscience or of a (misnamed) "decision according to
conscience", by which the person himself decides what is good or bad
according to his own intentions. It is a rather a question of a conscience
that recognizes, evaluates or condemns the good or evil objectives of
one's own actions in accordance with the parameters of the interior divine
norm. It is an issue of a healthy, upright conscience that cannot be
formed without the teaching of the Church.
In this too, the Church, as a communion in grace and truth, proves
indispensable for the individual believer who is making his way from the
sacrament of expiation from sin to the sacrament of the fullness of life.