The intimate bond between Eucharist and Church
The formula "the Eucharist builds the Church, and the Church
makes the Eucharist", which appears in Ecclesia
de Eucharistia, n.
26, is not new. The formula was used on various occasions by Cardinal
Henri de Lubac, whose work presumably influenced the present Encyclical.1
The same idea is implicitly contained in the teaching of Vatican II,
which stated in Sacrosanctum Concilium that the Liturgy is both
"the summit to which the activity of the Church tends and the font
from which all her power flows" (n. 10). Later in the same article
we read that among all liturgical actions the Eucharist is the principal
source of grace and sanctification.
The ecclesial fruitfulness of the Eucharist can be better understood
if we ponder the inmost nature of the Church herself. The Church is
variously described as the Body of Christ, the People of God of the New
Covenant, the sacrament of unity, and the communion of believers in
Christ. All four of these images can likewise be applied to the
The Church and the Eucharist as the Body of Christ
The image of the Church as Body of Christ originates with St Paul,
who declares that all the members of the body, though many, are one body
in Christ (I Cor 12:12). He clearly understands that the unity of the
ecclesial body has its source in the eucharistic body of Christ. ''The
bread which we break", he asks, "is it not the body of Christ?
Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all
partake of the one bread" (I Cor 10:16-17).
The Holy Father, after quoting this text, develops the analogy by
quoting St John Chrysostom on the manner in which the many grains of
wheat in the one loaf symbolize the unity of the Church, made up as it
is of many persons all incorporated into Christ (cf. Ecclesia de Eucharistia,
n. 23). For the Church to realize herself as a single sacramental or
mystical body, made up of many members animated by the same Spirit, she
must nourish herself at the Eucharist.
Several years before the present Encyclical, Cardinal Ratzinger
expressed the same point. He wrote:
"The formula 'The Church is the Body of Christ' thus states that
the Eucharist, in which the Lord gives us his body and makes us one
body, forever remains the place where the Church is generated, where the
Lord himself never ceases to be found anew; in the Eucharist the Church
is most compactly herself — in all
places, yet one only, just as he is one only".2
The Church as sacrament, the Eucharist as supreme sacrament
The Church is, in the second place, a sacrament. Vatican II called
her a "visible sacrament of saving unity" (Lumen Gentium,
n. 9), the "universal sacrament of salvation" (ibid.,
n. 48). The same may be said of the Eucharist, the supreme
sacrament. According to Thomas Aquinas and others, the Eucharist is the
efficacious sign of the unity of the Church.3
The presence of Christ, without detriment to its real and substantial
nature, may be called mystical or sacramental, since it is realized
under the forms of bread and wine. The signs, as already mentioned,
signify unity, since the bread is one loaf made up of many grains and
the wine is one cup from many grapes. "In the sacrament of the
eucharistic bread, the unity of the faithful... is both expressed and
brought about" (Lumen Gentium, n. 3; cf. Ecclesia de Eucharistia,
By strengthening the Church in unity, the Eucharist enables the
Church to be, like itself, the sacrament of unity. The Church thus
becomes the sign of a renewed humanity, used by the Lord as an
instrument for the redemption of all (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 9).
The Eucharist, standing at the very centre of the visible Church, is the
vital source of her unitive dynamism.
Church as covenant, Eucharist as sacrament of covenant
Thirdly, the Church is the new Israel —
the people of God of the New Covenant. Through this covenant we are
constituted as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,
God's own people" (I Pt 2:9-10). The first Israel was established
by the Sinai Covenant, when Moses sprinkled the altar and the people
with the blood of goats and bulls (Ex 24:8; cf. Heb 9:13; also Ecclesia
de Eucharistia, n. 21). Jesus Christ formed the new and definitive
Israel by instituting the Eucharist as the New Covenant in his blood,
which was to be shed on Calvary (cf. Mt 26:28; I Cor 11:25).
Just as the Last Supper looked forward to the Crucifixion, the Mass
looks back to it. Every celebration of Holy Mass is a renewal of the
covenant by which the Church stands. The Church as a covenant people
regenerates herself by returning to her own roots.
Church as community and Eucharist as communion
Finally, the Church is a communion; that is to say, a community of
believers in Christ, enlivened by his Holy Spirit. According to Vatican
II, Christ instituted the Church to bring her members into a communion
of life, charity and truth (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 9). Eucharistic
Communion brings the members of the Church into such a communion with
Christ their Lord. Just as the Eucharist would be incomplete if the
sacrificial banquet did not lead to Holy Communion, so too the Church
would be incomplete if she did not achieve among her members a communion
of grace and love.
The communion among the Church's members within history will always
be incomplete and fragile. It constantly needs to be renewed by
sacramental Communion. By means of Holy Communion the Eucharist prepares
the Church to enter into the fullness of communion in the life to come.
His Holiness Pope John Paul II explains this in one of his
catechetical lectures: "Especially in the Eucharist and through the
Eucharist, the Church contains in herself the seed of a truly universal
and eternal communion, the definitive union in Christ of everything in
heaven and on earth, as Paul has told us (cf. Eph 1:10)".4
The analogy between the Eucharist and the Church could be further
explored if we were to reflect on the attributes of the Church. The Holy
Father reminds his readers in Chapter Three of his Encyclical that the
Creed confesses the Church to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic. He
goes on to show how these four attributes are applicable to the
One and catholic, the Eucharist is celebrated in all times and places
without detriment to its unity. As the real and substantial presence of
Christ, the Eucharist is uniquely holy. It is apostolic, especially
because the priest-celebrant must be ordained in the apostolic
The present essay, focused as it is on Chapter Two, will leave the
four attributes of the Church and the Eucharist to be more fully
explored by others.
1 Henri de Lubac, The Splendor of the Church (San
Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 134. This is a translation of the Meditation
sur I'Église, 1953. De Lubac explores the same theme at
greater length in his Corpus Mysticum: L'Eucharistie et
l'église au Moyen-Âge (1944).
2 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Called to Communion (San
Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), 37.
3 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, qu. 73,
art, 2, sed contra; cf. art. 3c.
4 General Audience of January 15, 1992; in John Paul II, The
Church: Mystery, Sacrament, Community (Boston: Pauline Books
& Media, 1998), 124.