1. "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?" (Jn 6:60)
is what one might think of the Encyclical Ecclesia
de Eucharistia: for it addresses the truth about Christ, the
human being, the Church, the world, the present and the future... the
truth about the Incarnation that bursts into our time and orients it to
the last day, that definitive one, when there will be no more crying or
weeping. For the Eucharist has to do with death, and facing it, says:
Where is your victory? Because it is possible simply to die; but it is
also possible to die and bring forth new life, that is, the body and
blood, making them a gift for others, even enemies. Who wouldn't take
life back and give thanks (in Greek: eucaristia) for such
John Paul II sends a "circular" — an Encyclical — to the Catholic world to clarify certain
questions concerning the meaning and manner of this thanksgiving: the
Holy Eucharist, more commonly known by Latins as "Holy Mass"
and by Greeks as the "Divine Liturgy". The Pontiff does so in
the style of papal documents, but not without the poetic tones and
wonder of one who knows that this Mystery of faith should first and
foremost be adored.
What prompted him to do so? A widespread blurring of the most
original feature of Catholic doctrine: the belief that Jesus Christ is
still alive and present in a host and in a chalice.
Doubts first arose in Capernaum when Jesus delivered his bread of
life discourse and actually associated this bread with man's survival
and resurrection after death. He remarked: "But there are some of
you who do not believe" (Jn 6:64). This discourse should have come
as a surprise to no one: from being God he became man: why, once he had
risen, would he not have been able to "enter" the bread and
the wine when the Apostles and their successors said, in memory of him,
take this, all of you, and eat it... take this, all of you, and drink
Well, in the history of the Church those most sceptical of this
miracle — what else could we call it? — were precisely the persons who had been
invested with the authority to say those words: priests. Suffice it to
remember Bolsena and Lanciano.
It was not by chance that the Holy Father published the Encyclical on
Holy Thursday: yes, he recalls the lights of the Council's liturgical
reform, but he does not conceal his anxiety — he speaks of shadows — that in the Church the "Blessed
Sacrament" (another name for the Eucharist) — may be manipulated by her ministers
Moreover, he puts the faithful on guard several times against two
errors: the belief that the Eucharist can be reduced to a festive event,
forgetting that it is in fact a sacrificial death, and that this is the
beginning of ecclesial communion which, instead, must be presumed to
exist already, if it is to grow and be perfected. Communion is not only
mystical, it must also figure in the profession of the faith itself.
Indeed, the Encyclical contains certain observations: non-Catholics
and Catholics cannot normally receive Communion from one another because
their way of believing in the Eucharist is different. Then, those who
hold that Penance, that is, going to confession, is not necessary prior
to receiving Communion are reminded by the papal document that this is
not so: the two sacraments are very closely connected (Ecclesia de
Eucharistia, n. 37).
Through Eucharistic presence, God is no longer absent
2. Jesus said: "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has
eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day" (Jn 6:54).
Eternal life is believing in Jesus Christ; it begins when man has faith
in Our Lord Jesus (cf. Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 18). This
occurs because the flesh of Jesus Christ that we feed on "is his
body in its glorious state after the resurrection" (ibid.).
Eternal life begins on earth, not after death.
We can say that the "eschatology" of the Eucharist is the
final goal of which it is an effective sign: the Lord's entry into the
cosmos and into history, matter, flesh: an entry that makes him present
once and for all until the end of the world. This is the eschaton,
the ultimate event in time, which is why the passage from his mystical
presence to the vision of him as he is (parousia) is brought
about from one celebration to the next. Thus, through his presence in
the Sacrament, God is no longer absent.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger offers, as it were, a commentary on this
"eschatological thrust" (ibid.) of the Eucharist in a
lecture published in his latest book Il Dio Vicino (pp. 139-159).
What is eternal life? It is a quality of life in which duration,
understood as the succession of instants, no longer exists. Eternity is
not merely time without end, but another level of human existence.
Hence, it is impossible to make a purely chronological distinction,
for this would not do justice to the meaning of eternal life. The
dividing line between eternal life and temporal life can be found in our
life on earth itself. Where is the distinction? Either we live
"biologically" or we live "truly". John
distinguishes, precisely, between bios, transitory life in this
world, and zoe, that is, true life, aware of the meaning of both.
In this regard Jesus says: "He who hears my word and believes
him who sent me has eternal life... he has passed from death to
life" (Jn 5:24ff.). In Bethany at the tomb of Lazarus he said:
"I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though
he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall
never die" (Jn 11:25). St Paul goes so far as to say: "For to
me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Phil 1:21); and in his
Letter to the Romans: "If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we
die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we
are the Lord's" (Rom 14:8ff.).
It is not enough to live biologically, we must live to the full. This
is the difference between temporal and eternal life. Eternal life begins
when one becomes aware of self in relation to God. It is at that moment
that new life begins, the life of new awareness, or eternal life, which
will not end with death.
When man says "O God, you are my God, I seek you" (Ps
63:1), eternal life begins. Baptism is the dawn of eternal life, for
in baptism we are immersed in the risen and living Lord. So it is that
even the body, which is a limitation in our daily life, with the
resurrection of Jesus is so no longer. The risen Jesus passes through
closed doors to show that eternal life overcomes time and space.
With the Eucharist, we digest the ‘mystery’ of the Resurrection
3. In his Encyclical, the Pope recalls the Masses he celebrated in
the most varied contexts, from stadiums to mountains, in the dramatic
moments of wars or social conflicts and in his immense, festive meetings
with youth. Mass gives an impetus to the journey of Christians through
history and nourishes their hope in daily dedication. This is its
"political" dimension. If there is a way of saying
"peace", it is precisely "Mass".
However, a cosmic Eucharist, John Paul II says, celebrated on the
altar of the world, "while always offered in a particular
community, is never a celebration of that community alone" (Ecclesia
de Eucharistia, n. 39). Catholic Christians, in every latitude and
with their legitimate cultural differences, have the right to take part
in a Catholic Mass, not the Mass of one priest or another or of one
community or another. The Sacrifice is only ever one. The Pope cites St
John Chrysostom: "We always offer the same Lamb, not one today and
another tomorrow" (n. 12).
In a conference he gave in 1960, Von Balthasar said that the Church
lives in an incomprehensible place between earth and heaven, between
death and eternal life, between the ancient world that is transient and
the new world that is everlasting. The Christian is dead with Christ in
baptism, but also, according to Paul's assurance, is risen with him and
ascended into Heaven, alive in time, drawing on eternal life with a view
to eternal life. In this way, Christian life embraces the space that
extends between penance and celebration.
The liturgical year recalls this with its seasons of Advent and Lent,
and with its uninterrupted sequence of great and small feast days. What
is thus tangibly represented for us in succession and in depth is an
interpenetration of our paradoxical Christian existence. The Eucharist
represents the paradox of the mystery, the paradox of our Christian
All the solemn feasts of the Old Testament developed from
celebrations of thanksgiving for the harvest; these were later linked to
historical commemorations. But what are these feasts compared with the
incomparable harvest of bread and wine in the New and everlasting
Testament? Now it is the whole earth that is bread and wine. Shouldn't
authentically human joy explode here as an expression of what the
Apostle says: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say,
Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no
anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication
with thanksgiving (eucaristia) let your request be made known to
God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep
your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Phil 4:4-7).
It is not worldly enthusiasm that we must find in the banquet of the
Eucharist, but rather, an ability to penetrate the essence of God's love
and to be strengthened by it. The reality is God who becomes a man among
us in order to die for us. We are celebrating Jesus Christ in his love
taken to the very end, his ability to give his life in sacrifice and to
take it up again, his creative power in offering himself as a gift to us
in the bread and wine, in making himself inconceivably one with
humanity. Although we Catholics also include in our
celebration [of Jesus Christ] the miracle of the transformation, which
we seek haltingly to designate by the term
"transubstantiation", it is not this that we are celebrating
but rather, in an absolute sense, divine love made man, the Incarnate
Word who, as Eastern Christians claim, is "metabolized", as
well as the mystery of the Last Supper, which our Protestant brethren
also know and celebrate; we do not take part in an anti-reformist
celebration, but one that dates back to the the Middle Ages when
Christianity was still undivided. Furthermore, how could we celebrate it
other than in the spirit of the Church una sancta (one, holy)?
In this way, as the Encyclical says, there is one consequence for
history: the transformation of life in the Eucharist "until he
comes" (n. 20). The Eucharist builds the Church to the extent that
her members agree to share in the sacrifice, the gift of self, the
grains of wheat and the grapes which, through their effacement, become
bread and wine (cf. n. 21). Each one of us receives Christ and Christ
receives each one of us: this is incorporation: "He who eats me
will live because of me" (Jn 6:57). The person who lives, abides in
Jesus Christ (n. 22), and like light and salt, has the power of
transforming and redeeming the world. In this sense, the Eucharist is
the source and summit of evangelization.
The Body of Christ is the new heaven. Furthermore, heaven is no
longer closed, and if we have become members of the body of Christ our
souls are anchored in this body, which becomes his body. Our souls await
the definitive resurrection in which God will be all in all. Our soul,
therefore, is anchored to the body of Christ. We can thus say that the
body of Christ is our body. Consequently, if heaven has come down to
earth, the heavenly Jerusalem has come down into the Church, and
Communion is achieved with the heavenly Church and with the Virgin, the
saints and the just who departed this world (cf. n. 19). There is no
other way to be in touch with them.
In the First Communion Mass, following the fast from midnight, a
drawn out time for children, came the crowning moment: on his knees, in
adoration before the ciborium outside the tabernacle, the parish priest
entered into fervent dialogue between Jesus and us: "Today you are
receiving a secret that will be with you always. This is the most
beautiful day of your life". It certainly is, we thought, with the
"secret" of life in eternity!
This is what it was, the cosmic dimension of the Eucharist which
enters into history and redeems it, involves it and deeply transforms
it, orienting it to the last, eschatological day. John Paul II's
Encyclical recalls this constant Patristic thought: "With the
Eucharist we digest, as it were, the 'secret' of the resurrection"
(n. 18), which is far more than the immortality of the soul.