See Ecclesia de Eucharistia
It is not often that the fourth property of the Church, her
"apostolicity", confessed in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan
Creed, refers to the Eucharist. In most publications on the Eucharistic
Mystery, we do not come across this ecclesiological perspective. John
Paul II, however, makes it the theme of his latest Encyclical; indeed,
he dedicates an entire chapter to it and in this way finds a fitting
context in which to treat various doctrinal and pastoral points of
Three facets of the apostolicity of the Eucharistic sacrament can be
Eucharist as apostolic: entrusted by Jesus to the apostles
In the first place, it is apostolic because "it was entrusted by
Jesus to the Apostles and has been handed down to us by them and by
their successors. It is in continuity with the practice of the Apostles,
in obedience to the Lord's command, that the Church has celebrated the
Eucharist down the centuries" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n.
27). Its entrustment to the Church by Jesus and the Church's obedient
response are the two pillars which have supported the celebration of the
Eucharist down the ages, of which the Apostles are an integral part.
The words of n. 27 cited above should be taken in continuity with
those other words in the previous chapter: "The Evangelists specify
that it was the Twelve, the Apostles, who gathered with Jesus at the
Last Supper (cf. Mt 26:20; Mk 14:17; Lk 22:14). This is a detail of
notable importance, for the Apostles 'were both the seeds of the new
Israel and the beginning of the sacred hierarchy' (Ad Gentes, n.
5).... The actions and words of Jesus at the Last Supper laid the
foundations of the new messianic community, the People of the New
Covenant" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 21). Thus, the Church
continues what was begun with the Apostles, and so makes her beginnings
Eucharist as apostolic: celebrated in conformity with the apostles
A second point of view leads to the assertion of this other truth:
"The Eucharist is apostolic, for it is celebrated in conformity
with the faith of the Apostles" (ibid., n. 27). Continuity
with the Apostles' action is also continuity with their Eucharistic
faith. This endurance of faith is part of the believing awareness of the
We find it witnessed to by St Paul when he explains to the
Corinthians the significance of gathering to eat the Supper of the Lord:
"I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you..." (I
Cor 11:23), and of St Justin, in the middle of the second century:
"We do not receive these things as ordinary food or drink; but...
because this bread and wine have been 'eucharisted'... we have been
taught that they are the flesh and blood of Jesus incarnate. Indeed, the
Apostles, in the records they left us which are called Gospels, pass on
the command that they themselves received" (St Justin, Apologia,
I, 66, 2-3).
The Eucharist is a mystery of faith in which all the articles of the
Apostolic Creed converge. If any of the truths concerning the
Eucharistic Mystery were to be obscured, the whole installation of the
Church would suffer a blow. The Holy Father therefore rightly points out
that the apostolic faith in this sublime mystery "remains unchanged
and it is essential for the Church that it remain unchanged" (Ecclesia
de Eucharistia, n. 27).
Eucharist as apostolic: still taught by successors to the apostles
The Eucharist is also apostolic because in it is expressed the fact
that the Church "continues to be taught, sanctified and guided by
the Apostles until Christ's return, through their successors in pastoral
office" (ibid., n. 28, citing CCC, n. 857). Indeed,
there is no Eucharist without ministerial priesthood. "The ministry
of priests who have received the sacrament of Holy Orders... is in any
event essential for validly linking the Eucharistic consecration to the
sacrifice of the Cross and to the Last Supper" (Ecclesia de
Eucharistia, n. 29).
To be truly Eucharistic, it is not enough that the assembly of the
faithful gather to commemorate the paschal mystery and to invoke the
gift of the Holy Spirit; it requires the action of one who can act
"in specific sacramental identification with the eternal High
Priest who is the author and principal subject of this sacrifice of his,
a sacrifice in which, in truth, nobody can take his place" (ibid.).
A sacramental identification of this kind can only be achieved through
the sacrament of Holy Orders at the level of the priesthood. "On
the other hand, the community is by itself incapable of providing an
ordained minister. This minister is a gift which the assembly receives
through episcopal succession going back to the Apostles" (ibid.).
The connection between the Eucharist, the ministerial priesthood and
apostolic succession is a truth of faith, previously well explained by
the Fourth Lateran Council and echoed in the Encyclical. In fact, that
Council defined respect for the Sacrament of the altar in its profession
of faith: "The Eucharistic mystery cannot be celebrated by anyone
except a regularly-ordained priest, according to the powers of the
Church which Jesus Christ himself conferred upon the Apostles and their
successors" (DS 802; cf. p. 29).
Episcopal succession, which determines the very existence of the
ordained priesthood and thus the Eucharist, dates back to the Apostles
in a very precise way, that is, through "the uninterrupted
sequence, from the very beginning, of valid episcopal ordinations"
(Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 28). From the beginning, no
Christian community has ever existed that organized itself on its own to
guarantee the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which makes Christ present
in the Church through the apostolic ministry.
As the Second Vatican Council teaches, it was the Apostles themselves
who passed on to their helpers their grace, the special outpouring of
the Spirit with which they were endowed for the ministry through the
imposition of hands, and this transmission has continued to the present
day in episcopal consecration (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 21).
Practical consequences for clergy and laity alike
Having stated these three aspects of the apostolicity of the
Eucharist, the Holy Father reflects on certain practical consequences
for the life of priests and of all the faithful, and at the same time,
for the Church's pastoral activity.
The first consequence concerns relations with the Ecclesial
Communities that came into being in the West in the 16th century, which
are separated from the Catholic Church: "Especially because of the
lack of the sacrament of Orders they have not preserved the genuine and
total reality of the Eucharistic mystery" (Ecciesia de
Eucharistia, n. 30, quoting Unitatis Redintegratio, n. 22).
Differences in Eucharistic doctrine exist and cannot be overlooked, yet
they might not have prevented the preservation of the substance of the
Eucharist, as is the case with regard to Baptism. In fact, the Catholic
Church recognizes the validity of Baptism, the first bond of communion
in those Ecclesial Communities, even if important doctrinal divergences
still exist on baptismal justification. Rather, with regard to the
Eucharistic Mystery, the lack of the sacrament of Orders is crucial.
On the basis of their common Baptism, the Catholic faithful consider
the members of these ecclesial communities as brothers and sisters, and
reciprocal relations are constantly increasing in a crescendo of
understanding and friendship. This cannot happen, however, at the cost
of losing Eucharistic life. "The Catholic faithful, therefore,
while respecting the religious convictions of these separated brethren,
must refrain from receiving the communion distributed in their
celebrations" (ibid., n. 30).
This is required by love of the truth and of Jesus himself: a love
that is moved to seek intimate union with him through communion, truly
receiving his body. "Similarly, it is unthinkable to substitute for
Sunday Mass ecumenical celebrations of the Word or services of common
prayer with Christians from the aforementioned Ecclesial Communities, or
even participation in their own liturgical services" (ibid.,
n. 30). This would be to exchange a most precious Gift with articles of
a decidedly lesser value.
Eucharist needs priests; priests need Eucharist
The close, essential link between the Eucharist and the ministerial
priesthood goes in both directions: the ordained priest is essential for
there to be a Eucharistic celebration, and on the other hand, the
Eucharist "is the principal and central raison d'etre of the
sacrament of priesthood, which effectively came into being at the moment
of the institution of the Eucharist" (ibid., n. 31).
Obviously, Eucharistic ministry does not exhaust the elements of
priestly ministry, which includes other aspects not to be overlooked, be
it the preaching of the Gospel or with regards to divine worship and
guiding the Christian community. But the reference made to the
Eucharistic Mystery is the most precious and elevated characteristic of
ministerial priesthood and serves to define it.
This truth that concerns the essential core of the ordained
priesthood also embraces the existential level of the priest's ministry.
Thus: "If the Eucharist is the centre and summit of the Church's
life, it is likewise the centre and summit of priestly ministry" (ibid.).
From this principle many consequences may be deduced, and the Encyclical
offers numerous suggestions.
Nonetheless, at this point, the Pope considers one that is undeniably
practical and reasserts "how important it is for the spiritual life
of the priest, as well as for the good of the Church and the world, that
priests follow the Council's recommendation to celebrate the Eucharist
daily.... In this way priests will be able to counteract the daily
tensions which lead to a lack of focus and they will find in the
Eucharistic Sacrifice —
the true centre of their lives and ministry —
the spiritual strength needed to deal with their different pastoral
responsibilities. Their daily activity will thus become truly
Eucharistic" (ibid., n. 31).
The Holy Eucharist as motivation for vocation promotion
A conclusion is de rigeur. "The centrality of the
Eucharist in the life and ministry of priests is the basis of its
centrality in the pastoral promotion of priestly vocations" (ibid.).
The Holy Father specifies two moments for its implementation: the prayer
for priestly vocations during Mass, and the witness of the priests'
painstaking care of the Eucharistic ministry. In fact, young men more
easily accept the divine seed of the call to priesthood if they see and
appreciate the Church's need for the Eucharist.
Christian communities which, in spite of having a sufficient number
and variety of faithful to form a parish, do not have a priest to lead
them, suffer a genuine "hunger" for the Eucharist (cf. ibid.,
nn. 32-33). In these circumstances, it is right that an effort be made
somehow to remedy their privation, at least by organizing Sunday
celebrations of prayer and listening to the Word of God. "But such
solutions must be considered merely temporary, while the community
awaits a priest" (ibid., 32).
It is not only the observation of the absence of a priest, but a real
expectation of his presence: an active expectation, with more fervent
prayers and the mobilization of all the resources needed for an adequate
pastoral promotion of vocations. "In the Eucharist we have Jesus,
we have his redemptive sacrifice, we have his resurrection, we have the
gift of the Holy Spirit, we have adoration, obedience and love of the
Father. Were we to disregard the Eucharist, how could we overcome our
own deficiency?" (ibid., n. 60).