REFLECTIONS ON ECCLESIA DE EUCHARISTIA - 8
Enrico dal Covolo, S.D.B.


Eucharistic worship in the history and life of the Church

The 14th Encyclical of John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (EdE) treats the topic of Eucharistic worship outside of Mass primarily in two paragraphs, namely, numbers 10 and 25.

First of all, we shall attempt to situate the question in context by taking a quick look at Church history; then we shall interpret these two passages in the light of that history. Last of all, we shall comment on the Encyclical with a reference to patristic Tradition, in which Eucharistic devotion and worship are prolonged through a commitment to conversion and charity.

A glance at the history of Eucharistic worship

From its very beginnings the Church has shown an abiding faith in Christ's presence in the Eucharist. This faith is the basis for Eucharistic worship outside of Mass. Among the most ancient of passages, we might cite a text of St Justin, who suffered martyrdom in Rome around the year 165.

In his first Apology Justin highlights the fact that the Eucharistic Food was brought to the homes of the faithful who were not present at the celebration. Indeed, the saintly martyr attests to the fact that during the Mass the president offered prayers and thanksgivings and the people assented, saying, "Amen!" This was followed by the distribution of and participation in the Food. Then, the deacons also took it to those who were absent (I Apologia 17).

We can clearly see the intimate connection binding the two moments, that is, the celebration of the Mass and Eucharistic worship outside of it, and we can affirm that this bond remained firm throughout the whole era of the ancient Church.

We must, however, recognize that in the medieval and modern ages, diverse theological controversies on the Eucharist weakened an understanding of this relationship among the faithful. Thus, in the experience of the People of God we find periods in which their attitudes and behaviour sometimes lacked a certain balance. At times there was a risk of losing the deep unity that connected the various aspects of the Eucharistic mystery. The positive fact is that faith in Jesus' real presence in the Eucharist slowly developed down the centuries, both in theological doctrine and in the various expressions of worship.

The conciliar and post-conciliar documents brought the Church back to a unified and integral concept of Eucharistic worship. Fundamental, from this point of view, is the Instruction Eucharisticum Mysterium of 1967: "When the faithful adore Christ present in the Sacrament", we read in paragraph 50, "they should remember that this presence derives from the sacrifice and is directed towards both sacramental and spiritual communion. In consequence, the devotion which leads the faithful to visit the Blessed Sacrament draws them into an ever deeper participation in the Paschal Mystery. It leads them to respond gratefully to the gift of him who through his humanity constantly pours divine life into the members of his body.

"Dwelling with Christ our Lord, they enjoy his intimate friendship and pour out their hearts before him for themselves and their dear ones, and pray for the peace and salvation of the world. They offer their entire lives with Christ to the Father in the Holy Spirit, and receive in this wonderful exchange an increase of faith, hope and charity. Thus, they nourish those right dispositions which enable them with all due devotion to celebrate the memorial of the Lord and receive frequently the bread given us by the Father".

Faithful to these guidelines, the Church continues to reaffirm and recommend Eucharistic worship outside of the celebration of the Mass as well, taking care that this should not appear to be isolated from the complete dimension to which it should lead. This attention is the basis of and support for a life of faith that is "wholly Eucharistic" and renders immensely fruitful the commitment to conversion and charity towards one's brothers and sisters.  

An examination of Ecclesia de Eucharistia, nn. 10, 25

It is in this light that the two paragraphs of EdE are examined.

Indeed, the Pope explicitly refers to the progressive spiritual growth of the Christian community in regard to the Eucharistic mystery. This growth is closely connected to the Magisterium's commitment to proclaiming it; and "certainly", the Pope continues, "the liturgical reform inaugurated by the Council has greatly contributed to a more conscious, active and fruitful participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar on the part of the faithful". Here the Magisterial text refers particularly to Eucharistic worship outside of Mass. In fact, the Encyclical continues by saying: "In many places, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is also an important daily practice and becomes an inexhaustible source of holiness".

At this point the Pope mentions one of the characteristic manifestations of Eucharistic worship, that is, the procession with the Blessed Sacrament. As is noted, the most important of these is the procession on the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord. "The devout participation of the faithful in the Eucharistic procession on the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ is a grace from the Lord which yearly brings joy to those who take part in it".

However, the Encyclical is not intended to give a thorough treatment to the topic of Eucharistic worship outside of Mass. If this were so, the Pope would have had to mention other devotions as well, such as the Forty Hours devotion and other expressions of the Eucharistic liturgy outside of Mass, such as Viaticum.

At this point, however, he prefers to point out some shadows, that is, some negative aspects found today in the Eucharistic praxis among the People of God. "In some places the practice of Eucharistic adoration has been almost completely abandoned". These shadows in Eucharistic practice obviously are the result of an "obscuring" of the true faith and Catholic doctrine. "At times one encounters an extremely reductive understanding of the Eucharistic mystery. Stripped of its sacrificial meaning, it is celebrated as if were simply a fraternal banquet".

This topic is treated further and explained more clearly in paragraph 25 of the Encyclical.

The two nouns contained in the title of the Encyclical — Ecclesia and Eucharistia — are both of primary importance. "The worship of the Eucharist outside of the Mass is of inestimable value for the life of the Church", the Pope stresses. This point has been handed down to us definitively from the Church's Tradition.

However, the Pope immediately illustrates another aspect of Eucharistic doctrine that had been neglected down the centuries from the Middle Ages to Vatican II: namely, that Eucharistic worship outside of Mass "is strictly linked to the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice". He goes on to explain: "The presence of Christ under the sacred species reserved after Mass — a presence which remains as long as the species of bread and of wine remain — derives from the celebration of the sacrifice and is directed towards communion, both sacramental and spiritual". And it is precisely an erroneous understanding of the Eucharist, "stripped of its sacrificial meaning", that alienates the community of believers from Eucharistic worship outside of Mass.

Thus, the circle is complete. The development of Eucharistic worship outside of Mass cannot be considered as some arbitrary emphasis that can be neglected in relation to the celebration of the Sacrifice. Rather, this worship, closely joined to the celebration itself, bears witness to a mature and integral level of reception in both doctrine and liturgical practice. As a result, "It is the responsibility of Pastors to encourage, also by their personal witness, the practice of Eucharistic adoration, and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in particular, as well as prayer of adoration before Christ present under the Eucharistic species".

The above-mentioned reference to the personal witness of Pastors affords the Pope an opportunity to expound on this topic in one of the most vibrant passages of the Encyclical. The personal mystical experience of Pope John Paul II comes to the surface, an experience which has given rise to many of his teachings on prayer, and in particular to nn. 32-34 of Novo Millennio Ineunte, which he quite appropriately recalls here.

"It is pleasant", the Pope writes, "to spend time with him, to lie close to his breast like the Beloved Disciple (cf. Jn 13:25) and to feel the infinite love present in his heart. If in our time Christians must be distinguished above all by the 'art of prayer', how can we not feel a renewed need to spend time in spiritual converse, in silent adoration, in heartfelt love before Christ present in the Most Holy Sacrament? How often, dear brother and sisters", the Pope confides in conclusion, "have I experienced this, and drawn from it strength, consolation and support!" (EdE, n. 25).

As the reader knows, throughout the Church's Tradition the gesture of the disciple resting his head on Jesus' breast is quite often proposed for the imitation of believers. As early as the time of Origen (d. 254), John was named as a model for every Christian who was committed to the path of perfection: John, in fact, "rested on the breast of the Logos in the sense that he adhered to the Logos and reposed in him in the most mystical aspects as well" (Commentary on John 32, 264, SC 385, p. 298).

Here, however, the Pope prefers to make a reference to the example of "many saints" and in particular to St Alphonsus Maria de'Liguori (d. 1787), who wrote: "Among all devotions, that of adoring Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament comes first after the sacraments themselves; it is most dear to God and most useful to us" (Visit to the Blessed Sacrament and to Mary Most Holy, Introduction, in Ascetical Works).

Eucharistic worship and a commitment to conversion

In the Encyclical the Pope also alludes to a "Eucharistic worship" that is prolonged beyond the Mass as a commitment to the conversion of one's personal life and that of the community.

To illustrate this last aspect of our reflection, we must make reference most of all to paragraph 20 of the Encyclical. "A significant consequence of the eschatological tension inherent in the Eucharist", we read there, "is also the fact that it spurs us on our journey through history and plants a seed of living hope in our daily commitment to the work before us. Certainly the Christian vision leads to the expectation of 'new heavens' and 'a new earth', but this increases, rather than lessens, our sense of responsibility for the world today. I wish to reaffirm this forcefully at the beginning of the new millennium, so that Christians will feel more obliged than ever not to neglect their duties as citizens in this world....

"Many problems darken the horizon of our time. We need but think of the urgent need to work for peace, to base relationships between peoples on solid premises of justice and solidarity, and to defend human life from conception to its natural end. And what should we say of the thousand inconsistencies of a 'globalized' world where the weakest, the most powerless and the poorest appear to have so little hope!... For this reason too, the Lord wished to remain with us in the Eucharist, making his presence in meal and sacrifice the promise of a humanity renewed by his love.... The Apostle Paul, for his part, says that it is 'unworthy' of a Christian community to partake of the Lord's Supper amid division and indifference towards the poor". And in his footnote the Pope cites the famous Homily 50 on the Gospel of Matthew by St John Chrysostom (d. 407), which he previously used in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis.

The reference is an instructive one: we would do well to give it adequate attention.

As a whole, the Homily is a commentary on the final pericope of Matthew 14; however, the last verse of the chapter — where we read that the inhabitants of Genesaret were bringing their sick to Jesus "and begged him that they might touch only the tassel on his cloak (Mt 14:36) — gives Chrysostom the opportunity to include a substantially autonomous hortatory amplification, which by itself constitutes the second half of the Homily. The digression is justified by the context of the Eucharistic liturgy in which the Homily is placed: "Let us also then touch the hem of his garment", Chrysostom invites us. "Or rather, if we be willing, we have him entire. For indeed, his body is set before us now". And, he proceeds: "Believe, therefore, that even now it is that supper, at which he himself sat down".

According to Chrysostom, such certitude of faith is a decisive challenge to the responsibility of Christians because participation at the table of the Lord does not allow for any type of inconsistency: "Let no Judas then approach this table", exclaims the homilist. Nor is it a sign of worthiness to come to the table with golden vessels: "That table at that time was not of silver nor that cup of gold, out of which Christ gave his disciples his own blood.... If you would do honour to Christ's body, neglect him not when naked; while you are honouring him here (in the Church) with silken garments, do not neglect him perishing without from cold and nakedness. For he who said, 'This is my body'... also said, 'You saw me hungry, and fed me not'; and, 'whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me'.

"Let us learn, therefore, to be strict in life, and to honour Christ as he himself desires. For to him who is honoured, that honour is most pleasing which it is his own will to have, not that which we account best. Even so, honour him with this honour, which he ordained, spending your wealth on poor people, since God has no need at all of golden vessels, but of golden souls. For what is the profit, when his table indeed is full of golden cups, but he perishes with hunger? First fill him, since he is hungry, and then abundantly deck out his table also" (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew 50: 3-4, PG 58, coll. 508-509).

The expressions cited are sufficient to show Christ's complete identification with the poor, which, in addition to Chrysostom's preaching, is constantly repeated throughout all of Christian tradition: however, before any later clarification, we have Christ's original declaration. Whoever serves the poor person serves Christ and whoever rejects the poor person rejects Christ. On this we shall be judged (Matthew 25 is explicitly adopted). The Eucharistic celebration which — in Chrysostom's understanding of it — roots the Christian community in this commitment, has an impressive relevancy in society, weaving into its fabric decisive elements of discernment and conversion. It is precisely this conversion which represents that "Eucharistic worship" which is pleasing to God, a worship that extends beyond the Mass in the daily exercise of charity.

"It is this fruit of a transfigured existence and a commitment to transforming the world in accordance with the Gospel", the Pope concludes, "which splendidly illustrates the eschatological tension inherent in the celebration of the Eucharist and in the Christian life as a whole: 'Come, Lord Jesus!"' (EdE, n. 20).

In this way Eucharistic worship, far from remaining isolated from the celebration of the Mass, is prolonged in the life of the believer, to the point that it transforms that life wholly into "bread that is broken" and "wine poured out" for the salvation of the world.


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
8 October 2003, page 4

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