Observing the liturgical norms of Mass ‘with
this year's Holy Thursday Encyclical Letter Ecclesia
de Eucharistia, Pope John Paul II seeks to rekindle a sense of
"profound amazement and gratitude" in all the priests of the
world through whose ministry God makes ever present Christ's paschal
mystery in the gift of the Eucharist to the Church (n. 5). Words like
"amazement" and "gratitude" reflect the
"positive signs of Eucharistic faith and love" to which the
Holy Father calls attention in the Encyclical, including the more
conscious, active and fruitful participation of the faithful in the
celebration of Mass, born of the liturgical reforms of the Second
Vatican Council, as well as the fervent adoration of the Blessed
Sacrament by the faithful in various contexts.
the other hand, the Pontiff observes certain shadows as well: abuses in
Eucharistic practice and confusion about Catholic teaching on the
sacrament. He notes in particular how certain ecumenical initiatives
have been contrary to the Eucharistic discipline "by which the
Church expresses her faith" (n. 10).
notion that ecclesiastical discipline or canon law expresses the faith
of the Church has been a constant element in the teaching of John Paul
II. In promulgating the Code of Canon Law in 1983 with the
Apostolic Constitution Sacrae Disciplinae Leges, he affirmed that
law is not "a substitute for faith, grace, charisms, and especially
charity in the life of the Church and of the faithful", but a means
of establishing an order in which these values, which retain their
primacy, can more easily develop. Canon law must correspond, he says, to
the Church's understanding of itself, articulated in our time in a
special way by the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council.
a similar way, the primacy in the recent Encyclical can obviously be
found in the theological and spiritual principles that ground the
Church's faith in the Eucharist. Yet such values have practical
consequences, which the Holy Father does not fail to declare, for the
everyday life of the Church and its Eucharistic practice. Failure
"to banish the dark clouds of unacceptable doctrine and
practice" (n. 10) is to be untrue to the faith and the mystery that
we celebrate and adore in the Eucharist.
the course of Ecclesia de Eucharistia, the Holy Father makes a
number of specific references to the 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC)
for the Latin Church and to the 1990 Code of Canons of the Oriental
Churches (CCEO). Points treated in other places in the document are
directly relevant to other provisions of canon law even though no
specific reference is made to the codes in the Encyclical's footnotes.
The more significant canonical issues are considered here.
Relationship between the Priesthood and the Eucharist
the documents to which the Encyclical makes reference is the 1983 Letter
Sacerdotium Ministeriale of the Congregation for the Doctrine of
the Faith (CDF), which declared that "the Eucharistic mystery
cannot be celebrated in any community except by a validly ordained
priest" (n. 29). While this teaching, with its definitive source in
the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), may seem obvious, it is reiterated in
the CDF Letter and, no doubt, in the Encyclical as well precisely in
response to the erroneous notions that there is no appreciable
difference between the ministerial priesthood and the universal
priesthood of all the baptized, that all the baptized are successors to
the apostles, and that the capacity to preside at the Eucharist comes
not from a sacramental character but only from the mandate of the
Catholic Church teaches, rather, that by the imposition of hands and the
invocation of the Holy Spirit, its bishops are made successors to the
apostles and endowed with the power of Christ to teach, govern and
sanctify (Lumen Gentium, n. 21). The bishops, in turn, through
the sacrament of orders, confer this power on others in various grades (Lumen
Gentium, n. 28).
is thus that bishops and presbyters have the exclusive power to renew in
the Eucharistic mystery the action of Christ at the Last Supper and make
the paschal mystery present to the Church till the end of the ages.
Through the sacramental character, Christ so configures priests to
himself that whenever they pronounce the words of consecration they act
not in their own name or by mandate of the community, but in the person
of Christ the Eternal High Priest. The Eucharist, therefore, in the
Encyclical's words, "is a gift which radically transcends the power
of the assembly" (n. 29).
This teaching of the Church is enshrined in CIC
c. 900 § 1, which reads: "The minister who is able to confect the
sacrament of the Eucharist in the person of Christ is a validly ordained
priest alone". The parallel provision in the CCEO is c. 699 § 1:
"Only bishops and presbyters have the power to celebrate the Divine
Liturgy". Those not ordained to the priesthood are altogether
incapable of this act under any circumstances. Violations of the
principle are subject to automatic sanction (CIC c. 1378 § 2, 1; CCEO
restrictive distinction, cautions the Pontiff, "does not represent
any kind of belittlement of the rest of the People of God, for in the
communion of the one body of Christ which is the Church this gift
redounds to the benefit of all" (n. 30). This notion of equality
and diversity within the Church, with its roots in the two conciliar
constitutions on the Church (Lumen Gentium, n. 32; Gaudium et
Spes, nn. 49 and 61) is summarized in CIC c. 208: "From their
rebirth in Christ, there exists among all the Christian faithful a true
equality regarding dignity and action by which they all cooperate in the
building up of the Body of Christ according to each one's own condition
The Encyclical's reassertion of this principle in
the context of the Eucharist may have the effect of correcting certain
confusion and abuses in this regard. These include, for example, the
assumption by the non-ordained of roles restricted to sacred ministers,
especially with respect to certain prayers of the Mass as CIC c. 907
Sacramental sharing in the absence of full communion
legal norm of c. 900 on the priest as uniquely capable of confecting the
Eucharist is not merely a matter of ecclesiastical discipline; it
reflects, rather, a truth of divine institution: the inseparable
connection between the sacrament of orders and the sacrament of the
Eucharist. In the Encyclical, John Paul II calls attention to the
ecumenical consequences of this teaching when he quotes the words of the
Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio (UR), n.
22, in reference to the Ecclesial Communities 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" (n. 30).
This truth too has a norm as its consequence,
namely, that even though the Ecclesial Communities profess that the Holy
Supper "signifies life in common with Christ," still, the Holy
Father goes on to say in the Encyclical, the "Catholic faithful,...
while respecting the religious convictions of these separated brethren,
must refrain from receiving the communion distributed in their
celebrations...". The reason for this prohibition is "so as
not to condone an ambiguity about the nature of the Eucharist and,
consequently, to fail in their duty to bear clear witness to the
truth" (n. 30).
discipline can be found in CIC c. 844 § 2, which permits Catholics to
receive the Eucharist (as well as penance and anointing of the sick)
"from non-Catholic ministers in whose Churches these sacraments are
valid". The canon imposes three further conditions: that
"necessity requires it or true spiritual advantage suggests
it"; that "danger of error or indifferentism is avoided";
and that "it is physically or morally impossible to approach a
Catholic minister". Churches where the sacraments are valid are the
separated Eastern Churches as well as other Churches which, in the
judgment of the Apostolic See, are in the same condition as they.
1993 Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms of
Ecumenism of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity
(n. 132) went somewhat beyond the provision of c. 844 § 2 when it said
that, under the same circumstances, Catholics are permitted to receive
the sacraments "from a minister in whose Church these sacraments
are valid or from one who is known to be validly ordained according to
the Catholic teaching on ordination". This document suggests that
in individual cases a validly ordained man may be ministering in an
Ecclesial Community that itself has no valid Eucharist because of its
more general lack of valid orders. The Encyclical, on the other hand,
makes no such reference. Indeed, it seems to make an absolute
prohibition when it says: "Catholics may not receive communion in
those communities which lack a valid sacrament of Orders" (n. 46).
Encyclical identifies yet another consequence arising from the teaching
on the inseparable connection between valid orders and valid Eucharist,
one that has further relevance in the context of ecumenism. One of the
necessary requirements for reception of the Eucharist by a non-Catholic
Christian in exceptional circumstances is that he or she have Catholic
faith in the sacrament. In the case of the faithful of the separated
Oriental Churches such faith is evident; among Christians in the various
Ecclesial Communities, however, Catholic faith in the Eucharist is not
there are many dimensions to Catholic faith in the sacraments of
Eucharist, penance and anointing of the sick, one in particular is
specified in the Encyclical as necessary for the proper disposition for
their reception, namely, "the truth regarding the need of the
ministerial priesthood for their validity" (n. 46).
as a shared vision of the connection between valid orders and valid
Eucharist is to the fulfilment of the Lord's prayer that all may be one,
that unity more broadly requires, in the words of the Encyclical,
"full communion in the bonds of the profession of faith, the
sacraments and ecclesiastical governance" (n. 43), a topic dealt
with in CIC c. 205 and CCEO c. 8. The Church's discipline on worship in
common, especially Eucharistic worship (communicatio in sacris),
is based on a twofold principle articulated in UR, 8: while ordinarily
the unity of the Church ought to be what the Eucharist expresses, the
Eucharist as a means of grace to be shared justifies its reception,
outside the context of full communion, under special circumstances.
Consequently, the Council teaches, communicatio in sacris
"is not to be considered as a means to be used indiscriminately for
the restoration of unity among Christians".
special circumstances justifying the admission of non-Catholics to Holy
Communion never justify concelebration between Catholic priests and
priests or ministers of other Churches or Ecclesial Communities. This is
absolutely prohibited by CIC c. 908 and CCEO c. 702, which the Pope
cites in the Encyclical (n. 44) as the Church's certain norm responding
to the conciliar teaching. Violation of this prohibition is subject to
canonical penalty (CIC c. 1365; CCEO c. 1440).
only would such concelebration be an invalid means of promoting unity,
but, the Holy Father explains in his Encyclical, "it might well
prove instead to be an obstacle, to the attainment of full communion, by
weakening the sense of how far we remain from this goal and by
introducing or exacerbating ambiguities with regard to one or another
truth of the faith" (n. 44). The Encyclical cites the assertion of
the Vatican II Decree on the Eastern Churches Orientalium Ecclesiarum,
n. 26, that any common worship that "would damage the unity of the
Church, or involve formal acceptance of falsehood or the danger of
deviation in the faith, of scandal, or of indifferentism" is
contrary to the divine law.
While concelebration and broadly-based
intercommunion can only follow the re-establishment of visible
communion, the admission to communion of non-Catholics can be justified
in individual and exceptional cases and under special circumstances,
precisely, according to the Encyclical, "to meet a grave spiritual
need for the eternal salvation of an individual believer" (n. 45).
These terms must be properly understood.
cases" involve identifiable persons, not a universe of cases.
"Exceptional" means "extraordinary" with respect to
the nature of the situation; the admission to communion of non-Catholics
cannot become an ordinary practice. The "special
circumstances" in this context are certain defined conditions, both
objective and subjective, that must be verified.
Holy Father cites CIC c. 844 §§ 3-4 and CCEO c. 671 §§ 3-4 as the
source of the Church's discipline for the admission of non-Catholics to
Eucharistic communion. The provisions of each Code are the same. In each
of the two canons cited, § 3 treats the admission to the Eucharist,
penance and anointing of the faithful of the separated Eastern Churches
and those Churches judged equivalent to them, while § 4 considers the
reception of the same sacraments by members of Ecclesial Communities.
discipline for the former is less complicated. It requires simply that
the persons spontaneously request the sacrament (that is, of their own
accord and not in response to an invitation) and be properly disposed
(for example, having the right intention to receive the sacrament, being
properly catechised with regard to it and being in the state of grace).
Though the canon does not impose any further objective circumstances,
the conciliar text, which the Encyclical echoes, suggests that the
spontaneous request from the non-Catholic to receive the Eucharist
should arise from an at least subjectively grave spiritual need for it.
Ecumenical Directory cautions that "due consideration should be
given to the discipline of the Eastern Churches for their own
faithful" (n. 125). Some of these Churches prohibit their faithful
from receiving the Eucharist from a Catholic minister.
the case of the faithful belonging to Ecclesial Communities the
standards for admission to the Eucharist are more restrictive. As
special objective circumstances, the canons name danger of death and
other situations of necessity that the diocesan bishop or the conference
of bishops judge to be justifiably grave.
a judgment could take the form of a general norm established either by
the diocesan bishop or conference of bishops, in consultation, as
specified in § 5, with the competent local authority of the interested
Church or Ecclesial Community. An example of such general norms is the
document One Bread One Body issued in 1998 by the Bishops'
Conferences of England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.
In the absence of such antecedent norms, the
diocesan bishop may make judgments on a case-by-case basis. The
Ecumenical Directory, however, favours such norms when it says "it
is strongly recommended that the diocesan Bishop... establish general
norms for judging situations of grave and pressing need" (n. 130).
norms may also determine the means of verifying whether the subjective
conditions set down by the canons are fulfilled. Two of these conditions
are identical to the two required in the case of the faithful of the
Eastern Churches: the spontaneous request and the proper disposition.
the non-Catholics are to manifest Catholic faith with respect to
sacraments to be received, and they must be unable to approach a
minister of their own community. Such impossibility could be either
physical or moral.
truly extraordinary character of communicatio in sacris, the many
situations in which it has been abused, and what may be a misguided
sense of hospitality and charity in the understanding of some Catholic
ministers of the Eucharist all suggest that norms provide direction for
determining the necessary elements of Catholic faith in the sacraments
and what constitutes the impossibility of access to the non-Catholic
Ecclesia de Eucharistia the Holy Father denies the possibility of
dispensation from these conditions, no doubt because of their
theological grounding. While the discipline may seem exigent, the
faithful observance of these norms, the Pope writes, manifests and
guarantees "our love for Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, for
our brothers and sisters of different Christian confessions — who have
a right to our witness to the truth — and for the cause itself of the
promotion of unity" (n. 46).
The Eucharist and the state of grace
previous issue dealt with visible communion; this one has to do with
"invisible communion" of the faithful with God and the Church,
a communion that can be broken by grave sin and is restored by
conversion and, ordinarily, by individual and integral sacramental
confession and absolution (c. 960).
the Encyclical the Holy Father unequivocally reaffirms the perennial
doctrine of the Church, grounded in the teaching of St. Paul, that the
faithful must be reconciled before sharing in the Eucharist (n. 36). The
Encyclical cites two canons which treat the relationship between the
Eucharist and serious sin.
first reference (n. 36) is to CIC c. 916 and CCEO c. 711. These canons
prohibit anyone conscious of grave sin from celebrating Mass or
receiving Holy Communion without prior sacramental confession. Only when
a grave reason, such as the needs of the faithful or protection from
scandal, compels such celebration or reception, and when there is no
opportunity, either physical or moral, to confess, is an exception made
to this principle. In such a case, the person is obliged to make an act
of perfect contrition (sorrow motivated by the love of God) and resolve
to go to confession as soon as possible. For while imperfect contrition
(sorrow motivated by fear of punishment) is sufficient for forgiveness
with sacramental absolution, only perfect contrition, along with the
resolution to confess as soon as possible, is sufficient without the
sacrament (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 1452-1453).
Encyclical also makes reference (n. 37) to CIC c. 915 and CCEO c. 712.
These canons, indirectly addressed to those entrusted with the care of
souls, deny the admission to Holy Communion of those who have been
excommunicated or interdicted, after the imposition or declaration of
the penalty, and "others obstinately persevering in manifest grave
sin". While the Encyclical affirms that the judgment of the state
of grace resides in the examination of one's own conscience, it also
recognizes that the public nature of the situations described in these
canons calls for a response from the Church "in her pastoral
concern for the good order of the community and out of respect for the
sacrament" (n. 37).
While there are many ways for persons to
persevere obstinately in manifest grave sin — and perhaps there should
be a greater censure of those who persistently oppress the poor and
outrageously violate basic human rights — the situation described in
these canons is often associated with that of divorced and remarried
persons. In June 2000 the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts
published a Declaration on Divorced and Remarried Persons which
affirmed that the prohibition of c, 915 is derived from divine law.
Calling attention to the words of CCEO c. 712, "Those who are
publicly unworthy are forbidden from receiving the Divine
Eucharist", the Declaration asserts that the reception of the
Eucharist by those who are publicly unworthy constitutes an objective
harm to the ecclesial communion, namely, a scandal affecting at the same
time both the Eucharist and the indissolubility of marriage. Further,
the Declaration rejects interpretations of c. 915 that would empty it of
meaning by suggesting that "obstinate perseverance in manifest
grave sin" can never be verified.
An examination of additional canonical issues
makes reference to several other canonical issues. Among them are the
exhortation of CIC c. 904 and CCEO c. 378 that priests celebrate the
Eucharist daily (n. 31); the precept contained in CIC cc. 1247 and 1248
§ 1 and CCEO c. 881 §§ 1-2 to assist at Mass on Sundays and holydays
of obligation (nn. 30, 41), including those situations in which the
faithful participate in ecumenical services on Sundays (n. 30); and the
phenomenon of Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest described
in CIC cc. 230 § 3 and 1248 § 2 (nn. 32-33).
final important canonical theme addressed in the Encyclical is one
previously considered by John Paul II in one of his earliest letters for
Holy Thursday, Dominicae Cenae (1980), which also treated the
topic of the Holy Eucharist. Perhaps one of the most critical points of
that document is made in n. 12, namely, that ministers are stewards of
the Eucharist, which is a common good of the Church. The priest,
therefore, "...cannot consider himself a 'proprietor' who can make
free use of the liturgical text and of the sacred rite as if it were his
own property, in such a way as to stamp it with his own arbitrary
personal style. At times this latter might seem more effective, and it
may better correspond to subjective piety; nevertheless, objectively it
is always a betrayal of that union which should find its proper
expression in the sacrament of unity".
principle with its conciliar roots in Sacrosanctum Concilium, nn.
4 and 22, is now codified in the Code of Canon Law which
guarantees the right of the faithful "to worship God according to
the prescripts of their own rite" (c. 214), and obliges all priests
to observe faithfully the norms and texts contained in the liturgical
books (c. 846 §1). Similar provisions are found in CCEO c. 17 and cc.
668 § 2 and 674.
likewise affirms: "Liturgy is never anyone's private property, be
it of the celebrant or of the community in which the mysteries are
celebrated". Therefore, the Holy Father makes it a point "to
appeal urgently that the liturgical norms for the celebration of the
Eucharist be observed with great fidelity" (n. 52).
canonical scope of this article prohibits a deeper investigation of the
Encyclical's various theological themes. It is enough, by way of
conclusion, to say that, from the point of view of ecclesiastical
discipline, the document does not seem to change the canonical
regulation of the Eucharist.
the Pontiff has emphasized certain norms of the current law and has
explained more fully the ecclesiological values which canon law must
always express, foster and guarantee. Just as the Instruction Inaestimabile
Donum addressed in detail a number of the abusive liturgical issues
raised in Dominicae Cenae, so may we look forward to receiving
from the competent curial dicasteries the "more specific document,
including prescriptions of a juridical nature" promised by the Holy
Father in the Encyclical (n. 52).