McPartlan on the Centrality of the Sacrament
LONDON, 24 FEB. 2005 (ZENIT)
Theologian Henri de Lubac proposed that the first millennium was
characterized by the idea that "the Eucharist makes the Church," whereas
the second millennium held more to the idea that "the Church makes the
Father Paul McPartlan
professor of dogmatic theology at the University of London, member of
the Vatican's International Theological Commission and author of
"Sacrament of Salvation: An Introduction to Eucharistic Ecclesiology"
agrees that both statements are still true today.
He shared with ZENIT the centrality, significance and evolution of the
Eucharist's relationship with the Church.
Part 2 of this interview will appear Friday.
Q: What role does the Eucharist play in the life of the Church?
Father McPartlan: The Eucharist is at the very core of the life of the
Church and gives the Church its identity.
The Church is the Body of Christ, and, as St. Augustine taught, we
receive the body of Christ in order to become the body of Christ: "Be
what you see and receive what you are."
The whole mystery of Christ and of the Church as his body is what we
receive in the Eucharist. This sacrament therefore renews our life
together in Christ; in other words, it renews the Church.
"The Church draws her life from the Eucharist," as Pope John Paul II
said at the start of his encyclical "Ecclesia de Eucharistia."
The life that we share in Christ is the life of the Trinity, because
Christ is the Son of God incarnate, and that life is one of perfect
communion. The phrase we use about receiving the Eucharist is really
very significant; we say we are receiving Communion. There is such a lot
of meaning concentrated in that phrase.
We are receiving Christ himself, but the life he shares with us is the
communion life of the Trinity
the very life that calls us out of our own individualism and draws us
together as the Church.
The Eucharist renews the very gift that makes us to be the Church, and
it follows that the community dimension of the Eucharist is of the
utmost importance. It is really communities, and ultimately the Church
as a whole, that receives the Eucharist, not just lots of individuals.
We should always be conscious of those with whom we receive; the
Eucharist renews our life as brothers and sisters, caring for one
another and working together to bear witness to the communion life of
the Kingdom of God.
Our life in Christ begins, of course, with baptism, and people sometimes
think that an emphasis on the Eucharist as making the Church detracts
from the importance of baptism in making the Church. We must avoid any
Baptism and Eucharist are both given to us by Christ and therefore there
can never be any rivalry between them. Rather we must understand how
they fit together. What baptism begins in us, the Eucharist renews,
strengthens and sustains.
For instance, in every Eucharist we are washed by the blood of the Lamb,
as it says in Revelation 7:14; it is a washing that renews the washing
in water that we received in baptism. We must never forget that there is
forgiveness in the Eucharist, particularly expressed when we receive
under both kinds and drink from the cup of the Lord.
In a sense, the Eucharist keeps the grace of our baptism fresh in us
until the moment when it is consummated at our death. As we pray in the
Mass for a deceased person: "In baptism she died with Christ, may she
also share his resurrection."
Q: What does it mean that "the Church makes the Eucharist" and "the
Eucharist makes the Church"?
Father McPartlan: These two phrases were coined by the great French
Jesuit Henri de Lubac [1896-1991], who was a leading pioneer of the
renewal of the Church at the Second Vatican Council and became a
cardinal toward the end of his long life.
Both are true, of course. However, he thought that the first millennium,
and especially the era of the Fathers of the early Church, was
characterized by the idea that "the Eucharist makes the Church;" whereas
the second millennium, the era of scholasticism, held more to the idea
that "the Church makes the Eucharist."
It is clear from the title of the Pope's encyclical that we have
returned in recent times, particularly after Vatican II thanks to the
work of de Lubac and others, to a more patristic point of view.
The two phrases in fact tend to identify two rather different
perceptions of the Church. If we say that the Eucharist makes the Church
then we will readily understand that the Church is itself a family of
Eucharistic communities, a communion of local churches, which was the
However, de Lubac showed that the community dimension of the Eucharist
suffered greatly as a result of Eucharistic controversy at the start of
the second millennium. Much more attention was paid to the fact that
bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ than to the
fact that the Church then receives these transformed gifts and is itself
transformed in Christ.
The Eucharist ceased to shape the Church and became one of seven
sacraments that the Church celebrates. Hence, the Church makes the
Juridical factors then began to shape the Church, and the standard
picture of the Church in the scholastic era is that of an institutional
pyramid, with the pope at the top. Vatican II grappled with how to
integrate these two pictures of the Church and this is still an issue
Nevertheless, we can certainly say that the Council showed a strong
desire to reinstate patristic perspectives. We naturally speak nowadays
of the Church as a Eucharistic communion of local churches and this is
of immense importance ecumenically.
Q: What progress has there been in ecumenical discussion of the
Father McPartlan: The Catholic Church joined the ecumenical movement as
a result of the Second Vatican Council, largely through the insight that
ecumenism is really the striving for catholicity, which is surely what
the Catholic Church is all about. It was particularly the French
Dominican Yves Congar [1904-1995], another great pioneer of the Council,
who promoted this crucial insight.
Since the Council, a number of very important ecumenical agreed
statements on the Eucharist have been produced, with a growing
perception across the Christian family that the Eucharist is somehow a
key to the mystery of the Church. If we are seeking Church unity, we
must seriously consider the Eucharist.
While there is not yet full agreement on the Eucharist, we can certainly
note progress toward a fuller and richer shared understanding of the
It is striking that certain perspectives on the Eucharist that we have
rather neglected in the recent past recur time and again in these agreed
statements. It is as if the rediscovery of these perspectives is really
promoting a growing consensus where previously there was only
The particular perspectives I would highlight are the links between the
Eucharist and the Church community, the Holy Spirit and the future,
respectively, all of which are profoundly scriptural and traditional.
If in the recent past we have tended to think of the Eucharist as the
occasion when each of us as an individual meets Christ himself and is
fed in a re-enactment of the past event of the Last Supper, we are
learning now to extend and expand this rather limited picture.
In the Eucharist, Christ is feeding the Church, and each of us as
members of the Church. It is also an occasion when the Holy Spirit is
powerfully active, not only transforming the gifts of bread and wine but
also transforming those who receive. Finally, it is not just a memorial
of a past event; it is also a foretaste of the future kingdom.
One sentence from the 1982 Lima Report on "Baptism, Eucharist and
— from the World Council of Churches' Faith and Order Commission,
in which the Catholic Church fully participates
is eloquent on these three points: "The Holy Spirit through the
Eucharist gives a foretaste of the Kingdom of God: the Church receives
the life of the new creation and the assurance of the Lord's return."
Another sentence shows important convergence on a proper understanding
of the sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist: "The Eucharist is the
sacrament of the unique sacrifice of Christ, who ever lives to make
intercession for us." ZE05022424
Father Paul McPartlan on Sharing in Christ's Life
LONDON, 25 FEB. 2005 (ZENIT)
The Eucharist contains riches to feed and forgive us, to strengthen
and unite us, and to guide and protect us on our pilgrim way.
So says Father Paul McPartlan, professor of dogmatic theology at the
University of London, and a member of the Vatican's International
Theological Commission and author of "Sacrament of Salvation: An
Introduction to Eucharistic Ecclesiology" (T&T Clark/Continuum).
He shared with ZENIT how the Church is supremely privileged to know
Christ and to share his life, the life of true communion.
Part 1 of this interview appeared Thursday.
Q: What is the significance of the Holy Father choosing this year as the
Year of the Eucharist?
Father McPartlan: Pope John Paul wants to launch the Church strongly
into the new millennium. To have a year concentrating on the mystery of
the Eucharist is a vital part of this project, because the Eucharist
contains riches to feed and forgive us, to strengthen and unite us, and
to guide and protect us on our pilgrim way. Jesus himself is with us and
we recognize him in the breaking of bread, as the disciples did at
In his profoundly inspiring apostolic letter "Novo Millennio Ineunte,"
the Holy Father particularly identified the "great challenge" that faces
us at the start of the new millennium, namely, that of making the Church
"the home and the school of communion" if we truly wish "to be faithful
to God's plan and respond to the world's deepest yearnings."
The world is longing for peace and true community in families, in
neighborhoods, in nations and in the family of nations. People seek
life-enhancing relations in all these contexts and a unity that enables
a fulfilling diversity. This is the mystery of communion, ultimately
patterned on the Trinity.
Only Christ, who comes bearing the secret of God's life, can solve the
riddle and show the way to true communion. The Church is supremely
privileged to know Christ and already to share his life, the life of
communion. We receive Communion regularly from its true source, the very
gift that the world is most seeking.
Our parishes, dioceses and all our Church structures really ought to
model good, life-enhancing relations, in the strength of the Eucharist.
This is a great calling, in the light of which we should regularly
examine how we are doing.
Moreover, we receive the gift of Communion in order to minister it to a
waiting and needy world. It isn't given just for us to keep it to
ourselves. How vital it is, therefore, to concentrate on this gift,
really to try and grow in the living of it and to develop our sense of
mission in the strength of it. It has been entrusted to us and a
responsibility has been laid upon us.
The Year of the Eucharist is a providential time for renewed rejoicing
in this gift and renewed commitment to our mission in the world.
Q: Some say that a decline in respect for the body of Christ parallels a
decline in respect for human life. How do you think we should view
ourselves and others in the light of the Eucharist?
Father McPartlan: In 1 Corinthians 11:29, St. Paul himself told the
Church in Corinth to discern the body of Christ with respect when they
received the Eucharist, and it seems that he had a double meaning in
mind: They must receive worthily the body and blood of Christ, but they
must also treat worthily the members of the body and not humiliate the
Respect for Christ in the Eucharist must be accompanied by respect for
Christ in one another and, of course, in ourselves. A profound passage
from Vatican II's pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern
world, "Gaudium et Spes," No. 22, teaches that, by his incarnation, the
Son of God has united himself with every single human being.
The face of Christ is reflected and refracted in countless forms across
humanity, and respect for him necessarily involves respect for all human
We celebrate Christmas, when the Son of God truly took flesh and became
vulnerable as one of us. In the Eucharist, he becomes present in the
humble staples of human life, bread and wine. In the world around us he
is present, particularly as he himself said in Matthew 25:31-46 in those
— of whom there have dramatically been so many in the tsunami
We need to hold all these presences together, so as to have an
integrated respect for him and for all those whom he loves.
Moreover, the fact that Jesus so readily gives himself to us in the
Eucharist is a constant reminder to us to give ourselves to others,
particularly those in need, because to give is to be Christ-like and
Quoting a lovely passage from St. Leo, which could equally have come
from St. Augustine, Vatican II taught in "Lumen Gentium," No. 26, that
our "sharing in the body and blood of Christ has no other effect than to
accomplish our transformation into that which we receive." ZE05022529