|Understanding and receiving the Church's
Today, there is a unitary view of the Eucharist and of the sacrament
of Penance. It is therefore quite clear that through communion with the
Body and Blood of Christ, deeply connected with his sacrifice, the power
at the Mass that comes from his bloody immolation on the Cross reaches the
hearts of the faithful.
If they let themselves be imbued with Christ's
obedience and submission to the Father to the point of giving up their
lives, they are enabled effectively to share in the effects of the Pasch.
God opens their hearts, increasingly involving them in a growing
acceptance of his agape or love, according to both the vertical and
The different parts of the Eucharistic celebration are interwoven and
have a multiple effect of purification, reconciliation and communion,
which allows for ceaseless growth and intensification.
"The celebration of the Eucharist", John Paul II recommended to us in
his Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, "cannot be the
starting-point for communion; it presupposes that communion already
exists, a communion which it seeks to consolidate and bring to perfection.
The sacrament is an expression of this bond of communion both in its
invisible dimension, which, it Christ and through the working of the
Holy Sprit, unites us to the Father and among ourselves, and in its
visible dimension, which entails communion in the teaching of the
Apostles, in the sacrament and in the Church's hierarchical order. The
profound relationship between the invisible and the visible elements of ecclesial
communion is constitutive of the Church as the sacrament of salvation (cf.
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Communionis
Notio, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of the
Church Understood as Communion, 28 May 1992, 4; AAS 85 , 839-840).
Only in this context can there be a legitimate celebration of the
Eucharist and true participation in it. Consequently, it is an intrinsic
requirement of the Eucharist that it should be celebrated in communion,
and specifically maintaining the various bonds of that communion intact"
"Invisible communion, though by its nature always growing, presupposes
the life of grace, by which we 'become partakers of the divine nature' (II
Pt 1:4), and the practice of the virtues of faith, hope and love. Only in
this way do we have true communion with the Father, the Son and the Holy
Spirit" (n. 36).
Therefore, there are no grounds for maintaining either that the Eucharist directly pardons
serious or mortal sins without any reference to
the Sacrament of Penance or that is can provide itself with an
ecclesiastical prescription whereby the Eucharist in itself suffices to
reconcile those aware of having committed such sins.
Indeed, despite belonging to the Church with their "body", but not with
their "heart" — as St. Augustine would say (cf. De baptismo contra
Donatistas V 28, 39: PL 43, 197; cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 8;
Pius XII, Mystici
Corporis, in AAS 35  221ff.) — these sinners have voluntarily set
themselves outside the communion of grace and of the Spirit, which are
essential to the Church, that complex reality which results from a human
element and a divine element.
Necessarily, therefore, we must not relegate the sacraments of Penance
and Eucharist to a private concept of the economy of salvation, for fear
of reducing them to a direct encounter with God that omits the mediation
of the Church that Christ desired.
Christian initiation as a process of admittance into the Church, built
up by the Eucharist, source and summit of salvation, also enables us to
view the reconciliation of a baptized sinner as an ecclesial event.
The Church, however, is not meant to be an intermediate body between
God and the individual, or a mere institution responsible for managing
the means of salvation; rather, the Church is the People of God and a
"sacramental" reality in which the saving Covenant is brought about in history. This accounts for the inseparable
relationship between the acceptance of the Church, Body of Christ, and the
conferral of salvation by God, between return to the Church and conversion
to God, and between peace with the Church and peace with God.
Christian sinners, already received once and for all into the Church as
a People of God and communion of Grace and inserted in Christ "by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit" (Ti 3:5), must
be welcomed back into the Church not as a social reality to which they
have always belonged, since Baptism is unrepeatable, but as a communion
Thus, the second penitential journey is explained, necessarily bound to
that of Baptism and historically regulated by the Church in fidelity to
Christ's intention, which ends with acceptance in the communion of grace
through sacramental reconciliation and readmission to the Eucharist.
Fidelity to Christ and the Spirit
The sacrament of Penance should not be seen, in accordance with a
predominantly moralistic outlook, as a means of purifying the heart and
making it fit to receive the Eucharist as a "holy thing:, or the "Bread of
Angels", but as an intervention of the Holy Spirit, who, acting by means
of the redeeming mercy of the Father through the ministry of Christ and of
the Church, inspires and assumes the penitent's desire for conversion and
makes him or her visibly encounter, in the sign of the sacrament, the
divine will to forgive sins.
Thus, the sacrament through its efficacy enables the penitent to live
in accordance with the Father's will, to make a clean break with sin, and
to want to make peace again with God and with one's brothers and sisters.
In this way, while the penitent who had voluntarily excluded himself
from salvific communion is fully welcomed back through sacramental
absolution into the community of the Covenant, celebrated in the
Eucharist, the Church herself is purified and renewed by the same Spirit
who converted the bread and the wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.
The belief that the sacrament of reconciliation pardons only those sins
that publicly reveal a break with the Ecclesial Community is absolutely
unfounded. The sinner, by means of the sacrament of Penance and the
ministry of Christ and of the Church, receives forgiveness for his or her
offences against the Lord through God's mercy.
At the same time, one is reconciled to the Church, which was wounded by
sin but which cooperates in the sinner's conversion with her charity,
example and prayer.
No sin, however, is a matter to be settled between God and the person
who committed it. Moreover, every grave or mortal sin, albeit only
internal, damages the Church, which is inseparably a communion of grace
and a visible community and, in addition, deprives the sinner of the gift
of the Spirit, the vivifying principle of the ecclesial Body.
Thus, the celebration of the sacrament [of Reconciliation] is
essential. In it, the minister of Christ and of the Church reconciles
sinners to God and to the Church by means of the power conferred upon him
in the sacrament of Orders. It is through the Church that sinners receive
the Spirit, who makes them living members of Christ's Mystical Body.
Every time Christians participate in the celebration of the Eucharist,
they are invited to participate fully; that is, to receive sacramental
Communion, because Christ, by instituting the Eucharistic Sacrifice in the
form of a banquet, intends to create full communion with all.
The total fruit of Christ's sacrifice is received as he willed, by
eating his flesh and drinking his blood (cf. Jn 6:53-58), but with his
same inner dispositions of obedience and self-giving to the Father, and
love for his brethren. It is impossible to enter into the intimacy of
Christ's life and to take part in it if one is consciously in disagreement
with what he demands of us for our salvation.
Receiving the Eucharist in a worthy manner
Paul VI and John Paul II reminded us of this many times. I cite only
the following passage from the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia:
"The Catechism of the Catholic Church rightly stipulates that
'anyone conscious of [having committed] a grave sin must receive the
sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion' (n. 1385). I
therefore desire to reaffirm that in the Church there remains in force,
now and in the future, the rule by which the Council of Trent gave
concrete expression to the Apostle Paul's stern warning when it affirmed
that, in order to receive the Eucharist in a worthy manner, 'one must
first confess one's sins, when one is aware of mortal sin' (DH
1647, 1661)" (Eccleisa de Eucharistia, n. 36).
An organic rather than a preconceived vision of the sacramental economy
leads to expressing the specific role of the Eucharist.
God is always ready to offer grace to the sinner for the transformation
of his heart, but its reception and conversion depend upon the person, as
a free and responsible being.
Moreover, the Eucharist, centre of the life of the Church and of every
Christian, does not render superfluous the other sacraments and acts of
purification and sanctification (prayer, almsgiving, fasting, etc.).
Hence, there is no difficulty in admitting that the full reconciliation
of the Christian sinner is also the fruit of the Eucharist, to the extent
that without the voto of the Eucharist, it would not be brought
about, and that certain partial aspects and some phases of conversion are
also brought about by the Eucharist alone, without the effective
celebration of sacramental Penance.
By increasing love, the Eucharist overcomes the obstacles that are
created by the multiplication of venial sins, some of which seriously and
permanently damage enthusiasm for Christ, preventing individuals from
exercising their full efficacy of personal, ecclesial and social life. As
a propitiatory sacrifice, the Eucharist applies the fruits of the
sacrifice of propitiation and reconciliation of the Cross, not because it
directly forgives even grave sins, but because, with the power of the
Spirit, it moves people to repentance which, if it is perfect, reconciles
them, always including the obligation to celebrate the sacrament of
penance as soon as possible (DH 1677).
The Christian sinner, who is not yet sufficiently repentant to receive
the sacrament of the Eucharist, is at least helped by the Church's plea to
the Lord for all, especially if the sacrifice is applied for him or her,
and if the sinner is present, although unable to receive communion.
Becoming aware of one's incoherent state, the sinner can be stimulated to
full conversion and achieve forgiveness through the voto of the
effective celebration of the sacrament of Penance.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has already explained the specific
role of the Eucharist and of Penance. "The Eucharist is not ordered to the
forgiveness of mortal sins — that is
proper to the sacrament of Reconciliation. The Eucharist is properly the
sacrament of those who are in full communion with the Church" (n. 1395).
John Paul II emphasized the connection between the two sacraments: "The
two sacraments of the Eucharist and Penance are very closely connected.
Because the Eucharist makes present the redeeming sacrifice of the Cross,
perpetuating it sacramentally, it naturally gives rise to a continuous
need for conversion, for a personal response to the appeal made by St.
Paul to the Christians of Corinth: 'We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be
reconciled to God' (II Cor 5:20). If a Christian's conscience is burdened
by serious sin, then the path of penance through the sacrament of
Reconciliation becomes necessary for full participation in the Eucharistic
Sacrifice" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 37).
'To that which you are you respond: Amen!'
St. Augustine, in a discourse that he gave on the Solemnity of
Pentecost, enables us to see the penitential process more clearly as
aspiring to create the conditions for the historical completion of the
Eucharist. Indeed, full participation in the Eucharist, "so that your Amen
may be true", actuates, declares and brings to fulfillment the first
admission of the neophyte into the ecclesial community and the readmission
into it of the Christian who has sinned.
The bread, consisting of many grains of wheat, ground, kneaded and
baked, and the wine made from many pressed grapes, after the Consecration
are the Body and Blood of Christ and at the same time effectively mean
that "we, many though we are, are one body" (I Cor 10:17).
"So if you are the Body and Members of Christ, your mystery is placed
on the table. To that which you are you respond, 'Amen!', and by
responding to it you assent to it.... Understand and enjoy unity, truth
"In this way the Lord Jesus also meant us, he wanted us to belong to
him, he consecrated on his table the mystery of our peace and unity.
Whoever receives the mystery of unity and is not bound by peace, does not
receive the mystery in his or her favour but against themselves....
"Be converted to the Lord... let us give to him, with as pure a love
that our littleness permits, supreme and sincere thanks, imploring him in
his benevolence also to purge our actions and our thoughts of evil and to
increase our faith, direct our minds, grant us holy thoughts and lead us
to eternal beatitude" (St. Augustine, Sermone 271: PL 38,