The Eucharist and Penance

Author: Alfredo Marranzini

The Eucharist and Penance

Alfredo Marranzini

Understanding and receiving the Church's sacraments

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 horizontal dimensions.

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 [1993], 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" (n. 35).

"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. LumenGentium, n. 8; Pius XII, Mystici Corporis, in AAS 35 [1943] 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 of grace.

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 and charity....

"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, 1247).

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
28 June 2006, page 6

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