Reflections on Ecclesia de Eucharistia - 1

Author: Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, C.M.F.


Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, C.M.F.
Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints

The Holy Eucharist is the very 'heart' of the Church

Last 17 April during the Mass of the Lord's Supper (Cena Domini), the Holy Father John Paul II signed the Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia on the sacrament of the Eucharist and its relationship to the Church. This is an outstanding ecclesial document due to its importance and the impelling timeliness of its full doctrinal and pastoral content. It should be considered as a new gift of the Pope to the Church at the dawn of the new millennium, on the 25th anniversary of his fruitful Pontificate.

This new Encyclical offers excellent ideas for reflection and reliable guidance to those who wish to deepen their knowledge and live with ever greater intensity the Misterium fidei which the Lord bequeathed to us as his most precious testament.

A new Encyclical on the Holy Eucharist

1. The Eucharist is the saving presence among his people of Christ, who died and rose. He wanted to stay with us in a special way in the sacrament of the Eucharist. For this very reason, the Eucharist has a central place in the life of the new messianic people. This centrality is strongly emphasized in the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia. We read in it that as the sacrament par excellence of the Paschal Mystery, "the Eucharist... stands at the centre of the Church's life" (n. 3); and again, "the Eucharist is the centre and summit of the Church's life" (n. 31). This means that "the Eucharist builds the Church and the Church makes the Eucharist" (n. 26).

The centrality of the Sacrament of the Altar in the life of the Church explains her solicitous attention to the Eucharistic sacrament. Let us remember in this regard, for example, the doctrinal decrees of Trent which guided theological thought and catechesis in successive centuries and are still a valid dogmatic reference point today in the field of the renewal and growth of the faithful in devotion to the Eucharist (cf. n. 9). Then, the three great Eucharistic Encyclicals published in times closer to our own should also be mentioned: Mirae Caritatis of Leo XIII, Mediator Dei of Pius XII and Mysterium Fidei of Paul VI. Their content was later to converge in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, especially Lumen Gentium and Sacrosanctum Concilium.

The Eucharistic magisterium of the current Pontiff fits into this context. Already in the first years of his Petrine ministry, in his Apostolic Letter Dominicae Cenae of 24 February 1980, Pope John Paul II addressed certain aspects of the Eucharistic Mystery and their effects on the life of those who administer them. In this Encyclical, he takes up the thread of that discourse to clarify certain points and dispel certain doubts that have arisen here and there concerning the Eucharistic Mystery.

It is certain that today there are many positive signs of faith and of love for the Eucharist, Indeed, the noticeably better informed and more active participation of the faithful in the celebration of the Eucharist is a fruit of the liturgical reform introduced by the Second Vatican Council: more and more time is devoted daily to the adoration of the Eucharist; and a growing number of people take part in the Eucharistic procession for Corpus Christi which, every year, makes this adoration a moving public profession of love for Jesus in the Eucharist.

However, it is necessary to admit that "alongside these lights, there are also shadows" (n. 10), and among them the Pope highlights the following: the steady decline in some places of the practice of Eucharistic adoration; certain abuses, in some contexts, which contribute to confusion with regard to the genuine Catholic teaching on the Eucharist; at times, an extremely reductive understanding of the Eucharistic Mystery which tends to strip it of its sacrificial meaning and celebrates it instead as if it were simply a fraternal banquet. Then, in addition, the nature and necessity of the ministerial priesthood is at times obscured. Nor in some ecclesial contexts is there any lack of ecumenical initiatives which albeit well-intentioned, indulge in Eucharistic practices contrary to the discipline by which the Church expresses her faith" (ibid.).

However, the direct and immediate purpose of the new Encyclical is precisely to "effectively help to banish the dark clouds of unacceptable doctrine and practice, so that the Eucharist will continue to shine forth in all its radiant mystery" (ibid.).

The Church draws her life from the Eucharist

2. The central place of the sacrament of the Eucharist in the life of the ecclesial community which, as has been stated, is the key idea of Encyclical, is expressed in the irrefutable fact that "the Church draws her life from the Eucharist" (ibid., n. 1). It is especially significant that the text opens with these words which then become the actual title of the document. This assertion is repeated later: "The Church draws her life from Christ in the Eucharist; by him she is fed and by him she is enlightened" (ibid., n. 6; cf. n. 7).

What Ecclesia de Eucharistia is talking about is, of course, the Eucharist considered in its two fundamental aspects of sacrifice and nourishment, which, moreover, are absolutely inseparable because they are inherent in the very nature of the Eucharist. It is a banquet of sacrifice, or, if we prefer, a sacrificial banquet. The Eucharist, by its nature, is "Supper" and "Cross", "Table" and "Altar". An Altar that is a Table. A Table that is an Altar. To separate the two elements in order to disregard or undervalue either one would be totally to distort the Eucharistic Mystery. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us of this when it says: "The Mass is at the same time, and inseparably, the sacrificial memorial in which the sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated, and the sacred banquet of communion with the Lord's body and blood" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1382). This is also what the Pope says in the Encyclical when he observes that Jesus "did not simply state that what he was giving them to eat and drink was his body and his blood; he also expressed its sacrificial meaning and made sacramentally present his sacrifice which would soon be offered on the Cross for the salvation of all" (n. 12).

On her pilgrimage through time and history, the Church possesses nothing more valuable than the Eucharistic sacrifice and banquet; it is the most precious gift, "par excellence, for it is the gift of himself, of his person in his sacred humanity, as well as the gift of his saving work" (n. 11), since it is "the source and summit of the Christian life" (Lumen Gentium, n. 11; Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 1).

Indeed, the Eucharist is the source of every grace that God bestows upon us. It is true that all the sacraments, as acts of sanctifying worship of Christ and of the Church, are inexhaustible sources of grace for those who approach them with faith. But it is also true that the Eucharist is the source of every grace, since every grace, in the present economy of salvation, is always related, explicitly or implicitly, to the Eucharist. St Thomas Aquinas, the supreme theologian and passionate eulogist of Jesus in the Eucharist, says so expressly: (ibid.,n. 62); "nec aliquis habet gratiam ante susceptionem huius sacramenti nisi ex aliquali voto ipsius"(Summ. Theol., III q. 79, a.1 ad 1), a vow contained in the reception of the other sacraments which are ordered to the Eucharist as to their goal. Therefore, in the actual economy of salvation, one can say that every grace is Christian, sacramental and Eucharistic, since it is linked, at least implicitly, with Christ, with the sacraments and with the Eucharist, the true centre of gravitation of the new messianic people.

Moreover, the Eucharist is the source of every grace since it "contains the Church's entire spiritual wealth: Christ himself, our passover and living bread. Through his own flesh, now made living and life-giving by the Holy Spirit, he offers life to men" (Presbyterorum Ordinis, n. 5; Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 1). In other words, the One who is the very author of grace, who is "full of grace and truth" (Jn 1:14); the One, in short, who is the source of original grace.

The Eucharist, the 'creative force' of ecclesial communion

3. The Eucharist, in which the action of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is at work (cf. Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 23), is also the source of the Church's unity. The Encyclical speaks in this context of the "unifying power of participation in the banquet of the Eucharist" (ibid.) and of the "unifying power of the body of Christ" (ibid., n. 24).

Expressed in this way, the text does no more than take up and emphasize the thought of the Council which says that, "at the same time in the sacrament of the Eucharistic bread, the unity of the faithful, who form one body in Christ, is both expressed and brought about" (Lumen Gentium, n. 3; Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 21; cf. I Cor 10:17). Thus, the Eucharist is the sacrament of Christian koinonia, the "sacramentum unitatis" [sacramental unity], as the Doctor Angelicum calls it (Supplementum, q. 71, a. 9).

The Last Supper, of whichthe Eucharist is but the reactualization in time, certainly took place in an atmosphere of unity, of an intimate communion of love. This emerges clearly from the circumstances in which it occurred, as well as from the words and acts of Jesus on that solemn occasion: his deep desire to eat the paschal lamb with his disciples before his Passion, the example of humility and charity shown in the washing of the feet, his prayer for the unity of his disciples and for all who would believe in him.... All these things express Christ's wish that his last supper would be enlivened by sincere love, by an intimate union of hearts. The gravity of Judas' sin was precisely that in betraying Christ, he not only distanced himself from the Messiah but also from communion with the entire messianic people, and at the very moment in which it was about to become definitive.

The atmosphere of the Last Supper must also be the atmosphere of every Eucharistic celebration; the Last Supper was the first Christian Eucharist. In fact, the Church does no more than repeat what occurred in the Upper Room through the ministry of priests, from generation to generation, faithful to the commandment received, "Do this in remembrance of me" (cf. ibid., nn. 5, 21); and by repeating it she makes him mysteriously but really present, so that all may share in him.

More specifically, the Eucharist is the source of Christian unity, because in this unity it is not only represented but produced (ibid., n. 21). Unity is its principle, its root. The Church is one, because the Eucharist is one. St Paul is most explicit on this. Writing to the faithful of Corinth, he says, "The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the Body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (I Cor 10:16-17).

Unity as an effect of the Eucharist also emerges from The Bread of Life Discourse which John records. In Eucharistic communion, Christ communicates his own life to those who receive it under the appearances of the bread and the wine: "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.... he who eats me will live because of me" (Jn 6:56-57). Now those who live one and the same life, the life of Christ, cannot but be united with one another, forming a single body: the body of Christ, which is the Church.

The "unifying power" of participation in the Eucharist is forcefully affirmed by the Fathers; to this end they used particularly beautiful and vivid images and expressions. However, perhaps no one has been so insistent on this vis unitiva (unifying power) of the 'sacramentum amoris' (sacrament of love) as Augustine. "The virtue proper to this food", he says, "is unity: a unity such that we, joined together in his body and having become his members, become what we receive.... We should therefore see in this food and in this drink, the associating of his Body and his members, that is, the Holy Church" (Augustine, Sermo 57: PL, 38, 389).

Before leaving this world, Christ prayed to the Father for the unity of all his disciples (Jn 17:21). This is fully brought about in the Eucharist. The early Christian communities had "one heart and one mind" because they partook of "the banquet of the Lord" (I Cor 10:21) and in the "breaking of bread" (Acts 2:42; Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 3).

Let us remember the words on this topic of De La Taille, a great theologian of the Eucharist: "Christ", he says, "after the Institution of the Last Supper, left the precept of fraternal love as his own new commandment, because he himself in the Eucharist is a new principle that gives life to fraternal love and a new binding reason that he asks for himself and his members, by virtue of incorporation, one love. If you injure love, you will offend the Eucharist. If you seek love, you will find it in the Eucharist. This is the law of the New Testament, founded... on the Host-Body, consecrated to God at the Last Supper and given to the disciples" (De La Taille, Mysterium Fidei, 487).

A thanksgiving banquet, the beginning of the fullness of grace

4. The new Encyclical of the Supreme Pontiff underlines the essential paschal dimension of the Eucharist. It was instituted in the Upper Room during the Last Supper (cf. Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 5). With it, Jesus wanted to celebrate the Jewish or Exodus Passover with the Twelve. So it was his Passover meal.

The Exodus Passover was a mystery that involved all the Children of Israel who gathered to commemorate their deliverance from Egyptian bondage and to thank Yahweh for his gift of freedom. In the Haggadhah ("narration", a Jewish ceremony on the evening of the Passover), introducing the hymn of the Hallel, it says, "In every generation it is the duty of each person to think of himself as though he himself had just come out of Egypt... because the holy One — blessed be he — did not only set our fathers free but also sets us free with them. It is therefore our duty to give thanks and praise, to celebrate, glorify, exalt and magnify... the One who worked all these miracles for us and for our ancestors, who brought us from slavery to freedom, from subjection to redemption, from sorrow to joy, from mourning to festivity, from the darkness to the shining light. Let us therefore say 'Alleluia!' to him" (Haggadhah, 34, 40).

Joy, praise and thanksgiving for the gift of liberation were therefore typical notes of the Jewish Passover. These are also, in a totally new context, the proper sentiments of the Christian Easter, starting with the Passover celebrated by Jesus with his disciples in the Upper Room.

Indeed, as we can see from the accounts of the institution of the Eucharist, Jesus "took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them" (Mk 14:23).

The reason why Jesus gives thanks to the Father in that solemn hour (cf. Jn 7:30) is clear: the redemption of those who were entrusted to Him, the gift of messianic salvation, foretold by the prophets, was finally and definitively bestowed upon humanity. He gives thanks, therefore, because what he was expecting has happened, what had been promised has come true, what was prefigured in the Old Testament has come about. The last times of fullness, of grace, of intimacy with God have henceforth begun. Human history has been radically renewed. A new world, deeply marked by the presence in it of the Word of God incarnate has begun. For all these things Jesus gives thanks at the Last Supper, which was the first celebration of the Eucharist (cf. Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 2).

Still today, this is the Eucharist that has been celebrated down the ages in the churches of Christian communities. As a reactualization of the Last Supper, it is essentially a banquet of joy and thanksgiving to the Lord for the gift of deliverance from the slavery of sin. The liturgy itself heavily underlines this fundamental aspect of the Eucharist. The celebrant invites the faithful: "let us give thanks to the Lord our God"; "it is right to give him thanks and praise". "Father, all-powerful and ever-living God, we do well always and everywhere to give you thanks and praise..." (Roman Missal, Eucharistic Prayer I, Preface).

The entire People of God gather with love to give thanks, in deep and uncontainable joy, for the longed-for event of messianic redemption. And by so doing, they prolong in time and in history Christ's thanksgiving at the Last Supper with his disciples "priusquam pateretur"(before the Father) [sic].

From what has been said above, emerges the intimate and deep, indissoluble bond between the Eucharist and the Church. The Eucharist is truly her vital nerve centre, her very "heart". Yes, the Church has an essentially Eucharistic heart. The Eucharist, as the commemoration of the Passover of Christ, is part of her life, it is part of her very identity. "The Eucharist" really "builds the Church and the Church makes the Eucharist" (ibid., n, 26).

This is the Mysterium fidei that the ecclesial community is called to live with renewed enthusiasm at the dawn of the new millennium, ever more conscious that it is the greatest treasure of the Church, because in it she possesses everything: the redeeming sacrifice of Christ, his Resurrection, the gift of the Spirit; for in it, in the form of the humble elements of the Eucharist, Christ himself walks with his Bride, still a pilgrim on this earth, enlightening her and making her a witness of steadfast hope for his children and the world; for it is the pledge of the fulfilment for which each man and woman, even unconsciously, yearns (cf. ibid., nn. 59 and 62). The Eucharist has in fact an essentially eschatological dimension, which is strongly emphasized in the Encyclical.

To live the Eucharistic mystery with ever greater depth and intensity, the Supreme Pontiff invites us to take our place "at the school of the saints, who are the great interpreters of true Eucharistic piety. In them the theology of the Eucharist takes on all the splendour of a lived reality; it becomes 'contagious' and, in a manner of speaking, it 'warms our hearts'". But the Pope invites us above all to "listen to Mary Most Holy, in whom the mystery of the Eucharist appears, more than in anyone else, as a mystery of light. Gazing upon Mary, we come to know the transforming power present in the Eucharist" (ibid., n. 62), which is nothing other than the transforming and renewing power of the One who came "to make all things new".

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
16 July 2003, page 9

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