Reflections on Ecclesia de Eucharistia - 12

Author: Fr Charles Morerod, O.P.


Fr Charles Morerod, O.P.
Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas, Rome

The Eucharist forms the centre of ecumenical dialogue

For some time now the Eucharist has been receiving considerable attention in bilateral and multilateral ecumenical dialogue (for example, Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry, 1982, by Fede e Costituzione). Since it is the source and supreme manifestation of the Church's unity, the Eucharist must be the centre of this dialogue.

The title of the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia already announces that the Eucharist builds the Church, which is one. "Eucharistic Communion also confirms the Church in her unity as the Body of Christ" (n. 23). This unity of the Church must recapitulate in Christ the whole universe, for the time being in concentric circles: "By its union with Christ, the People of the New Covenant, far from closing in upon itself, become a 'sacrament' for humanity" (n. 22). This is why the Holy Father can say that "here is the Church's treasure, the heart of the world, the pledge of the fulfilment for which each man and woman, even unconsciously, yearns" (n. 59). In the Eucharist "there is a truly enormous 'capacity' which embraces all of history" (n. 5). It "embraces and permeates all creation" (n. 8). As a source of unity in the world, the Eucharist is even "also the source and the summit of all evangelization" (n. 22); united by these aims, Christians must do their utmost to join forces to achieve them.

Sign leading to full unity

The Eucharist, which brings about and shows the unity of the Catholic Church in the strict sense, is a treasure which "impels us towards the goal of full sharing with all our brothers and sisters to whom we are joined by our common Baptism" (n. 61). The hope of full unity in Christ is also an aspiration to sharing the Eucharist. But until full unity exists, joint Eucharistic participation will remain impossible. This sorrowful situation, coinciding with the pain of division, is due to the fact that "the Eucharist, as the supreme sacramental manifestation of communion in the Church, demands to be celebrated in a context where the outward bonds of communion are also intact" (n. 38).

Certain infelicitous ecumenical initiatives stem from an erroneous or incomplete understanding of the Eucharist (cf. n. 10). The Eucharist "requires that the bonds of communion in the sacraments, particularly in Baptism and in priestly Orders, be real. It is not possible to give Communion to a person who is not baptized or to one who rejects the full truth of the faith regarding the Eucharistic mystery" (n. 38).

In addition to the need for the bonds of communion, therefore, three elements are needed for "normal" participation in the Eucharist celebrated in the Catholic Church. The first concerns the minister: his ordination must be valid. The other two concern those receiving Communion: they must be baptized and have faith in the Eucharistic mystery.

As for the minister, he is crucial: "The celebration of the Eucharist... absolutely requires the presence of an ordained priest as its president" (n. 29). A baptized person becomes a minister through ordination by a Bishop; this shows that the ministry comes down through history from Christ. This requirement has involved the communities of separated brethren in many ways. The Churches (especially the Eastern Churches) where the episcopate is recognized by the Catholic Church can validly celebrate the Eucharist, although for now, the absence of full communion prevents their common celebration and intercommunion. The Eucharist celebrated by these Churches contains in itself a dynamic that carries them towards full communion with the Bishop of Rome (cf. n. 39).

Those Ecclesial Communities that are more or less directly linked to the Protestant Reformation do not have a sacrament of Orders as such that is recognized by the Catholic Church. They often deny the existence of Orders as a sacrament, or at least the need for it. The Encyclical recalls the teaching of the Second Vatican Council: that the Ecclesial Communities, "especially because of the lack of the sacrament of Orders... have not preserved the genuine and total reality of the Eucharistic mystery. Nevertheless, when they commemorate the Lord' s death and Resurrection in the Holy Supper, they profess that it signifies life in communion with Christ and they await his coming in glory" (n. 30). Ecumenical dialogue on the Eucharist is closely linked to dialogue on the ordained ministry, but this is not the topic of the Encyclical.

There are then the two requirements that concern the faithful who receive the Eucharist: they must be baptized and believe in the Eucharistic mystery. The first has nothing directly to do with ecumenical dialogue, given that what is meant by "ecumenical" is a dialogue between baptized persons (except in rare cases of non-baptized Christians). The fact that certain Protestants are beginning to receive non-baptized persons at the Holy Banquet, however, poses a new ecumenical problem. The most sensitive point is the requirement of Eucharistic faith that involves recognizing the Real Presence (it is no longer the bread and the wine that are present but the Body and Blood of Christ [cf. n. 15]) and the Eucharistic sacrifice (ecumenical dialogue has taken several steps towards a clearer mutual understanding of the bond between the one sacrifice of the Cross and the Eucharistic sacrifice).

Eucharist must be celebrated in communion with the Bishop, who is in turn in communion with the Pope (cf. n. 39). Normally, therefore, celebrating the Eucharist expresses an already full communion which it helps to deepen (cf. n. 35). Do cases exist where Eucharist can be shared with separated brethren? A distinction must be made on one hand between a concelebration of ministers of various Churches, and on the other, of the admission to Communion of individual members during a Church's celebration: "While it is never legitimate to concelebrate in the absence of full communion, the same is not true with respect to the administration of the Eucharist under special circumstances, to individual persons belonging to Churches or Ecclesial Communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church. In this case, in fact, the intention is to meet a grave spiritual need for the eternal salvation of an individual believer, not to bring about an intercommunion which remains impossible until the visible bonds of ecclesial communion are fully re-established" (n. 45).

Concelebration is thus never possible: far from encouraging unity, "any such concelebration would not be a valid means, and 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 admission of individual non-Catholics to Eucharistic Communion is possible in certain cases, in order not to deprive them of spiritual help. These separated brethren must "greatly desire to receive these sacraments, freely request them and manifest the faith which the Catholic Church professes with regard to these sacraments. Conversely, in specific cases and in particular circumstances, Catholics too can request these same sacraments from ministers of Churches in which these sacraments are valid" (n. 46, in which the Holy Father cites the Encyclical Ut Unum Sint that refers to the Directory for the Application of the Principles and Norms of Ecumenism of 1993; this applies to those separated brethren who for moral or physical reasons are unable to have recourse to their own ministers; cf. Ecumenical Directory, n. 131, EV 13/241; CIC, c. 844).

Thus, it is not a question of real intercommunion, but a help in case of need. The Encyclical does not state that in these cases the rule of the requirement of confession should be applied to non-Catholics in all cases, but only to those conscious of having committed a serious sin (cf. nn. 36-37). This matter deserves further thought. The 1993 Ecumenical Directory provided a possibility for separated brethren to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation as well as the Eucharist in case of need (cf. n. 129, EV 13/2410), but without developing the bond between the two. The Council of Trent, in one of the two paragraphs quoted in the Encyclical (Denz. 1661, cited in n. 36), denied that faith alone was sufficient preparation for the Eucharist and thus insisted on confession (cf. Denz. 1647, also cited in n. 36).

Perhaps today, in the exceptional cases in which a non-Catholic can receive the Eucharist, especially in articolo mortis, it would be possible to point out the rule "in the Church", which "remains in force, now and in the future" (n. 36). This rule originates in I Cor 11:27-29: "Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the Body and Blood of the Lord... anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the Body eats and drinks judgment upon himself". The reception of non-Catholics at the Eucharist, as an exception, must be a spiritual help for them; it must not become the risk of a very grave sin for someone who, perhaps, in his life has never had an opportunity to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation.

Our separated brethren — and many Catholics — often do not understand the impossibility of intercommunion, which they perceive as a judgment of the internal forum, the casting of doubt on their sincere faith in Christ. This deep suffering must be understood and respected. But respect for suffering and helping the sufferers also entails explaining the position of the Catholic Church. What many do not realize is that the Eucharist is not only an interior link with Christ. Eucharistic Communion is at the same time communion with Christ and with the Church.

Declaring Catholicity in Eucharist

There is no more solemn and profound way of declaring oneself Catholic than by receiving the Eucharist at a Catholic celebration; wanting to declare oneself Catholic yet saying one is non-Catholic is a contradiction. Both communion with Christ and communion with the Church have their visible as well as invisible dimensions (cf. nn. 35, 49-50). Separating the two dimensions expresses an erroneous anthropology, an "angelization" of the human person. God enters into relations with human beings mindful of who they are: beings at the same time both spiritual and physical.

Certain other topics of the Encyclical have an ecumenical dimension, although they are not explicitly treated in this perspective. For example, one can see how juxtaposing "Mary and the Eucharist" (n. 57) unites Catholics and the separated Eastern brethren, but surprises most Protestants. The same can be said of Eucharistic Communion with the saints in heaven (cf. n. 19). Another potentially ecumenical theme is the recommendation of daily Eucharistic celebration (cf. n. 31). On this point, the Catholic Church also differs from the Orthodox Churches, in which the discipline of fasting and confession, quite apart from the length of the celebrations, induces them not to celebrate the Divine Liturgy every day. This difference is not new; indeed, it dates back to before the schism and is not a cause of division but a subject for dialogue. St Ambrose suggested that this point should be the topic of fraternal dialogue with the Greeks: why shouldn't a sick person receive his medicine daily (cf. DeSacramentis, V, 25).

Finally, Eucharistic adoration outside Mass, so dear to Catholics and warmly recommended by the Encyclical (cf. 25), is a Catholic feature; dialogue must also be an occasion to present to separated brethren this Catholic response to the friendship of Christ (cf. St Thomas, Summa Theol., III, 75, 1: "Because it is the special feature of friendship to live together with friends, as the Philosopher [Aristotle] says, [Christ] promises his bodily presence as a reward.").

The Eucharist, the source and sign of unity par excellence, is also a sign of division. This paradox is found in all the key points of the faith. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini noted, on 25 January 1963, that "we come to realize that a strange phenomenon exists. What should lay the foundations of union — thought, doctrine, our common faith — instead of being a subject of union is an impediment, an obstacle to unity. Faith divides us".

First of all, it is Christ himself who divides people even in families, Christ, the maximum principle of unity! And how many people, even in the realm of the profane, are divided in the name of love? The most unitive things are also the most divisive, even if the dynamism that impels them toward union may come first. Today the Eucharist is first and foremost the ultimate instrument and sign of Christian unity, the action of grace for unity that is already real.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
10 December 2003, page 14

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