Reflections on Ecclesia de Eucharistia - 14

Author: Fr Ettore Malnati


Fr Ettore Malnati

The Holy Eucharist as the very heart of the Church's life


The words that begin and give this Encyclical its name, "The Church draws her life from the Eucharist", already offer us a glimpse at the meaning and significance of this document of the Magisterium of John Paul II.

Its intent is to reaffirm the centrality of the Eucharist in the very life of the People of God and to grasp the style of it within the lived experience of the ecclesial reality.

This is the goal motivating John Paul II in offering this document to the Catholic Christian community so that everyone may be able to "experience it ever anew" (n. 7).

The occasion for the Encyclical is both the 25th year of John Paul II's Petrine ministry and Holy Thursday, a day on which it is the Pope's solid practice to send a pastoral-theological Reflection to ordained ministers on their respective commitment and to explain the ministerial nature of Christ the Head.

However, we learn in paragraph 9 what motivated the Holy Father to write this document, which echoes the Apostolic Letter Dominicae Cenae which he signed on 24 February 1980 and in which he pointed out "some aspects of the Eucharistic mystery and its importance for the life of those who are its ministers" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 9).

In this Encyclical John Paul II notes an "interior growth within the Christian community" (n. 10) due to the liturgical reform of Vatican II, which "has greatly contributed to a more conscious, active and fruitful participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar on the part of the faithful".

"In many places", he notes, "adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is also an important daily practice and becomes an inexhaustible source of holiness.... Unfortunately, alongside these lights, there are also shadows. In some places the practice of Eucharistic adoration has been almost completely abandoned.... At times, one encounters an extremely reductive understanding of the Eucharistic mystery. Stripped of its sacrificial meaning, it is celebrated as if it were simply a fraternal banquet. Furthermore, the necessity of the ministerial priesthood, grounded in apostolic succession, is at times obscured and the sacramental nature of the Eucharist is reduced to its mere effectiveness as a form of proclamation.... The Eucharist is too great a gift to tolerate ambiguity and depreciation" (n. 10).

In the Introduction John Paul II recalls the place of the institution of the Eucharist (n. 2) and the time of the "Sacred Triduum", "the hour of our redemption" to which "every priest who celebrates Holy Mass, together with the Christian community which takes part in it, is led back in spirit" (n. 4).

The Pontiff's recollections, which run the gamut of his years of priestly ministry, extend from his presiding over the Eucharistic celebrations in little villages in Poland (cf. n. 8), or "on the humble altar of a country church, in chapels built along mountain paths, on altars built in stadiums and in city squares, or in St Peter's Basilica" (n. 8).

Both meaningful and touching is the Pontiff's mention that "during the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 [he] had an opportunity to celebrate the Eucharist in the Cenacle of Jerusalem" (n. 2), one of the holiest and most meaningful places in Christianity, which today bears no signs of the Passover meal eaten by Christ and his disciples.

The Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia is composed of six chapters, plus an introduction and a conclusion.1

The document's intent is to expound Catholic teaching on the Eucharist in the light of what the Church has defined in the various Councils up to Vatican II, trying to offer clear doctrinal interpretations in order to help the reader gain a proper understanding of this mysterium fidei and foster an ecumenical process that aims at a broad and true communion, in the consciousness of what is the patrimony of faith of each Church and Christian Community. It is precisely this great consideration for ecumenical progress that John Paul II has expressed several times,2 both in regard to the Eastern Church as well as with our brethren of the Anglican Communion and the Ecclesial Communities born during the Reformation, that demands an adult relationship to the Depositum Fidei, which is basic to our being in Christ.

Certainly it is not in order to impede our journey towards unity but so that this journey may be made in charity, which cannot be achieved without truth.

Irenics does not benefit true communion.

"Christ's prayer reminds us that this gift needs to be received and developed ever more profoundly", John Paul II affirms. "The invocation 'ut unum sint' is, at one and the same time, a binding imperative, the strength that sustains us and a salutary rebuke for our slowness and closed-heartedness".3

"Let us take what unites us and leave aside what divides us", was a saying of Blessed Pope John XXIII. This "leaving aside what divides us" does not mean building upon equivocation; rather, it means that through a common study and discernment of what is fundamental, we can construct our koinonia in the charity of the truth.

The very first chapter of the Encyclical emphasizes some aspects of Eucharist which are part of its theological reflection and which we intend to develop: the sacrificial aspect; the real presence; the Eucharist, source, criterion and apex of communion; Eucharist and the ordained ministry.

A premise to this is the consideration that the Pontiff himself made in Dominicae Cenae on the Christocentric sacramental nature of the Fractio Panis.

1. Christocentric sacramentality

The concept of the sacred which we give to the Eucharist is in the unchanged essence of the "Mysterium", instituted by the Redeemer of the world during the Last Supper. It is from Christ's action that the Eucharist derives its sacredness, namely, it is a sacred action because in it are the continual presence and action of Christ, the "Holy One" of God (Lk 1:35; Jn 6:69, Rev 3:7), "Consecrated by the Father" (Jn 10:36)..., "High Priest of the New Covenant" (Heb 3:1; 4:15). It is he who is "the offerer and the offered, the consecrator and the consecrated".4

"The sacredness of the Mass, therefore, is not a 'sacralization', that is to say, something that man adds to Christ's action in the Upper Room, for the Holy Thursday supper was a sacred rite, a primary and constitutive liturgy, through which Christ... celebrated sacramentally the mystery of his Passion and Resurrection, the heart of every Mass".5

The sacredness of the Eucharistic celebration is connected to Christ's action which he willed in order to perfect the ancient Passover, which was a prelude to his redemptive sacrifice made to the Father by his acting as the single and pleasing Mediator for the "restoration" of impoverished mankind, marked by Adam's sin. This sacredness of the Eucharist comes intrinsically from Christ and the Church is its guardian and represents its meaning, both in the Eucharistic celebration and in the preservation of the bread and wine over which the "memorial celebration" is repeated (cf. n. 12).

The sacredness of the Eucharistic celebration is instituted by Christ,6 and the words and actions of every ordained minister to which the conscious and active participation of the whole Eucharistic assembly correspond echo the words and actions of the Last Supper. The ordained minister presides over and offers the Eucharistic sacrifice in persona Christicapitis, not only in the name of or in place of Christ.

"In persona" means a sacramental identification with Christ, the Eternal High Priest of the New Covenant, who is the Author and principal subject of this, his own sacrifice, in which in truth he cannot be replaced by anyone.

The ministry of those who have received the sacrament of Orders, in the economy of salvation chosen by Christ, manifests that the Eucharist they celebrate is a gift which radically surpasses the power of the assembly and is, however, irreplaceable in order to validly interlink the Eucharistic celebration to the sacrifice of the Cross and the Last Supper.7 Christ alone could and can always be the true and effective "victim of expiation for our sins... and for the sins of the whole world" (I Jn 2:2).

"Only his sacrifice", Dominicae Cenae recalls, "— and no one else's — was able and is able to haves a 'propitiatory power' before God, the Trinity and the transcendent holiness. Awareness of this reality throws a certain light on the character and significance of the priest celebrant who, by confecting the holy Sacrifice and acting 'in persona Christi', is sacramentally (and ineffably) brought into that most profound sacredness, and made part of it, spiritually linking with it in turn all those participating in the Eucharistic assembly".8

Therefore, it is not a question of creating an artificial "sacramentalization".

Here we are asked to recognize the mysterium fidei that has been handed on "for the life of the world".

The sacredness is therefore a single entity with the representation of the sacrifice of the Cross that becomes a source of holiness and grace because it is the same Paschal Mystery of Christ which he underwent for humanity, the Redemption and Salvation. It is the "mysterium", that is, the Eucharist, the presence of the whole Christ, that reinforces that sacredness or divine life within us, which Baptism has offered us and by which we have been made righteous in Christ.

2. The sacrificial aspect

The roots of the interpretation, method and event of the Christian Pasch are in the ancient Passover perpetuated in time with the memory of the faith and culture of the People of the Old Covenant. In this context is the proclamation of the commitment made by the God of Abraham to free His People who fulfil a sacrificial action (slaying a lamb) with a special sign value (the blood on the doorway of the houses), which then becomes an express desire that saves them from the angel of death.

The Galilean Rabbi, consciously fulfilling his mission as Redeemer and Saviour, places himself in a disposition of true and efficacious listening to the Father's will, making his own the path of kenosis (humiliation) which will lead him from the quasi-sacramental act of the washing of the feet at the Last Supper (Jn 13:1-20) to the "obedience" to death and death on the Cross (Phil 2:8), his glorification and the "cause" of his Resurrection.

The Apostle Paul understands and makes his own the faith of the post-Paschal community when, with conscious veracity, he affirms to the community of Corinth what he received from the Lord, taking them back to the night on which he was betrayed, when Christ instituted the "memorial" of the Passover of his death and Resurrection (I Cor 11:23), which is one of the specific dimensions of the nature of the community of the disciples of the Risen Lord (Acts 2:42).

The Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia states that "the words of the Apostle Paul bring us back to the dramatic setting in which the Eucharist was born. The Eucharist is indelibly marked by the event of the Lord's passion and death, of which it is not only a reminder but the sacramental re-presentation. It is the sacrifice of the Cross perpetuated down the ages. This truth is well expressed by the words with which the assembly in the Latin rite responds to the priest's proclamation of the 'Mystery of Faith': 'We announce your death, O Lord'" (n. 11).

The faith of the Church today in the Eucharist that is celebrated has the same criteria that we find in the second century as expressed in the First Apologia of Justin,9 and in the writings of the Fathers of the undivided Church, such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian, John Chrysostom and Cyril of Jerusalem.

The Fractio Panis lived by the Christian community is imbued "with the awareness of having been set apart by the sacredness of Christ's action and by having consumed the banquet of the new Passover, which has its foundation in the Lord's sacrifice".10

The presence and very action of the "Church constantly draws her life from the redeeming sacrifice", the Encyclical affirms. "She approaches it not only through faith-filled remembrance, but also through a real contact, since this sacrifice is made present ever anew, sacramentally perpetuated, in every community which offers it at the hands of the consecrated minister. The Eucharist thus applies to men and women today the reconciliation won once for all by Christ for mankind in every age" (n. 12).

As if he wanted to "reinforce" our common faith in the close bond between the sacrifice of Golgotha and the Eucharist, in the first chapter of the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia John Paul II recalls that "the Eucharist is a sacrifice in the strict sense, and not only in a general way, as if it were simply a matter of Christ's offering himself to the faithful as their spiritual food. The gift of his love and obedience to the point of giving his life (cf. Jn 10:17-18) is in the first place a gift to his Father. Certainly it is a gift given for our sake, and indeed that of all humanity (cf. Mt 26:28; Mk 14:24; Lk 22:20; Jn 10:15)" (n. 13).

The contemporary Magisterium's most striking emphasis on the sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist understood as part of the sacrifice of Golgotha itself can be found both in the Second Vatican Council, where it states that, "Taking part in the Eucharistic sacrifice, which is the font and apex of the whole Christian life, they offer the Divine Victim to God, and offer themselves along with It",11 as well as in the Mysterium Fidei of Paul VI, where he affirms that "by means of the Mystery of the Eucharist, the Sacrifice of the Cross which was once carried out on Calvary is reenacted in wonderful fashion and is constantly recalled, and its salvific power is applied to the forgiving of the sins we commit".12

It is an efficacious sacrifice offered by Christ in the obedience of the Church so that by their free adherence individuals may benefit from what Christ, the "New Man" and the "New Creation", has acquired once and for all on behalf of all of humanity.

3. Real presence

In 1967, shortly after the Second Vatican Council and Paul VI's Encyclical MysteriumFidei, the Congregation of Rite's Instruction Eucharisticum Mysterium suggested for the reflection of the whole Catholic community the diverse ways in which Christ is present in the Church. Its objective was, and still is, that the faithful "should achieve a deeper understanding of the mystery of the Eucharist", including "the principal ways in which the Lord is present to his Church in liturgical celebrations. He is always present in a body of the faithful gathered in his name (Mt 18:20).... He is present both in the person of the minister, 'the same now offering through the ministry of the priest who formerly offered himself on the cross' (DS 1743), and above all under the species of the Eucharist".13

"In this sacrament, in fact, Christ is present in a unique way, the total Christ... God and man, substantially and permanently".14

The paragraph closes with a reference to Mysterium Fidei, which points out that Christ's presence under the species of the Eucharist "is called 'real' not to exclude the idea that the others are 'real' too, but rather to indicate presence par excellence, because it is substantial and through it Christ becomes present whole and entire, God and man".15

In his Encyclical John Paul II returns to cite not only the whole elaboration of Catholic theology and the Magisterium, but that depositum fidei that, because of the reflection of theologians, the development by Catholic Christian asceticism, the spiritual and liturgical life of the Ecclesial Communities and institutes and movements, is the greatest treasure possessed by the Catholic Church of both East and West.

The awareness that the bread and wine which are "blessed by the prayer of his word"16 become his flesh and his blood17 is the common patrimony of the undivided Church. It would be the Christian of the second millennium who would develop through the concepts of the philosophy of that day the doctrine which we know as that of transubstantiation."

How moving it is to read in the catechesis of Cyril of Jerusalem the recommendation he makes to his faithful to "consider... the bread and the wine not as bare elements, for they are, according to the Lord's declaration, the Body and Blood of Christ; for even though sense suggests this to you, yet let faith establish you".19

Without betraying anything of Tradition nor of theological speculation, not only of the great Thomas Aquinas, Paul VI offers us the expression "special real presence", thus leaving room to respect the ancient doctrine of the Eastern Church.

If we allow ourselves to be galvanized by this deep conviction of another type of logic, the Eucharist can only be seen as the "mysterium fidei", "a mystery which surpasses our understanding and can only be received in faith".20

If, however, such a reality does take place, it is clear that it can happen only in the dimension of the substance of the contingent elements of bread and wine in the Body of Christ, which remains and endures uninterruptedly in this sacramental newness as long as the species lasts. It would be quite difficult to understand, because of the particularity of the divine action, a precariously transitory presence merely by reason of the signification (transignification) or end (transfinalization).

God's action is an action that has a definitive sign and affects the substance of the one who receives that action, as is true for conversion and faith.

If one accepts this doctrine as the Church does, and not only the Catholic Church, Eucharistic worship outside of the celebration of the Mass becomes logical.

Indeed, this worship, John Paul II states, "is strictly linked to the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice... and is directed towards communion, both sacramental and spiritual. It is the responsibility of Pastors to encourage, also by their personal witness, the practice of Eucharistic adoration, and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in particular, as well as prayer of adoration before Christ present under the Eucharistic species".21

4. The Eucharist: source, criterion and apex of communion

Often when we hear people talking about communion or koinonia one thinks about the horizontal dimension.

Although this human solidarity is very important for us Christians, it is and must be the fruit of the exercise of the theological virtue of charity.

However and rightly so, it is our duty to allow ourselves to become involved in a hierarchical interpretation of values and truths including, I dare say, and especially so, for Christians. The first form of koinonia that we should seek and bring about is our incorporation into Christ, which Baptism has ontologically brought about in the believer.

We must not forget, however, as the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia reminds us, that such an incorporation "is constantly renewed and consolidated by sharing in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, especially by that full sharing which takes place in sacramental communion. We can say not only that each of us receives Christ, but also that Christ receives each of us.... Eucharistic communion brings about in a sublime way the mutual 'abiding' of Christ and each of his followers: 'Abide in me, and I in you' (Jn 15:4)".

"By its union with Christ, the People of the New Covenant... become a 'sacrament' for humanity", as Vatican II states,22 "a sign and instrument of the salvation achieved by Christ... for the redemption of all".23

"The Church's mission stands in continuity with the mission of Christ: 'As the Father has sent me, even so I send you' (Jn 20:21). From the perpetuation of the sacrifice of the Cross and her communion with the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, the Church draws the spiritual power needed to carry out her mission" (n. 22).

Precisely in this sense does the Second Vatican Council rightly present the Eucharist as the source and culminating point of all evangelization, insofar as the objective of evangelization is precisely the communion of people with Christ and in him with the Father and the Holy Spirit.24

The Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia offers us the opportunity to reflect as an Ecclesial Community on the foundations on which our being Church rests and the objectives that pastoral activity sets for itself in order to be present for evangelization in our post-modern society. We must start afresh from Christ and set out into the deep: "Duc in altum" (Lk 5:4).

Yes, abandon a logic that is narcissistic and implosive and achieve instead a style of spirituality of communion that is proper to the mystery of the Incarnation, where the Word gets so involved to the point of taking on human flesh in order to heal and raise man up to a familiar communion with his Creator, which enables the person to relate to God as Saviour and Father. The Christian seeks this koinonia in order to live out its meaning, creating space for a Christ-like lifestyle and letting himself or herself be deeply touched by the dynamism that belongs to the Eucharistic mystery, which contains in itself this tending towards God and others.

Expressing the concept of spirituality of communion, John Paul II explained it as "the heart's contemplation of the mystery of the Trinity dwelling within us and whose light we must also be able to see shining on the faces of the brothers and sisters around us".

"A spirituality of communion also means an ability to think of our brothers and sisters in faith within the profound unity of the Mystical Body and therefore as 'those who are part of me'...".25

Today more than ever it is necessary to "make the Church the home and school of Communion, communion understood as the great challenge facing us in the millennium that is beginning, if we want to be faithful to God's plan and respond as well to the deep expectations of the world".26

The Eucharist is the highest and most efficacious "christic" sacramental action for effecting and consolidating the Church in its unity of the Mystical Body (cf. n. 23). We can find the roots of this unifying efficaciousness in Paul's recommendations to the community of Corinth: "The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf" (I Cor 10:1617).

It is difficult in theory to reject this unifying efficaciousness that the Eucharist brings about ex opere operato. However, the value of the gift must be enhanced and made more effective through the ex opere operantis. Otherwise, we would not bear witness to the dünamis of the Sacrament. To build the unity of the Church ab intra and ad extra, and furthermore, to find its meaningfulness and power from the Eucharist,27 we must seriously seek to build within individuals and within the whole Christian community a communion "both in its invisible dimension, which, in Christ and through the working of the Holy Spirit, unites us to the Father and among ourselves, and in its visible dimension, which entails communion in the teaching of the Apostles, in the sacraments and in the Church's hierarchical order".28

John Paul II recalls that the Eucharistic celebration, however, cannot be the point of departure for communion, since the former already presupposes both invisible and visible communion, "which it seeks to consolidate and bring to perfection".29

Here, therefore, we get into the whole problem of the need, besides faith, for perseverance in sanctifying grace and charity (cf. Gal 5:6), remaining within the bosom of the Church with one's "body and heart".30

"...Keeping these invisible bonds intact is a specific moral duty incumbent upon Christians who wish to participate fully in the Eucharist by receiving the Body and Blood of Christ".31

However, ecclesial communion must also be visible.

The criteria of this visibility are offered to us by the Second Vatican Council: "They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ, accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ... [through] the bonds ... [of the] profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion".32

We have thus been presented with the reasons that give us the possibility of completing our celebration of the mysterium fidei by receiving the Body of the Lord.

Mention of the state of grace recalls the great gift of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (cf. n. 37) and the conscientious assessment of the subject which matters to God (cf. n. 37).

Regarding visible communion the Encyclical recalls: "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....

"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. Christ is the truth", John Paul II states, "and he bears witness to the truth (cf. Jn 14:6; 18:37); the sacrament of his Body and Blood does not permit duplicity" (n. 38).

5. Eucharist, ordained ministry

The relationship between the Eucharist and the ordained ministry is analogous to the consequentiality that exists between Christ and salvation.

Without the adaptability and action of the Word of God and his Incarnation, we would not have had the economy of salvation to which the whole of humanity has access today.

The ordained ministry has always been present in the Church because, through the proclamation, conversion and faith in Christ who died and is risen, the Church is to be hope for the whole of humanity which seeks to establish a true relationship between man and God, and between the person himself and the whole human family.

The Church is built and has been founded on the Apostles, in the sense that Christ himself desired it to be so and entrusted to them the proclamation and the "implantatio Ecclesiae". He wanted it as such so that, founded on the Apostles, it could be the sacrament of salvation for all people and for the whole person.

This is brought about because Christ is present in the Church and acts in history through the Church as Saviour, thus becoming the true servant of the truth about man and of man.

The one who gathers and makes dispersed humanity into the People of God is Christ, our sole Mediator.

This ministerial nature substantially and completely consumed by Christ in his salvific event must — in accordance with his will — be realized in every age and in every human reality (cf. Mt 28:19).

"For this reason, already during his public ministry (cf. Mt 16:18), and then most fully aftere his death and Resurrection (cf. Mt 28; Jn 20; 21), Jesus had conferred on Peter and the Twelve entirely special powers with regard to the future community and the evangelization of all peoples. After having called them to follow him, he kept them at his side and lived with them, imparting his teaching of salvation to them through word and example, and finally he sent them out to all mankind.

"To enable them to carry out this mission Jesus confers upon the apostles, by a specific Paschal outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the same messianic authority which he had received from the Father, conferred in its fullness in his Resurrection: 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age' (Mt 28:18-20).

"Jesus thus established a close relationship between the ministry entrusted to the apostles and his own mission: 'He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me' (Mt 10:40); 'He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me' (Lk 10:16).... And so the apostles, not by any special merit of their own but only through a gratuitous participation in the grace of Christ, prolong throughout history to the end of time the same mission of Jesus on behalf of humanity".33

The ordained ministry that the Church passes on and from which she benefits has its origins in Christ's will for the building up of the community as a sacrament of God's love for the whole of humankind.

It is the ordained ministry at the level of the episcopate and presbyterate that, through the laying on of hands, perpetuates the specific gestural expressiveness of Christ her Head, the One who can and really does regenerate the people of the New Covenant through his yes to the Father.

"With the imposition of hands on the faithful Christian the gift of the Spirit is communicated (cf. II Tim 1:6) which configures and consecrates the ordained minister to Christ the priest and makes him a sharer in the mission of Christ the priest in its twofold aspect of authority and service. This authority does not belong to the minister: it is, in fact, the manifestation of the exousia, that is, of the power of the Lord in virtue of which the priest fulfils his role of ambassador in the eschatological work of reconciliation (cf. II Cor 5:18-20).... The fact that this reality which imprints a sign lasts for his whole lifetime serves to express the fact that Christ irrevocably associated himself to the Church for the salvation of the world and that the Church herself is definitively consecrated to God. The [ordained] minister, whose life bears the seal of the gift received through the sacrament of Orders reminds the Church that the gift of God is definitive".34

In the third chapter of the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, entitled "The Apostolicity of the Eucharist and of the Church", John Paul II first points out three aspects of the apostolicity of the Eucharist (cf. nn. 27-28), paraphrasing the footnote about the apostolicity of the Church; he then presents his thoughts on the close bond between the "ordained ministry and the Eucharist".

"If the Eucharist is the centre and summit of the Church's life, it is likewise the centre and summit of priestly ministry. For this reason, with a heart filled with gratitude to our Lord Jesus Christ, I repeat that the Eucharist 'is the principal and central raison d'être of the sacrament of priesthood, which effectively came into being at the moment of the institution of the Eucharist"' (n. 31).

The first paragraph of the Conciliar Decree Presbyterorum Ordinis clearly places the ordained priesthood in the mystery of Christ himself.

The priestly life is a representation of the ministerial nature of Christ the Head. As a priest of the sacred realities, the ordained minister acts in persona Christi, and therefore represents Christ in his mission and in the salvific event, giving a people back to God and giving back to the people a sign of their belonging to God through those efficacious acts proper to the glorious Christ, that is, the sacraments.

Proclamation itself and the building up of the Ecclesia cannot disregard the ministerial nature of those who preside over the Fractio Panisin persona Christi, making present the Father's saving will, and this has made possible that salvation which is Christ's obedience, lived and consumed in the Paschal Mystery.

Christ therefore lives and is present in a real and special way in the Eucharist, which builds up the Church, only thanks to the ministerial nature of those whom he has incorporated into himself in a way different than the baptismal priesthood.

The imposition of hands, the gesture that actually transmits the ordained ministry (priesthood, episcopate), ontologically, enables the faithful Christian to become for the community the one who accomplishes the attention of the One who restored humanity to familiarity with God — Christ, the priest and victim of the New Covenant.

The finality of his identity is to build up the Church through the potestas over the Eucharistic Body of Christ.

The concrete efficaciousness of the ordained ministry is precisely in the fact that the subject is constituted and incorporated in this specific ministerial nature of Christ, which is ontologically distinct from the common priesthood, without which it would be impossible to have redemption and the salvation that we enjoy today thanks to the proclamation and faith.

The specific identity-bearing ministerial nature of the ordained minister is the fulfilment of Christ's availability to "historicize" the Redemption in obedience to the Father's saving plan, perpetuating Christ's gesture and his express desire to "Do this in memory of me".

With the ministerial nature that is proper to the two levels of the sacrament of Holy Orders ("presbyter and episcopus") the Eucharist builds up the Church and highlights for us the inseparable bond that exists between the Church and the ordained ministry.

The faith of the Church of the East and the Catholic Church of the West has always affirmed the constitutive and essential bond between the ministerial priesthood and the Eucharist.

This doctrine, as we have seen, has its roots in Christ's express will in calling and sending the Twelve, both before and after the Passover; it was defined by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215),35 reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council36 and by Sacerdotium Ministeriale, the letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published on 6 August 1983. Tradition and the recent Magisterium highlight, on the relationship between the Eucharist and the ordained ministry, that only in the Christian community in which there is an ordained ministerial priesthood in the uninterrupted continuity of apostolic succession, is there Eucharist and consequently the realization and full presence of the mystery of the Church.

The Second Vatican Council does not fail to recall that where there is no ordained ministry with these criteria, there is an absence of "the proper reality of the Eucharistic mystery in its fullness"37 and consequently, there is no full and integral realization of communion."


This brief look we have given to some of the more important topics that John Paul II wanted to consign to the Catholic Church should lead each of us and the Ecclesial Community to relate to the "Mystery of Faith" in an adult and thoughtful way.

The figure of Mary, presented to us as the "Woman of the Eucharist" (nn. 53-59), should encourage us. Indeed, the greatness of the Virgin of Nazareth is in her "yes" (n. 55), that is, in the faith that the spirituality of the Visitation has handed on to us (Lk 1:45).

The art that has welled up over the centuries around the Eucharistic mystery, which John Paul II compares to the anointing in Bethany (Mt 26:8; Mc 14:4; Jn 12:4), should cause to well up within our souls not the feelings of perplexity shown by the disciples (n. 47), but the behaviour of the woman whom John identifies as Mary, the sister of Lazarus, who knew how to render honour to the presence of the Lord who was about to give his life for his loved ones.

Like the woman of Bethany and like "the Church [that] has feared no 'extravagance', devoting the best of her resources to expressing her wonder and adoration before the unsurpassable gift of the Eucharist" (n. 48), we too should give the best of our faith and piety so that the Eucharist can really be a sacrament of communion and life.


1 The document is composed of: an introduction (1-10); The mystery of faith (11-20); The Eucharist builds the Church (21-25); The apostolicity of the Eucharist and of the Church (26-33); The Eucharist and ecclesial communion (34-46); The dignity of the Eucharistic celebration (47-52); At the school of Mary, Woman of the Eucharist" (53-58); Conclusion (59-62).

2 Cf. John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, n. 48.


4 John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Dominicae Cenae, n. 8.


6 Cf. ibid.

7 Cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 29.

8 John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Dominicae Cenae, n. 8.

9 Cf. Justin, Apologia I, 65.

10Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1382.

11 Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, n. 11.

12 Paul VI, Encyclical Letter Mysterium Fidei, n. 27.

13 Congregation of Rites, Instruction Eucharisticum Mysterium, n. 9.

14 Cf. ibid.

15 Paul VI, Encyclical Letter Mysterium Fidei, n. 40.

16 Justin, Apologia I, 66. " Cf. ibid.

17 Cf. ibid.

18 DS, 1642.

19 Cyril of Jerusalem, Mystagogical Catechesis, IV, 6.

20 John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 15.

21Ibid., n. 25.

22 Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, n. 1.

23Ibid., n. 9.

24 Cf. Vatican II, Decree Presbyterorum Ordinis, nn. 5-6.

25 Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, Instruction "Starting Afresh From Christ", n. 29.

26 John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Vita Consecrata, n. 28.

27 Cf. Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, n. 1.

28 John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 35.


30 Cf. Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, n. 14.

31 John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 36.

32 Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, n. 14.

33 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis, n. 14.

34 1971 Post-Synodal Document, Ultimis Temporibus, n. 5.

35 Cf. DS, 802.

36 Cf. Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, nn. 10, 17, 28 and 41.

37 Vatican II, Decree Unitatis Redintegratio, n. 22.

36 Cf. Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, n. 15.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
14 January 2004, page 8

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069