Reflections on Ecclesia de Eucharistia - 16

Author: Cardinal Leo Scheffczyk

Reflections on Ecclesia de Eucharistia - 16

Cardinal Leo Scheffczyk

A close bond exists between Eucharist and Penance

Not only is the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia an extraordinary testimony to faith in the Eucharistic mystery; with its important themes it also sheds new light on the sacrament of Penance, today frequently neglected.

According to the Pope's teaching, "the Eucharist and Penance are very closely connected" (n. 37). Both are rooted in the same soil, that is, in the Church as a community of the baptized, unique in its kind. Thus, it is possible to understand the connection between the two sacraments and the relationship existing between them only if the nature of the Church as communio is properly recognized; indeed, "communion" is the structural basis of the Encyclical Letter for all theological statements regarding the sacraments.

Visible and invisible 'communio'

This communion has a "visible dimension", since it represents "communion in the teaching of the Apostles, in the sacraments and in the Church's hierarchical order" (n. 35); yet it is also an "invisible" reality since it presupposes "the life of grace, by which we become 'partakers of the divine nature' (2 Pt 1:4)" (n. 36), as well as "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" (ibid.).

Highlighting the viewpoint of the Catholic faith, the Pope succinctly writes: "Nor is faith sufficient; we must persevere in sanctifying grace and love, remaining within the Church 'bodily' as well as 'in our heart'" (ibid.). He urges the members of the Church, in the words of St Paul, to have "faith that works through charity (Gal 5:6)" (ibid.).

By her true nature, the Church is a communion of grace in the image of the Triune divine life; she is the "communion of saints" on earth to which the blessed and angels also belong.

To counter any false modern interpretation that is bent on reducing the Church as we understand her to a social or religious association for the improvement of the human world, or on declaring that by her very nature she is "a sinful Church", here the Church is recognized, despite the sinners in her midst, as a community sanctified in Christ and in his Spirit. Sinners should be thought of as members of the Body of Christ who are sick but must not and cannot remain in this state of sickness and unholiness.

This description of the nature of the Church, however, contains an important phrase for understanding the connection between the Eucharist and Penance. Indeed, the "invisible communion" of grace and love is said to be "by its nature always growing" (ibid.). For this reason the communion of grace of the Church's members, with Christ and among one another, is not automatically unchangeable, passive or permanent.

Rather, it is something that grows like an organism, longs for greater completeness, aspires to a peak where earthly unity must be fulfilled and shown eschatologically in the heavenly union to come, This exaltation, this realization of the communion of the Church's earthly grace, will be brought about through the very sacrament in which the Lord's announcement to his disciples is most strongly made concrete: "Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Mt 28:20). This sacrament is the Eucharist.

The Eucharistic sacrament is a sign and instrument of the loftiest union in this world of the "saints", in other words, of the justified, with Christ and with one another. It succeeds in scaling these heights and developing so supreme a unifying power because the Lord is present and active in it in the most perfect way: as the One who presides at the banquet, the One who celebrates the sacrifice and as a sacrificial offering with his Body and his Blood, sacramental yet real, represented by his sacrifice on the Cross.

The justified may partake of him and receive the fruit of his sacrifice, the Lord himself, and thus achieve union with Christ and with one another in a marvellous exchange, in a way so supreme that it is unequalled on this earth.

Bond between Penance, Eucharist

If the Eucharist is the supreme means of fulfilment for the Church and her members on their journey towards a growing unity, we can understand that it is impossible to receive it without being properly integrated into both the visible and the invisible Church. We cannot reach the peaks of faith, love and unity if we do not already belong to the growing community and are not based on its foundations; we cannot reach the centre of the circle without walking the entire length of the radius, that is, without making the journey of faith and love together with all the members of Christ's Body; it is impossible to reach the sancta sanctorum without entering the sacred enclosure.

We must be in deep communion with "the Church" (n. 36) if we are to reach the Most High with her. This is why, in principle, those who do not belong to the visible Church are generally barred from participation in the supreme sacrament of the Church.

However, since the Church is holy by nature, what is important above all is that her members may only receive Communion if they are in a state of grace. For this very reason, in a simple theological explanation, the Holy Father describes the Eucharist as the (supreme) "sacrament of the living". It cannot, therefore, be received by those who are "dead" to grace, that is, who know they have committed a mortal sin.

Yet sinners, as members of the Body of Christ, are also called to a renewed sanctification. They too continue to be oriented admirably to the supreme sacrament, but they are unable to reach it now unless their iniquities have previously been wiped away, unless they are expiated and delivered from their personal sin. This is why Jesus Christ, who was already aware of his disciples' propensity to sin, gave to the Church a sign of himself, the sacrament of Reconciliation, of Penance and Confession.

By faithfully following Christ, who took upon himself God's condemnation of human sin and completed it through his death for love, the Church has pointed since her very beginnings to reception of the sacrament of Penance as an indispensable condition for the proper reception of Holy Communion. In his Encyclical, John Paul II recalls this prerequisite when he quotes St Paul's words: "'Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup' (I Cor 11:28)".

To protect the Blessed Sacrament from improper reception of the Eucharist the Pope also cites the warning of the Father of the Church, St John Chrysostom: "I too raise my voice, I beseech, beg and implore that no one draw near to this sacred table with a sullied and corrupt conscience. Such an act, in fact, can never be called 'communion', not even were we to touch the Lord's body a thousand times over, but 'condemnation', 'torment' and 'increase of punishment'" (n. 36).

Thus, the supreme Pastor of the Church also recalls the binding teaching of the Council of Trent, which states that "one must first confess one's sins, when one is aware of mortal sin" (n. 36).

This request is not addressed to Catholic Christians as it were "from outside" or by the ecclesiastical authority. It stems from the Eucharist itself, which is "a continuous need for conversion" (n. 37) and reconciliation. It is necessary to respond to this need in every case in which a believer has committed a serious sin. It acquires special significance in this day and age when we are witnessing an erosion of the awareness of sin.

Understandably, it appears particularly urgent in the case of "outward conduct which is seriously, clearly and steadfastly contrary to the moral norm", as with those "who 'obstinately persist in manifest grave sin'" (n. 37); indeed, by receiving the Eucharist in this way, the sacred order of the Church established by God and the respect for the supreme sacrament suffer an obvious denial that can be of no help in the salvation of the persons involved but becomes fatal to them.

Early Church understandings

These principles were most strictly observed in the early Church: during the public act of penance, the Church, which as a communion of grace had been wounded by sin, threatened sinners with "excommunication", which means exclusion from the Sacrament of the Altar, in order to then readmit them to the supreme sacrament of the Eucharist after a sufficient period of penance and by a solemn act. The sacrament for the remission of sins was celebrated as "exclusion" (excommunicatio) from the Eucharist and "reconciliation" (reconciliatio) with the Church and her centre: the Eucharist.

Despite the external changes in the rite, essentially and inwardly this order has been preserved. It allows for a recognition of the connection between the sacraments of Penance and Eucharist that has remained unchanged despite the constant evolution of external conditions: Penance serves to raise men and women from the debasement of sin; Eucharist lifts them to the peaks of sanctification; Penance brings deliverance from spiritual death and the Eucharist leads to the greatest possible union with the life of Christ; Penance repairs the communion of grace with the Church and the Eucharist brings it to its loftiest fulfilment in communion with the crucified and risen Lord.

For the human being as sinner, the Eucharist is the shining goal and Penance, the demanding journey to it. However, it will never be possible to reach that shining destination without first having made the difficult journey, nor is it possible to reach out for life without distancing oneself from sin.

Therefore, in the Church afflicted by sin, these two sacraments are united as the alpha and the omega, the starting point and the goal, the ascent and the summit.

The Encyclical, whose constant aim is the participation of human beings when they receive the sacraments, always recalls this important circumstance from the viewpoint of pastoral theology, which holds that the Last Judgment on grace and on sin is a question of conscience for which the person directly involved is responsible.

This should not be understood, however, in the sense of a so-called "autonomous" conscience or of a (misnamed) "decision according to conscience", by which the person himself decides what is good or bad according to his own intentions. It is a rather a question of a conscience that recognizes, evaluates or condemns the good or evil objectives of one's own actions in accordance with the parameters of the interior divine norm. It is an issue of a healthy, upright conscience that cannot be formed without the teaching of the Church.

In this too, the Church, as a communion in grace and truth, proves indispensable for the individual believer who is making his way from the sacrament of expiation from sin to the sacrament of the fullness of life.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
11 February 2004, page 8

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