Reflections on Ecclesia de Eucharistia - 17
Fr Real Tremblay, C.SS.R.
Professor of Fundamental Moral Theology at the Alphonsian Academy of Rome, Member of the Pontifical Academy of Theology
The moral life is intimately tied to the Holy Eucharist
The title of this study, inspired by a passage of the final part of the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia (n. 62), immediately puts us into the sphere of the moral life. The one who calls upon the figure of the "saints" effectively calls upon men and women who have seriously taken heed of Jesus' call to become perfect "as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48) and who, through the support of grace, have invested the total strength of their being.
It is nonetheless necessary to add that the present reference to the moral life possesses characteristics that are specific to it. In effect, it regards a perfection tied to the Eucharist. For the saints in question, one can correctly suppose that the Eucharist has been a beacon that guides, a fountain that quenches and nourishes, a commitment that permits one to have a foretaste of the definitive goal and increases the desire to possess it fully.
And that is not all. This perfection drawn from the Eucharist is not without life and warmth. It truly assumes the form of faces shining forth and burning with the divine glory assimilated by means of communion with the sacramental Body of the Risen Christ.
Apart from insisting on the fact that through the testimony of the saints, the moral life becomes attractive and, in such a way, revealing or a "school" of its source, our passage implies that a moral life nourished by the Eucharist presents well-defined characteristics. Are such indications found in the Encyclical's body? This, above all, is what I would like to briefly examine before adding some supportive reflections on a most important point of this morality.
Our responsibility for the world
A first allusion, significant for the Eucharist's ethical dimension, is present at the end of the first chapter, which speaks of the sacrament in its threefold dimension of sacrifice, presence and nourishment. After having remembered the "eschatological tension" inherent in the Eucharist which "expresses and reinforces our communion with the Church in heaven" (n. 19), the Holy Father specifies that this tension does not exempt believers from earthly duties. In fact, such a tension "spurs us on our journey through history and plants a seed of living hope in our daily commitment to the work before us" (n. 20).
Now, it is precisely in the context of our sense of responsibility for the world today", stimulated by the Christian vision of the "new earth" and "new heavens", that the first allusions to Christian action appear. The Pope defines it in terms of "a more human" world construction "in harmony with God's plan". He further delineates it by speaking of the "urgent need to work for peace, to base relationships between peoples on solid promises of justice and solidarity, and to defend human life from conception to its natural end".
Then, alluding to the "the thousand inconsistencies of a 'globalized' world, where the weakest, the most powerless and the poorest appear to have so little hope", he affirms that it is, nonetheless, in this world that "Christian hope must shine forth". It is for this reason, he continues, that the Lord desired "to remain with us" in the sacrament, inserting "the promise of a humanity renewed by his love". This is what makes the "washing of the feet" described by John (cf. Jn 13:1-20), a comment on the account of the institution of the sacrament in the Synoptic Gospels, in which "Jesus appears as the teacher of communion and of service". This is therefore an implicit appeal aimed at Christians to become disciples "of communion and of service", just as St Paul states when he characterizes it as "'unworthy' of a Christian community to partake of the Lord's Supper amid division and indifference towards the poor".
The eschatological dimension inherent in the Eucharist thus implies a commitment "to changing their lives" to the point of making them become "Eucharistic". In exchange, this "transfigured existence" and "commitment to transforming the world" splendidly illustrate "the eschatological tension inherent in the celebration of the Eucharist and in the Christian life as a whole".
Eucharist, Ecclesial Communion
To this first attempt to define morality tied to the Eucharist are added other less identifiable attempts. Before citing some of the more significant ones, I wish to note that I will exclude texts that illustrate the "norms" to follow when confronted with certain situations, or certain questions of a doctrinal or another order, such as the possibility of participating or not participating in the Eucharistic celebration in certain circumstances (n. 30); the different conditions of a legitimate celebration and of an authentic participation in the sacrament (nn. 35-39); the mode of celebrating according to the forms, styles and attentiveness to different cultures (n. 51) without losing sight of the respect owed to the mystery and with the awareness that the liturgy is never "anyone's private property" at the expense of its universal dimension (n. 52); Eucharistic worship (nn. 25, 34); the application of sacred art (nn. 50-51), etc. With this clarification we return to our subject.
By means of this union with Christ achieved by the sacrament, the people of the New Covenant become "the light of the world and the salt of the earth (cf. Mt 5:13-16) for the redemption of all" (n. 22). This allusion to an element of the "Sermon on the Mount" that is applied to the People of God, which has been nourished by the Eucharist, is undoubtedly important for our discussion. We shall return to it.
At another point, the Holy Father makes the observation that the Eucharistic celebration presupposes a preexisting communion with God which it consolidates and perfects. Under its invisible aspect, this communion which "unites us to the Father and among ourselves" (n. 35) in Christ and by means of the Spirit, assumes the life of grace that is perceived here as a participation in the "divine nature" and the "practice of the virtues of faith, hope and love". In this context, the Holy Father clearly states: "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" (n. 36). If someone is knowingly guilty of mortal sin, that person must first experience the sacrament of Reconciliation in order to obtain full participation in the Eucharistic Sacrifice (cf. n. 37).
Eucharist fosters communion
By consolidating communion, the Eucharist also teaches a person about communion (cf. n. 40). Therefore, protecting and promoting ecclesial communion becomes "a task of each member of the faithful" and of Pastors of the Church in particular (n. 42). This is the natural sphere, so to speak, of the "desire for unity" which the Vatican Council considers a "special gift of God" (n. 43). Its application, nonetheless, should not give place to rash behaviour (for example, a celebration without the required doctrinal unity) that is opposed to the norms established by the Council and that in the end damages unity (cf. n. 44).
After having expressed a pressing call to respect the liturgical norms regarding the celebration of the Eucharist in a way that respects the sacred character of the mystery it contains and its universal dimension (cf. n. 52), the Holy Father places the Church in the presence of Mary, whom he defines as the "Eucharistic woman" and whom he considers present with the Church and as Mother of the Church in every Eucharistic celebration (cf. n. 53). From the accounts of Mary with Jesus, the Church will learn how to carry herself in the presence of the sacrament.
It is in this context that the Holy Father proposes a rereading of the Magnificat from a Eucharistic perspective. To do so, three Marian attitudes must be kept in mind. Mary "praises the Father 'through' Jesus, but she also praises him 'in' Jesus and 'with' Jesus". Mary remembers the countless wonders of the Lord that were completed in the past and proclaims that wonder which "surpasses them all — the redemptive Incarnation". In her hymn for the elevation of the humble, "Mary sings of the 'new heavens' and the 'new earth"', which in the "'poverty' of sacramental signs" find their primary actualization. And the Holy Father concludes by returning to the issue: "The Eucharist has been given to us so that our life, like Mary's, may completely become a Magnificat!".
Bond: Eucharist and morality
What can be concluded from this viewpoint of the Encyclical, considered from the perspective of the relationship between the Eucharist and morality?
The first point to note is that, despite its strong doctrinal tone, the text of the Pope possesses considerable value for ethics. For the Holy Father, contemplating the greatness of the Eucharistic mystery is never separated or isolated from real life. It is a mystery that not only demands appropriate behaviour, but also establishes a specific type of morality. What does this mean?
It is, above all, a morality of praise that actualizes itself when it is expressed towards the Trinitarian love pro nobis, that is incarnated in that unforeseeable and inexhaustible "invention of love" (St Alphonsus Ligouri) which is the sacrament. It is then a morality of brotherly service, and we shall return to this point. Lastly, it is a morality of commitment in favour of the present world, inasmuch as it is a morality that stretches towards the full realization of God's purpose in the afterlife.
A second point to keep in mind is that the Encyclical's ethical value is never "heteronomous" nor artificially imposed from on high. Rather, it is always deeply rooted in doctrine and is the resulting reflection upon it.
A third point to consider is the aesthetic character of this ethical value. It is a morality that shines upon the face of God's People in general and upon the face of the saints in particular, because it is tied to a source that "incarnates" and sacramentally translates Trinitarian love. It is a morality that radiates its content and is thus attractive and dominating.1
Jesus as 'teacher of communion'
To conclude, I would like to return to the previously-mentioned passage from the Encyclical with respect to the relationship between the Eucharist and morality. The text is as follows: "It is in this world that Christian hope must shine forth! For this reason too, the Lord wished to remain with us in the Eucharist, making his presence in meal and sacrifice the promise of a humanity renewed by his love. Significantly, in their account of the Last Supper, the Synoptics recount the institution of the Eucharist, while the Gospel of John relates, as a way of bringing out its profound meaning, the account of the 'washing of the feet', in which Jesus appears as the teacher of communion and of service (cf. Jn 13:1-20)" (n. 20). According to the Holy Father, therefore, the act of the "washing of the feet" becomes, in the footsteps of the sacrament, the concrete expression of this promise.
Nonetheless, the question raised is the following: How does this come about? What importance must be attributed to this act so that it echoes the act of institution of the sacrament and of the promise which it contains?
In the ancient world of the Hebrews, we know that this act was intended for slaves.2 For this reason, the "Lord and Teacher" (Jn 13:13-14) becomes the doulos (slave). This equation reminds us of another text of this time from the Pauline tradition where it is said that Jesus, "though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:68). The German exegete K.H. Rengstorf is correct, then, when he affirms that the morphe doulos (form of a slave) of which St Paul speaks coincides with Jesus' state of being a doulos (slave), which constitutes the background even for the "washing of the feet".3 This fact is not without importance for our question; actually, it is decisive.
Through the washing of the feet, Jesus reveals himself as the "teacher of communion and service" because, out of obedience, he loves his brothers and sisters all the way to death on the Cross — a death made present in his Eucharistic body and blood.
This "expertise" or this "excellence" of Jesus also contains an appeal directed to all those who participate in the Eucharist, namely, to make out of their lives a brotherly service that pours out a new energy into the world in which they live, thus allowing this world to lift itself up to heaven, despite the winds and storms, in expectation of being transported onto the banks of the rivers of Life, where he will give "twelve fruits" and it will produce "fruits every month" (Rev 22:2).
All this depicts with different words the Encyclical's statement regarding the Church's desire to finally behold the removal of the veil, which will make her pass from the Eucharist as the mysterium fidei to the clear visio mysterii.
1 For clarification on theological aesthetics, cf., H.U. von Balthasar, Herrlichkeit. EineTheologische Ästhetik. Bd.1: Schau der Gestalt, Einsieldeln, 1961, 424ff. On morality and aesthetics, see the upcoming publication of: A.-M. Jérumanis, L'Uomo, Splendore della Gloria. I fondamenti estetici della morale cristiana di fronte alla sfida estetica dells cultura postmoderna.
2 Cf. H. Strack and F. Billerbeck, Kommentar z. Neuen Testament aus Talmud and Midrasch, Munich, 1922-1924, I, 41ff, 405, 706; II, 557.
3 Cf. TWNT, II, 291.
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