Reflections on Ecclesia de Eucharistia - 9

Author: Fr James J. Conn, S.J.


Fr James J. Conn, S.J.
Pontifical Gregorian University Faculty of Canon Law

Observing the liturgical norms of Mass ‘with great fidelity’

In this year's Holy Thursday Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, Pope John Paul II seeks to rekindle a sense of "profound amazement and gratitude" in all the priests of the world through whose ministry God makes ever present Christ's paschal mystery in the gift of the Eucharist to the Church (n. 5). Words like "amazement" and "gratitude" reflect the "positive signs of Eucharistic faith and love" to which the Holy Father calls attention in the Encyclical, including the more conscious, active and fruitful participation of the faithful in the celebration of Mass, born of the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, as well as the fervent adoration of the Blessed Sacrament by the faithful in various contexts.

On the other hand, the Pontiff observes certain shadows as well: abuses in Eucharistic practice and confusion about Catholic teaching on the sacrament. He notes in particular how certain ecumenical initiatives have been contrary to the Eucharistic discipline "by which the Church expresses her faith" (n. 10).

This notion that ecclesiastical discipline or canon law expresses the faith of the Church has been a constant element in the teaching of John Paul II. In promulgating the Code of Canon Law in 1983 with the Apostolic Constitution Sacrae Disciplinae Leges, he affirmed that law is not "a substitute for faith, grace, charisms, and especially charity in the life of the Church and of the faithful", but a means of establishing an order in which these values, which retain their primacy, can more easily develop. Canon law must correspond, he says, to the Church's understanding of itself, articulated in our time in a special way by the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council.

In a similar way, the primacy in the recent Encyclical can obviously be found in the theological and spiritual principles that ground the Church's faith in the Eucharist. Yet such values have practical consequences, which the Holy Father does not fail to declare, for the everyday life of the Church and its Eucharistic practice. Failure "to banish the dark clouds of unacceptable doctrine and practice" (n. 10) is to be untrue to the faith and the mystery that we celebrate and adore in the Eucharist.

In the course of Ecclesia de Eucharistia, the Holy Father makes a number of specific references to the 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC) for the Latin Church and to the 1990 Code of Canons of the Oriental Churches (CCEO). Points treated in other places in the document are directly relevant to other provisions of canon law even though no specific reference is made to the codes in the Encyclical's footnotes. The more significant canonical issues are considered here.

Relationship between the Priesthood and the Eucharist

Among the documents to which the Encyclical makes reference is the 1983 Letter Sacerdotium Ministeriale of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which declared that "the Eucharistic mystery cannot be celebrated in any community except by a validly ordained priest" (n. 29). While this teaching, with its definitive source in the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), may seem obvious, it is reiterated in the CDF Letter and, no doubt, in the Encyclical as well precisely in response to the erroneous notions that there is no appreciable difference between the ministerial priesthood and the universal priesthood of all the baptized, that all the baptized are successors to the apostles, and that the capacity to preside at the Eucharist comes not from a sacramental character but only from the mandate of the community.

The Catholic Church teaches, rather, that by the imposition of hands and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, its bishops are made successors to the apostles and endowed with the power of Christ to teach, govern and sanctify (Lumen Gentium, n. 21). The bishops, in turn, through the sacrament of orders, confer this power on others in various grades (Lumen Gentium, n. 28).

It is thus that bishops and presbyters have the exclusive power to renew in the Eucharistic mystery the action of Christ at the Last Supper and make the paschal mystery present to the Church till the end of the ages. Through the sacramental character, Christ so configures priests to himself that whenever they pronounce the words of consecration they act not in their own name or by mandate of the community, but in the person of Christ the Eternal High Priest. The Eucharist, therefore, in the Encyclical's words, "is a gift which radically transcends the power of the assembly" (n. 29).

This teaching of the Church is enshrined in CIC c. 900 § 1, which reads: "The minister who is able to confect the sacrament of the Eucharist in the person of Christ is a validly ordained priest alone". The parallel provision in the CCEO is c. 699 § 1: "Only bishops and presbyters have the power to celebrate the Divine Liturgy". Those not ordained to the priesthood are altogether incapable of this act under any circumstances. Violations of the principle are subject to automatic sanction (CIC c. 1378 § 2, 1; CCEO c. 1443).

This restrictive distinction, cautions the Pontiff, "does not represent any kind of belittlement of the rest of the People of God, for in the communion of the one body of Christ which is the Church this gift redounds to the benefit of all" (n. 30). This notion of equality and diversity within the Church, with its roots in the two conciliar constitutions on the Church (Lumen Gentium, n. 32; Gaudium et Spes, nn. 49 and 61) is summarized in CIC c. 208: "From their rebirth in Christ, there exists among all the Christian faithful a true equality regarding dignity and action by which they all cooperate in the building up of the Body of Christ according to each one's own condition and function".

The Encyclical's reassertion of this principle in the context of the Eucharist may have the effect of correcting certain confusion and abuses in this regard. These include, for example, the assumption by the non-ordained of roles restricted to sacred ministers, especially with respect to certain prayers of the Mass as CIC c. 907 provides [forbids].

Sacramental sharing in the absence of full communion

The legal norm of c. 900 on the priest as uniquely capable of confecting the Eucharist is not merely a matter of ecclesiastical discipline; it reflects, rather, a truth of divine institution: the inseparable connection between the sacrament of orders and the sacrament of the Eucharist. In the Encyclical, John Paul II calls attention to the ecumenical consequences of this teaching when he quotes the words of the Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio (UR), n. 22, in reference to the Ecclesial Communities separated from the Catholic Church: "especially because of the lack of the sacrament of Orders they have not preserved the genuine and total reality of the Eucharistic mystery" (n. 30).

This truth too has a norm as its consequence, namely, that even though the Ecclesial Communities profess that the Holy Supper "signifies life in common with Christ," still, the Holy Father goes on to say in the Encyclical, the "Catholic faithful,... while respecting the religious convictions of these separated brethren, must refrain from receiving the communion distributed in their celebrations...". The reason for this prohibition is "so as not to condone an ambiguity about the nature of the Eucharist and, consequently, to fail in their duty to bear clear witness to the truth" (n. 30).

This discipline can be found in CIC c. 844 § 2, which permits Catholics to receive the Eucharist (as well as penance and anointing of the sick) "from non-Catholic ministers in whose Churches these sacraments are valid". The canon imposes three further conditions: that "necessity requires it or true spiritual advantage suggests it"; that "danger of error or indifferentism is avoided"; and that "it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister". Churches where the sacraments are valid are the separated Eastern Churches as well as other Churches which, in the judgment of the Apostolic See, are in the same condition as they.

The 1993 Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms of Ecumenism of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (n. 132) went somewhat beyond the provision of c. 844 § 2 when it said that, under the same circumstances, Catholics are permitted to receive the sacraments "from a minister in whose Church these sacraments are valid or from one who is known to be validly ordained according to the Catholic teaching on ordination". This document suggests that in individual cases a validly ordained man may be ministering in an Ecclesial Community that itself has no valid Eucharist because of its more general lack of valid orders. The Encyclical, on the other hand, makes no such reference. Indeed, it seems to make an absolute prohibition when it says: "Catholics may not receive communion in those communities which lack a valid sacrament of Orders" (n. 46).

The Encyclical identifies yet another consequence arising from the teaching on the inseparable connection between valid orders and valid Eucharist, one that has further relevance in the context of ecumenism. One of the necessary requirements for reception of the Eucharist by a non-Catholic Christian in exceptional circumstances is that he or she have Catholic faith in the sacrament. In the case of the faithful of the separated Oriental Churches such faith is evident; among Christians in the various Ecclesial Communities, however, Catholic faith in the Eucharist is not presumed.

While there are many dimensions to Catholic faith in the sacraments of Eucharist, penance and anointing of the sick, one in particular is specified in the Encyclical as necessary for the proper disposition for their reception, namely, "the truth regarding the need of the ministerial priesthood for their validity" (n. 46).

Central as a shared vision of the connection between valid orders and valid Eucharist is to the fulfilment of the Lord's prayer that all may be one, that unity more broadly requires, in the words of the Encyclical, "full communion in the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments and ecclesiastical governance" (n. 43), a topic dealt with in CIC c. 205 and CCEO c. 8. The Church's discipline on worship in common, especially Eucharistic worship (communicatio in sacris), is based on a twofold principle articulated in UR, 8: while ordinarily the unity of the Church ought to be what the Eucharist expresses, the Eucharist as a means of grace to be shared justifies its reception, outside the context of full communion, under special circumstances. Consequently, the Council teaches, communicatio in sacris "is not to be considered as a means to be used indiscriminately for the restoration of unity among Christians".

The special circumstances justifying the admission of non-Catholics to Holy Communion never justify concelebration between Catholic priests and priests or ministers of other Churches or Ecclesial Communities. This is absolutely prohibited by CIC c. 908 and CCEO c. 702, which the Pope cites in the Encyclical (n. 44) as the Church's certain norm responding to the conciliar teaching. Violation of this prohibition is subject to canonical penalty (CIC c. 1365; CCEO c. 1440).

Not only would such concelebration be an invalid means of promoting unity, but, the Holy Father explains in his Encyclical, "it 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 Encyclical cites the assertion of the Vatican II Decree on the Eastern Churches Orientalium Ecclesiarum, n. 26, that any common worship that "would damage the unity of the Church, or involve formal acceptance of falsehood or the danger of deviation in the faith, of scandal, or of indifferentism" is contrary to the divine law.

While concelebration and broadly-based intercommunion can only follow the re-establishment of visible communion, the admission to communion of non-Catholics can be justified in individual and exceptional cases and under special circumstances, precisely, according to the Encyclical, "to meet a grave spiritual need for the eternal salvation of an individual believer" (n. 45). These terms must be properly understood.

"Individual cases" involve identifiable persons, not a universe of cases. "Exceptional" means "extraordinary" with respect to the nature of the situation; the admission to communion of non-Catholics cannot become an ordinary practice. The "special circumstances" in this context are certain defined conditions, both objective and subjective, that must be verified.

The Holy Father cites CIC c. 844 §§ 3-4 and CCEO c. 671 §§ 3-4 as the source of the Church's discipline for the admission of non-Catholics to Eucharistic communion. The provisions of each Code are the same. In each of the two canons cited, § 3 treats the admission to the Eucharist, penance and anointing of the faithful of the separated Eastern Churches and those Churches judged equivalent to them, while § 4 considers the reception of the same sacraments by members of Ecclesial Communities.

The discipline for the former is less complicated. It requires simply that the persons spontaneously request the sacrament (that is, of their own accord and not in response to an invitation) and be properly disposed (for example, having the right intention to receive the sacrament, being properly catechised with regard to it and being in the state of grace). Though the canon does not impose any further objective circumstances, the conciliar text, which the Encyclical echoes, suggests that the spontaneous request from the non-Catholic to receive the Eucharist should arise from an at least subjectively grave spiritual need for it.

The Ecumenical Directory cautions that "due consideration should be given to the discipline of the Eastern Churches for their own faithful" (n. 125). Some of these Churches prohibit their faithful from receiving the Eucharist from a Catholic minister.

In the case of the faithful belonging to Ecclesial Communities the standards for admission to the Eucharist are more restrictive. As special objective circumstances, the canons name danger of death and other situations of necessity that the diocesan bishop or the conference of bishops judge to be justifiably grave.

Such a judgment could take the form of a general norm established either by the diocesan bishop or conference of bishops, in consultation, as specified in § 5, with the competent local authority of the interested Church or Ecclesial Community. An example of such general norms is the document One Bread One Body issued in 1998 by the Bishops' Conferences of England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.

In the absence of such antecedent norms, the diocesan bishop may make judgments on a case-by-case basis. The Ecumenical Directory, however, favours such norms when it says "it is strongly recommended that the diocesan Bishop... establish general norms for judging situations of grave and pressing need" (n. 130).

Such norms may also determine the means of verifying whether the subjective conditions set down by the canons are fulfilled. Two of these conditions are identical to the two required in the case of the faithful of the Eastern Churches: the spontaneous request and the proper disposition.

Moreover, the non-Catholics are to manifest Catholic faith with respect to

the sacraments to be received, and they must be unable to approach a minister of their own community. Such impossibility could be either physical or moral.

The truly extraordinary character of communicatio in sacris, the many situations in which it has been abused, and what may be a misguided sense of hospitality and charity in the understanding of some Catholic ministers of the Eucharist all suggest that norms provide direction for determining the necessary elements of Catholic faith in the sacraments and what constitutes the impossibility of access to the non-Catholic minister.

In Ecclesia de Eucharistia the Holy Father denies the possibility of dispensation from these conditions, no doubt because of their theological grounding. While the discipline may seem exigent, the faithful observance of these norms, the Pope writes, manifests and guarantees "our love for Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, for our brothers and sisters of different Christian confessions — who have a right to our witness to the truth — and for the cause itself of the promotion of unity" (n. 46).

The Eucharist and the state of grace

The previous issue dealt with visible communion; this one has to do with "invisible communion" of the faithful with God and the Church, a communion that can be broken by grave sin and is restored by conversion and, ordinarily, by individual and integral sacramental confession and absolution (c. 960).

In the Encyclical the Holy Father unequivocally reaffirms the perennial doctrine of the Church, grounded in the teaching of St. Paul, that the faithful must be reconciled before sharing in the Eucharist (n. 36). The Encyclical cites two canons which treat the relationship between the Eucharist and serious sin.

The first reference (n. 36) is to CIC c. 916 and CCEO c. 711. These canons prohibit anyone conscious of grave sin from celebrating Mass or receiving Holy Communion without prior sacramental confession. Only when a grave reason, such as the needs of the faithful or protection from scandal, compels such celebration or reception, and when there is no opportunity, either physical or moral, to confess, is an exception made to this principle. In such a case, the person is obliged to make an act of perfect contrition (sorrow motivated by the love of God) and resolve to go to confession as soon as possible. For while imperfect contrition (sorrow motivated by fear of punishment) is sufficient for forgiveness with sacramental absolution, only perfect contrition, along with the resolution to confess as soon as possible, is sufficient without the sacrament (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 1452-1453).

The Encyclical also makes reference (n. 37) to CIC c. 915 and CCEO c. 712. These canons, indirectly addressed to those entrusted with the care of souls, deny the admission to Holy Communion of those who have been excommunicated or interdicted, after the imposition or declaration of the penalty, and "others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin". While the Encyclical affirms that the judgment of the state of grace resides in the examination of one's own conscience, it also recognizes that the public nature of the situations described in these canons calls for a response from the Church "in her pastoral concern for the good order of the community and out of respect for the sacrament" (n. 37).

While there are many ways for persons to persevere obstinately in manifest grave sin — and perhaps there should be a greater censure of those who persistently oppress the poor and outrageously violate basic human rights — the situation described in these canons is often associated with that of divorced and remarried persons. In June 2000 the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts published a Declaration on Divorced and Remarried Persons which affirmed that the prohibition of c, 915 is derived from divine law. Calling attention to the words of CCEO c. 712, "Those who are publicly unworthy are forbidden from receiving the Divine Eucharist", the Declaration asserts that the reception of the Eucharist by those who are publicly unworthy constitutes an objective harm to the ecclesial communion, namely, a scandal affecting at the same time both the Eucharist and the indissolubility of marriage. Further, the Declaration rejects interpretations of c. 915 that would empty it of meaning by suggesting that "obstinate perseverance in manifest grave sin" can never be verified.

An examination of additional canonical issues

Ecclesia de Eucharistia makes reference to several other canonical issues. Among them are the exhortation of CIC c. 904 and CCEO c. 378 that priests celebrate the Eucharist daily (n. 31); the precept contained in CIC cc. 1247 and 1248 § 1 and CCEO c. 881 §§ 1-2 to assist at Mass on Sundays and holydays of obligation (nn. 30, 41), including those situations in which the faithful participate in ecumenical services on Sundays (n. 30); and the phenomenon of Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest described in CIC cc. 230 § 3 and 1248 § 2 (nn. 32-33).

A final important canonical theme addressed in the Encyclical is one previously considered by John Paul II in one of his earliest letters for Holy Thursday, Dominicae Cenae (1980), which also treated the topic of the Holy Eucharist. Perhaps one of the most critical points of that document is made in n. 12, namely, that ministers are stewards of the Eucharist, which is a common good of the Church. The priest, therefore, "...cannot consider himself a 'proprietor' who can make free use of the liturgical text and of the sacred rite as if it were his own property, in such a way as to stamp it with his own arbitrary personal style. At times this latter might seem more effective, and it may better correspond to subjective piety; nevertheless, objectively it is always a betrayal of that union which should find its proper expression in the sacrament of unity".

This principle with its conciliar roots in Sacrosanctum Concilium, nn. 4 and 22, is now codified in the Code of Canon Law which guarantees the right of the faithful "to worship God according to the prescripts of their own rite" (c. 214), and obliges all priests to observe faithfully the norms and texts contained in the liturgical books (c. 846 §1). Similar provisions are found in CCEO c. 17 and cc. 668 § 2 and 674.

Ecclesia de Eucharistia likewise affirms: "Liturgy is never anyone's private property, be it of the celebrant or of the community in which the mysteries are celebrated". Therefore, the Holy Father makes it a point "to appeal urgently that the liturgical norms for the celebration of the Eucharist be observed with great fidelity" (n. 52).


The canonical scope of this article prohibits a deeper investigation of the Encyclical's various theological themes. It is enough, by way of conclusion, to say that, from the point of view of ecclesiastical discipline, the document does not seem to change the canonical regulation of the Eucharist.

Instead, the Pontiff has emphasized certain norms of the current law and has explained more fully the ecclesiological values which canon law must always express, foster and guarantee. Just as the Instruction Inaestimabile Donum addressed in detail a number of the abusive liturgical issues raised in Dominicae Cenae, so may we look forward to receiving from the competent curial dicasteries the "more specific document, including prescriptions of a juridical nature" promised by the Holy Father in the Encyclical (n. 52).


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
15 October 2003, page 10

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