Special ArticlesThe problem with documents of the Church is that nobody reads them. At least, most people don’t read them and therefore they don't have nearly the impact they might otherwise. I fear that the same fate awaits Pope John Paul's recent and beautiful Encyclical Letter on the Eucharist, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, in which he highlights the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the Church, and discusses some very important themes related to the topic. As a public service, then, I'd like to outline the Pope's Letter in ten selected sentences and offer a brief reflection on each. I do so with the realization that such a summary will be woefully inadequate, but also with the hope that it will encourage you to read the Encyclical in its entirety.
1) The Church draws her life from the Eucharist. (#1)
The Eucharist stands at the heart of the Church, and throughout its history the Divine Sacrament has traveled with the Church, filling it with hope, even in the most difficult of times. As the Pope says later in his letter, “Every commitment to holiness, every activity aimed at carrying out the Church's mission, every work of pastoral planning, must draw the strength it needs from the Eucharistic mystery.”
2) To contemplate Christ involves being able to recognize him wherever he manifests himself, in his many forms of presence, but above all in the living sacrament of his body and his blood. (#6)
Christ is present in many ways when the liturgy is celebrated - in the Word, in the assembly, and in the priest, for example. But the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is very special, is called “real” not because the other means of presence are not real, but because it is a presence in the fullest sense: a substantial, abiding presence in which Jesus Christ the Son of God is wholly present.
3) The liturgical reform inaugurated by the Council has greatly contributed to a more conscious, active and fruitful participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar on the part of the faithful. (#10)
Full and active participation continues to be the ultimate goal of the liturgical renewal. At the same time, however, liturgical renewal involves a great deal more than exterior changes of language and posture. It calls for an authentic interior renewal that helps us receive worthily all the blessings and graces offered by the sacred liturgy.
4) The Eucharist is too great a gift to tolerate ambiguity and depreciation. (#10)
The Pope talks about the “shadows” that have also accompanied the liturgical renewal of recent years. These include the disappearance of Eucharistic adoration in some places; confusion over sound faith and Catholic doctrine about the Eucharist; a “reductive” interpretation of the Eucharist that strips it of its sacrificial meaning; and unhealthy ecumenical practices.
5) The Eucharist spurs us on our journey through history and plants a seed of living hope in our daily commitment to the work before us. (#20)
Devotion to the Eucharist is much more than a personal spiritual exercise. The Eucharist has profound apostolic implications that lead us to evangelization and service. We cannot worthily receive the Body of Christ and at the same time neglect the needs of his brothers and sisters. The celebration of the Eucharist “increases, rather than lessens, our sense of responsibility for the world today,” the Pope insists.
6) The worship of the Eucharist outside of the Mass is of inestimable value for the life of the Church. (#25)
Eucharistic adoration is strictly linked to the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the Pope reminds us. He urges pastors to encourage Eucharistic exposition and adoration in their parishes, even by their personal example. And he quotes Saint Alphonsus Liguori who wrote “Of all devotions, that of adoring Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is the greatest after the sacraments, the one dearest to God and the one most helpful to us.”
7) If the Eucharist is the centre and summit of the Church’s life, it is likewise the centre and summit of priestly ministry. (#31)
Throughout the Encyclical, the Holy Father reminds us of the intrinsic connection between the Eucharist and the Ministerial Priesthood. He points out that a parish always “requires the presence of a presbyter who alone is qualified to offer the Eucharist.” (#32) And the Eucharist is essential to the priest himself. Without it, priests run a very real risk of losing their spiritual focus. And he emphasizes that priests should celebrate the Eucharist daily, “for even if the faithful are unable to be present, it is an act of Christ and the Church.”
8) The celebration of the Eucharist cannot be the starting-point for communion; it presupposes that communion already exists, a communion which it seeks to consolidate and bring to perfection. (#35)
Here the Pope teaches that the Eucharist always presumes a “bond of communion” that is both invisible and visible. The invisible bond refers to the spiritual, and it is for that reason that only those who are in the state of grace are disposed to receive the Eucharist. The visible bond refers to the structure of the Church. Therefore, only those who are “fully incorporated into the Church” are permitted to receive the Eucharist. In simple terms, to receive Holy Communion, an individual must be a Catholic, and must be free of grave sin!
9) Mary is a “woman of the Eucharist” in her whole life. (#53)
At first glance the Scriptures are silent about the relationship between Mary and the Eucharist, the Pope acknowledges. But everything about Mary’s life relates her to the reality of the Eucharist. In the mystery of the Incarnation, Mary was the first to welcome the Body of Christ. Her Fiat is a prelude to the Amen every Catholic says in receiving Holy Communion. In bearing the Son of God in her womb, Mary became the first tabernacle. In witnessing her Son’s sacrifice on Calvary, Mary experienced the sacrificial meaning of the Eucharist. And is there any doubt that Mary participated with the first disciples in the “Breaking of the Bread?”
10) By giving the Eucharist the prominence it deserves, and by being careful not to diminish any of its dimensions or demands, we show that we are truly conscious of the greatness of this gift. (#61)
An authentic appreciation of the Eucharist requires us always to preserve all the dimensions of the Eucharist - sacrifice, sacramental presence and banquet. And along with maintaining the essential doctrinal elements, we should be conscious of the personal blessing it is for us! “In the humble signs of bread and wine, changed into his body and blood, Christ walks beside us as our strength and our food for the journey, and he enables us to become, for everyone, witnesses of hope.” (#62).
With that, the Pope concludes his wonderful Encyclical on the Eucharist. His letter is a stirring reminder that the Eucharist is the finest gift God has given us, a gift always to be treasured, loved and lived!
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