In the final years of his papacy, John Paul II penned and promulgated an encyclical letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia. The subtitle “On The Eucharist in its Relationship to the Church” tells us a great deal. We know the basic and essential Catholic value of the Eucharist. We know the oft-cited saying, “The Eucharist makes the Church.” And we have the witness of the Vatican II bishops in saying that the liturgy is font and summit of the Christian life. (Cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium 10)
Why this letter at that time? The Holy Father wished to “rekindle Eucharistic amazement” among the Catholic faithful to whom he addressed this document. The running concern in Rome was to address what the hierarchy saw as “dark clouds of unacceptable doctrine and practice.” (EdE 10)
This letter is closely related to the 2004 curial document Redemptionis Sacramentum, which likewise took a dim view of certain opinions and practices. With the perspective of a decade, I’d like to take several months to examine these two documents. I’ve prepared sixty-one posts on Pope John Paul’s letter to follow this one. The CDWDS document has 186 numbered sections, and I anticipate another two to three months exploring that companion piece.
My own view is that Rome has been relentlessly negative in a misdiagnosis of the situation within the Church and its liturgy. But I’m not willing to shy away from the content and spirit of these two documents. They come to us from the waning years of a great papacy and act of service. Some of us Catholics might feel alienated by the negativity and the misperceptions of Rome. But I think we are obligated to address them honestly, and conduct much-needed soul-searching over the contents of this criticism. We can accept the truth, and assess the missteps–our own or that of a hierarchy that may be out-of-touch with the essence of Christ’s evangelical mission to the world.
Let’s start with a life-giving reality about the Eucharist:
1. The Church draws her life from the Eucharist. This truth does not simply express a daily experience of faith, but recapitulates the heart of the mystery of the Church. In a variety of ways she joyfully experiences the constant fulfilment of the promise: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20), but in the Holy Eucharist, through the changing of bread and wine into the body and blood of the Lord, she rejoices in this presence with unique intensity. Ever since Pentecost, when the Church, the People of the New Covenant, began her pilgrim journey towards her heavenly homeland, the Divine Sacrament has continued to mark the passing of her days, filling them with confident hope.
The Second Vatican Council rightly proclaimed that the Eucharistic sacrifice is “the source and summit of the Christian life”.(Lumen Gentium 11) “For the most holy Eucharist contains the Church’s entire spiritual wealth: Christ himself, our passover and living bread. Through his own flesh, now made living and life-giving by the Holy Spirit, he offers life to men”.(Presbyterorum Ordinis 5) Consequently the gaze of the Church is constantly turned to her Lord, present in the Sacrament of the Altar, in which she discovers the full manifestation of his boundless love.
A great beginning. Catholics and many other Christians acknowledge and embrace the “unique intensity” of the presence of Christ among us. Not every believer in every age has had the advantage of a daily experience of the Eucharist, either in the liturgy or through adoration and prayer. Priests, have this readily available to them, of course. Lay people, especially those in mission lands or not served by the clergy, have experienced a poverty in this regard. We have the hope of Christ’s presence in our lives. But not always the incarnational experience others enjoy.