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The Apostolic Character of the Holy Eucharist

by Archbishop Raymond L. Burke


My fourth reflection upon Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, "On the Eucharist in Its Relationship to the Church," centers on the third chapter of the encyclical letter, "The Apostolicity of the Eucharist and of the Church." In chapter two, Pope John Paul II presented the Holy Eucharist as the source of the strength and the growth of the Church. The relationship between the Church and the Holy Eucharist is, in fact, so intimate that the marks of the Church — one, holy, catholic and apostolic — also describe the Holy Eucharist. In chapter three, our late Holy Father devotes his attention to the apostolic character of the Holy Eucharist, because of its particular importance to our understanding the Holy Eucharist in our time (no. 26).

Apostolic in three senses

Pope John Paul II describes three meanings of the apostolic character or apostolicity of the Church, which are all related to one another. First of all, it means that the Church "was and remains built" upon the foundation of the Apostles. The Holy Eucharist was entrusted by Christ to the Apostles and has come to us through the unbroken succession of the apostolic ministry, from the priestly consecration of the Apostles at the Last Supper to the consecration of the successors to the Apostles today during the celebration of the Holy Mass (no. 27a).

Secondly, apostolicity means that the Church hands on the "deposit of faith," received from the Apostles. In other words, the Church celebrates the Holy Eucharist "in conformity with the faith of the Apostles." Pope John Paul II points out that the teaching authority of the Church has necessarily defined "more precisely" the doctrine on the Holy Eucharist, in order to remain true to the faith of the Apostles. The fuller understanding of the truth of the faith regarding the Holy Eucharist responds, in a particular way, to errors that have crept into the life of the Church from time to time. The Pope reminds us that the truth of the faith does not and cannot change, but the Church is required to develop her understanding and presentation of the truth: "This faith remains unchanged, and it is essential for the Church that it remain unchanged" (no. 27b).

Thirdly, the Church is apostolic because the bishops, the successors to the Apostles, teach, sanctify and guide the Church. They carry out the apostolic ministry in communion with the Roman Pontiff, Successor to St. Peter, Head of the Apostles, and with the assistance of priests who share in their apostolic ministry.

The existence of the Church depends upon the unbroken succession of the apostolic ministry. The Holy Eucharist depends upon the apostolic ministry of the Apostles and their successors, for it is only the ordained priest, acting in the person of Christ, who can offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice on behalf of all the faithful. In truth, it is Christ who offers the sacrifice, by virtue of the grace of priestly ordination. The third sense of the apostolic character of the Holy Eucharist helps us to understand the reason why only the priest recites the Eucharistic Prayer, "while the people participate in faith and in silence" (no. 28b).

In the person of Christ

The ordained priest offers the Eucharistic Sacrifice in virtue of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, by which he is configured to Christ, Shepherd and Head of God’s flock. The ordained priest does not take the place of Christ in the offering of the Holy Eucharist, but Christ acts in him. In other words, the Holy Eucharist remains always the action of Christ. The Holy Eucharist can be offered "in the person of Christ" only in virtue of the sacramental grace of Holy Orders. For that reason, the manner of the priest, in the offering of the Mass, should always point to the person of Christ and not to the person of the priest (no. 29a).

The congregation gathered for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist requires the ministry of the priest, who is a gift from Christ and not a functionary of their choosing and making. The priestly service is necessary, so that the celebration of the Mass is one with the Sacrifice of Calvary and the Last Supper or First Eucharist, for Christ acts in the priest. The congregation by itself, that is without the presence and action of the priest, is incapable of renewing the Eucharistic Sacrifice (no. 29a-b).

The most important responsibility of a bishop, therefore, is to ordain priests, so that they may offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice for God’s holy people. The ordination of a priest by a successor of the Apostles means that the ordained priest is a gift received from Christ Himself (no. 29b).

Ecumenical reflections

The relationship of the ordained priesthood to the Eucharistic Sacrifice points to a significant area of division between the Roman Catholic Church and the Ecclesial Communities which have sprung up in Europe and beyond, beginning with the Protestant Revolt in the 16th century. The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council reminded us that, because the Ecclesial Communities do not have the Sacrament of Holy Orders, they have not preserved the Sacrifice of the Mass in its integrity (no. 30a).

Because of the significant difference of belief regarding the Holy Eucharist among members of the Ecclesial Communities, Catholics are not permitted to receive the communion which they give. Otherwise, a serious question would be raised about the Catholic faith in the Holy Eucharist, causing confusion about a central doctrine of the faith. For the same reason, it is never permissible to substitute participation in an ecumenical prayer service or in the liturgical services of an Ecclesial Community for participation in Sunday Mass. While participation in ecumenical services can help lead us to a fuller unity through prayer together, it cannot replace, in any way, participation in the Eucharistic Sacrifice (no. 30b).

Pope John Paul II points out that the restriction of the power to consecrate the Holy Eucharist to bishops and priests alone "does not represent any 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" (no. 30c).

Center of the priestly ministry

The Holy Eucharist is the heart and the highest expression of the life of the Church. It is, therefore, also "the center and summit of priestly ministry" (no. 31a). The Holy Eucharist, in fact, is the reason for the existence of the priestly vocation and mission which Christ instituted at the Last Supper.

Pope John Paul II sensitively observes that the volume and variety of priestly activities and the fast pace of life in society, in general, could easily cause priests to suffer a loss of focus in their lives. The pastoral charity, which is expressed in every truly pastoral act of the priest, comes chiefly from the Holy Eucharist. For that reason, the priest necessarily seeks in the Eucharistic Sacrifice and in eucharistic worship outside of the Mass the direction and strength for all of his pastoral activity. In his last Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday, given from his room at Gemelli Hospital in Rome on March 13 of this year, Pope John Paul II urged priests to "shape" their priestly ministry according to the Eucharistic Sacrifice and, specifically, to make the words of consecration their "formula of life" (Pope John Paul II, "Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 2005," no. 1c).

The heart of the priestly ministry in the Eucharistic Sacrifice also explains the Church’s discipline which requires that a priest offer Mass daily, even if he is without a visible congregation, for the Mass is always "an act of Christ and the Church" (no. 31b). As one of my professors of canon law frequently observed, a priest never offers the Mass alone, for the whole company of heaven assists at every offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice.

The priest who centers his entire priestly life and ministry on the Holy Eucharist will overcome the tendency to lose his focus because of the many demands of his pastoral office. He will not become overwhelmed by the demands of his priestly ministry, for he will be united with Christ in bringing pastoral charity to God’s flock.

Center of seminary formation

Given all of the above, it is clear that the Holy Eucharist must be at the center of the formation of future priests. First of all, the manner in which a priest celebrates the Mass and brings the Holy Eucharist to the faithful outside of Mass will inspire very much those whom God is calling to the ordained priesthood. Personally, I was most deeply inspired as a boy of 8 years of age by the manner in which the parish priest came to visit my father when he was dying at home, hearing his confession and giving Holy Communion to him.

The manner of participation of all of the faithful will also contribute very much in assisting a young man to recognize the call to the priesthood and to respond wholeheartedly. Those called to the priesthood will discover God’s call before the Blessed Sacrament, through frequent and attentive participation in the Holy Mass and through eucharistic devotion.

Absence of a priest

In the context of the place of the Holy Eucharist in the life of the Catholic community and the necessity of the eucharistic ministry of the ordained priest, the Holy Father reflects upon the great distress caused to the Church by situations in which a congregation of the faithful is without a priest. For one thing, it is very difficult for those called to the priesthood to recognize God’s call without the witness of the service of the priest, especially his offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice (no. 32a).

The Holy Father refers to the various temporary solutions to the situation of a congregation without a priest. In such circumstances, members of the laity and consecrated persons, who have been properly prepared, drawing upon the common grace of Baptism, lead the faithful in prayer on Sunday and may distribute Holy Communion with hosts consecrated at an earlier celebration of the Holy Mass. It is essential to point out to the congregation that the situation is defective and temporary, and to urge the congregation to pray and sacrifice, so that those whom God is calling to the ordained priesthood will respond with a generous and undivided heart. The serious deficiency of the situation should inspire everyone to develop and employ all of the resources needed for an effective apostolate of priestly vocations (no. 32b).

Finally, Pope John Paul II points out that the laity or consecrated persons who share in the pastoral care of the parish are obliged to do all that they can to foster the love of the Holy Eucharist among the faithful and their desire to participate in the Mass celebrated by a validly ordained priest. In this way, as our late Holy Father observed, the congregation will never miss the opportunity to participate in the Eucharistic Sacrifice offered by Christ through the ministry of His priest (no. 33).


Continuing reflection upon the Holy Eucharist leads us to an ever deeper appreciation of the apostolic character of our life in the Church and to safeguard the integrity of eucharistic faith and practice which have been handed down to us from the Apostles. In our relationship with members of Ecclesial Communities, we must be attentive to give a clear and strong witness to the Holy Eucharist, Christ’s greatest gift to us in the Church. Our attentiveness in witness to the truth about the Holy Eucharist will be the sign of our respect and, indeed, our affection for our brothers and sisters of the Ecclesial Communities.

Our deepening understanding of the apostolic character of the Holy Eucharist naturally fosters a deeper love of the ordained priesthood. It helps us, in our relationships with priests, to honor the source and the center of their pastoral charity in the offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. At the same time, it inspires us to carry out faithfully our responsibility for the apostolate of priestly vocations.

St. Louis Reviewonline
April 15, 2005

Copyright © 2005 by St. Louis Reviewonline

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