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The Church and Holy Eucharist

by Archbishop Raymond L. Burke

Introduction

In presenting the Church’s pastoral plan at the beginning of the Third Christian Millennium, our Holy Father Pope John Paul II reminded us strongly that it is not a question of some "new program," which we must invent, but rather "the plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition" of the Church. In short, the Church’s pastoral plan is Christ Himself dwelling with us through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into our souls. The plan is our life in Christ or holiness of life through daily conversion. It is the "larger and more demanding normal pastoral activity," which helps each of us and the whole Church to meet the "high standard of ordinary Christian living" (Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio ineunte, "At the Close of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000," Jan. 6, 2001, nos. 29-31).

Clearly, life in Christ or holiness of life is sought and attained, most perfectly, through prayer and, above all, the public prayer of the Church or Sacred Liturgy. Our Holy Father reminds us that it is only by opening our hearts completely to Christ through prayer that we are able to open our hearts in love to our brothers and sisters, and to shape "history according to God’s plan." The highest expression of our life of prayer, devotion and worship is participation in the Holy Mass, especially Sunday Mass. Sunday of each week is set aside as the Day of the Lord, the day on which Christ rose from the dead, conquering sin and everlasting death in our human nature, and anticipating the day of His Final Coming. Through participation in the Holy Eucharist, we stand at the very center of our life in Christ, the very center of all human lives, of all history. Faithful participation in the Holy Eucharist inspires and strengthens us for a holier life, a life given more completely in love to Christ and, therefore, to our neighbor. Our Holy Father observes that it is obvious "that our principal attention must be given to liturgy, ‘the summit toward which the Church’s action tends and at the same time the source from which comes all her strength’" (Novo millennio ineunte, nos. 32-36).


Recent Papal Eucharistic Initiatives

It, therefore, comes as no surprise to us that the subject of our Holy Father’s first encyclical at the beginning of the Third Christian Millennium is devoted to the Holy Eucharist. On Holy Thursday in 2003, our Holy Father published the Encyclical Letter "Ecclesia de Eucharistia (On the Eucharist in Its Relationship to the Church)" (April, 17, 2003) to underline the principal source of the new evangelization and to express gratitude to almighty God for 25 years of service as successor of St. Peter. In the "Ecclesia de Eucharistia," our Holy Father called for "a more specific document," to be prepared by his offices, on the norms for the worthy celebration of the Sacred Liturgy (n. 52b). That document, titled "Redemptionis Sacramentum (Instruction on Certain Matters To Be Observed or To Be Avoided Regarding the Most Holy Eucharist)," was issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments on March 25, 2004.

On Oct. 7, 2004, our Holy Father issued his Apostolic Letter "Mane nobiscum Domine (For the Year of the Eucharist)," declaring a Year of the Eucharist from October 2004 to October of this year, a time of special grace for the universal Church, so that her members may grow in knowledge and love of the Eucharistic mystery. The Year of the Eucharist is framed by two great events, the International Eucharistic Congress held in Guadalajara, Mexico, from Oct. 10-17 of last year, and the Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, to be held at the Vatican from Oct. 2-29 of this year, with the theme: "The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church" (Mane nobiscum Domine, no. 4). Also, the Holy Father has expressed his desire that the Catholic youth from around the world, who will participate in World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, from Aug. 16-21 of this year, direct their attention and activities to the Eucharist "which nourishes their faith and enthusiasm" (Mane nobiscum Domine, no. 4).

In order to foster as much as possible our growth in the knowledge and love of the Holy Eucharist during the Year of the Eucharist, our Holy Father has established the plenary indulgence to be gained through "certain specific acts of worship and devotion to the Most Blessed Sacrament." The decree of the Apostolic Penitentiary, "On the Gift of an Indulgence during the ‘Year of the Eucharist,’" sets forth, in accord with our Holy Father’s wishes, very generous conditions for gaining the plenary indulgence. The conditions make it possible for the infirm and the homebound to obtain the plenary indulgence frequently on their own behalf and on behalf of the souls in purgatory.

In order to contribute my part to the realization of the most noble goals of the Year of the Eucharist, I offer a series of reflections on the Encyclical Letter "Ecclesia de Eucharistia." By opening up the richness of the Holy Father’s teaching on the Holy Eucharist, I hope to increase both our knowledge of the Holy Eucharist and our fervent love of the Holy Eucharist, expressed through our participation in the Holy Mass and our eucharistic devotions, especially prayer before the Blessed Sacrament exposed in the monstrance.


Context of the Encyclical Letter

The Holy Father places "Ecclesia de Eucharistia" within the context of the new evangelization to be carried out at the beginning of the new Christian millennium and, more specifically, within the context of the Year of the Rosary, observed from October 2002 to October 2003 to promote the praying of the Holy Rosary as a privileged means of the new evangelization. Announcing the Year of the Rosary in his Apostolic Letter "Rosarium Virginis Mariae (On the Most Holy Rosary)," the Holy Father urged us to take up anew the ancient devotion of praying the rosary, that is, of contemplating the face of Christ through the eyes of His Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, so that we may live more closely united to Christ. By means of "Ecclesia de Eucharistia," which rightly may be called the crown of all of the Holy Father’s rich teaching, Pope John Paul II helps us to bring to fullness our contemplation of the face of Christ by meeting Christ in the Holy Eucharist. In a true sense, praying the rosary deepens in us the desire to meet Christ in the Holy Eucharist and keeps before our eyes always that most privileged meeting in the Blessed Sacrament.

Our Holy Father makes clear the intimate connection of the observance of the Year of the Rosary and the teaching on the Holy Eucharist:

"From the time I began my ministry as the successor of Peter, I have always marked Holy Thursday, the day of the Eucharist and of the priesthood, by sending a letter to all the priests of the world. This year, the 25th of my pontificate, I wish to involve the whole Church more fully in this eucharistic reflection, also as a way of thanking the Lord for the gift of the Eucharist and the priesthood:

‘Gift and Mystery.’ By proclaiming the Year of the Rosary, I wish to put this, my 25th anniversary, under the aegis of the contemplation of Christ at the school of Mary. Consequently, I cannot let his Holy Thursday 2003 pass without halting before the ‘Eucharistic face’ of Christ and pointing out with new force to the Church the centrality of the Eucharist" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, no. 7a).

The Holy Father expresses the desire to enkindle anew our wonder before the Most Blessed Sacrament, in which we most perfectly contemplate the face of Christ and from which we draw our life in Him. His Holiness clearly relates the Encyclical Letter to the pastoral plan of the Church, relating the praying of rosary to the Holy Eucharist in the work of the new evangelization. He teaches us:

"To contemplate the face of Christ, and to contemplate it with Mary, is the ‘program’ which I have set before the Church at the dawn of the third millennium, summoning her to put out into the deep on the sea of history with the enthusiasm of the new evangelization. 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 Body" (no. 6). Contemplation of Christ in the Most Blessed Sacrament is the unfailing source of the enthusiasm and energy needed to carry out Christ’s work of evangelization in our time.

The Holy Father reflects upon the natural and "lively concern" which the Church always has for the eucharistic mystery, because "in the most blessed Eucharist is contained whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ Himself our Pasch and the living bread which gives life to men through His flesh — that flesh which is given life and gives life through the Holy Spirit" (Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, "Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests" Presbyterorum ordinis, no. 5b). The encyclical letter is a wonderful expression of his concern, as shepherd of the Universal Church, for our eucharistic faith and practice.


Eucharist and the Paschal Mystery

By way of introduction to the contents of "Ecclesia de Eucharistia," our Holy Father underlines the truth that the Holy Eucharist is "in an outstanding way the sacrament of the paschal mystery" (no. 3a). He reminds us that participation in the Holy Mass really unites us to the beginning of our salvation in the Passion, Death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. At the Last Supper, Christ carried out sacramentally what He was to accomplish on the following day on Calvary: He gave up His life for our salvation. Referring to Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, after the Last Supper and at the beginning of His Passion, our Holy Father writes:

"The blood which shortly before He had given to the Church as the drink of salvation in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, began to be shed; its outpouring would then be completed on Golgotha to become the means of our redemption... " (no. 3).

In the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrifice of Calvary is made new in an unbloody manner, the hour of our salvation is made present. Our Holy Father writes: "Every priest who celebrates Holy Mass, together with the Christian community which takes part in it, is led back in spirit to that place and that hour" (no. 4a).

Reflecting upon the reality of the Holy Eucharist, the oneness of the Eucharistic Sacrifice with the Sacrifice of Calvary, we are filled with wonder at the great mystery of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. Our Holy Father reminds us of the unfathomable greatness of the Holy Eucharist, its "capacity" which "embraces all of history as the recipient of the grace of the redemption" (no. 5b). Each time we are privileged to participate in the Holy Eucharist or to pray in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, the reality of the Holy Mass should fill us with Eucharistic wonder or, to use the Holy Father’s phrase, Eucharistic "amazement." The wonder is, at the same time, deepest gratitude. In a striking description of the ministry of the priest at the Holy Mass, our Holy Father captures the reason for our "profound amazement and gratitude":

"‘This is My Body which will be given up for you. This is the cup of My Blood, poured out for you....’ The priest says these words, or rather he puts his voice at the disposal of the One who spoke these words in the Upper Room and who desires that they should be repeated in every generation by all those who in the Church ministerially share in His priesthood" (no. 5c).

By the great mystery of God’s love for us, Christ, God the Son made man, gives up His Body and pours out His Blood for us in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. One readily understands, therefore, the great care of the Church for the celebration of the Holy Mass, the worship of the Most Blessed Sacrament, eucharistic prayer and devotion, and the worthy custody of the Most Blessed Sacrament.


Lights and Shadows of Eucharistic Practice

The Holy Father points out a contrasting situation regarding the care of the Blessed Sacrament in our day. On the one hand, the form of the Sacred Liturgy today, in accord with the teaching of the Second Vatican Ecumenical 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" (no. 10a). The new Order of the Mass, which may be celebrated in the vernacular, makes it possible for us to enter ever more consciously into the Eucharistic Sacrifice. To the degree that we prepare ourselves well for participation in the Holy Mass and, then, give our full attention to the words and actions of the Mass, the conciliar reform of the Sacred Liturgy achieves its most noble end.

Among what the Holy Father calls the "lights" of the liturgical reform are the increase in eucharistic devotion and of worship of the Most Blessed Sacrament outside of the Mass. He mentions, in particular, the "devout participation of the faithful in the eucharistic procession on the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ" (no. 10a). We cannot count the blessings which come to the Church and to the world by way of the never-ceasing prayer offered by so many of the faithful in the presence of our eucharistic Lord.

On the other hand, the Holy Father points out "shadows" in our eucharistic faith and practice. He points out the abandonment of eucharistic devotion and adoration in some places of the Church. He also notes the liturgical abuses which have occurred through a mistaken or incomplete understanding of the reforms mandated by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. Liturgical abuses have caused and cause confusion about the Church’s faith in the Most Blessed Sacrament.

The Holy Father notes "an extremely reductive understanding of the Eucharistic mystery," which is expressed in an exaggerated emphasis upon the Holy Eucharist as banquet, without a proper understanding of the Eucharist’s "sacrificial meaning" (no. 10c). The Holy Eucharist is indeed a banquet, but the heavenly Food of the banquet is the Body and Blood of Christ offered and poured out for us on the altar which is one with the Cross of Calvary.

The Holy Father also mentions a tendency to obscure the necessity of the ordained priesthood, which comes through apostolic succession from Christ Himself, for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. Such a tendency indicates a failure to understand the institution of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper, at which our Lord also instituted the ordained priesthood, so that He Himself might renew His Sacrifice on Calvary in every time and place (no. 10c).


Conclusion

The "lights" and the "shadows" in our eucharistic faith and practice indicate the need to treasure anew the greatest gift which Christ gives to us in the Church, the Holy Eucharist. New enthusiasm and new energy in studying and living our Catholic faith leads, first of all, to new enthusiasm and energy in contemplating the "eucharistic face" of Christ. Through the new evangelization, the "lights" of our eucharistic faith and practice will be enhanced and the "shadows" will be eliminated. May reflection upon the mystery of Christ’s abiding presence with us in the Eucharistic Sacrifice and banquet be at the heart of our work to carry out the new evangelization of our world.

St. Louis Reviewonline
March 11, 2005

Copyright © 2005 by St. Louis Reviewonline







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