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The Triple Sacrament of the Eucharist
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Those who knew Pope John Paul II before his election to the papacy testify to his great personal devotion to the Eucharist. He would spend much time, we are told, before the Blessed Sacrament. And during his whirlwind pilgrimage for seven days in the United States, witnesses say he still managed to spend a full holy hour before the Eucharist, besides saying his divine office, Rosary and offering the Holy Sacrifice.
Out of what is becoming a Eucharistic library of the Pope's teaching, I wish to concentrate on what he says in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis. My plan is to explain what the Holy Father's teaching on the Eucharist in this document means, while drawing on his other writings to fill out the explanation.
By way of introduction, he declares how beyond full human understanding is this mystery.
"The Church lives by the Eucharist, by the fullness of this sacrament, the stupendous content and meaning of which have often been expressed in the Church's magisterium from the most distant times down to our own days. However, we can say with certainty that, although this teaching is sustained by the acuteness of theologians, by men of deep faith and prayer, and by ascetics and mystics, in complete fidelity to the Eucharistic mystery, it still reaches no more than the threshold, since it is incapable of grasping and translating into words what the Eucharist is in its fullness . The Eucharist is the ineffable sacrament!"
Having stated this: that the Eucharist cannot be fully comprehended by the human mind, the Pope goes on to say that we can, however, grasp something of the meaning of this mystery by seeing it as one sacrament, indeed, but a sacrament with three distinct functions as a channel of divine grace.
The Eucharist, the Pope tells us, and I quote, "is at one and the same time a sacrifice-sacrament, a communion-sacrament, and a presence-sacrament".
There is deep penetration into the meaning of the Eucharist in this statement of the Vicar of Christ, and it promises to be the beginning of a new and more profound understanding of the Holy Eucharist into the future, with great practical consequences in the spiritual lives of the faithful.
I would like to examine the Pope's teaching in four stages, as follows:
What is a Sacrament?
A sacrament in the widest sense of the term is
There are, accordingly, these elements to a sacrament:
We are now ready to apply these principles to the Holy Eucharist in each of its three forms as sacrament.
The Eucharist as Sacrifice-Sacrament
The language we are hearing is a bit strange: sacrifice-sacrament. What does the Pope mean?
He means that the Sacrifice of the Mass is, of course, a sacrifice because in the Mass we have the same Priest and Victim, Jesus Christ, who offered Himself on the Cross for the Redemption of the world.
But while being a sacrifice, in which Christ continues to offer Himself in an unbloody manner to His heavenly Father, the Mass is also a sacrament.
How is the Mass a sacrament? It is a sacrament because, like all sacraments, it confers the grace it signifies. The Mass is a source of grace; it is a channel of grace; it is a means, in fact, a cause of grace.
What is the distinctive sacramental grace conferred by the Mass? The special grace conferred by the Mass is the grace of divine mercy on sinners.
Through the Mass sinners estranged from God receive actual graces urging them to repentance and reconciliation with an offended Divine Majesty.
Through the Mass the grace of forgiveness of venial sins is received.
Through the Mass the grace of expiation for and punishment due to forgiven sins is obtained.
Just because Mass is offered, the whole human race is affected by an outpouring of graces that benefit all of mankind.
Saint Leonard of Port Maurice once declared that the world would long ago have been destroyed for its sins except for the frequent and constant offering of the Sacrifice of the Mass since the Last Supper to the present day.
But if the Mass is universally beneficial for all people, who benefits the most from the sacramental graces of divine mercy that are produced by the Mass? Those people benefit the most who are most
The Eucharist as Communion-Sacrament
The Eucharist as communion-sacrament is well known. In fact, I suppose for many people, this is the only idea they have of the Eucharist as sacrament. If they were to list the seven sacraments, they would say they are
What do we understand by Communion as a sacrament?
By Communion as a sacrament we understand that provided a person is in God's friendship, and has the minimum good intentions, he receives divine grace from the reception of the Eucharist. He receives an increase of sanctifying grace, actual graces, and the special sacramental grace of a greater love of God and of others from every Holy Communion worthily received.
We get some idea of the importance of the Eucharist as communion-sacrament when we stop to reflect on the fact that, without daily Holy Communion it would be impossible for religious communities to survive. Holy Communion is the principal source of strength they need to live with others, day after day, in patience, and humility, and generosity -- in a word, in Christ-like charity.
The same applies to families. Nothing under heaven is more needed by Christian spouses to remain faithful and loving to each other and to accept the children God wants to give them -- than the frequent, even daily reception of the Eucharist as communion-sacrament.
But again, while every Holy Communion gives some grace to those who receive worthily; it gives more and more grace, the more selfless a person is when he or she approaches the table of the Lord.
The Eucharist as Presence-Sacrament
We have one more phase of the Eucharist to consider: In the Holy Father's language, the Eucharist as presence-sacrament.
What does the Pope mean? He means that the Eucharist confers grace not only through the Mass, and through Holy Communion, but through the fact that Christ is physically present in what we may casually call the Blessed Sacrament.
We read in the Gospels that Christ's physical presence was the source of blessings that went out from Him. Recall the narrative, as described by Saint Luke in Chapter 8, 43-48:
"There was a woman suffering from a hemorrhage for twelve years, whom no one had been able to cure. She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak; and the hemorrhage stopped at that instant. Jesus said, 'Who touched me?' When they all denied that they had, Peter and his companions said, 'Master, it is the crowds round you, pushing'. But Jesus said, 'Somebody touched me. I felt that power had gone out from me'. Seeing herself discovered, the woman came forward trembling, and falling at his feet explained in front of all the people why she had touched him and how she had been cured at that very moment. 'My daughter', he said, 'your faith has restored you to health; go in peace'".
Faith tells us, it is the selfsame Jesus present in the Eucharist as walked the streets of Palestine and worked miracles just by being there.
The faithful contemporaries of Christ sensed the value of being physically near Him, in order to obtain the graces that only He could confer:
In other words, Christ's physical presence, when He is visibly on earth, was the channel of marvelous grace, whose influence will remain until the end of time.
So, too, Christ's physical presence in the Eucharist -- where it is the same identical Jesus -- is a sacrament because it pours out, or emanates, or radiates divine power on everyone, to some degree, but in the greatest abundance on those who respond to this Eucharistic presence with faith and even external signs of piety.
In conclusion, I cannot do better than to quote from the Holy Father's homily at Mass in Dublin, on September 29th, 1979. It was the first religious act of the Pope on his pilgrimage to Ireland.
The Pope began:
"I have come to you as Bishop of Rome and Pastor of the whole Church, in order to celebrate this union with you in the Sacrifice of the Eucharist, here in Ireland's capital city of Dublin, for the first time in Irish history". He told the people many things, but for our purpose especially the following:
"I wish at this time to recall to you an important truth affirmed by the Second Vatican Council, namely: 'The spiritual life, nevertheless, is not confined to participation in the liturgy' (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 12). And so I also encourage you in the other exercises of devotion that you have lovingly preserved for centuries, especially those in regard to the Blessed Sacrament. These acts of piety honor God and are useful for our Christian lives; they give joy to our hearts and help us to appreciate more the liturgical worship of the Church.
"The visit to the Blessed Sacrament -- so much a part of Ireland, so much a part of your piety, so much a part of your pilgrimage to Knock -- is a great treasure of the Catholic faith. It nourishes social love and gives us opportunities for adoration and thanksgiving, for reparation and supplication. Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, Exposition and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, Holy Hours and Eucharistic processions are likewise precious elements of your heritage -- in full accord with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.
His Real Presence
"At this time, it is also my joy to reaffirm before Ireland and the whole world the wonderful teaching of the Catholic Church regarding Christ's consoling presence in the Blessed Sacrament: His real presence in the fullest sense: the substantial presence by which the whole and complete Christ, God and man, is present (cf. Mysterium Fidei, 39). The Eucharist, in the Mass and outside of the Mass, is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, and is therefore deserving of the worship that is given to the living God, and to Him alone (cf. Mysterium Fidei, 55; Paul VI, address of June 15, 1978).
"And so, dear brothers and sisters, every act of reverence, every genuflection that you make before the Blessed Sacrament, is important because it is an act of faith in Christ, an act of love for Christ. And every Sign of the Cross and gesture of respect made each time you pass a church is also an act of faith.
"May God preserve you in this faith -- this holy Catholic faith -- this faith in the Blessed Sacrament".
What, we might ask, is the special sacramental grace that Christ gives through the Eucharist as presence-sacrament? It is the grace of intimacy with Himself. It is the grace of experiencing His nearness. It is the grace of quiet certainty that Jesus is here, with me; that He cares.
But once again, though He will confer something of this grace on everyone who believes in the Real Presence, He will literally pour out these blessings on those who believe strongly and simply, and who act on their faith by all the ways that a loving faith can devise. They take literally the invitation that Jesus extended to Mary, through her sister Martha, "The Master is here and waits to see you".
Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica
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