The Eucharist and the Church

The Eucharist and the Church

On 17 April (Holy Thursday) in 2003, John Paul II issued an encyclical entitled “Ecclesia de Eucharistia: On the Eucharist and its relationship to the Church”. It was his 14th, and final, encyclical letter.

It is customary for the pope to write to all priests of the world on Holy Thursday. On this particular occasion, however, he expands this audience to include “the bishops, priests and deacons, men and women in the consecrated life, and all the lay faithful”.

In this Year of the Eucharist, it is important for everyone to whom the encyclical is addressed to be aware of its contents. Over the next few weeks I will outline the key points contained in the document.

John Paul II draws on 82 years of life experience, 50 years of priestly ministry and 25 years as supreme pontiff to offer some deeply personal reflections and moving insights in the encyclical.

The document consists of six chapters with a detailed introduction and a brief conclusion. There is really not much new about the Eucharist to be found in here: it mostly reiterates what John Paul II and others have said elsewhere. Basically it is a summary of contemporary Eucharistic theology.

The exception is the final chapter, entitled “At the School of Mary, ‘Woman of the Eucharist’”. It is the most original section of the encyclical.

The overall tone of the document is one of pastoral concern, of a leader at the end of his life wanting to leave behind an important message for the faithful. It ends on a delightfully positive note with a call for all Christians to be people of hope.

It should be noted that the Instruction “Redemptionis Sacramentum : On certain matters to be observed or avoided regarding the Most Holy Eucharist”, which is foreshadowed in Chapter V of Ecclesia de Eucharistia and was promulgated 12 months later, needs to be read in conjunction with the encyclical. Although highly favoured and much quoted by certain people, Redemptionis Sacramentum is not a stand-alone document. Using it as a basis for understanding the Eucharist or as a yardstick for assessing its celebration is like rating someone’s skill as a driver solely on the basis of knowledge of the road rules.

The Introduction to Ecclesia de Eucharistia begins by repeating two major themes of Eucharistic theology enunciated at the Second Vatican Council: the Eucharist is the “summit and source of the Christian life” and the Eucharist is the sacrament of the paschal mystery.

The term paschal mystery refers to the incarnation, life, passion, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ – in other words the whole redemptive act of God the Father through the Son. It is this for which we give thanks and praise, which is the ‘theme’, at every celebration of the Eucharist.

The two aims of the encyclical are set down here. They are to encourage Catholics to recapture that “eucharistic amazement” which should fill us if we really understand the Eucharist, and to involve the whole church more fully in eucharistic reflection as a way of thanking the Lord for the gift of the Eucharist and the priesthood (#7).

The Holy Father says that this can be achieved by “contemplating the face of Christ”, especially Christ present in the Eucharist - in the assembly, in the priest presider, in the scriptures proclaimed and in the consecrated elements, through our full, conscious and active participation in the celebration.

Elizabeth Harrington