Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
April 28, 2002
Give Christ his deserved honour
News reports about Pope John Paul's latest encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharista, have focused on the supposed fact that the encyclical reiterates the Church's longstanding prohibition against those receiving the Eucharist who have divorced and remarried without having their first marriages annulled.
In fact, the encyclical doesn't mention this situation at all. It does mention other abuses of the sacrament such as the abandonment of Eucharistic adoration in some locales, the treating of the Eucharistic celebration as nothing more than a fraternal banquet, the downplaying of the necessity of a ministerial priesthood, and ecumenical Eucharistic practices contrary to Church discipline.
The pope goes on to say, "It is my hope that the present encyclical letter will effectively help to banish the dark clouds of unacceptable doctrine and practice, so that the Eucharist will continue to shine forth in all its radiant mystery" (n. 10).
So there is little doubt that the pope wants to discourage abuse of the sacrament.
But there is also no doubt that his main emphasis is on the great gift of Christ's own presence that Jesus has given the Church in the Eucharist. He wants us to appreciate more fully that the Eucharist is a "radiant mystery" around which we can gain the fullness of life with God.
The news media, unfortunately, creates an aura of negativity around the encyclical, portraying the pope as an angry old man turning his back on the realities of contemporary life.
But what is reality?
The first words of the encyclical are: "The Church draws her life from the Eucharist." And what is this life? The Eucharist, we are told, "unites heaven and earth. It embraces and permeates all creation" (n. 8).
And because of the Eucharistic sacrifice, "The world which came forth from the hands of God the Creator now returns to him redeemed by Christ."
The Eucharist changes people's lives and it increases our sense of responsibility for the world. It is much more than the fraternal sharing of a meal.
To ignore this reality, as the media reports have done, is to give a nonsensically negative view of the Church.
There is a healthy tension in the encyclical between the Eucharist as something which helps build a better world and as a reality which points us beyond this world.
The pope speaks approvingly of Mary, sister of Lazarus, who pours a flask of costly ointment over Jesus' head when one who sees this world as the only world - Judas Iscariot - says the money should be given to the poor. Well, money should be given to the poor: it is there that we find the living face of Jesus. But the pope goes on to note, "Like the woman who anointed Jesus in Bethany, the Church has feared no 'extravagance,' devoting the best of her resources to expressing her wonder and adoration before the unsurpassable gift of the Eucharist."
Perhaps the high point of the encyclical is the final chapter in which the pope compares our reception of the Eucharist with Mary's carrying the Son of God in her womb for nine months. "At the Annunciation, Mary conceived the Son of God in the physical reality of his body and blood, thus anticipating within herself what to some degree happens sacramentally in every believer who receives, under the signs of bread and wine, the Lord's body and blood" (n. 55). Our "Amen" upon receiving the body of Christ is the same as Mary's "yes" to the request of the angel. Like Mary, we want Christ to be born in us.
Ecclesia de Eucharistia is not a legalistic document spelling out who should be kept away from Communion. It is a meditation on the incredible gift Christ has given to us. And if we appreciate the wonder of that gift, yes, there will have to be disciplines for the sacrament. The disciplines, however, are not an "us against them" fence-building exercise, but rather a natural consequence of giving Christ in the sacrament the honour he deserves.
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