Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 9, 2003
The church from the Eucharist
The pope calls on us to receive the Eucharist -- and live -- Eucharistic lives
By GLEN ARGAN
The first chapter of Pope John Paul's new encyclical, The Church from the Eucharist, is given the same title as the last papal encyclical on the Eucharist - Pope Paul VI's 1965 letter, The Mystery of Faith. And just as Pope Paul in 1965 was concerned to write an entire encyclical on the doctrine of the Eucharist, so too Pope John Paul has devoted the lead chapter of his encyclical to that doctrine.
So we shouldn't expect any surprises in this chapter. Pope John Paul is describing our foundational beliefs on the Eucharist which must surely be the basis of any further discussion.
The pope describes the Mass as one with the paschal mystery of Christ's death and resurrection. He describes that sacrifice as a gift to the Father, a sacrifice in which all the faithful join by offering, in union with Jesus, all that they are and all that they possess. The pope describes the Mass as the union of the Church on earth with the Church in heaven. Christ becomes "really present" at the Consecration, the bread and wine ceasing to exist, they being substantially transformed into Christ's body and blood. And the sacramental moment, while taking place at the Consecration, is "fully realized" when the Lord's body and blood are received at Communion. Further, at Communion, we receive not only Christ's body and blood, but also the Holy Spirit.
This is the Catholic teaching on the Eucharist, boiled down to its barest bones, and the pope is only too glad to reiterate it for a new generation.
What has caused controversy, both in Pope Paul's time and more recently, is the doctrine of real presence. Some have seemed to maintain that Christ's presence is symbolic and not substantial. Pope Paul's encyclical was written specifically to address that false belief. The controversy gained new legs when a poll of American Catholics 10 years ago found that most Catholics there believed Christ's presence in the Eucharist was symbolic, not substantial. (A later poll found exactly opposite results, making one wonder if the real problem was that most Catholics were confused as to what they were to believe, not that they were open heretics.)
Pope Paul took pains to note that Christ is present in many ways in the Church - in acts of mercy, when "two or more are gathered in my name," in the Church's prayer, in her preaching, in the governance of the Church, etc.
But Pope Paul noted that Christ's presence in the Eucharist "surpasses all the others." The Eucharist "contains Christ himself and it is 'a kind of perfection of the spiritual life,'" the pope said, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas.
Pope John Paul quotes Pope Paul's key statement in his encyclical that Christ's presence in the Eucharist "is called real not as a way of excluding all other types of presence as though they were not real, but it is presence in the fullest sense, a substantial presence whereby Christ, the God-Man, is wholly and entirely present."
Of course, neither pope would maintain - as the Church's opponents have sometimes alleged is Catholic belief - that we consume Christ's physical body parts at Communion. Communion is not a form of cannibalism. But we do consume Christ's resurrected person - whatever that might mean.
Pope John Paul is content to say, "Truly the Eucharist is a mysterium fidei, a mystery which surpasses our understanding and can only be received in faith" (n. 15).
There is a small surprise in this chapter of the encyclical, however. The surprise is that Pope John Paul not only calls on us to receive the Eucharist but also to live Eucharistic lives. Christians who live Eucharistic lives "will feel more obliged than ever not to neglect their duties as citizens of this world. Theirs is the task of contributing with the light of the Gospel to the building of a more human world, a world more fully in harmony with God's plan" (n. 20).
The pope's inclusion of this Eucharistic ethic in a chapter on Eucharistic doctrine is significant. It says there is no split between faith and life. To take the doctrine of the Eucharist seriously is to work for peace, justice and solidarity, respect for life and against "the thousand inconsistencies of a 'globalized' world where the weakest, the most powerless and the poorest appear to have so little hope" (n. 20).
If there is something new, if there is development in Eucharistic doctrine, this is it. We cannot pretend that the Eucharist exists in a cage, separate from the injustice and violence. The Eucharist must be a source of healing for all that has gone amuck in our world.
(Second of seven articles)