Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 23, 2003
The Church from the Eucharist
A believer must attend Catholic Mass on Sunday
By GLEN ARGAN
When Pope John Paul's encyclical The Church from the Eucharist was released on Holy Thursday, secular news media zeroed in on those small portions of the encyclical that uphold traditional Catholic teaching about misguided ecumenical practices.
Left out of those reports was any sort of basis for why the pope taught the things he does. "He's just being intransigent and intolerant for no reason," was the underlying tone.
In fact, the pope was far from intolerant and he did give good reasons, even if the best secular newspapers did not see fit to report those reasons. Giving those reasons is one reason why I am writing this series of articles and it's one reason why Catholics should read the encyclical for themselves.
In the third chapter of the encyclical, Apostolicity of the Eucharist and of the Church, the pope says it is "unthinkable" for Catholics to substitute ecumenical services or participation in non-Catholic liturgical services for Sunday Mass. Attending such services is "praiseworthy in certain situations" - we should never consider such attendance, however, to be equivalent to joining a celebration of the Eucharist.
Why? "The power of consecrating the Eucharist has been entrusted only to bishops and priests" (n. 30). And, as we have seen earlier in the encyclical, it is through the Eucharist that we fully participate in Christ's self-offering and our redemption. The Eucharist is the sacrament of Christ's real presence and the bond of communion among the baptized. The Eucharist is the source and the summit of the Church. It is only if one believes all of this that it is fitting that one receive the Eucharist.
Likewise, it makes no sense to receive Communion in a church where that belief is lacking. To do so, says Pope John Paul, is "to condone an ambiguity about the nature of the Eucharist and consequently to fail in (our) duty to bear clear witness to the truth" (n. 30).
So, what is all this about "apostolicity"? The term means that the Eucharist has its foundation in the apostles. First, the Eucharist, while instituted by Christ, was transmitted by the apostles. Second, the Eucharist conforms to the faith taught by the apostles. Third, the Eucharist is celebrated by the ordained priesthood which is an unbroken succession from the apostles.
The pope devotes most of his discussion to the third aspect of apostolicity. The uninterrupted sequence of valid episcopal ordinations "is essential for the Church to exist in a proper and full sense" (n. 28). The faithful join in the offering of the Eucharist, but it is only the priest, acting in the person of Christ, who brings about the Eucharistic sacrifice. The ordained priest's role in celebrating the Eucharist "radically transcends the power of the assembly."
"The community is by itself incapable of providing an ordained minister. This minister is a gift which the assembly receives through episcopal succession going back to the apostles" (n. 29).
This is a crucial Catholic belief. If there is no apostolic succession, in terms of passing on of the ordained ministry from generation to another directly from the apostles, there is no Eucharist. The Eucharist would have, at some point, become a human invention and not the gift we receive from Christ.
Our Church teaches that this apostolic succession exists in the Catholic and Orthodox churches, but not in any others. As Sunday participation in the celebration of the Eucharist is an essential part of being part of the Catholic communion, it is not appropriate to take part in other church's worship services as a substitute for attending Mass. It is not that those services are bad; it is just they cannot substitute for the Eucharist.
One corollary of this discussion of apostolicity is that it is important for every parish to have a priest. The pope concludes this chapter by saying it is "distressing and irregular" when this does not happen. "Parishes are communities of the baptized who express and affirm their identity above all through the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice" (n. 32).
When no priest is available, it is right for the community to pray together until one is appointed. This solution must be "merely temporary." When the non-ordained are entrusted with the care of a parish, they must endeavour "to keep alive in the community a genuine 'hunger' for the Eucharist" (n. 33). They await the day when they will fully participate in the Church's central act of worship.