‘Ecclesia de Eucharistia’ and Eucharistic Revival
What priests can learn from Pope St. John Paul II’s final encyclical
Father Shawn Conoboy 0
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Ecclesia de Eucharistia by Pope St. John Paul II. After 25 years of writing a letter to priests each Holy Thursday, in his last encyclical the pope offered to the whole Church a reflection on the gift and mystery of the Eucharist and of the priesthood.
John Paul II begins the encyclical with a reflection on Holy Thursday and the events of Christ’s life, which are written in the Gospels and captured in the prayers and hymns of the Church. He then reflects on how the Eucharist builds the Church, starting with Christ and the apostles at the Last Supper.
Developing the theme of the Church being built by the Eucharist, from the Eucharist, the pope notes that both the Church (as we profess in the Creed) and the Eucharist are one, holy, catholic and apostolic. He then comments on the communion of the members of the Church, with its ecclesial and interpersonal implications.
Turning to the Eucharistic liturgy, John Paul II appeals “urgently that the liturgical norms for the celebration of the Eucharist be observed with great fidelity” (No. 52). But, more than just commenting on the responsibilities of the presiders, the pope highlights the importance of the arts. Sacred images, architecture and music all contribute to the dignity of the celebration of the Eucharist. And, the Eucharist itself has directed the development of the artistic. The pope observes, “It can be said that the Eucharist, while shaping the Church and her spirituality, has also powerfully affected ‘culture,’ and the arts in particular” (No. 49).
The pope punctuates his reflections with a review of Mary’s life and its connection to the Eucharist. She, in her faith and her relationship with her son, is a model for the Church to follow. John Paul II notes that “there is a profound analogy between the Fiat which Mary said in reply to the angel, and the Amen which every believer says when receiving the body of the Lord” (No. 55).
While the encyclical serves as a summary of Eucharistic doctrine — for example, transubstantiation, presence, sacrifice, banquet — it is primarily an invitation to deepen our faith in the Eucharist, an invitation to immerse ourselves more deeply into the mystery of the Eucharist.
Pope Benedict XVI
The teachings found in Ecclesia de Eucharistia continue to impact the life of the Church.
When Pope Benedict XVI wrote his post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the Eucharist, Sacramentum Caritatis, he made several references to John Paul II’s encyclical.
Continuing the theme that the Church is from the Eucharist, Pope Benedict adds that “the Church is able to celebrate and adore the mystery of Christ present in the Eucharist precisely because Christ first gave himself to her in the sacrifice of the Cross. The Church’s ability to ‘make’ the Eucharist is completely rooted in Christ’s self-gift to her” (No. 14). We have the Eucharist because of the Church, and we have the Church because Christ continues to build it.
In Sacramentum Caritatis, Benedict XVI repeats the ecumenical insights that can be found in Ecclesia de Eucharistia. One implication of the Church built by the Eucharist is that the Church is committed to healing divisions within Christianity that caused separations in visible communion at the Eucharistic liturgy.
Adding to the realization that the Eucharist impels us toward the work of ecumenism, Pope Benedict XVI says: “The Eucharist objectively creates a powerful bond of unity between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches, which have preserved the authentic and integral nature of the eucharistic mystery. At the same time, emphasis on the ecclesial character of the Eucharist can become an important element of the dialogue with the communities of the Reformed tradition” (Sacramentum Caritatis, No. 15).
Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI praised the practice of spiritual communion as an expression of the desire to receive the Eucharist if one is unable to attend Mass or has some other impediment. Benedict XVI, informed by the work of the synod, underscored the importance of attendance at Mass. He wrote: “Even in cases where it is not possible to receive sacramental communion, participation at Mass remains necessary, important, meaningful and fruitful” (No. 55).
For his part, Pope Francis keeps the teaching of Ecclesia de Eucharistia current for the life of the Church today.
A recurring topic in Evangelii Gaudium concerns questions of ecclesial communion, which is central, as well, in Ecclesia de Eucharistia.
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis discusses the connection between creation and the sacraments and sacramentals. And, specifically regarding questions of the Eucharist, he notes that Sunday “is meant to be a day which heals our relationships with God, with ourselves, with others and with the world” (No. 237). In other words, one meaning of the Sunday rest is that it builds the Church.
Pope Francis’ apostolic letter Desiderio Desideravi is dedicated to the question of the liturgical formation of the People of God, the building up of the Church through the celebration of the Eucharist. And, commenting on the celebrant, he notes, “The priest also is formed by his presiding in the celebrating assembly” (No. 56).
Part of that formation is attention to liturgical norms. Pope Francis adds: “The highest norm, and therefore the most demanding, is the reality itself of the Eucharistic celebration, which selects words, gestures, feelings that will make us understand whether or not our use of these are at the level of the reality they serve. It is obvious that this cannot be improvised. It is an art. It requires application on the part of the priest, an assiduous tending to the fire of the love of the Lord” (No. 57).
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis brings into greater relief the connection of the Eucharist and the cosmos first drawn by John Paul II (cf. Ecclesia de Eucharistia, No. 8). In words very similar to ones found in John Paul’s encyclical, Francis says: “The Eucharist joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation. The world which came forth from God’s hands returns to him in blessed and undivided adoration” (Laudato Si’, No. 236).
‘Ecclesia de Eucharistia’ and Priesthood
As noted above, John Paul II speaks about the Eucharist, like the Church, as being one, holy, catholic and apostolic. He identifies three characteristics of apostolicity with regard to the Church as found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: The Church is built on the foundation of the apostles; the Church hands on the teachings of the apostles; and the Church continues to be led by the apostles through their successors (cf. Catechism, No. 857).
The pope then develops in more detail the apostolicity of the Eucharist. With regard to the first two aspects of apostolicity, the pope says: “The Eucharist too has its foundation in the apostles, … [in the sense that] it was entrusted by Jesus to the apostles and has been handed down to us by them and by their successors. [And] … the Eucharist is apostolic, for it is celebrated in conformity with the faith of the apostles” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, No 27).
John Paul II reiterates the teaching that the ordained priest offers the Eucharistic sacrifice to God in the name of all people, joined by the faithful who, through baptism, share in the royal priesthood. In this way, the Eucharist expresses the third aspect of apostolicity through its connection to the priesthood. The pope says, “The assembly gathered together for the celebration of the Eucharist, if it is to be a truly Eucharistic assembly, absolutely requires the presence of an ordained priest as its president” (No. 29).
The necessary role of the priest for Communion is also key for vocation promotion. John Paul II writes: “It is in the Eucharist that prayer for vocations is most closely united to the prayer of Christ the Eternal High Priest. At the same time the diligence of priests in carrying out their Eucharistic ministry, together with the conscious, active and fruitful participation of the faithful in the Eucharist, provides young men with a powerful example and incentive for responding generously to God’s call” (No. 31).
Spirituality of Communion
Of course, receiving the Eucharist brings about a deeper union with God. John Paul II says: “The Eucharist thus appears as the culmination of all the sacraments in perfecting our communion with God the Father by identification with his only-begotten Son through the working of the Holy Spirit” (No. 34). But, he also develops the point that union with the Trinity is only one part of Communion; interpersonal human communion is the other major part. The fact that the Eucharist builds this interpersonal union is both a fact and a responsibility.
John Paul II devotes much attention to the responsibility to which the faithful are called. His words in his last encyclical serve as an articulation of his vision for a spirituality of communion, which he had previously shared.
He wrote in his apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte: “A spirituality of communion indicates above all the heart’s contemplation of the mystery of the Trinity dwelling in us, and whose light we must also be able to see shining on the face of the brothers and sisters around us. A spirituality of communion also means an ability to think of our brothers and sisters in faith within the profound unity of the Mystical Body, and therefore as ‘those who are a part of me’” (No. 43). Commenting on the reality that the Eucharist calls us to responsibility, to a spirituality of communion, John Paul II notes that the Gospels connect both the Institution of the Eucharist (cf. the Synoptic Gospels) and the example of Christian charity in the washing of the feet (cf. John) with the Last Supper (cf. Ecclesia de Eucharistia, No. 20).
John Paul II also acknowledges that the Eucharist, in building the Church, connects us to the Church in heaven. Our union with heaven is a source of hope. He notes the darkness and shadow present in the Church and in the world — specifically, violations against justice and solidarity, attacks against human life from conception to its natural end, a pervasive marginalization of the poor and powerless, and violations against peace (cf. No. 20).
And concerning the Eucharist, he adds to this list a lack of understanding of the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist, abuse of the Blessed Sacrament, absence of Eucharistic adoration, a disconnection of the priesthood from an understanding of the Eucharist (cf. No. 10) and abuses in the celebration of the liturgy (cf. No. 52).
But, our commitment, our responsibility to our world today, our spirituality of communion, brings light to this darkness. Liturgical reform, the increase of conscious and fruitful participation of the faithful at Mass, a commitment to regular Eucharistic adoration, the practice of Eucharistic processions, these are all sources of hope, and joy and light (cf. No. 10). And, our communion with the Church in heaven is a source of light. The pope says: “The Eucharist is truly a glimpse of heaven appearing on earth. It is a glorious ray of the heavenly Jerusalem which pierces the clouds of our history and lights up our journey” (No. 19).
The bishops of the United States have called for a time of Eucharistic Revival. It is a time for deepening our understanding of the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist, a time for a renewed commitment to our celebration of the Eucharistic liturgy as priests and lay faithful, a time for an increased practice of Eucharistic adoration and processions, a time for intentional promotion of priestly vocations, a time of putting our Eucharistic faith into practice by building up the Church and the world, a time of deepened commitment to working toward visible Christian unity through ecumenical efforts, a time of renewed participation in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, all of which allows us to more fully experience our communion with God and one another.
Ecclesia de Eucharistia is a wonderful encouragement to us. In the encyclical, John Paul II incorporates prayers and hymns, Scripture and devotions, giving us a model of having prayer and praise as the foundation for Eucharistic revival. He reminds us that Communion draws us upwards toward heaven and outwards to others. He says: “Every commitment to holiness, every activity aimed at carrying out the Church’s mission, every work of pastoral planning, must draw the strength it needs from the Eucharistic mystery and in turn be directed to that mystery as its culmination” (No. 60).
The Eucharist is both the focus and the source of this time of revival.
FATHER SHAWN CONOBOY, Ph.D., is a priest of the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, and has a doctorate in systemic theology from Duquesne University. He is director of ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the Diocese of Youngstown.
From St. Thomas Aquinas, Poet of the Eucharist
Come then, good Shepherd, bread divine,
Still show to us thy mercy sign;
Oh, feed us, still keep us thine;
So we may see thy glories shine
in fields of immortality.
O thou, the wisest, mightiest, best,
Our present food, our future rest,
Come, make us each thy chosen guest,
Co-heirs of thine, and comrades blest
With saints whose dwelling is with thee.
— Conclusion of Ecclesia de Eucharistia, No. 62