– Vol. IX, No. 3: May 2003
Encyclical on the Eucharist:
Restore Doctrine, Piety – End Abuses Pope John Paul II’s 14th encyclical deplores"shadows"; stresses Mass as sacrifice; announces forthcoming disciplinary "prescriptions" to overcome liturgical abuses
by Helen Hull Hitchcock
"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", writes Pope John Paul II in the introduction of Ecclesia de Eucharistia, an encyclical on the Eucharist released on Holy Thursday. The fourteenth such high-level document the Pope has issued, the encyclical appears during the twenty-fifth year of his elevation to the papacy — and the fortieth year since the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.
At his Wednesday audience April 16, the Holy Father said of the encyclical he would sign the next day,"In this text I intend to give every believer an organic reflection on the Eucharistic sacrifice that gathers within it the entire spiritual good of the Church". He explained, "Commemorating this central mystery of faith involves a commitment to fulfill it in the concrete reality of our existence".
The encyclical’s six chapters combine a profound meditation on the transcendence of the Eucharist with an appeal to all believers to reaffirm fundamental doctrine of the Mass. In particular, the Holy Father stresses the fundamental sacrificial nature of the Mass, urges a revival of Eucharistic adoration outside of Mass, and makes very clear the essential role of the priest acting in persona Christi [in the person of Christ], thus "validly linking the Eucharistic consecration to the sacrifice of the Cross and to the Last Supper".
The pope observes in the introduction that the post-Conciliar liturgical reform "contributed to a more conscious, active and fruitful participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar", and noted the benefits of participation in Corpus Christi processions where they exist. However, he also observed that there have been "shadows", which he enumerates.
- "In some places the practice of Eucharistic adoration has been almost completely abandoned".
- "In various parts of the Church abuses have occurred, leading to confusion with regard to sound faith and Catholic doctrine concerning this wonderful sacrament".
- "An extremely reductive understanding of the Eucharistic Mystery. Stripped of its sacrificial meaning, it is celebrated as if it were simply a fraternal banquet".
- The ministerial priesthood "is at times obscured and the sacramental nature of the Eucharist is reduced to its mere effectiveness as a form of proclamation".
- Some ecumenical initiatives "indulge in Eucharistic practices contrary to the discipline by which the Church expresses her faith".
"How can we not express profound grief at all this?", he asks. "The Eucharist is too great a gift to tolerate ambiguity and depreciation. 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".
Pope John Paul does not mention the controversy that ensued in some quarters when the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani, the regulations for the celebration of Mass in the new Third typical edition of the Roman Missal, first appeared in 2000; nor does he refer to the varied and often confusing interpretations of these rules in the United States following the approval of the English translation of the IGMR, incorporating national "adaptations" a year ago.
Yet he seems to allude to this situation in a section about variations and adaptations. It is necessary, says the Holy Father, that adaptation of the Mass "be carried out with a constant awareness of the ineffable Mystery against which every generation is called to measure itself. The treasure is too important and precious to risk impoverishment or compromise" by innovative practices; and he stresses that "the centrality of the Eucharistic mystery" demands that all adaptations must be reviewed "in close association with the Holy See".
Further, he says, "It must be lamented that, especially in the years following the post-conciliar liturgical reform, as a result of a misguided sense of creativity and adaptation there have been a number of abuses which have been a source of suffering for many", and he mentions "unauthorized innovations which are often completely inappropriate".
"Liturgy", he continues, "is never anyone’s private property, be it of the celebrant or of the community in which the mysteries are celebrated". He calls for "renewed awareness and appreciation of liturgical norms".
One of the most striking features of the encyclical is the pope’s announcement that he has asked "the competent offices of the Roman Curia" to prepare a "more specific document" that will include "prescriptions of a juridical nature" to govern the celebration of the Eucharist. Presumably the "competent offices" that will undertake this momentous task are the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
In the concluding chapters, Pope John Paul emphasizes the significance of the "Woman of the Eucharist", Mary, and offers a compelling image of the Virgin as "the first tabernacle" that contained the Body of Christ. And he enjoins believers to "respect the demands which derive from [the Eucharist’s] being the sacrament of communion in faith and in apostolic succession" which "enables us to become, for everyone, witnesses of hope".
Some highlights from the encyclical follow. (The encyclical appears in its entirety in this issue, beginning on page 3.)
The Mystery of the Faith — The Sacrifice of the Cross
The Eucharist makes present Christ’s death and resurrection, and this is fundamental to understanding its meaning:"This sacrifice is so decisive for the salvation of the human race that Jesus Christ offered it and returned to the Father only after He had left us a means of sharing in it as if we had been present there" .
"Jesus did not simply state that what He was giving them to eat and drink was His body and His blood; He also expressed its sacrificial meaning and made sacramentally present His sacrifice which would soon be offered on the Cross for the salvation of all" .
"By virtue of its close relationship to the sacrifice of Golgotha, the Eucharist is a sacrifice in the strict sense, and not only in a general way, as if it were simply a matter of Christ’s offering Himself to the faithful as their spiritual food" .
The Eucharist Builds the Church – Adoration
"The worship of the Eucharist outside of the Mass is of inestimable value for the life of the Church… It is the responsibility of Pastors to encourage, also by their personal witness, the practice of Eucharistic adoration, and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in particular, as well as prayer of adoration before Christ present under the Eucharistic species" .
Apostolicity — Priests
"The ministry of priests who have received the sacrament of Holy Orders, in the economy of salvation chosen by Christ, makes clear that the Eucharist which they celebrate is a gift which radically transcends the power of the assembly and is in any event essential for validly linking the Eucharistic consecration to the sacrifice of the Cross and to the Last Supper" .
"Similarly, it is unthinkable to substitute for Sunday Mass ecumenical celebrations of the word or services of common prayer with Christians from the aforementioned Ecclesial Communities, or even participation in their own liturgical services. Such celebrations and services, however praiseworthy in certain situations, prepare for the goal of full communion, including Eucharistic communion, but they cannot replace it". 
"The centrality of the Eucharist in the life and ministry of priests is the basis of its centrality in the pastoral promotion of priestly vocations" .
"When, due to the scarcity of priests, non-ordained members of the faithful are entrusted with a share in the pastoral care of a parish, they should bear in mind that — as the Second Vatican Council teaches — ‘no Christian community can be built up unless it has its basis and center in the celebration of the most Holy Eucharist’. They have a responsibility, therefore, to keep alive in the community a genuine "hunger" for the Eucharist, so that no opportunity for the celebration of Mass will ever be missed, also taking advantage of the occasional presence of a priest who is not impeded by Church law from celebrating Mass" .
Liturgical Abuses, Innovations Must Cease
"It must be lamented that, especially in the years following the post-conciliar liturgical reform, as a result of a misguided sense of creativity and adaptation there have been a number of abuses which have been a source of suffering for many. A certain reaction against ‘formalism’ has led some, especially in certain regions, to consider the ‘forms’ chosen by the Church’s great liturgical tradition and her Magisterium as non-binding and to introduce unauthorized innovations which are often completely inappropriate.
"I consider it my duty, therefore to appeal urgently that the liturgical norms for the celebration of the Eucharist be observed with great fidelity. These norms are a concrete expression of the authentically ecclesial nature of the Eucharist; this is their deepest meaning. Liturgy is never anyone’s private property, be it of the celebrant or of the community in which the mysteries are celebrated. The Apostle Paul had to address fiery words to the community of Corinth because of grave shortcomings in their celebration of the Eucharist resulting in divisions (schismata) and the emergence of factions (haireseis)… Priests who faithfully celebrate Mass according to the liturgical norms, and communities that conform to those norms, quietly but eloquently demonstrate their love for the Church.
"Precisely to bring out more clearly this deeper meaning of liturgical norms, I have asked the competent offices of the Roman Curia to prepare a more specific document, including prescriptions of a juridical nature, on this very important subject. No one is permitted to undervalue the mystery entrusted to our hands: it is too great for anyone to feel free to treat it lightly and with disregard for its sacredness and its universality" .