Dec 15, 2003

Cardinal Arinze: The Reverence due to the Holy Eucharist

Online Edition – Vol. IX, No. 9: December 2003 – January 2004

Cardinal Arinze: The Reverence due to the Holy Eucharist

Following is the address of His Eminence, Francis Cardinal Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, delivered at the convention of "The Church Teaches Forum", Louisville, Kentucky, July 18, 2003, printed here with the cardinal’s kind permission. – Editor.


To Jesus Christ, God and Man, in the sacrifice and sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, are due honor, reverence, adoration, thanksgiving, and love. At this opening of this year’s convention of "The Church Teaches Forum", it is right that we should focus our reflection on reverence due to the Holy Eucharist. Many people have sadly noticed that in our churches there is a worrying decline in reverence. The matter is of great importance because of the central place of the Eucharistic Ministry in Catholic faith and life.

What is reverence? What is the key place of faith as a foundation for Eucharistic reverence? We shall thereafter consider how this reverence shows itself in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, in its reception and in devotion to the Holy Eucharist outside the Mass.

1. Religious Reverence

Reverence is that virtue which inclines a person to show honor and respect primarily to God, but also to one’s parents, to civil authorities and to religious leaders. Here we are concerned with reverence to God, in the person of Jesus Christ in the august sacrifice and sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.

God is holy. He is all holy. "Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh Sabaoth, His glory fills the whole earth", sing the seraphim angels before God’s throne (Is 6:3). He is holiness itself. He is transcendent. He dwells in light inaccessible (cf. I Tim 6:16).

It is part of the virtue of religion to show reverence to God, to respect His name and to honor everything connected with Him: persons, places or objects. Cardinal Newman emphasizes the importance of this reverential stance before God: "Are these feelings of fear and awe Christian feelings or not? I say this, then, which I think no one can reasonably dispute. They are the class of feelings which we should have — yes, have to an intense degree — if we literally had the sigh of Almighty God; therefore they are the class of feelings which we shall have, if we realize His presence. In proportion as we believe that He is present, we shall have them; and not to have them, is not to realize, not to believe that He is present" (John H. Newman: Parochial and Plain Sermons V, 2; quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2 144).

This reverence is due to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Therefore to Jesus Christ is due our reverence in Bethlehem, at the Lake of Galilee, on the Cross and in the Holy Eucharist.

2. Eucharistic Faith, Foundation for Reverence

Catholic faith in the Holy Eucharist is the foundation for reverence to this sacrifice and sacrament.

As sacrifice, the Holy Eucharist is the offering of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ to the Eternal Father in a sacramental way for the living and the dead. The sacrifice of the Cross on Calvary and the Eucharist sacrifice are one single sacrifice because "the victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered Himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different" (Council of Trent: Doctrina de ss. Missae sacrificio, c.2: in DS 1743; also CCC 1367). At Mass, Christ associates the Church with Himself in offering this sacrifice. He remains the Chief Priest and the Victim.

As sacrament, the Holy Eucharist is the Body and the Blood, Divinity and Humanity of Christ, the whole Christ, present on our altars when the august words of consecration are pronounced. The Council of Trent is clear: "Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly His body that He was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again that by the consecration of the bread into the substance of the Body of Christ our Lord and the whole substance of the wine into the substance of His Blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation" (Council of Trent, DS 1642; also CCC, 1376).

Therefore in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist "the Body and Blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained" (Council of Trent, DS 1651; also CCC 1374).

Hence the Second Vatican Council summarizes our faith in the Holy Eucharist as follows: "At the Last Supper, on the night when He was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic Sacrifice of His Body and Blood. He did this in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the centuries until He should come again, and so to entrust to His beloved spouse, the Church, a memorial of His death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a paschal banquet in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 47).

This rock foundation that is our faith explains why the Church adores Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. This is adoration, the cult of latria, the supreme act of worship due to God alone, "In the Liturgy of the Mass we express our faith in the Real Presence of Christ under the species of bread and wine by, among other ways, genuflecting or bowing deeply as a sign of adoration of the Lord" (CCC, 1378). We recall the great hymn of Saint Thomas Aquinas:

O Godhead hid, devoutly I adore you,
Who truly are within the forms before me;
To you my heart I bow with bended knee,
As failing quite in contemplating you.

Sight, touch and taste in you are each deceived;
The ear alone most safely is believed:
I believe all the Son of God has spoken,
Than truth’s own word there is no truer token.

The Church holds on to this faith without wavering. The same Angelic Doctor teaches us in the Lauda Sion Salvatorem:

This faith to Christian men is given —
Bread is made flesh by words from heaven:

Into His blood the wine is turned:
What though it baffles nature’s powers
Of sense and sight? This faith of ours
Proves more than nature e’er discerned.

For due reverence to the Holy Eucharist, every Catholic needs proper initiation into this faith and continued growth in it. The Second Vatican Council, teaching on divine revelation and our duty to believe, takes up Saint Paul’s phrase: "’The obedience of faith’ (Rm 16:26; cf 1:5; II Cor 10:5-6) must be given to God who reveals, an obedience by which man entrusts his whole self freely to God, offering ‘the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals’ (Vat I: Dei Filius, De Fide, DS 3008) and freely assenting to the truth revealed by Him" (Dei Verbum 5).

Some Catholics are lacking in due reverence for the Holy Eucharist because their Eucharistic faith is poor and full of defects and doubts. Catechesis should not presume that everyone has one-hundred percent faith. Rather the Catholic faith on the Holy Eucharist should be systematically imparted. Homilies should be solidly based on Holy Scripture, liturgical texts and other authoritative Church documents. The homily needs special attention because for most Catholics it is the single most effective weekly moment in which they can be fed on the doctrine of the faith to help them know it, love it and live it with ever greater authenticity. Careful study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and regular reading of reliable Catholic magazines will also help to build up the faith.

3. Reverence in the Eucharistic Celebration

The Catholic faith just outlined will show itself in reverence in all matters regarding the Eucharistic celebration, or the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

At Mass, the ordained priest acts in the name of Christ. He does not just preside at an assembly prayer as a chairman who conducts a meeting. No. He prays in Christ’s name. He preaches with Christ’s authority. He consecrates bread and wine in the name and in the person of Christ. He offers Christ to God the Father. He gives the Body and Blood of Christ to God’s people, blesses them and sends them forth to live what they have celebrated.

It matters therefore very much that the priest’s gestures should be genuine manifestations of Eucharistic faith and love. Although Christ is the chief celebrant who uses the ministry of the ordained priest as His instrument, the priest’s behavior influences the entire congregation.

It is also important that the congregation show reverence. This can manifest itself in their coming early to Mass so that they are recollected when it begins, in their singing, standing or sitting together when so indicated and in their maintaining moments of silent prayer. It is sad to see people coming late, reading newspapers during Mass and conversing freely inside the church as soon as the last blessing is given, as if they were leaving a sports stadium or theater.

Many congregations do not observe moments of silence, like after the readings, the homily or holy Communion. Sometimes it is the priest who is in a hurry. At other times it is the choir which wants to fill up every quiet moment with singing. And in some cases it is the people in the pew who find moments of silence difficult to observe, because they have not learned to engage in personal interior prayer.

The danger of horizontalism is very real in many Eucharistic celebrations. Some priests and people behave as if they come to Mass primarily to meet one another, to reaffirm one another and at times even to entertain one another. No. Such horizontalism is misplaced. We come to Mass primarily to adore God, to thank Him, to ask pardon for our sins and to make requests for our needs. We are not the center. God is.

Since we are body and soul, our reverence for Jesus in the Holy Eucharist has to show itself also in gestures such as genuflection to the tabernacle on entry and at exit, genuflection where prescribed by Church books inside the Mass, genuflection or bow at the reception of Holy Communion, clean and well-maintained altar equipment, approved liturgical vestments for the priest and his altar assistants and a respectful attitude in people coming and going.

Reverence also includes respect for Church regulations regarding the altar and the sanctuary, the readings and the singing. The music should be suitably approved and it should show theological, liturgical and aesthetic beauty and depth. Trite and banal musical productions are not conducive to reverence.

The Church sometimes authorizes extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion to help the priest and deacon when these are not able to cope with the high number of communicants. It is an abuse for the lay faithful to regard functioning as extraordinary ministers as a power struggle in which they want to prove that what the priest can do, they also can do. This would be lack of reverence. It would also be bad theology.

Sometimes we see people desiring to return to the pre-1970 way of celebrating Mass. Generally the fault is on those who have introduced abuses and their own idiosyncrasies into the Mass, contrary to the clear directives of the Second Vatican Council (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 22). If the Mass is celebrated with faith and reverence, and sung also in Latin sometimes, people’s Catholic faith and piety will be adequately nourished.

4. Reverence in the Reception of the Holy Eucharist

The individual Catholic who receives Jesus in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist shows reverence in many ways.

The most important reverent attitude is that the communicant be in a state of grace. Any Catholic who is unfortunately in the state of mortal sin is bound to go to confession and receive absolution before approaching the Eucharistic table. The Council of Trent declared that it is necessary "by divine decree to confess each and every mortal sin" (Council of Trent, DS 1680). And the 1983 Code of Canon Law says clearly: "Individual and integral confession and absolution are the sole ordinary means by which the faithful, conscious of grave sin, are reconciled with God and the Church; only physical or moral impossibility excuses from such confession, in which case reconciliation can be obtained in other ways" (Can. 960). Pope John Paul II in his April 7, 2002 Apostolic Letter, Misericordia Dei, requests bishops and priests to do everything possible to make individual access to the Sacrament of Penance readily available to the faithful.

It is therefore to be deplored that in more than one parish, many people regularly go to receive Holy Communion but rarely or ever go to confession. And some of them may be walking around with the weight of mortal sins on their consciences. Some such people are misled by erroneous views that very few people are able to commit a mortal sin, or that one lone act cannot be a mortal sin, or that they need not bother following what the Church’s teaching authority declares a mortal sin (such as abortion, contraception, premarital relations or euthanasia) but that it is all right to just follow their own conscience. The Catholic who wants to show genuine reverence to the Holy Eucharist will make sure to be in a state of grace before approaching the Eucharistic table.

We also show reverence by the way we receive Holy Communion, kneeling, standing, on the tongue or in the hand. Even how we dress, how we walk, and how we share in the congregation’s acts of singing, standing, sitting, listening and kneeling can show our faith.

Personal prayer prepares us for proper participation in the Liturgy and helps us to savor its fruits. This applies particularly to the reception of the Holy Communion. Bearing in mind that "the sacred Liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church" (Sacrosanctum Concilium 9), we appreciate the need for personal reflection and meditation, internal prayer, continuing conversion of heart to God and ever greater desire of union with Christ. These are promoters of reverence for so great a mystery.

According to personal devotion, a communicant may wish to kneel or to sit in quiet thanksgiving after Communion. Both the priest celebrant and the choir should make room for this. And the Diocesan Office for the Sacred Liturgy should not try to regiment movements at all such moments.

Thanksgiving after Mass has traditionally been greatly esteemed in the Church for both the priest and the lay faithful. The missal and the breviary even suggest prayers for the priest before and after the Eucharistic celebration. There is no reason to believe that this is no longer needed. Indeed in our noisy world of today, such moments of reflective and loving prayers would seem indicated more than even before. It is a beautiful testimony to hear parishioners say of their pastor: "Father is doing his thanksgiving after Mass and will be available to us about ten minutes later". And why should this not be applicable to the congregation too? Reverence is not automatic. It has to be nurtured, to be built up, to be kept up.

5. Reverence to the Holy Eucharist outside Mass

After Mass, Jesus continues to be present in the Eucharistic mystery. "The Eucharistic presence of Christ", says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "begins at the moment of the consecration and endures as long as the Eucharistic species subsist" (CCC 1377). This is the foundation of the reverence to the Holy Eucharist outside Mass. "The Catholic Church has always offered and still offers to the sacrament of the Eucharist the cult of adoration, not only during Mass, but also outside of it, reserving the consecrated hosts with the utmost care, exposing them to the solemn veneration of the faithful, and carrying them in procession" (Paul VI: Mysterium Fidei 56; cf. also CCC 1378).

This explains why veneration of the Eucharistic mystery has flowered in such forms as personal prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, hours of adoration, periods of Eucharistic exposition (short, prolonged and annual Forty Hours), Eucharistic benediction, Eucharistic processions and Eucharistic congresses. The Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ is known throughout the Latin Church because of its extremely beautiful liturgical texts and the solemn Eucharistic Procession that follows the Mass. Pope John Paul II every year leads the traditional Eucharistic Procession from the Basilica of St. John Lateran to that of St. Mary Major.

It would be a mistake to imagine that the Church since the Second Vatican Council has laid less stress on these manifestations of faith. The contrary is the case. For documents, just think of the Encyclical Letter, Mysterium Fidei, by Pope Paul VI in 1965, the Instruction Eucharisticum Mysterium of the Sacred Congregation of Rites in 1967, the Roman Ritual on Holy Communion and the worship of the Eucharistic Mystery outside Mass of the same Congregation in 1973, the Letter of Pope John Paul II On the Mystery and Worship of the Holy Eucharist in 1980 and the recent Encyclical Letter of the same Pontiff in April 2003 entitled Ecclesia de Eucharistia.

The tabernacle in which the Most Blessed Sacrament is reserved is traditionally given special attention by the Church. Paragraphs 314 to 316 of the introductory instructions of the Roman Missal of 2002 give it a prominent place. The tabernacle should be in a part of the church that is really noble, distinguished, conspicuous, well decorated and suitable for prayer. It should be placed either in the sanctuary, apart from the altar of celebration in the most suitable form and place, or even in a chapel suitable for adoration and the personal prayer of the faithful and which is integrally connected with the church and is conspicuous to the faithful. A sanctuary lamp, fed by oil or wax, should burn near the tabernacle to indicate that Jesus is present. Compare these official instructions to what is sometimes the case in some churches especially those restructured by some ill-informed reformers. In some of such churches, one could not tell where the tabernacle is. Then one could in truth lament: "They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put Him" (Jn 20:13).

The Congregation for the Clergy, in its Instruction of August 4, 2002, advises priests: "The Blessed Sacrament is to be lovingly reserved in a tabernacle ‘which is the spiritual heart of every religious and parochial community’. Without the cult of the Eucharist, as with a beating heart, a parish becomes arid. If you wish the faithful to pray willingly and piously – as Pius XII reminded the clergy of Rome – set an example for them by praying in your churches before them. A priest on his knees before the tabernacle, with a proper disposition and in deep recollection, is a model of edification for the people, a reminder of, and an invitation to, prayerful emulation", (The Priest, Pastor and Leader of the Parish Community 21).

People want to venerate our Eucharistic Lord on bended knee. To facilitate this, there should be kneelers in front of the Blessed Sacrament. I have seen specially built-in 24-hour Eucharistic adoration chapels where some people freely prostrate [themselves] according as they may be inclined, without any attention to what other people might think of them. If you really believe that Jesus is there, God and Man, is it not logical to prostrate?

It is a beautiful practice that people who are near a church or chapel where the august Sacrament is reserved should pay visits to Our Lord, short or long as the case may be. There is also the praiseworthy habit of making the sign of the cross or bowing when one drives past such a sacred place.

Indeed we could continue recounting many more ways in which the faith of Catholics in the Holy Eucharist can manifest itself in acts of reverence.

Let us pray to the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of our Eucharistic Lord, to obtain for us strong faith in the sacrifice and sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. Such a faith will unfailingly produce the flowers of reverence, adoration and love, will promote our union with Christ, and will influence our entire Christian life.

Francis Cardinal Arinze
July 18, 2003



The Editors