Mar 15, 2005

The Centrality of the Holy Eucharist in the Christian Life

Online Edition – March 2005Vol. XI, No. 1

The Centrality of the Holy Eucharist

in the Christian Life

by Cardinal Francis Arinze

On February 7, 2005, Francis Cardinal Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, addressed more than 600 people at St. Peter the Apostle Church in Naples, Florida. This address, entitled "The Centrality of the Holy Eucharist in the Christian Life", was part of Cardinal Arinze’s visit to Ave Maria University. Following is a transcription of that talk.


The Holy Eucharist occupies a central place in the public worship of the Church, in the life of the Church as a whole, and, therefore, in the life of every Christian.  It is, therefore, fitting that in this Year of the Eucharist — inaugurated by the Holy Father last October 17 and this Year of the Eucharist will be concluded on October 29 this year — it is very fitting that we reflect on the centrality of the Holy Eucharist in the Christian life. 

In the Christian life, the Holy Eucharist has a central place.  After a brief statement of our faith in this mystery, we shall consider the Holy Eucharist as the supreme act of worship and as the center of the liturgical life of the Church.

Sunday Mass then emerges in clearer light, as does the parish as a Eucharistic community.  We also ask ourselves what place the Holy Eucharist has in the day and week for each of us and how we learn from Christ to offer ourselves.  The Holy Eucharist supplies us with the spiritual energy for the apostolate.  It punctuates the major milestones in our personal and community life, and is with us at the evening of our earthly pilgrimage.

The Inestimable Gift

These will now be our points for reflection. So first, briefly to state our faith in the Holy Eucharist.  The Lord before He suffered — our beloved Lord and Savior Jesus Christ — gave to His bride, the Church, the inestimable gift of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper. 

Jesus spoke those memorable and powerful words over bread and wine:  "This is my Body; this is my Blood which will be poured out for you".  He gives the apostles the power to do the same:  "Do this in remembrance of me".  And He gives them His Body to eat and His Blood to drink.  The Council of Trent — a meeting of Catholic Bishops at that time, from 1545 to 1563, almost twenty years (not meeting every day) — the Council of Trent teaches us that Jesus wanted, I quote:  "To leave to His beloved spouse, the Church, a visible sacrifice as the nature of man demands, by which the bloody sacrifice He was to accomplish once for all on the cross would be represented; its memory perpetuated until the end of the world, and its salutary power be applied to the forgiveness of sins we daily commit". 

That’s the Council of Trent teaching.

It follows that the sacrifice of the cross and the Eucharistic sacrifice are one single sacrifice, because says the same council:  "The victim is one and the same; the thing offered now through the ministry of priests who then offered Himself on the cross, only the manner of offering is different".   So that those who go to Mass are like those who went to Mount Calvary on Good Friday: the same priest — Christ; the same victim — Christ. The difference?  At the altar, Jesus does not shed blood, and He uses the ministry of the ordained priest.  But it is the same sacrifice of Calvary, now celebrated sacramentally on our altars.

As a sacrament, the Holy Eucharist is the Body and Blood together with the soul and divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, we receive the whole Christ, who is truly, really and substantially present in Holy Communion. And we visit Him where He is reserved in the Tabernacle in order to give Him our adoration, praise, thanksgiving and love.

The Supreme Act of Worship

The Eucharistic sacrifice is the supreme act of worship.  The only thing better than a Mass is another Mass.  Nothing else.  Why?  God is our creator, we are His creatures.  As creatures, we are not able of ourselves to offer Him adoration and worship, which would be fitting for His infinite and transcendent majesty.  God comes to our aid by the Incarnation of the Son of God, by the Redemption, and by the gift of the Holy Spirit humanity is enabled to offer God the supreme act of worship. 

The Son of God took on human nature in order to restore all humanity and indeed all creation to His eternal Father, the creator of all.  Jesus does that by His Paschal mystery, what we celebrate in Holy Week.  That means His suffering, death and resurrection.  He, the supreme and eternal high priest, does give back to the eternal Father all creation redeemed.  By the blood of His cross, He, our priest, enters the eternal sanctuary.  He has accomplished our salvation.  His work did not end there.  He entrusted to His Church the eucharistic sacrifice so that in a sacramental manner there will be a re-presentation of the sacrifice of the cross until the end of time to the honor of the Blessed Trinity. 

The main aim of Mass is, therefore, to adore God, to praise Him, to thank Him, to make reparation for our sins.  It is also to ask God for what we need, spiritual and temporal. 

The main thrust of the Eucharistic sacrifice is vertical, God-wards.  This is what religion is all about, worship of God.  That worship expresses itself in acts of adoration, thanksgiving, and propitiation.

Propitiation is asking forgiveness for our sins and making reparation.  In particular, the Holy Eucharist is the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving for the work of creation, for God’s further work and further gift of redemption in Christ, sanctification.  The Mass is a song of praise to the glory of God in the name, not only of humanity but in the name of all creation.  

The fourth reason for the Mass is supplication, petition, asking for what we need.  Without God, we can do nothing.  We need to present our requests before Him, for spiritual well being, for grace to live the Christian life, which is not easy at any time, for bodily and mental good health, for love and unity in our families and society; for everything we need, for international harmony and peace and development and balance. The Eucharistic sacrifice is the most powerful act of petition that we can make to God. 

Four Aims of Religion, Mass

It is, therefore, clear that the Eucharistic sacrifice fulfills splendidly the four major aims of religion. 

What is religion all about?  (The very same reasons for the Mass.) You will get them from the word ACTS:  A – adoration, C – contrition, T – thanksgiving, and S – supplication.  To adore God, to thank Him, to make reparation for our sins and to ask for what we need. Please note that asking for what we need is the number four intention for Mass, not the number one.  So if you come to Mass only to get things from God but not primarily to praise Him and adore Him, it means you are still in the kindergarten of the spiritual life.  You are still a spiritual baby.

The Eucharistic sacrifice is the summit and the center of liturgical life, the whole public worship of the Church, the whole prayer life of the Church. 

It is consequently no surprise that the Eucharistic sacrifice is the supreme act of the prayer life of the Church.  Nothing that the Church does in her liturgical worship is as solemn and elevated as this sacramental representation of the Paschal mystery of Christ.  The Second Vatican Council calls the Holy Eucharist "the fount and apex of the whole Christian life".  The liturgy as a whole is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed.  When we say "liturgy" we mean the whole public worship of the Church. 

There are three main parts.  First, the sacraments, seven of them.  Then there are all the other celebrations that the Church has put together, like dedication of a church, profession of Religious brothers, sisters, and blessings. The third area is the prayer for the Church in the different times of the day, the Liturgy of the Hours, properly called the Breviary, the Divine Office. 

So the Council says:  "The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed, and at the same time it is the fountain from which all her power flows.  From the liturgy, therefore", continues the Council, "and especially from the Eucharist as from a fountain, grace is channeled into us, the sanctification of people in Christ, and the glorification of God to which all other activities of the Church are directed as toward their goal are most powerfully achieved". 

The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist.  They are oriented toward it, because in the Blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church; namely, Christ Himself, our Pasch.  If you watch the celebration of the other sacraments, you will find that many of them are celebrated in the Mass:  Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Orders, and Matrimony.  Anointing of the Sick prepares people to participate in the Holy Eucharist and can also be done in the Mass.  And then the Sacrament of Penance prepares people so that they will be fit to receive Holy Communion with fruit and will not come to receive in mortal sin, and then they get no grace at all.  Not only do they get no grace, but they commit a sacrilege on top of all the other sins they had before.  So the Sacrament of Penance is necessary, especially for a person in mortal sin.  So that the whole sacramental system is oriented toward the Holy Eucharist. 

The sacramentals — as I mentioned, persons who are professing as brothers or sisters, or the dedication of a Church or altar, or blessing of a chalice and paten, and all other blessings — are often located within the Holy Eucharist. 

The Liturgy of the Hours, the prayers of the Church for the different hours of the day, are also oriented toward the Eucharist; and there is provision for some of them to be celebrated within the Mass. 

Considering that the Church draws her life from Christ in the Eucharist, by Him she is fed, and by Him she is enlightened, as Pope John Paul II tells us in his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia. Then it follows that the Eucharist stands at the center of the life of the Church. 

Pope Paul VI had earlier made the same observation in 1965.  He wrote in the encyclical Mysterium Fidei: "If the sacred liturgy holds first place in the life of the Church, then the Eucharistic mystery stands at the height and center of the liturgy since it is the font of life that cleanses us and strengthens us".

Why Is Sunday Important?

Sunday Eucharist.  It deserves special attention.  The Church of the Roman rite celebrates the Holy Eucharist every day except on Good Friday and Holy Saturday.  But from the earliest centuries, the Sunday Eucharist has had great importance. The Church in a diocese manifests itself in a special way when the diocese and bishop celebrate the Eucharistic sacrifice in his cathedral church with the concelebration of his priests, the assistance of deacons and the active participation of all the People of God. 

Every Eucharistic celebration in the diocese, especially the parish Mass, is related to the bishop, even when the bishop is not physically present. 

The Sunday Eucharist has great importance because it is celebrated on the day when Christ conquered death and gave us a share in His immortal life.  The mystery of the Church is concretely made present.

The Acts of the Apostles tells us that the early Christian community remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood and to the breaking of bread, and to their prayers.  When some Christians in later centuries became half-hearted or negligent in coming to Sunday Eucharist, the Church increasingly made explicit the duty to participate at Sunday Mass as in the Council of Elvira in the year 300, and finally in the Code of Canon Law of 1917 when this tradition became universal law.

There is, therefore, a grave obligation to participate at the Sunday celebration of the Holy Eucharist and also on major solemnities like Christmas Day, Immaculate Conception, according to observation in each country. 

The Mass is the heart of Sunday.  When we think of Sunday the first thing we should think of is the Mass.  Not football.  Not baseball.  Not swimming at the seaside.  Not motor races. Although there’s nothing wrong with those.  But the first thing we think of for Sunday is the Sunday Mass.  This explains why priests and bishops take great pains to provide the Christian communities with the Sunday Eucharist.  It is also the reason why many devoted people are willing to travel miles and miles in order to have Sunday Mass. 

Every convinced Catholic should be able to say with the martyrs of Abyssinia in North Africa who were martyred during the Diocletian persecution in the year 304, 305 — the martyrs were accused of having celebrated Mass on Sunday.  And before they were killed they were asked,  "Why did you do that?"  They replied,  "We can not live without the Lord’s Supper". 

Can you say that with truth — that you cannot live without the Sunday Mass?

The Parish – A Eucharistic Community

The parish is a Eucharistic community.  A parish is a definite community of the Christian faithful, established on a stable basis within a particular Church or diocese.  The bishop entrusts the pastoral care of the parish to a pastor.  A parish is the community of worship, a community for the teaching of Christian doctrine, and the community for the practice of charity in good work and brotherly love.  So in a parish with a beautiful church such as this one I congratulate all those who built this church and those who come here to adore God. A parish is a community of worship, Church teaching and service. 

As a community of worship, the parish initiates people into the Christian fold by incorporation into the Church at baptism and brings them into participation in the liturgical life of the Church.  The high point of this parish liturgical celebration is the Sunday Eucharist.  The Second Vatican Council stresses this.  It says:  "Efforts also must be made to encourage a sense of community within the parish, above all in the common celebration of the Sunday Mass".

This is what the pope says in Mane Nobiscum Domine, his document of four months ago (October 7) to prepare the Church for the Year of the Eucharist: Pope John Paul II says that the Eucharist is seen by the Church as a celebration which brings together the entire parish community, with the participation of different groups and movements and associations.  On Sunday they all come together as God’s family in the parish, with their pastor leading them to adore the Lord.

The parish also fulfills a teaching role. It brings the Word of God to the people, and teaches them Christian doctrine.  This is another great service of the Sunday Mass. For most Catholics the Sunday Mass is the one big occasion in the week to be fed on the truth of the faith. The Scripture readings, the Psalms and the homily, build up the faith.  Then together as a community, the people sing or recite the symbol of the faith, the Credo, the words of which are hallowed by almost 2,000 years of liturgical profession of faith. Nobody dare add or subtract one word. 

The parish is, thirdly, a community of charity, of service and of Christian solidarity with the needy as we shall discuss very soon. The parish should, therefore, be seen as a Eucharistic community, especially when it gathers at Sunday Mass. "No Christian community", says Vatican II, "can be built up unless it has its basis and center in the celebration of the most Holy Eucharist. Here, therefore, all education and the spirit of community must originate". 

The Eucharist in Our Lives

What place has the Holy Eucharist in your day?  In your week?  Every one of us can put to himself or herself this question.  If I am able to participate at Mass every day do I make a sincere effort to do so?  Do I see my daily Mass as the supreme moment in my day?  To adore God, to acknowledge His greatness, to offer Him praise and thanks and to propitiate Him for my sins and the sins of others? 

Do I see the Eucharistic sacrifice as a golden opportunity to offer Christ to God the Father, and to learn to offer myself through Christ?

Is daily Mass appreciated by me as a liturgically rich event in which I put before God my whole day, with its joys and sorrows, projects, achievements and disappointments?  Do I look forward to a meeting with Jesus in the Holy Communion? 

He has invited us to come to Him:  "Remain in Me and I in you, for cut off from Me you can do nothing".  He indeed wants us:  "If you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood you have no life in you".  And He reassures us:  "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in that person".  Is it not a wonderful thing that we can receive Jesus each day of our earthly pilgrimage?

What is Sunday Mass for me?  Do I see it as a privileged participation in this tribute of worship offered to God by the Christian community of which I am a part?  Do I see it as a profession of faith in the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church?  Do I appreciate the power to give Christian witness, to encourage one another in the practice of the faith, and to sing joyfully together with others before the Lord? 

The exhortation of Saint John Chrysostom is remarkable.  He said:  "You cannot pray at home as at Church.  Where there is a great multitude, where exclamations are raised, are cried out to God as from one great heart, and where there is something more: the union of mind, the cure of souls, the bond of charity, the prayers of the priests".

An Offering to God…

So coming to Sunday Mass is much bigger than praying to God at home, although we should do that, too.  The Eucharistic sacrifice is central in the life of Christians who want to offer themselves to God in many senses of the word "offer". 

The Mass is the offering of Himself, which Jesus Christ our Savior makes to His eternal Father. He is the victim who is an adequate offering to God’s majesty.  Jesus associates the Church with Himself in this Eucharistic offering. While only the ordained priest consecrates bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, all the baptized in the congregation offer Christ to the Father with the priest and through the priest.  They also learn to offer themselves through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ, so that as the Second Vatican Council says:  "Taking part in the Eucharistic sacrifice, which is the fount and apex of the whole Christian life, they offer the divine victim to God and offer themselves along with it".  Shall we go into some details?

Instead of lamenting our problems, it is in the Mass that we offer them to God; we offer to God our pains and aches, our sicknesses.  (As you get older there will be more.  If it is not the knee it will be the shoulder, if it is not the shoulder it will be the neck, and if it’s not the neck, it will be the back.  And the sooner you accept that at age seventy you cannot be as fresh as you were at age twenty-five — the sooner you accept that, the better!)

And you come to Mass and you offer that reality to God through Christ. Also age, family difficulties, situations of suffering as a result of other people’s actions, political headaches, and also lack of security of peace in a society, more or less according to place and time and people. 

We also offer to God our plans and hopes, our studies and our future prospects, our fears, our professional undertakings, our Church association activities, our dreams of making this world a better place for all. 

The Mass is also the moment of celebration in which we offer to God our joys, our good health, our family unity, our success in our studies or profession, our happy family life, our circle of friends, and the quiet joys of seeing our projects blooming or seeing your children and your grandchildren with smiles on their faces.  We offer that to God.  (You can also offer to God your bank account, which runs into several digits!) 

With the bread and wine, which we bring at the Offertory at Mass, we bring to God our entire selves.  We beg Him through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ, to make of us an offering acceptable in His sight.   

When viewed and lived in that way, the Mass becomes more and more central in our Christian life.  You may be a married person, you may be a priest, you may be a Religious sister or brother, you may be a single person doing your own apostolate.  All that is offered on the altar, with Christ, in Christ, through Christ.  A greater center of your daily life there is none.  Whatever apostolate you are doing, the Holy Eucharist is the energy giver. 

The Eucharist: Strength for Mission

The Holy Eucharist sends us on mission.  At the end of the Mass the deacon — and in his absence the priest — says to us:  Ita missa est.  That really means:  "Go, you are sent to live and share what we have received, what we have had, meditated, sung and prayed".  The Holy Eucharist sends us to proclaim Christ.  Teach according to the person’s vocation and mission in the Church and in the world.  The witness of our lives and our word when that is called for will show that we are witnesses of Christ, we are followers of Christ.  This is an obligation on everyone in the Church: to speak about Christ — whether you are among the lay faithful, who are 98 percent of the Church, or you are a cleric or man or woman in the consecrated state. 

The Eucharist also sends us to promote justice and peace; turns us to promote justice and peace and development in society.  An authentic Christian should not create a divorce between duties as a Christian and obligations as a citizen. 

We at the same time are charged by the Eucharistic celebration surely to show solidarity with the poor, the sick, the needy in general. 

Jesus tells us that the Last Judgment will be based on whether we have shown Him solidarity in the sick, the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoner.  And John Paul II, as already mentioned, says that the authenticity of our Eucharistic celebration can be judged from our solidarity with the needy. 

It is at the Eucharistic sacrifice that we are prepared, equipped, strengthened and sent to promote these various apostolates.  At Mass, we are enlightened. At the Table of the Word of God our hearts should burn within us, like the two apostles on the road to Emmaus.  When Christ explained the Scriptures to them, their hearts were burning within them.  Then we are fed at the Table of the Body and Blood of Christ.  And therefore we are sent to evangelize.  The pope says in his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, "Every activity in the carrying out of the Church’s mission, every work of planning must draw the strength it needs from the eucharistic mystery and in turn be directed to that mystery as its culmination".

The Holy Eucharist is there in the milestones in our personal life and community life.  The sacraments mark the major milestones in our share in the redemption worked for us by Christ.  We celebrate, therefore, the Holy Eucharist at the reception of Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Orders, and Matrimony.  It is usual for Catholics to request the priest to offer Mass for them at anniversaries, anniversary jubilee of ordination, marriage, baptism, age — when you are 25, 50, 75, a hundred, if you have a doctor friend!

Thanksgiving has its highest expression in the Eucharistic sacrifice.  When people want to thank God for the arrival of a new baby in the family — and the baby’s better than their bank account — or recovery from sickness or escape from danger, they want to thank God for success in their professional lives, their graduation from the university in flying colors or simply because they have retired after many years of public service with distinguished decoration.  They cannot think of any celebration greater than the Mass, and they are right. 

Communities also arrange to have the Eucharistic celebration to mark major events in their life.  Example:  town or state anniversaries, national days, thanksgiving days and a day to recognize the fallen in war.  Moreover, times of danger and suffering, for a community to call for a special Mass in time of war or time of earthquake or time of sea invasion of land, killing people all over the place.  Or when we are praying for justice and peace or when natural disasters, epidemics ravage a whole area.  The Missal has a votive Mass for many such occasions.  Seen in this way, the Holy Eucharist rightly occupies a central place in the life of a Christian or of a Christian community. 

Last Things

There comes a time when the sun is about to set.  Even if the day begins in splendor of the rising sun, there comes a time when the sun is about to set.  So also our lives.  May you live to 200 years — but we know that nobody will.  So there comes a time when the evening of our lives is at the door.  The indications begin to increase to show that the end of our earthly life is not far away.  Strength begins to fail.  The bones start to ache.  Movement slows down each day.  You also begin to forget.  One sickness or the other is detected.  When you get free of one, another one is found out.  In short, the evening, the twilight, the sunset of our earthly pilgrimage is beginning to unfold. 

As all through life, starting from infancy so also in old age, the Holy Eucharist is central to our Christian life.  Jesus accompanies us with His sacrifice and sacraments. 

The Church sets great value on the apostolate of the hospital chaplains, who celebrate Mass for the sick in hospitals or homes for senior citizens, and who bring them Holy Communion.  Their work is very important.  The sick or the old in their homes are also brought their comforting visit of our Eucharistic Lord.  Those who carry out this apostolate are doing very precious work.  When death is near, the Holy Eucharist is administered to the dying as a Viaticum, to strengthen the dying and accompany him or her on the journey to eternity, the most important journey you will make.  Saint Ignatius of Antioch calls the Holy Eucharist the "medicine of immortality".

When a Christian has died, the most important thing we can do for that person is the offering of the sacrifice of the Mass.  That is more important than flowers and the tombstones, although there’s nothing wrong with flowers or tombstones.  But the Mass is infinitely more precious for the dead. This is also the center of a Christian funeral celebration. If we think of a Christian funeral we must think of the Mass. And after the funeral, we continue to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice for our dear ones, so that if they are in Purgatory, they may soon be admitted into the light and peace of Christ. And if they have already reached heaven, all the Masses you celebrate for them, God has no problem to use them for you or for other people. So continue to pray for your dear ones and ask for Mass for them even if you think they lived a very good life.

Distinguished Chancellor, Provost, President, faculty, students of Ave Maria University, members of this Parish of Saint Peter the Apostle, and all you brothers and sisters in Christ here gathered, there is no doubt that the whole Eucharist is central in our Christian life.  The question is to what extent do we appreciate and live this truth? 

May the most blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of our Savior, obtain for us the grace which we so much need.

Through Christ in the Holy Eucharist be all glory forever and ever!

Adoremus thanks Ave Maria University, who transcribed Cardinal Arinze’s taped address.



Cardinal Francis Arinze