Apr 15, 2006

The Eucharistic Spirituality of the Church

Online Edition – April 2006

Vol. XII, No. 2

The Eucharistic Spirituality of the Church

Formation, catechesis – and assessment of results – are essential for true liturgical reform

by Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith

Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, a native of Sri Lanka and former apostolic nuncio to Indonesia and East Timor, was appointed Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments by Pope Benedict XVI on December 10, 2005. The archbishop’s commentary on the Eucharistic teaching of Pope John Paul II’s final encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, and on the disciplinary Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum of March 25, 2004, first appeared in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, on July 21, 2004. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of Archbishop Ranjith and L’Osservatore Romano.


I believe that the most beautiful gifts the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, has given the Church in the 25th anniversary of his Pontificate are his Apostolic Letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, and his encyclical letter, Ecclesia de Eucharistia. In these two letters we find a profound sense of faith personally lived and witnessed by the pope.

He thus communicates to us not so much a compendium of teaching as his own spiritual experience. On every page of these two letters we cannot but note the greatness and depth of a soul strongly attached to Jesus in the Eucharist; and to Mary, Woman of the Eucharist, who at the foot of the Cross, and while sharing in the sacrifice of her Son, fulfilled her Eucharistic vocation.

This pedagogy of sharing in a faith lived personally is visible above all in the pope’s words: “Allow me, dear brothers and sisters, to share with deep emotion, as a means of accompanying and strengthening your faith, my own testimony of faith in the Most Holy Eucharist. Ave verum corpus natum de Maria Virgine, vere passum, immolatum, in cruce pro homine! [Hail true Body born of the Virgin Mary, who truly suffered, sacrificed, on the cross for man!] Here is the Church’s treasure, the heart of the world, the pledge of the fulfillment for which each man and woman, even unconsciously, yearns…. Here our senses fail us: visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur … yet faith alone, rooted in the word of Christ handed down to us by the apostles, is sufficient for us. Allow me, like Peter at the end of the Eucharistic discourse in John’s Gospel, to say once more to Christ, in the name of the whole Church and in the name of each of you: ‘Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’ (Jn 6:68)”. (Ecclesia de Eucharistia 59)

The Holy Father’s personal role in liturgical renewal

The pope follows the example set by the apostles who always sought to place first what they had seen and experienced personally (cf. I Jn 1:1-3), and speaks of a world troubled by doubt and uncertainty, seeking to reassure it.

Furthermore, the pope unfolds before us the spiritual mysticism that he himself lives daily in the celebration of the Eucharist: “For over a half century, every day … my eyes have gazed in recollection upon the host and the chalice, where time and space in some way merge and the drama of Golgotha is represented in a living way, thus revealing its mysterious contemporaneity”. (ibid. 59) These words are imbued with faith, offered to us as an incentive for building our own faith in the Eucharistic Christ.

Indeed, as we know, the content of the Catholic Creed is not merely a collection of abstract teachings, but rather the result of a faith lived and shared by the Church, a community of disciples of Christ. The Creed expresses the faith that men and women have personally lived and passed down from generation to generation.

The pope asks us to draw from that inexhaustible source, which he describes as a “school of saints”, in order to deepen our Eucharistic faith: “Let us take our place, dear brothers and sisters, at the school of the saints, who are the great interpreters of true Eucharistic piety. In them the theology of the Eucharist takes on all the splendor of a lived reality; it becomes contagious and, in a manner of speaking, it warms our hearts. Above all, let us listen to Mary Most Holy, in whom the mystery of the Eucharist appears, more than in anyone else, as a mystery of light. Gazing upon Mary, we come to know the transforming power present in the Eucharist”. (ibid. 62)

The pope’s invitation is clear: follow the example of Mary and the saints who, in their heroic lives, reflected the splendor of the spiritual power of the great gift of the Eucharist.

The pedagogy the pope uses is none other than re-presenting the perennial Eucharistic faith of the Church, as he provides a spiritual and theological meditation on its content, enriched by what he himself lives, and asks everyone to rediscover the inner riches of the sacrament. The pope’s reflection causes him deep concern about today’s “shadows” and visible abuses in this context, which seem to cloud “sound faith and Catholic doctrine concerning this wonderful sacrament”. (ibid. 10) These “shadows” lead to “an extremely reductive understanding of the Eucharistic mystery” (ibid.), with negative consequences for the Church’s life and mission.

The situation, therefore, calls for his clear and definitive intervention. As the pope says, “the Eucharist is too great a gift to tolerate ambiguity and depreciation” (ibid.) He hopes 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” (ibid.)

The encyclical letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia is thus a definitive papal intervention, not only to dispel the “shadows” in doctrine and the liturgy which cause a deviation from the noble Eucharistic spirituality, but also to strengthen ecclesial faith in Christ, the Living Bread, as an indispensable means for true ecclesial renewal.

Liturgical reform and the Most Holy Eucharist

The Church has always declared and maintained the central place of liturgical life and especially of the Eucharistic celebration. We are familiar with the classic formula: “lex orandi, lex credendi”. For this very reason, the Church has always continued to encourage liturgical research to find new and up-to-date formulas that will make her faith abundantly fruitful.

To speak of recent times, we know well that even before the Council a very energetic process of liturgical reform was occurring in the Church. It was blessed and encouraged by various pontiffs in pre-conciliar times.

The Second Vatican Council continued this tradition, reasserting the central place of the liturgy in ecclesial life when it declared that “the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows”. (Sacrosanctum Concilium 10)

Recognizing, therefore, the importance of liturgical reform for the renewal of the Church, the Council sanctioned and promoted the pre-conciliar process that was already under way.

The same document also says in this regard: “In order that the Christian people may more certainly derive an abundance of graces from the sacred liturgy, Holy Mother Church desires to undertake with great care a general restoration of the liturgy itself”. (ibid. 21) The general lines are clearly indicated.

A reform: yes, but with precise regulations, because it is too dangerous to allow it to deviate.

These rules include the following:

  • The guidance of this reform is the task of the hierarchy. “No other person, not even a priest, may add, remove or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority”. (ibid. 3)
  • Revision must take place only after “a careful investigation — theological”. (ibid. 23)
  • “The general laws governing the structure and meaning of the liturgy must be studied in conjunction with the experience derived from recent liturgical reforms and from the indults granted to various places” (ibid.): (this refers to reforms already initiated by the pre-conciliar liturgical reform).
  • “There must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them … [and] any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing” (ibid.)

In the meantime, the Council also decreed the steps to take with regard to the Eucharistic celebration and how to proceed. (cf. ibid. 50)

The Second Vatican Council intended to be very clear about the gravity with which the process of reform was to be carried out. The Council was convinced that the longed-for renewal of the Church, which set out “to impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful” (ibid. 1) and for which it had been convoked, was in need of an effective liturgical reform.

The current situation regarding the liturgy

Forty years have passed since the promulgation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, on December 4, 1963. In an appraisal of the ground covered by the post-conciliar liturgical reform, we note that many “steps forward” have been taken.

Among them, I list the more conspicuous use of biblical texts in the liturgy and the more active participation of the faithful in particular: they now respond and take part in the various prayers and invocations, they participate in the singing and in various readings, they understand better what is happening on the altar, they use the vernacular and do not behave as passive spectators.

Different local cultural elements have been introduced that contribute to the inculturation and indigenization of the liturgy. Among the many innovations in the celebration of the Eucharist, the principal changes were: the Novus Ordo Missae in 1970, the new lectionaries, the exclusive use of the vernacular, the priest standing versus populum (facing the people), the possibility of reception of Communion in the hand, lay participation in the different roles of Holy Mass, and a more incisive integration of local cultural elements, especially with regard to aspects of song, liturgical decor, architecture, sculpture and painting among others.

In Ecclesia de Eucharistia, the pope expresses his appreciation of the positive results of the reform. He states: “Certainly the liturgical reform inaugurated by the Council has greatly contributed to a more conscious, active and fruitful participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar on the part of the faithful”. (n. 10)

At the same time, we cannot but also note “backward steps” that are still an obstacle to the true renewal of the Church. I think these are what the pope calls the “shadows” and “abuses” which have contributed to clouding sound sacramental faith.

Despite the “steps” taken to stimulate a true ecclesial renewal, we note with sorrow a considerable falling away from religious practice and Christian commitment in various parts of the Church. It is said that instead of protecting and strengthening the faithful to withstand the temptations of secularism and religious indifferentism, very visible in these contexts, the changes introduced have aggravated the current crisis since the reasons for them were unclear.

The pope rightly regrets the presence of these “shadows” and “abuses”, especially in connection with the Eucharist. He states: “It must be lamented that … 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”. (ibid. 52)

In addition, he lists certain “shadows” that have negative effects on the Eucharistic spirituality of the Church. These include the fact that “in some places the practice of Eucharistic adoration has been almost completely abandoned” (ibid. 10); “abuses have occurred, leading to confusion with regard to sound faith and Catholic doctrine concerning this wonderful sacrament” (ibid.); “an extremely reductive understanding of the Eucharistic mystery” (ibid.): “stripped of its sacrificial meaning, it is celebrated as if it were simply a fraternal banquet” (ibid.); “the necessity of the ministerial priesthood … is at times obscured” (ibid.); “the sacramental nature of the Eucharist is reduced to its mere effectiveness as a form of proclamation” (ibid.); “here and there … ecumenical initiatives … indulge in Eucharistic practices contrary to the discipline by which the Church expresses her faith” (ibid.); and “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”. (ibid. 52)

To counter these situations, the Holy Father insists on the greatness of the Eucharistic mystery and warns that “the Eucharist is too great a gift to tolerate ambiguity and depreciation” (ibid. 10): “The ‘treasure’ is too important and precious to risk impoverishment or compromise through forms of experimentation or practices introduced without a careful review on the part of the competent ecclesiastical authorities”. (ibid. 51) “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”. (ibid. 52)

Thus, not everything has gone well. The great liturgical reform does not seem to have given rise to the desired reawakening and reinforcement of the faith, especially in the ancient Christian Churches.

In addition, it is also true that the waning religious interest is not only to be attributed to what has gone wrong in the liturgical reform. There have also been other reasons, often social and cultural, which at least in some countries have generated a religious crisis.

In any case, it is clear that on the whole, the changes in liturgical matters have not had the much hoped-for effect, and certain changes were not even in tune with the conciliar mentality.

The foundational roots of a crisis

At this point, I believe we need a preliminary evaluation of what, in a certain sense, has deviated the process of post-conciliar and especially liturgical reform.

The Council was a marvelous opportunity to prepare the Church for what awaited her in the contemporary world. Her spiritual renewal and overall reinvigoration could have become the impetus for a new epoch of evangelization. Modern developments offered immense opportunities; but things went differently.

One wonders why it is that the Church was unable to make the most of the fruits of the Council for a full reawakening of ecclesial faith. Indeed, people appeared who interpreted the Council documents as a justification for counter-reformist attitudes, that is, the attitudes of those who took the reform to be a relaxation of regulations, which only weakened the Church and took her backward. Pope Paul VI complained that certain people exploited one or other Council teaching to “impede evangelization”. (Evangelii Nuntiandi 80)

I think that the general problem was an erroneous idea of the purpose of the Council. Indeed, speaking of the conciliar reforms, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger says: “The [Council] Fathers wanted to update the faith, indeed, to present it with its full impact. Instead, people gradually formed the idea that the reform consisted merely of throwing out the ballast, in other words, of divesting it so that in the end the reform did not appear to radicalize the faith but to dilute it”. (Il Sale della Terra [Salt of the Earth], p. 86)

This erroneous attitude gave rise to theological schools which, by downplaying the importance of Tradition and the ecclesial Magisterium in theological direction and research, have advanced confusing opinions.

The same situation has more or less plagued sacramental and especially Eucharistic theology. New approaches of certain other theological disciplines, such as those concerning ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, have influenced events. These bewildering theological opinions on the nature of the sacrament have subsequently given rise to not a few problems.

Despite all this, we know that the Eucharist is a mystery: the mystery of the faith that our minds cannot fully grasp. As the pontiff himself explains in his encyclical letter, the Eucharist is the gift par excellence of the Lord, the “gift of Himself, of His person in His sacred humanity, as well as the gift of His saving work”. (Ecclesia de Eucharistia 11)

This is the real commemoration of the Lord’s death and Resurrection, the central event in our salvation: the saving sacrifice that is relived sacramentally every time it is celebrated.

The Eucharist is also the banquet in which is celebrated Christ’s offering of himself as the Living Bread, who enters into intimate communion with those who receive Him and nourishes them with sanctifying grace. The Eucharist builds, sustains and fortifies the Church, increasing spiritual communion and charity among her members. It is also the pledge of future glory. It is a mystery of inexplicable riches.

Sacramental and sacrificial aspects of Eucharist

In other words, the Eucharist is the sublime summit of our being as Christians. Indeed, Ecclesia de Eucharistia explains in detail the grandeur of this wonderful sacrament, opening up to us the whole spiritual treasure it contains. The encyclical is truly a spiritual hymn to the glory of the Blessed Sacrament.

It is therefore regrettable that one encounters in theological circles reductive interpretations of the greatness and deep significance of the sacrament.

Some people, forgetful of its essentially sacrificial aspect, reduce it to a fraternal banquet. Some confuse the separate role of the ministerial priesthood with the common role, reducing Holy Mass to community prayers over which the priest presides; some also no longer believe in the continual presence of the Lord, and behave inappropriately during and after Mass.

Such attitudes have contributed to weakening the Eucharistic faith of a great number of our faithful and to causing this serious crisis concerning the central place of the Eucharist.

A further cause of the negative effects of the liturgical reform is the arbitrary spirit eager for experimentation and adventure that has guided certain sectors of the Church, especially at the height of the reform.

At that time everything seemed acceptable. The dominant trend was to experiment with all aspects of the celebration. Some experiments were carried out without careful research, for reasons that were not really serious or valid, as a reaction to formalism or even to the authority of the Holy See.

A reform based on such considerations cannot be effective or valid. Intense faith and great love for the Church alone must animate every reform, and especially a liturgical reform.

The erroneous interpretation of the meaning of the role and importance of the local church and her relationship with the universal Church has also contributed to undermining the Eucharistic liturgy.

The Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. She is fulfilled in every local church as well as in the universal Church. She is not a confederation of different churches, but organically one, since Christ, her Head, gives life to her wherever she may be. This is why, as Lumen Gentium states, “[The bishops must safeguard] the unity of the faith and the unique divine structure of the universal Church”. (n. 23)

In the difficult post-conciliar years, certain theological trends sought to present these two manifestations of the same reality as opposite poles. Some, therefore, justified certain experiments in liturgical matters as “a right” of the local churches, without even considering the universal nature of the Church and the damage such experiments could cause.

I also believe that another cause of the crisis is neglect of or insufficient insistence on the aspects of the mystery and the mysticism of the sacrament. What happens on the altar really is a mystery for it is invisible to our eyes. Jesus in the Eucharist gives Himself ceaselessly to the heavenly Father and to His brothers and sisters, while He becomes God-sacrificed-for-us and our spiritual and heavenly food. The bread and wine are truly changed, through a mystery of faith, into the real Body and Blood of Christ. He continues what He began on Calvary, offering Himself as a sacrifice for the expiation of our sins in a continuous process of cosmic liberation, hence creating the “new heavens and a new earth”. (II Pt 3:13)

What occurs, therefore, is all that is most mystical, heavenly and inconceivable to our senses. Through the celebration of the Eucharist we are associated with what Christ, the High Priest, minister of the heavenly sanctuary and the true tent (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium 8), brings about for the salvation of the world.

Consequently, it is not the priest celebrant who is the focus of what takes place on the altar. The priest renews, so to speak, the sacrifice which Christ fulfilled on Calvary, mystically continuing Christ’s act of salvation.

Unfortunately, this mystical dimension of the Eucharistic celebration is not sufficiently stressed. All too often people are under the impression that Holy Mass is a moment of encounter, a fraternal banquet at which the celebrating priest presides and at which the events of the Lord’s Pasch are merely commemorated.

The Eucharist is not only a commemoration of the Last Supper. It is above all the Paschal Sacrifice relived. If, therefore, it is celebrated solely as a friendly social encounter, it will become an impoverished and superficial experience, and the priest will feel that he is the author of what happens and even has the right to change the forms of the celebration arbitrarily.

Indeed, it is sad to note that certain Eucharistic celebrations resemble theatrical performances more than true moments of devout and pious Eucharistic celebration. Some priests behave as masters of the altar, inventing a whole range of improvisations and distractions. Such celebrations are a cause of scandal rather than of spiritual edification. Do they not know that on those altars too it is the Sacrifice of Calvary that should be celebrated?

Ecumenical and catechetical considerations

Ecumenical considerations have also exercised an influence on the reform of the Eucharistic liturgy. Although this has never been expressed in official documents, the air of openness and a lofty sense of ecumenism, prevalent in the times of the Council, were regarded negatively in various Church sectors. Some thought that by changing the liturgical forms, especially of the Eucharist, and by making them more acceptable to those who are not in communion with us, that ecumenism would be facilitated.

However, we know well that the reality is quite otherwise.

Achieving Christian unity, now fragmented because of human weakness, is far beyond our own feeble forces and theological formulations. Ecumenism, therefore, is far from easy and will be served by intensifying the mystical communion that occurs in it, rather than by making the Eucharistic celebration more attractive to our separated brethren.

Let us not forget that Jesus did not desire the external unity of His followers so much as unity acquired through an intensification of our communion with the Father and the Son: “that they may all be one … in us”. (Jn 17:21)

I likewise believe that the lack of an adequate formation and catechesis to prepare the different sectors of the Church for what the liturgical reform had initiated played a negative role in what actually happened. Enthusiasm for change overwhelmed everyone like a hurricane, so that before examining and reflecting on what ought to have been done, many things had already gone beyond the phase of experimentation.

Moreover, certain practices were made official post factum by those responsible in the matter merely because their use was already widespread. Was this a wise way to proceed, I ask myself?

In every phase of the reform a thorough examination of each proposed change is essential, together with a decision on whether it is appropriate to introduce it, based on the principle of what best serves the cause of the edification of faith; it is necessary to form and catechize properly all the sectors of the Church, pointing out the nature and importance of what is contemplated, and then to follow its progress attentively and evaluate its fruit.

Experimentation on possible changes should only be permitted under precise regulations, in specific sectors of the Church and for a specific time. Moreover, these experiments should be followed with great attention.

Redemptionis Sacramentum a “vital step” toward true reform

From a detailed analysis of what happened in the Church in the years following the Council and above all in the liturgical reform, it is clear that despite certain “steps forward” to make the liturgy the vehicle of a true ecclesial renewal, there have also been some “backward steps”. These are especially those changes in the liturgy that were effected hastily without proper research or due reflection.

More dangerous was the emergence of an erroneous or only partially true Eucharistic theology that was not in keeping with the Church’s teaching. “Lex orandi” is “lex credendi”, as we well know.

Therefore, seeing an alarming diminishment in spirituality and Eucharistic devotion, and their negative effects on the Christian faith and witness in our time, the pope, as Successor of Peter, exercising his role of “strengthening the brethren” (Lk 22:32), promulgated Ecclesia de Eucharistia to effectively dispel “the dark clouds of unacceptable doctrine and practice, so that the Eucharist will continue to shine forth in all its radiant mystery”. (n. 10)

Furthermore, the pope considered necessary “a more specific document, including prescriptions of a juridical nature, on this very important subject”. (ibid. 52) He entrusted this task to the Congregations for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The document Redemptionis Sacramentum, which the pope approved on March 19, 2004, is the result of their important work. I believe that those who toiled to make it possible deserve to be congratulated.

Of course, the document’s main purpose was not to rewrite all the liturgical norms nor to offer a compendium of doctrine or a compete evaluation of what has or has not been achieved thus far. It is a continuation of what the pope wrote in his encyclical letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia and therefore has a very precise aim: to reenforce discipline concerning the ways to celebrate the Eucharist and to safeguard the nobility and dignity of this sacrament.

An attentive perusal of the document will rightly reveal the Holy See’s deep concern about certain practices, irregular or even offensive to the dignity of the Blessed Sacrament. The Holy See is likewise worried about the negative consequences of these practices.

Hence, the document reasserts or reformulates, explaining or completing, the usual instructions for a decorous and complete celebration of the Eucharist. It insists on the sacred nature of all that is done, indicates the persons responsible for carrying out various duties in the liturgy and the dispositions they must obey, explains the various practical directions for specific acts, such as how the sacred objects should be handled, what provisions to make to ensure the holiness of what is celebrated and the required sense of decorum and seriousness. Lastly, it mentions the various responsibilities of the persons who are authorized and bound to exercise their guidance in this context.

I believe that Redemptionis Sacramentum is a timely and valid document because it meets the need to correct in some way what I would call the “backward steps”, introduced not necessarily by those who were responsible for the post-conciliar liturgical reform but which have caused considerable damage to the Eucharistic faith of the Church. We should thank the Lord for this gift, that the caring concern of the Successor of Peter, Pope John Paul II, a pope with a profound Eucharistic faith, has prompted him to give us.

It is important that this document not remain simply an object of study, confined to the shelves of bookshops or libraries. It is a vital step toward a true reform of the Church.

At the same time, I believe that for an attentive implementation of this document’s instructions, a process of formation and extensive catechesis on its content and on the encyclical letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia will be essential, in all the contexts of the Church and especially among the bishops, priests, deacons, and men and women religious.

Moreover, I maintain that a process of continuous assessment of the results achieved is indispensable.

The Eucharist, as the pope says, is too great a gift to leave the initiative in the hands of experts or theologians alone. The Holy See must continue its indispensable role as guide, because to give up would be to its cost.

May the Blessed Virgin Mary, the “Woman of the Eucharist” who was so close to the Lord, whose “yes” was fulfilled at the foot of the Cross where she was taken to fulfill the saving sacrifice of Christ, inspire and fortify us always.

“Verbum caro, panem verum
verbo carnem efficit:
fitque sanguis Christi merum,
et si sensus deficit,
Ad firmandum cor sincerum
Sola fides sufficit”.

Word made Flesh, the bread of nature
By His word to Flesh He turns;
Wine into His Blood He changes,
What though sense no change discerns.
Only be the heart in earnest,
Faith her lesson quickly learns.

[From Saint Thomas Aquinas, Pange Lingua. Trans. E.M. Caswell]



Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith