Home Page

Fr Aidan Nichols

Rediscovering the Holy Sacrifice

by Aidan Nichols OP


In its combination of theological power and lyricism, the Pope¹s new encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, invites comparison with St Thomas Aquinas, finds Fr Aidan Nichols OP.

The Pope has been reflecting on the Eucharist, and the result is a little masterpiece. Why was it written? And what, in substance, does it have to say?

Judging from the internal evidence, The Church from the Eucharist has three aims in view.

First, it wishes to offer us an ordered account of Eucharistic doctrine, putting first things first. Among other things, that means giving pride of place to what was becoming, in many places, a rather well-kept secret. The Mass is not primarily a communion meal not even one where we feast on the Real Presence, or anticipate the banquet of eternal life. First and foremost, the Eucharist is the Holy Sacrifice. It is the Paschal mystery in a sacramental sign. Everything else about the Mass flows from there. That is why the atmosphere of its celebration can never be jolly camaraderie (or the dutiful keeping of an obligation, for that matter). The tone of the feasting has always to be set by penitent gratitude for Calvary and the awed joy of the Easter tomb.

Secondly, the encyclical wants to underline the intrinsic connexion of the Eucharist with the Church. One might think that was stating the sublimely obvious. Who would deny that the Eucharist is one of the Church¹s sacraments? Put like that, presumably, no one. But not everyone always draws the appropriate conclusion. The celebration of the Mass must always be in harmony with everything else that makes the Catholic Church what she is. Otherwise, the Eucharist will not be celebrated properly in accord with its own nature. This has some negative consequences, which are what the religious correspondents of the secular media best love for a good story. But in itself, it is a deeply positive point.

The Pope¹s third and final aim in this encyclical is to re-awaken in his readers a sense of wonder at the infinite dimensions of the Eucharistic mystery. Such wonder underlies the heightened language of saints and mystics when speaking about the Mass and Holy Communion. Indeed, it inspired the anonymous liturgists who composed the traditional rites, both Eastern and Western, of the Church. For this wonder, the Pope has found the striking phrase "Eucharistic amazement". Such "amazement" is the only real antidote to the "boredom" some Catholics, especially young ones, claim to experience at Mass. That is true even if, at another level, the Pope¹s call for dignity and beauty in Eucharistic celebration gestures, words, music, and, not least, architectural setting, would were it heeded help as well.We could call these three aims respectively the doctrinal, the ecclesial, and the contemplative goals of this papal intervention.

Let me now analyse the content of the document. It falls into six chapters, topped and tailed by introduction and conclusion.

The Introduction establishes the manner, as well as the importance, of what follows. The Pope speaks gravely, in the style of a doctor of the Church, but also personally, with references to liturgical high points or the Eucharistic daily bread of his own experience as Christian, priest, bishop. He is turning, he says, to the topic of the Mass, in what may well prove (after all) his final encyclical, just because the Eucharist is the beating heart of the Church¹s mystery. The Church takes her origin from the wonderful trio of days that join the evening of Holy Thursday to Easter, when the God-man is betrayed in the olive-grove, executed on the hill, and meets his own again in the garden as he begins his ascent to the Father. But everything the Paschal triduum the great Three Days means for the Church is "concentrated" in the gift to her of the Eucharist. She is given a sacrament of the entire Paschal mystery so as to make sure she can never forget it, neglect it, or underestimate it underestimate salvation through Jesus Christ and all the tasks it imposes as well as the privileges it brings. Thus it is that the Church "draws her life from the Eucharist", and both the character of that life (divine-human) and the way in which she draws it (in a wonderful sacrament) should fill her members with astonished admiration. This is true not least of her priestly members, to whom falls the primal offering of the Sacrifice. For this is the God-man¹s Sacrifice before it is the Sacrifice of the Church. Whether it be celebrated in a wayside oratory with barely room to swing a cat, or in vast stadiums before crowds in their hundreds of thousands, the Eucharist is not only the food of souls. It is a cosmic mystery, joining heaven with earth. This conviction helps to throw light on the Pope¹s evident anxiety that, in many places, the practice of making spiritual communion by adoration of the sacramental presence, whether reserved in the tabernacle or exposed in the monstrance, is disappearing. It will be clear that the Introduction already mightily sets forth the contemplative goal of his letter.

All this is by way of preamble, however, to the encyclical¹s opening chapter, entitled "
The Mystery of Faith". In this first chapter you will find the well-ordered account of Eucharistic teaching which enables the Pope to meet the doctrinal aim of his encyclical. He emphasises that the Mass is a sacrifice; it is one with the saving Oblation of the Cross. John Paul II offers an excellent starting-point for preachers and catechists when he declares Christ¹s self-offering, signified in the Eucharist, to be primarily a gift not to us but to the Father. It is only as his perfect, all-sufficient offering to the Father that the Son¹s self-giving is also life-giving for us. At Mass we are offering ourselves and all that is ours along with Jesus Christ.

From this, much follows, including some things the Pope does not spell out even in this compendious document. It explains how it is that at Mass we pray with an efficacy found nowhere else for the living and the dead. Reviving a sense of the Mass as the Christian Oblation fosters asceticism. It counteracts liturgical sentimentality and "horizontalism". Last but not least, it enables those disabled from receiving sacramental Communion to see why they should still love the Mass, and love to share in it: thus "solving" what is otherwise an insuperable pastoral problem.

Of course, the Mass is not only the Eucharistic Sacrifice. It is also, in classical Catholic theology, the Real Presence, Holy Communion, and the pledge of the union of the Church on earth with the Church in glory. The Pope warms to these themes, while also adding a further comment indebted, at least in part, to liberation theology. The Eucharist is a sacrament of solidarity and service, which cannot be congruently celebrated amid indifference to the poor.

The central chapters of the encyclical pursue the ecclesial aim of the document under the titles "The Eucharist builds the Church" (chapter 2), "The Apostolicity of the Eucharist and of the Church" (chapter 3), "The Eucharist and Ecclesial Communion" (chapter 4). The general thrust of these chapters is or ought to be a commonplace. The Church which celebrates the Eucharist is also formed by it. Hence the deliberate ambiguity of the word "communion". We receive Eucharistic communion to strengthen our communion with the Church. This is a theme already sounded in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. But the Pope adds variations which enrich it, both speculatively and devotionally. He speaks of the "causal influence of the Eucharist" on the Church¹s origins. The foundations of the Church, new Israel and sacred hierarchy, were laid when Christ made Covenant eucharistically, at the Last Supper, in the Upper Room. He talks of the promise of Christ to fortify the Church by means of the Paraclete as realised in a co-presence of the Spirit with the Son in Holy Communion. Innovating linguistically, he calls the Eucharist "apostolic", transferring to this sacrament a term normally kept for the Church herself. After all, the Eucharist was transmitted apostolically; it is carried out according to the apostolic rule of faith; it is celebrated by the apostolic priesthood, in an unbroken succession of ministerial order.

At various points, these central chapters acknowledge that contemporary Eucharistic practice does not always meet the conditions that the bonds both visible and invisible of ecclesial communion suggest. Examples? For liturgists to play down the role of the ministerial priest; for bishops to treat lay administration of Holy Communion as anything more than a temporary substitute for Sunday Mass; for communicants conscious of grave sin not to approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation (confession). These abuses are explicitly mentioned, frankly but charitably.

But the Pope devotes most space in this connection to well-meant but misguided ecumenical gestures: the only part of his letter which survived encounter with the theological illiteracy of the "quality" press. As (one would have thought) is widely recognised, Catholics, like the Orthodox, treat eucharistic Communion as the hoped-for crown of ecumenical endeavour, not one of its strategies among many.

Of course, the Pope must then explain (but, really, does not) how it is possible in certain circumstances to give the sacrament to individual Christians separated from the Catholic Church, something the official Roman Ecumenical Directory provides for in a host of cases (no pun intended). The answer appears to be that the sacrament is not offered to non-Catholic Christians precisely as members of their own churches or ecclesial communities. (That would be "inter-communion", a notion Rome rejects as incoherent. ) It is offered to them as baptised persons who by vocational right belong to the Catholic Church herself prescinding, then, from their status as confirmed members of communities in partial schism from her.

The encylical¹s closing chapters, entitled "
The Dignity of the Eucharistic Celebration" (chapter 5) and "At the School of Mary, Woman of the Eucharist" (chapter 6), prepare us for the Conclusion through returning, by way of an ending, to the encyclical's contemplative purpose. If that Most Holy Thing given in the Eucharistic elements really is Jesus Christ the Lord, then no expenditure of art (and money) is too costly to give it honour. Beautifully, the Pope compares the work of Catholic artists and craftsmen, architects and musicians to Mary, the sister of Lazarus, pouring precious ointment over the Saviour. His body infinitely merits our devotion. The other Mary, the Mother of the incarnate Word, is even more relevant to the Eucharist. The Pope writes an entire "Eucharistic Mariology" in small compass, considering not indeed that the Blessed Virgin is personally present in Holy Communion, but that "all that Christ did with regard to his Mother for our sake" is summed up in the Oblation. It is a chapter future Church historians will note as marking the end of the reign of a low Mariology in modern Catholicism. It is also the most theologically original contribution the letter contains.

How does the Pope end? As a Dominican I am glad to see he does so by quoting the Lauda Sion, St Thomas Aquinas's great Eucharistic hymn. We have to re-learn our Eucharistic piety, says John Paul, "at the school of the saints". The saint he finally chooses was, he points out, "an eminent theologian and an impassioned poet of Christ in the Eucharist". The combination of theological power with lyricism in Ecclesia de Eucharistia makes one think Karol Wojtyla must be rather in the same mould.

This article first appeared in the 25th April 2003 issue of The Catholic Herald.


This version: 18th July 2009



 Home Page

Fr Aidan Nichols