On April 17, 2003 – Holy Thursday – Pope John Paul II issued his 14th encyclical letter, "Ecclesia de Eucharistia", devoted to the Eucharist, to remind the faithful about the importance of this Sacrament, and the right dispositions to receive it. (For example, divorced Catholics who remarry cannot receive Holy Communion.) Here are excerpts from this encyclical letter:
The Church draws her life from the Eucharist. (Editor's note: In Latin, "Ecclesia de Eucharistia vivit," hence the title of this encyclical letter.) This truth does not simply express a daily experience of faith, but recapitulates the heart of the mystery of the Church. In a variety of ways, she joyfully experiences the constant fulfilment of the promise: "Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Mt 28:20), but in the Holy Eucharist, through the changing of bread and wine into the body and blood of the Lord, she rejoices in this presence with unique intensity.
The Second Vatican Council rightly proclaimed that the Eucharistic sacrifice is "the source and summit of the Christian life." "For the most Holy Eucharist contains the Church's entire spiritual wealth: Christ Himself, our passover and living bread. Through His own flesh, now made living and life-giving by the Holy Spirit, He offers life to men." Consequently, the gaze of the Church is constantly turned to her Lord, present in the Sacrament of the Altar, in which she discovers the full manifestation of His boundless love.
The Eucharist unites heaven and earth. It embraces and permeates all creation. The Son of God became man in order to restore all creation, in one supreme act of praise, to the One who made it from nothing.
The Eucharist, as Christ's saving presence in the community of the faithful and its spiritual food, is the most precious possession which the Church can have in her journey through history. This explains the lively concern which she has always shown for the Eucharistic Mystery, a concern which finds authoritative expression in the work of the Councils and the Popes.
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. In many places, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is also an important daily practice, and becomes an inexhaustible source of holiness. The devout participation of the faithful in the Eucharistic procession on the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ is a grace from the Lord which yearly brings joy to those who take part in it. Other positive signs of Eucharistic faith and love might also be mentioned.
Unfortunately, alongside these lights, there are also shadows. 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. At times one encounters an extremely reductive understanding of the Eucharistic Mystery. Stripped of its sacrificial meaning, it is celebrated as if it were simply a fraternal banquet. Furthermore, the necessity of the ministerial priesthood, grounded in apostolic succession, is at times obscured, and the sacramental nature of the Eucharist is reduced to its mere effectiveness as a form of proclamation.
This has led here and there to ecumenical initiatives which, albeit well-intentioned, 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? 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.
The Eucharist is a great mystery, a mystery of mercy. What more could Jesus have done for us? Truly, in the Eucharist, He shows us a love which goes "to the end" (cf. Jn 13:1), a love which knows no measure.
This aspect of the universal charity of the Eucharistic Sacrifice is based on the words of the Saviour Himself. In instituting it, He did not merely say: "This is My body," "this is My blood," but went on to add: "which is given for you," "which is poured out for you" (Lk 22:19-20). 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. "The Mass is, at the same time, and inseparably, the sacrificial memorial in which the sacrifice of the Cross is perpetuated, and the sacred banquet of communion with the Lord's body and blood".
The sacramental representation of Christ's sacrifice, crowned by the resurrection, in the Mass involves a most special presence which — in the words of Paul VI — "is called'real', because it is a presence in the fullest sense: a substantial presence whereby Christ, the God-Man, is wholly and entirely present" (Encyclical Letter "Mysterium Fidei", September 3, 1965.) This sets forth once more the perennially valid teaching of the Council of Trent: "The consecration of the bread and wine effects the change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of His blood. And the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called this change transubstantiation."
Truly the Eucharist is a mysterium fidei, a mystery which surpasses our understanding, and can only be received in faith, as is often brought out in the catechesis of the Church Fathers regarding this divine sacrament: "Do not see — Saint Cyril of Jerusalem exhorts — in the bread and wine merely natural elements, because the Lord has expressly said that they are His body and His blood: faith assures you of this, though your senses suggest otherwise."
"Every theological explanation which seeks some understanding of this mystery, in order to be in accord with Catholic faith, must firmly maintain that in objective reality, independently of our mind, the bread and wine have ceased to exist after the consecration, so that the adorable body and blood of the Lord Jesus from that moment on are really before us under the sacramental species of bread and wine." (Paul VI, Solemn Profession of Faith, June 30, 1968.)
The saving efficacy of the sacrifice is fully realized when the Lord's body and blood are received in Communion. The Eucharistic Sacrifice is intrinsically directed to the inward union of the faithful with Christ through Communion; we receive the very One who offered Himself for us, we receive His body which He gave up for us on the Cross, and His blood which He "poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Mt 26:28). We are reminded of his words: "As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me will live because of Me" (Jn 6:57). Jesus Himself reassures us that this union, which He compares to that of the life of the Trinity, is truly realized. The Eucharist is a true banquet, in which Christ offers Himself as our nourishment. When for the first time Jesus spoke of this food, His listeners were astonished and bewildered, which forced the Master to emphasize the objective truth of His words: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life within you" (Jn 6:53). This is no metaphorical food: "My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed" (Jn 6:55).
The Eucharist spurs us on our journey through history and plants a seed of living hope in our daily commitment to the work before us. Certainly the Christian vision leads to the expectation of "new heavens" and "a new earth" (Rev 21:1), but this increases, rather than lessens, our sense of responsibility for the world today. I wish to reaffirm this forcefully at the beginning of the new millennium, so that Christians will feel more obliged than ever not to neglect their duties as citizens in this world. Theirs is the task of contributing with the light of the Gospel to the building of a more human world, a world fully in harmony with God's plan.
Many problems darken the horizon of our time. We need but think of the urgent need to work for peace, to base relationships between peoples on solid premises of justice and solidarity, and to defend human life from conception to its natural end. And what should we say of the thousand inconsistencies of a "globalized" world where the weakest, the most powerless and the poorest appear to have so little hope! It is in this world that Christian hope must shine forth!
For this reason too, the Lord wished to remain with us in the Eucharist, making His presence in meal and sacrifice the promise of a humanity renewed by His love... The Apostle Paul, for his part, says that it is "unworthy" of a Christian community to partake of the Lord's Supper amid division and indifference towards the poor (cf. 1 Cor 11:17-22, 27-34).
The worship of the Eucharist outside of the Mass is of inestimable value for the life of the Church. This worship is strictly linked to the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. The presence of Christ under the sacred species reserved after Mass — a presence which lasts as long as the species of bread and of wine remain — derives from the celebration of the sacrifice, and is directed towards Communion, both sacramental and spiritual. 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.
It is pleasant to spend time with Him, to lie close to His breast like the Beloved Disciple (cf. Jn 13:25), and to feel the infinite love present in His heart. If in our time Christians must be distinguished above all by the "art of prayer", how can we not feel a renewed need to spend time in spiritual converse, in silent adoration, in heartfelt love before Christ present in the Most Holy Sacrament? How often, dear brother and sisters, have I experienced this, and drawn from it strength, consolation, and support!
This practice, repeatedly praised and recommended by the Magisterium, is supported by the example of many saints. Particularly outstanding in this regard was Saint Alphonsus Liguori, who wrote: "Of all devotions, that of adoring Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is the greatest after the Sacraments, the one dearest to God, and the one most helpful to us".
It is the ordained priest who, "acting in the person of Christ, brings about the Eucharistic Sacrifice and offers it to God in the name of all the people." For this reason, the Roman Missal prescribes that only the priest should recite the Eucharistic Prayer, while the people participate in faith and in silence.
The Catholic faithful, therefore, while respecting the religious convictions of our separated brethren, must refrain from receiving the communion distributed in their celebrations, so as not to condone an ambiguity about the nature of the Eucharist and, consequently, to fail in their duty to bear clear witness to the truth.
Invisible communion, though by its nature always growing, presupposes the life of grace, by which we become "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pet 1:4), and the practice of the virtues of faith, hope, and love. Only in this way do we have true communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Nor is faith sufficient; we must persevere in sanctifying grace and love, remaining within the Church "bodily" as well as "in our heart"; what is required, in the words of Saint Paul, is "faith working through love" (Gal 5:6).
Keeping these invisible bonds intact is a specific moral duty incumbent upon Christians who wish to participate fully in the Eucharist by receiving the body and blood of Christ. The Apostle Paul appeals to this duty when he warns: "Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup" (1 Cor 11:28). Saint John Chrysostom, with his stirring eloquence, exhorted the faithful: " too raise my voice, I beseech, beg, and implore that no one draw near to this sacred table with a sullied and corrupt conscience. Such an act, in fact, can never be called 'communion', not even were we to touch the Lord's body a thousand times over, but 'condemnation', 'torment' and 'increase of punishment."
Along these same lines, the Catechism of the Catholic Church rightly stipulates that "anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to Communion." I therefore desire to reaffirm that in the Church there remains in force, now and in the future, the rule by which the Council of Trent gave concrete expression to the Apostle Paul's stern warning when it affirmed that, in order to receive the Eucharist in a worthy manner, "one must first confess one's sins, when one is aware of mortal sin."
If a Christian's conscience is burdened by serious sin, then the path of penance through the Sacrament of Reconciliation becomes necessary for full participation in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. The judgment of one's state of grace obviously belongs only to the person involved, since it is a question of examining one's conscience. However, in cases of outward conduct which is seriously, clearly, and steadfastly contrary to the moral norm, the Church, in her pastoral concern for the good order of the community and out of respect for the Sacrament, cannot fail to feel directly involved. The Code of Canon Law refers to this situation of a manifest lack of proper moral disposition when it states that those who "obstinately persist in manifest grave sin" are not to be admitted to Eucharistic Communion.
It is not possible to give Communion to a person who is not baptized or to one who rejects the full truth of the faith regarding the Eucharistic Mystery. Christ is the truth, and He bears witness to the truth (cf. Jn 14:6; 18:37); the Sacrament of His body and blood does not permit duplicity.
The Eucharist's particular effectiveness in promoting communion is one of the reasons for the importance of Sunday Mass. I have already dwelt on this, and on the other reasons which make Sunday Mass fundamental for the life of the Church and of individual believers, in my Apostolic Letter on the sanctification of Sunday Dies Domini. There I recalled that the faithful have the obligation to attend Mass, unless they are seriously impeded, and that Pastors have the corresponding duty to see that it is practical and possible for all to fulfil this precept.
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.
Every commitment to holiness, every activity aimed at carrying out the Church's mission, every work of pastoral planning, must draw the strength it needs from the Eucharistic Mystery and, in turn, be directed to that mystery as its culmination. In the Eucharist we have Jesus, we have His redemptive sacrifice, we have His resurrection, we have the gift of the Holy Spirit, we have adoration, obedience, and love of the Father. Were we to disregard the Eucharist, how could we overcome our own deficiency?
In the humble signs of bread and wine, changed into His body and blood, Christ walks beside us as our strength and our food for the journey, and He enables us to become, for everyone, witnesses of hope. If, in the presence of this mystery, reason experiences its limits, the heart, enlightened by the grace of the Holy Spirit, clearly sees the response that is demanded, and bows low in adoration and unbounded love.
John Paul II