The Church from the Eucharist
Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in LaCrosse, Wisconsin
In Chapter Five of his Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, our Holy Father takes up the question of the dignity with which the Holy Eucharist is to be celebrated. The heart of the liturgical rites of the Eucharistic celebration is found in the account of the Last Supper, found in the Gospels and in Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. (cf. Mt 26:26-30; Mk 14:22-26; Lk 22:14-20; Jn 13:1-17; and 1 Cor 11:17-34) At the Last Supper, Christ gave the Holy Eucharist to the Church. In anticipation of His Passion and Death, He handed over His life for us sacramentally.
Our Lord’s celebration of the Last Supper was both simple and solemn; it is the foundation and model for the liturgical rites which have developed in the Church down the Christian centuries. He commanded the Twelve to renew His Last Supper in each community of believers until His Final Coming: “Do this in remembrance of me.” In a certain sense, the whole history of the Church may be de-scribed as the story of the Apostles’ obedience to our Lord’s commission to them at the Last Supper. (cf. Lk 22:19; and 1 Cor 11:24) (No. 47a)
The Anointing at Bethany
To understand the richness of the liturgical rites surrounding the Holy Eucharist over the centuries, the Holy Father refers to the account of the anointing at Bethany. Mary, the sister of Lazarus whom Christ had raised from the dead, anointed Jesus with a most precious oil shortly before His Passion and Death. Some disciples, most notably Judas Iscariot, the betrayer, objected strongly to her gesture of great reverence and love. Judas and others saw it as a waste of resources which could have been used to care for the poor.
Our Lord responds to their reaction in what may be for some a surprising way. He teaches that the anointing by Mary is an act of profound reverence for His body, the instrument by which He has carried out our redemption. He in no way calls into question the responsibility which is ours to provide for the poor but indicates what is prior to our care for the poor and inspires it most fully, namely our love of Him, our devotion to His person.
Mary’s act of generous respect and love is imitated by us in the care which we take to have only the most fitting place for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, and to use the best vessels, linens and furnishings for the Eucharistic celebration. The Holy Father reminds us of our Lord’s command to the disciples to prepare the Upper Room for the Last Supper. The Church’s special care for the celebration of the Eucharist reflects her faith in what takes place at the Eucharist; it reflects her deep reverence for our Lord Who is both our Priest and Victim in the celebration of the Mass. (No. 47b)
In reading the history of our parishes which are celebrating their 100th or 125th anniversary of foundation, I am always impressed by the great sacrifices which were made by the faithful, most of them immigrants with very little means, to have a parish church. It was not at all uncommon for farmers to mortgage their farm in order to make a pledge toward the building of a fitting parish church. They had the faith of Mary at Bethany. The beautiful art and architecture which has been associated with our churches and their altars and other furnishings down the centuries is for us an inspiration to consider the great mystery of the Holy Eucharist.
The Holy Father rightly asks: “Could there ever be an adequate means of ex-pressing the acceptance of that self-gift which the divine Bridegroom continually makes to his Bride, the Church, by bringing the Sacrifice offered once and for all on the Cross to successive generations of believers and thus becoming nourishment for all the faithful?” (No. 48) The Eucharist is indeed a banquet at which Christ feeds us with His true Body and Blood. But recognition of the heavenly Food of the Holy Eucharist halts any tendency to a familiarity which would fail to recognize the true Body and Blood of Christ. The Holy Eucharist is not adequately described as a banquet or meal, for it is a sacrificial banquet, a sacred banquet in which we partake of the holiness of God Himself. Our Holy Father reminds us that the Bread which we receive is truly the Bread of Angels, the Body of Christ, and, therefore, cannot be approached except with a profound sense of humility, the sense of our own unworthiness because of our sins.
When we pray at Mass and, most especially, when we come forward to receive Holy Communion, there is at once a sense of God’s great intimacy with us, inviting us to participate in the mystery of His Son’s Suffering, Death and Resurrection, and a sense of great awe before the presence of God Himself. That is the reason why our churches are not built as meeting or banquet halls. It is also the reason why we should be very attentive to the manner of our dress and our comportment at the Eucharistic Sacrifice and Banquet. (No. 48)
The outward aspects of the celebration of the Holy Eucharist express our interior devotion, in imitation of Mary at Bethany. For that reason, the Church has developed liturgical laws which govern the fitting celebration of the Eucharist. The law which safeguards the minimum respect for the Holy Eucharist is paralleled by sacred art, sacred architecture and sacred music, developed to express and to inspire faith in the Holy Eucharist.
The Holy Father evokes the rich history of sacred architecture, beginning with the churches in the home. The developments in design of churches and of their altars and tabernacles is not merely a reflection of the great art of various periods of the Church’s history but, most of all, a reflection of the profound faith in the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. The examples of quality craftsmanship and original art in the building of churches, and especially of their altars and tabernacles, from the first days of the Church is a wonderful story of faith in the Holy Eucharist. In visiting beautiful churches, one notes how the various furnishings have been beautifully crafted. Special attention was fittingly given to the production of beautiful vessels to contain the sacred species and beautiful linens on which to place the sacred species or to cleanse the sacred vessels.
In the same way, sacred music has developed down the Christian centuries to lift the minds and hearts of the faithful to the great mystery of faith, which is the Holy Eucharist. Gregorian Chant is, of course, the greatest jewel in the body of music written specifically for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. As is the case with sacred art, there is a rich history of beautiful music written for the celebration of the Mass. (No. 49)
The Holy Father refers to a certain competition in sacred art and architecture between the East and the West. He reminds us especially of the strong sense of the mystery of faith expressed in the sacred art of East. It is a call for all of us to make certain that the Church is above all else “a profoundly Eucharistic Church.” (No. 50)
Interior of Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in LaCrosse, Wisconsin
The Holy Father also reflects upon the legitimate desire of the Church in new places to employ the “forms, styles and sensibilities of different cultures” in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, so that it can truly be spiritual food for all peoples. (No. 51a) The proper term for the rooting of the Catholic faith and practice in a particular culture is inculturation. Clearly, it is a delicate process because there may be elements of the local culture which need purification and transformation before they can serve the Eucharistic mystery.
Inculturation must always be secondary to respect for the mystery of the Holy Eucharist, lest the greatest treasure of our faith be obscured or, even worse, disrespected. Any experimentation in inculturation must be reviewed by Church authority with the involvement of the Holy See “because the Sacred Liturgy expresses and celebrates the one faith professed by all and, being the heritage of the whole Church, cannot be determined by local Churches in isolation from the universal Church.” (No. 51)
The Responsibility of Priests
Priests act in the person of Christ at the Holy Eucharist and, therefore, bear a heavy responsibility for its worthy celebration. They are “to provide a witness to and a service of communion not only for the community taking part in the celebration, but also for the universal Church which is part of every Eucharist.” (No. 52)
The Holy Father speaks frankly of abuses which have entered into the celebration of the Holy Eucharist be-cause of “a misguided sense of creativity and adaptation.” (No. 52) He begs that the liturgical law pertaining to the celebration of the Holy Eucharist be faithfully observed. He reminds us that the Sacred Liturgy is never the private possession of the priest or the community, and speaks of the deep suffering caused to the faithful by abuses introduced into the celebration of the Mass. Our observance of liturgical law is a fundamental expression of love of Christ and of the Church.
Because of the importance of the fit-ting and dignified celebration of the Holy Mass, the Holy Father, with the help of the Roman Curia, is preparing a special document on the matter. He concludes Chapter Five of Ecclesia de Eucharistia with words which should inspire our own great care in approaching the Eucharistic Sacrifice and Banquet: “No one is permitted to under-value the mystery entrusted to our hands: it is too great for anyone to feel free to treat it lightly and with disregard for its sacred-ness and its universality.” (No. 52)