Letter from Rome

Whatever one thinks of Pope John Paul II, no one doubts that he is a passionate man. Passionate about his native land; passionate about the church; and especially passionate about the truth of Jesus Christ. That passion infuses his fourteenth encyclical, Ecclesia de eucharistia, exhorting Catholics to rekindle a sense of awe and gratitude for the "great and transcendent mystery" of the Eucharist.

Relatively short by this pope’s standards, the new encyclical, issued this past Holy Thursday, is unique in its personal tone and urgency. Readers will find particularly arresting the pope’s exegesis of Luke in illuminating the sacrificial meaning of the Eucharist, his heartfelt reflections on Eucharistic adoration, and his celebration of the sacrament’s eschatological nature. John Paul II’s evocative recollections of his fifty-six years of priesthood, his expressions of devotion to Mary, his admiration for the Eastern fathers, and his invocation of the aesthetic dimensions of the liturgy enhance this letter and propel its argument. It is hard not to be moved by the depth of the pope’s devotion to the eucharistic mystery: "The Eucharist is a straining towards the goal, a foretaste of the fullness of joy promised by Christ (see Jn 15:11); it is in some way the anticipation of heaven, the ’pledge of future glory.’"

To a good many Catholics, that description of Ecclesia de eucharistia may come as something of a surprise. The new encyclical was reported in the secular media largely as a rejection of greater intercommunion among Christians, a reminder that the divorced and remarried were barred from the sacrament, and a warning against transgressions like reducing the Eucharist to "a fraternal banquet." Here and abroad the pope was duly chastised for insensitivity and exclusiveness. This skewed interpretation stems from the deficiencies of the media, to be sure, but it is also rooted in the pope’s own style.

Alongside this pope’s personal warmth and mystical openness, there is always an awareness of "shadows" and a demand to correct "abuses." In this sense, John Paul II’s writings have usually enacted a kind of good cop-bad cop routine. A sense of breadth and ecumenical outreach alternates with calls for juridical strictures that convey a sense of retrenchment. This demands of his audience an unrealistic attentiveness, what we might call a knowledge of "encyclicalogy" that will never be in great supply. It is precisely because of the complexity and essentially theological nature of his writing that secular news reports invariably give misleading accounts that confuse and prejudice even well-versed Catholics. Most Catholics, it is important to remember, get whatever knowledge they have of papal pronouncements from the mass media. News reporting focuses on conflict, controversy, and immediate, practical consequences; the media typically conceive of religion as rules rather than theological insight or prayerful experience. Given that emphasis, it is not surprising that it is the pope’s institutional strictures, not his optimism and venturesomeness, that capture the headlines. A reflective reading of the encyclical hardly warrants such a one-sided interpretation.

Ecclesia de eucharistia (www.vatican.va) is in fact a rich and inspiring document. The pope’s aim is to reawaken a sense of eucharistic wonder, particularly for the nature of Christ’s Paschal sacrifice, and to remind Catholics that our understanding of the Eucharist is rooted in the apostolic nature of the church. "The assembly gathered together for the celebration of the Eucharist, if it is to be a truly eucharistic assembly, absolutely requires the presence of an ordained priest as its president," he reminds readers. "The community is by itself incapable of providing an ordained minister. This minister is a gift which the assembly receives through episcopal succession going back to the Apostles."

In his broad-ranging remarks the pope makes repeated references to the Eastern Churches and to their rich Trinitarian sense of the Eucharist, linking that concept with an appreciation of the social nature of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is not an arcane rite that turns the church in on itself; rather it requires believers to take "responsibility for the world today." The pope also underscores his concern for the unity of the church (and churches), reaffirms the judicial and Petrine aspects of the tradition, and clarifies the real presence of Christ and of the Trinity in the sacrament.

Despite protests, provoked by superficial media reports, that the pope has not only restricted Communion for certain Catholics but strained ties with other churches, in truth, there is nothing new in the letter on this score. There are grounds for disappointment only if one were expecting a real departure. "The celebration of the Eucharist, however, cannot be the starting-point for communion; it presupposes that communion already exists," the pope writes. This is traditional pastoral teaching and discipline-but reaffirmed within the larger vision of ecumenical progress. That is precisely why Rowan Williams, the new archbishop of Canterbury, welcomed the encyclical as "the pope’s reaffirmation of his ’burning desire’ for common eucharistic celebration," to which Williams pledged to "continue to work together theologically."

Inspired by his own priestly experience, John Paul II also writes movingly about the aesthetic richness of worship. He notes that, like the woman who anointed Jesus with expensive oil at Bethany, "the church has feared no ’extravagance,’ devoting the best of her resources to expressing her wonder and adoration before the unsurpassable gift of the Eucharist." The Eucharist really is the "heart of the church."

It is in lamenting the neglect of appropriate forms for the celebration of the Eucharist that John Paul announces that the curia will publish norms by this fall delineating proper liturgical practices. The prospect is not reassuring, given a recent record of Roman overreaching in liturgical matters. The pope’s emphasis on priesthood and apostolic succession, for example, can be read as merely stating the obvious in Catholic tradition-or as throwing up bulwarks against any rethinking of a vocational crisis that threatens the very centrality of the Eucharist that so concerns the pope. Also, given the current neglect of penance among American Catholics, the pope’s insistence that the "Eurcharist and penance are very closely connected" will prove bracing. More idiosyncratic speculations, such as those concerning Mary (the "first ’tabernacle’ in history"), may receive a mixed reception.

Encyclicals have long been considered an imperfect genre, hampered by their style and hamstrung by the need to reconcile competing political and bureaucratic factions. To the modern ear, encyclicals often come across as plodding, circular in argument, and preemptory in tone. That is why the unambiguously personal tone of much of this letter is so striking. Despite predictable weaknesses, which include some dense theological language, Ecclesia de eucharistia does precisely what a bishop is supposed to do: it strengthens the faith of the brethren. John Paul II clearly loves the Eucharist and wants to share this gift. Anyone who has witnessed him celebrate Mass will know the power and reverence he communicates, not only in his words, but also in his gestures and voice. It is precisely here that most Catholics will feel bereft in their experience of the liturgy. If, as the new encyclical argues, the mystery of the Eucharist must be communicated as sacrifice, presence, and banquet, then the pope’s letter gives us a welcome glimpse of these indispensable mysteries. It is a message that needs to be heard in every parish.

Published in the 2003-05-23 issue: 
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