Today is the feast of St. John Paul II. On this day, it is fitting to look at his writing on the Holy Eucharist since it was the center of his life and it is the center of the Church. His devotion to the Eucharist was evident to those who were at Mass with him or who saw him during Eucharistic Adoration. Jason Everet quoted an observer in his book St. John Paul the Great: His Five Loves, “He lingered lovingly over every syllable that recalled the Last Supper as if the words were new to him.” He would follow the words of Consecration with profound genuflection. Everet goes on to explain that John Paul became a priest precisely because of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, “For me, the Mass constitutes the center of my life and my every day…nothing means more to me or gives me greater joy than to celebrate Mass each day and to serve God’s people in the Church.” It should come as no surprise given his great love for the Holy Eucharist, that he devoted an encyclical to the topic.
On April 17, 2003, which was Holy Thursday, then Pope John Paul II promulgated his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia: On the Eucharist in its Relationship to the Church. It is a rich, profound, and beautiful reflection on the theological connection between the Eucharist and the Church. It is an encyclical worth reading and praying with over and over again. It begins:
The Church draws her life from the Eucharist. 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 fulfillment 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.
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St. John Paul II goes to the heart of the Christian life, who is Jesus Christ. He reminds us that Christ’s promise to be with us “to the close of the age” is tangible and truly manifest in the Holy Eucharist. It is in the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ made present through the priestly words of consecration that the Church is given the sacrifice of the Cross and real food. It is when Christ comes and ministers bodily to His people, unlike anywhere else on this side of the veil. This can be easily forgotten, but John Paul wants the Church to remember Who we have been given. He goes on to quote Lumen Gentium 11, “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.”
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is not only offered through the ministerial priesthood. While the hierarchical, also known as ministerial, priesthood was instituted by Christ to be male only, all baptized members of the Mystical Body participate in the offices of Christ as priest, prophet, and king. Once again, turning to Lumen Gentium, “the faithful join in the offering of the Eucharist by virtue of their royal priesthood,” yet 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.” St. John Paul II often explained roles within the Church in order to bring people into a deeper understanding of their baptismal call and to further explain the differences between the male ministerial priesthood and the common priesthood. All the faithful are called to offer up the Eucharistic sacrifice with the ministerial priesthood during the Mass. The faithful do not pronounce the words of consecration, but they lift their hearts, minds, bodies, and souls up to the Father through the High Priest, Jesus Christ.
Lest the Church once again be accused of being anti-woman, which is categorically false, St. John Paul II devotes an entire chapter in Ecclesia de Eucharistia to “Women of the Eucharist” after Our Lady. The Church’s greatest love, devotion, and respect for women is seen through Mary. Consider that Our Lady lived the Eucharistic life before anyone else. In a beautiful passage, John Paul explains:
In a certain sense Mary lived her Eucharistic faith even before the institution of the Eucharist, by the very fact that she offered her virginal womb for the Incarnation of God’s word. The Eucharist, while commemorating the passion and resurrection, is also in continuity with the incarnation. At the Annunciation Mary conceived the son of God in the physical reality of his body and blood, thus anticipating within herself what to some degree happens sacramentally in every believer who receives, under the signs of bread and wine, the Lord’s body and blood.
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It is a woman who serves as the first example and guide to receiving Christ’s body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Holy Eucharist. You can’t get more pro-woman than that reality! The Church constantly turns to Mary as an example, and both act as our Mother.
It is clear that this encyclical is exhaustive and encompasses a host of sacramental and ecclesial theology. It is a well-spring for the faithful in growing in their love of Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist. It is the supreme mystery of our faith and the very center of our lives. “It is the sacrifice of the Cross perpetuated down the ages.” (ED 11) The gift par excellence given to the Church by Christ is the Holy Eucharist.
When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, the memorial of her Lord’s death and resurrection, this central event of salvation becomes really present and “the work of our redemption is carried out.” This sacrifice is so decisive for the salvation of the human race that Jesus Christ offered it and returned to the Father only after he had left us a means of sharing in it as if we had been present there. Each member of the faithful can thus take part in it and inexhaustibly gain its fruits.
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Christ wanted us to be able to take part in the Paschal Mystery, even 2000 years later. He left us this sacrifice and food until the end of time. It is what St. Josemaria Escriva meant when he said: “When you approach the tabernacle remember that God has been waiting for you for twenty centuries.” Take a moment or two to contemplate this awe-inspiring truth.
It is easy to get drawn into the busyness of our lives or to think that our constant service and movement is what matters. Charity and self-sacrifice are fruits of the Christian life, but the very center of our lives is the Holy Eucharist. Our strength, faith, and perseverance are given through the sacramental life of the Church, most especially in the Holy Eucharist. It is impossible to live the fullness of the Christian life without receiving Christ Himself in the Holy Eucharist. All comes from Him.
The Church constantly draws her life from the redeeming sacrifice; she approaches it not only through faith-filled remembrance, but also through real contact, since this sacrifice is made present ever anew, sacramentally perpetuated, in every community which offers it at the hands of the consecrated minister. The Eucharist thus applies to men and women today the reconciliation won once for all by Christ for mankind in every age. “The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice.
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The efficacy of the Cross is made present in the Eucharist and it is in the Paschal Mystery that our redemption has been won. This is where the Christian life is given nourishment after Baptism.
St. John Paul II was the Pope for 27 years and in that time he gave the Church countless documents that have been added to the richness of the Catholic faith. The faithful need to tap into these resources and use them on the journey to holiness. Ecclesia de Eucharistia is an important document in a time when so many Catholics have abandoned the Church’s teaching on the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. This is a great tragedy and profound error on their part. St. John Paul II answered the need for further reflection and understanding on this Sacrament of the Sacraments. On this feast of St. John Paul II, may we grow in greater love and devotion to Our Lord in the Eucharistic Presence.
St. John Paul II, ora pro nobis.