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Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of “Mysterium Fidei”

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

On September 3, 1965, Pope Paul VI published the encyclical Mysterium Fidei on the doctrine and worship of the Holy Eucharist. It was an unprecedented document, issued during the Second Vatican Council. It was also an urgent document because it provided the necessary doctrinal foundation for the Council’s historic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.

Twenty-five years since the publication of Mysterium Fidei much has happened in the Catholic Church, on all sides of her liturgical life. There is no better way to assess these liturgical changes than to see them in the light of Mysterium Fidei. Pope Paul’s encyclical expressed both the hopes and concerns of what he foresaw would be a new era in the Eucharistic liturgy of Catholic Christianity.

Hopes for a New Eucharistic Era

On the hopeful side of the Constitution on the Liturgy, Pope Paul emphasized one of the main pastoral desires of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council. They wanted “the faithful to participate actively with sound faith and utmost devotion in the celebration of this most holy mystery” of the Eucharist.

He earnestly hoped “that rich fruits of Eucharistic devotion will grow out of the reformed liturgy.” He foresaw how “the holy Church, with this saving sign of its devotion raised on high may invite all who bear the name of Christian to the unity of faith and love and draw them gently together by the working of divine grace.”

“It seems to us,” the Pope said, “that we are seeing these results and gathering the first fruits, as it were, in the great joy and enthusiasm with which the children of the Catholic Church have received the Constitution on the Liturgy.” All of this, he concluded, “is to us a cause of much consolation and joy” (Mysterium Fidei, 6-8).

We may call this the introduction to his encyclical on the Eucharist. There was need to provide for a more active participation of the faithful in the Liturgy. There was need for promoting Christian unity. There were reasons for “liturgical” reform.

Yet, after saying this, the Pope raised what he called certain “problems” that gave cause for “serious pastoral concern and anxiety.” He identified the root cause of these problems as the spread of false opinions “that upset the faithful and fill their minds with great confusion about matters of faith.

Radically these opinions call into question “the dogma of transubstantiation.” And the rest of the encyclical, some 7,000 words, concentrates on this one revealed truth, that by the words of consecration ordinary bread and wine become the living Jesus Christ.

Reasons for Concern

Instead of transubstantiation, there are now in circulation theories about “transignification,” and “transfinalization.” Writers are claiming that “Christ the Lord is no longer present in the consecrated Hosts left after the celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass is ended.”

Of course, such “opinions now in circulation do great harm to Eucharistic faith and worship.”

These erroneous ideas have to be corrected and the Church’s true Eucharistic faith must be reaffirmed. Otherwise, the great hopes of the Council for liturgical renewal will be “frustrated by the seed of false opinions already sown.”

With his customary charity, Paul VI does not impute bad intentions to the sowers of these false notions. He presumes that they sincerely wish to investigate the sublime mystery of the Eucharist and explain its meaning in contemporary language. Nevertheless, “we cannot approve the opinions expressed and we have the duty to warn you of the grave dangers these opinions involve for a right faith” (Mysterium Fidei, 11-14).

Prevalent Errors about the Eucharist

Every single “false opinion” about the Eucharist that Pope Paul VI said had to be corrected, has been multiplied and amplified and circulated among the faithful since the publication of Mysterium Fidei. All the Pope’s concerns about the liturgical renewal inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council have been dramatically justified.

It is not too much to say that somewhere near the center of the Church’s crisis in the Western world in our day can be traced to the core issue raised in his encyclical on The Mystery of Faith.

Literally hundreds of articles in papers and magazines, scores of chapters in published books, and whole volumes on the “New Liturgy” are now contrasting what they call the “pre-conciliar” with the “post-conciliar” understanding of the Eucharist. The massive desacralization of the Mass, the hidden tabernacles, the missing pews, the iconoclasm perpetrated on Catholic churches, the reduction of churches to social meeting halls, the casual handling of the Sacred Species have been the object of one public censure after another, since Mysterium Fidei.

Among the more outspoken proponents of this post-conciliar liturgy was a writer who is especially clear in his analysis. “Many people,” he says, “are preoccupied with what already is and how to preserve it. Others are more interested in what could be and how to bring it about.” Then he goes on to explain what the Eucharistic liturgy could be and how to bring about a drastic change.

This tension is evident in the life of worship that we lead as Catholic Christians. Right now we are standing between two poles: the tradition that we inherited from recent centuries, and the renewed liturgy that came out of Vatican II. The old Eucharistic tradition is rooted in medieval and Tridentine theology. For the sake of a shorthand term, I will call this the sacrificial tradition. The renewal, which I will call the ecclesial tradition, is rooted in biblical and patristic sources which the liturgy of recent centuries had overlooked. The sacrificial tradition is an “already” which many Catholics are afraid to see lost. The ecclesial tradition is a “not yet” in the sense that we are still in the process of absorbing it (Tad Guzie, Chicago Studies, Vol. 22, p. 283).

According to this author, the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” in the liturgy goes back to the framers of the Constitution on the Liturgy. It is reflected, he claims, in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, published in 1970. Here we see an unsuccessful attempt “to bridge the two traditions I have mentioned.” It is naively stated that “Vatican II has done little more than “complete and perfect” the liturgical norms of the Council of Trent.” He goes on.

If only it were that easy. The General Introduction was an official document promulgating a radical revision of the Mass to the entire Roman Church. It is stated that the priest “offers sacrifice in the person of Christ;” and a paragraph later it is said that the people of God also give thanks in Christ” by offering his sacrifice. Contained in this ambiguity are two sets of images communicating two different views of the Church (Ibidem, p. 284).

What are these two different--and divergent--views of the Church? One is rooted in the mistaken notion that within the Church are certain men who are ordained priests. Only they are allowed and empowered to consecrate bread and wine at Mass. Only they can make Christ really present on the altar. Only they can therefore re-enact the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, where the separate consecration signifies the separation of Christ’s body and blood on the Cross. The physical death of Jesus in Jerusalem merited our salvation. The mystical death symbolized in the Mass communicates of the graces won for us by the Savior on Calvary. But basic to all of this is the “sacrificial tradition” which holds that only those ordained to the priesthood are able to transubstantiate bread and wine into the living body and blood of Christ.

The other view of the Church is radically different. It is “leading us back to basics from adoration of the Host and the sacrificial theology of the Middle Ages, back to a rediscovery of the holiness of the Christian assembly and its ecclesial action of breaking bread together. This is the evaluation or, perhaps better, the revolution expressed in the Liturgy Constitution and implemented in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal.”

In order to illustrate the revolutionary change introduced by Second Vatican, the writer provides a descriptive chart as follows:


Through successive pages of analysis, he explains what is the task still ahead for theologians. They must gradually wean the Catholic people from the antiquated idea of bread and wine being changed at Mass into Christ’s body and blood through the new idea of the Eucharist as essentially the worship of the assembled faithful, to the future concept of the Eucharist not being a sacrifice at all, but simply the table fellowship of like-minded persons who eat and drink together in each other’s congenial company. There is a mounting literature in professional journals and popular periodicals that repeats these same ideas. Although differently expressed and with varying degrees of erudition, they are agreed—explicitly or implicitly—that the Holy Eucharist as the Sacrifice of the Mass is now passé. And fundamental to the denial of the sacrificial Eucharistic Liturgy is the denial of the Real Presence.

Defense of the Real Presence in Mysterium Fidei

This brings us back to Pope Paul VI’s encyclical. With prophetic insight, he foresaw that, if the desired liturgical renewal is to remain Catholic, it must be grounded on the Church’s historic faith in the Real Presence.

When Mysterium Fidei was first published, surprisingly during the Vatican Council, many wondered why the Pope seemed to be so preoccupied with preserving the Church’s faith in Christ’s Eucharistic Presence. Twenty-five years were enough to vindicate his “pastoral concern.” That is why he went through a series of reflections, each building on the preceding, to show that unless we believe in the physical presence of Christ, effected by the priest at Mass, we not only do not have a truly Catholic liturgical reform. We no longer have the Eucharistic Liturgy.

Mystery of Faith
Pope Paul began with what he termed the “mystery of faith” in the Real Presence, as a “defense against the poison of any form of rationalism.” He stressed the fact that this is a revealed mystery which must be approached “above all with humble obedience, not relying on human considerations.” Our reason alone cannot comprehend how “the true body of Christ and His true blood are in this sacrament.” Then he quotes Cyril who tells the faithful, “Do not entertain doubts on the truth of this; rather take the Savior’s words with faith, for since He is the truth, He does not lie” (Quoted by St. Thomas Aquinas, Homily on Matthew, 82).

One after another of the Church’s great teachers are cited by Paul VI to show that faith in the real, corporeal presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament belongs to the historic treasure of Catholic teaching. St. Augustine affirms that “what since the days of antiquity was preached and believed throughout the whole Church with true Catholic faith is true, even if it is proved by no argument, explained by no words.” (Contra Julianum, 6,5,11)

St. Bonaventure declares, “There is no difficulty about Christ’s presence in the Eucharist as in a sign. But that He is truly present in the Eucharist as He is in heaven, this is most difficult. Therefore to believe it is especially meritorious.” (In IV Sententiarum, 10,1,1).

Not only has the true Church always believed in the Real Presence, but she has defined her faith in precise words. Admitting such a thing as legitimate development of doctrine; even the Church’s authoritative modification of language, yet the meaning of the doctrine of the Real Presence remains unchanged. “That meaning,” the Pope quotes from Vatican I, “which Holy Mother Church has once defined must forever be retained and we may never depart from that meaning under the pretext and name of a more profound learning” (On the Catholic Faith, 4).

The Mass Is a Real Sacrifice
Building on the revealed truth of the Real Presence, it follows logically that the Mass is a true sacrifice.

How are the two related? Necessarily. Given the fact that by the words of consecration, the priest brings Christ down on our altars the Son of God who became the Son of Mary, by the same priestly powers he re-enacts Christ’s sacrifice of the Cross. Thus at the Last Supper “by bidding the Apostles to do this in memory of Him, He made clear His will that the same sacrifice should ever be made actual” (Mysterium Fidei, 28).

The implications of this bilateral truth are absolutely fundamental to the authentic Eucharistic Liturgy. It is by the same divine power, exercised by Christ uniquely through His ordained priests, that they both make the God-man bodily present on the altar and perpetuate--by His almighty power--the unique sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary.

The Meaning of the Real Presence

Given the foundational importance of the Real Presence, to insure a real Eucharistic sacrifice, Pope Paul goes to great length to explain the various ways in which Christ is present in the world. Yet only one of these ways is, dogmatically, the Real Presence.

As God, He is present everywhere, giving existence and activity to His creatures. As head of the Mystical Body, which is the Church, He exercises His role as Mediator of grace through the Church, which is the universal sacrament of salvation. But in only one way is Jesus Christ really present on earth today.

This presence is called the Real Presence not to exclude the other kinds as though they were not real, but because it is real par excellence, since it is substantial, in the sense that Christ, whole and entire, God and man, becomes present. Anyone is in error who explains the meaning of this presence by inventing a so-called, pneumatic omnipresent nature of Christ’s glorified body or by confining the meaning within the limits of symbolism as though this august sacrament amounted to nothing more in reality than an effective sign of a spiritual presence of Christ and of His close union with the faithful, His members in the Mystical Body (Ibidem, 39).

What follows? It follows that “the Savior in His humanity is present not only at the right hand of the Father according to the natural manner of existence, but at the same time also in the sacrament of the Eucharist” (Ibidem, 45).

To be emphasized is the objective identity of Jesus on earth in the Eucharist and Jesus in His glorious and ascended humanity in the heavens. To be further emphasized is that the whole Christ (totus Christus) with all that makes Christ, Christ, is present in the Blessed Sacrament. The key word is “humanity,” to describe the Savior now on earth in the fullness of His human nature, living in our midst since His institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood on the night before He died.

Real Presence through Transubstantiation
Not satisfied with making clear that the real Jesus Christ is really on earth in the Eucharist, Paul VI devotes over a thousand words to showing how the Real Presence takes place. Words could not be clearer: “the way Christ becomes present in this sacrament is none other than by the change of the whole substance of the bread into His body and of the whole substance of the wine into His blood, and that this wonderful change the Catholic Church rightly calls transubstantiation. Not satisfied with repeating this article of the faith, the Pope elaborates on its meaning.

After transubstantiation has taken place, the appearance of bread and wine undoubtedly take on a new meaning and a new purpose. For they no longer remain ordinary bread and ordinary drink. They become the sign of something sacred and the sign of a spiritual nourishment. But the reason they take on this new meaning and this new purpose is that they contain a new reality, which with good reason we call ontological. There now underlies those appearances not what was there before but something else entirely. This is true not merely because the faith of the Church accepts it as so, but objectively because once the substance or nature of bread and wine has been changed into the body and blood of Christ, only the appearances of bread and wine remain. (Ibidem, 46).

As the capstone to this lengthy defense of the bodily presence of Christ on earth, through transubstantiation, Pope Paul VI spells out how faith in the Real Presence is to be strengthened and sustained in the Real Presence.

Promoting the Worship of the Eucharist

The Vicar of Christ leaves no option. If the faithful are to remain faithful in their belief in the Real Presence, they must put this faith into practice by their worship of the Blessed Sacrament beyond the Mass and reception of Holy Communion.

He introduces this imperative after an earnest exhortation to live out the Eucharistic liturgy. Catholics should “every day and in great numbers actively participate in the Sacrifice of the Mass, receive Communion with a pure heart, and make a fitting thanksgiving to Christ our Lord for so great a gift.”

But that is not all. The Church has indeed entered on a new era in her liturgical history. There is a sensed need for community in our communications age that is part of God’s providence in the modern world. But this new-found communitarianism must be based on revealed realism. Otherwise, the legitimate desire for human togetherness will be divorced from its divine fountainhead, which is Jesus Christ living now in our midst in the Holy Eucharist.

No one can fail to understand that the divine Eucharist bestows on the Christian people an incomparable dignity. Not only while the sacrifice is being offered and the sacrament celebrated, but also after the sacrifice has been offered and the sacrament has been received, as long as the Eucharist is kept in our churches and oratories, Christ is truly the Emmanual, that is “God with us.”
Day and night He is in our midst. Full of grace and truth, He dwells with us. He forms our moral life. He nourishes virtue. He consoles the afflicted. He strengthens the weak. He moves all those who draw near to imitate Him. They learn from His example to be meek and humble of heart, and to seek not what is their own but the things of God.
Anyone, therefore, who approaches this august sacrament with special devotion and endeavors to return generous love for Christ’s own infinite love, experiences and fully understands, with great joy and profit, how precious is the life hidden with Christ. There is nothing more consoling on earth and nothing more effective for advancing along the road of holiness (Ibidem, 67).

Following this apostrophe, the Pope tells everyone, the clergy and religious, the married and the single, the young and old - to cultivate an ever greater devotion to the Holy Eucharist, either exposed on the altar or reserved in the tabernacle. Addressing the Bishops directly, the Vicar of Christ reminds them that the Eucharist is reserved in churches and oratories as in the spiritual center of a parish or a religious community, of the universal Church and of all humanity. Why? “Because beneath the veil of the Eucharistic elements is contained the invisible Head of the Church, the Redeemer of the world, the Center of all hearts, ‘through whom all things are and through whom we exist’” (Ibidem, 68).


The phenomenal growth of Eucharistic adoration and worship in the Catholic Church stands to reason. Once the faithful realized who is on earth, no less than He was in first century Palestine, it is no wonder that those who believe will flock to be in His presence, to honor and thank Him as their God, and to ask Him for the graces they so desperately need. Experience shows that as a parish or a diocese, or a country develops its worship of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, the life of the people wonderfully improves. Why not? It is the same Jesus who worked miracles during His visible stay on earth. He promised to work even greater miracles, mainly through the Blessed Sacrament, for those who believe.

Eucharistic Adoration - International Newsletter for Bishops
Vol. 3 - #1, November 1990, pp. 1-4

Copyright © 1996 by Inter Mirifica

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