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The Holy Eucharist and the Growth of the Church

by Archbishop Raymond L. Burke


After having reflected upon the Holy Eucharist as the mystery of faith in the first chapter of his encyclical letter "Ecclesia de Eucharistia (On the Eucharist in Its Relationship to the Church)," Pope John Paul II reflects upon the Holy Eucharist as the source of the strength and the growth of the Church. Our Holy Father is inspired by the perennial teaching of the Church, expressed in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, "Lumen gentium," of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. The teaching of the council reminds us that the Church receives its strength and growth from the altar of Christ’s Sacrifice. Even as the individual members of the Body of Christ are strengthened and grow in holiness, most of all, by participation in the Holy Mass, so does the whole Body of Christ receive its life and development from the Eucharistic Sacrifice (no. 21a). The importance of the Holy Eucharist for the life of the Church, from her very beginnings, cannot be emphasized enough.

At the Beginnings of the Church

The celebration of the Holy Mass was, in truth, the source of the life of the Church at her very beginnings. On the night before He died, Christ, in the company of the Apostles, instituted the Holy Eucharist and the ordained priesthood, so that, through the priestly ministry of the Apostles, the faithful might always share in the spiritual fruits of the sacrifice which He was to carry out on Calvary on the following day, Good Friday. The 12 Apostles, symbolically recalling the 12 tribes of Israel, represent the new People of God, embracing all nations. They are "the beginning of the sacred hierarchy" whose mission it is to preserve God’s flock in the unity of Christ.

The new People of God is brought to life from the pierced Heart of Jesus and sustained in life from the glorious Heart of Jesus who is now seated at the right hand of the Father. The Last Supper, which is the first celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, "laid the foundations of the new messianic community, the People of God of the New Covenant," just as the sacrifice at Mount Sinai, in the time of Moses, had sealed the Old Covenant. Our Holy Father states this profound truth in the following words:

"The Apostles, by accepting in the Upper Room Jesus’ invitation: ‘Take, eat,’ ‘Drink of it, all of you’ (Matthew 26:26-27), entered for the first time into sacramental communion with Him. From that time forward, until the end of the age, the Church is built up through sacramental communion with the Son of God who was sacrificed for our sake: ‘Do this in remembrance of Me. ... Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’ (1 Corinthians 11:24-25; Luke 22:19).

"By the same words, with which Christ instituted the Holy Eucharist, He also consecrated the first bishops and priests to offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Rightly, we can say that Christ constituted the Church at her beginnings at the Last Supper" (no. 21b).

Mutual Abiding of Christ and His Disciples

When our Lord transformed the bread and wine of the Last Supper into His true Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, He made possible our communion with Him through the Most Blessed Sacrament. Through the institution of the Holy Eucharist, our Lord made it possible for us to become one body with Him. Our Lord instructed the Apostles to renew always His Supper, so that the People of God might be built up in every time and place through participation in the Holy Eucharist, especially through communion with Him in His true Body and Blood (no. 21c).

Our Holy Father makes clear the profound meaning of eucharistic communion for our life in the Church by reminding us that we not only receive Christ in Holy Communion but He also receives us. Christ truly calls us His friends by inviting us to the Eucharistic Sacrifice and Banquet. In other words, Christ deeply desires that we be in His company and that He be in our company. He fulfills His desire, best of all, through the Eucharistic Sacrifice and Banquet (no. 22a).

"Eucharistic communion brings about in a sublime way the mutual ‘abiding’ of Christ and each of His followers: ‘Abide in me, and I in you’" (John 15:4) (no. 22a).

We are never closer to Christ than in the Holy Eucharist. There is no way in which He comes closer to us than in the Eucharistic Sacrifice and in His abiding presence in the consecrated hosts reposed in the tabernacles of our churches and chapels.

Sign of Salvation for the World

Communion with Christ in the Holy Eucharist has enabled the Church, from her very beginnings, to carry out her mission of being a sign of salvation in Christ for all the nations. The Church is constituted to carry out the mission of Christ in the world. Christ alive within the Church continues His saving work through the Church. The Holy Father reminds us of the strong and clear words of our Lord Jesus: "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you" (John 20:21). At the celebration of the Holy Mass, the Church receives her mission, which is to share in the mystery of Christ’s Suffering, Dying and Rising from the Dead. At the same time, at the Mass, she also expresses most fully the same mission of bringing all mankind into communion with God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit (no. 22b). The Holy Father teaches us:

"The Eucharist thus appears as both the source and the summit of all evangelization, since its goal is the communion of mankind with Christ and in Him with the Father and the Holy Spirit" (no. 22b).

To carry out the mission of Christ in the world, His disciples must first know and love Him intimately. We cannot bring Christ to others, if we have not first received Him in Holy Communion and kept company with Him in prayer and, above all, in eucharistic adoration. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, great missionary to all the nations, insisted the words of Christ, when He was dying on the cross, "I thirst," be placed near the crucifix above the tabernacle of every chapel of the Missionaries of Charity, the religious congregation which she founded, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for the Christlike love of "the poorest of the poor" (Mother Teresa, A Simple Path, New York: Ballantine Books, 1995). The words of Christ, "I thirst," express His unquenchable thirst for souls, His undying desire that God’s truth and love reach to every man and woman of every time and place.

Confirming the Church in Unity

Participation in the Eucharistic Sacrifice and Banquet sustains the Church in the unity which her members enjoy because of baptism. All of the Church’s members are incorporated into Christ, become truly members of the Body of Christ, through the waters of Baptism. The Holy Eucharist nourishes the life of Christ within us from the moment of our baptism. It is in virtue of our unity with Christ in baptism and in the Eucharist that we are also one with each other. The Holy Eucharist confirms the unity of the many members of Christ’s Body (no. 23a).

The unity of the Church has its source in the "joint and inseparable activity of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (no. 23b). The Church is called into being through Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection, by which He has won the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon us, Her members. The Holy Father comments:

"The argument is compelling: our union with Christ, which is a gift and grace for each of us, makes it possible for us, in Him, to share in the unity of His Body which is the Church. The Eucharist reinforces the incorporation into Christ which took place in baptism through the gift of the Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:13, 27).

Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Christ became incarnate for our salvation through the action of the Holy Spirit. It is also the Holy Spirit who overshadows our gifts of bread and wine at the Mass, transforming them into the true Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ. The Holy Spirit unceasingly nourishes and strengthens His life within us through the incomparable spiritual food which is the Body and Blood of Christ. "The Church is fortified by the divine Paraclete through the sanctification of the faithful in the Eucharist" (no. 23b).

The Holy Eucharist binds brothers and sisters in Christ in the deepest possible unity, far beyond any merely human bond. Participation in the Eucharistic Sacrifice and Banquet is not merely sharing a meal together. Rather, it is sharing in the divine communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which alone can bring mankind to unity and peace (no. 24a).

Desire of Unity and the Seeds of Division

There is in us, at one and the same time, the deepest desire of communion with one another and the tendency to division which is born from what our Holy Father calls the "seeds of disunity." The "seeds of disunity" come from the stain of original sin and our actual sins (no. 24b).

The Holy Eucharist fulfills our desire for unity with one another in a way beyond all our imagining; Holy Communion makes us one with each other in the divine Son of God. Our unity with one another has its origin in God. It cannot be destroyed by any human force and has its eternal fulfillment in the life which is to come. At the same time, the Holy Eucharist strengthens us, so that we may purify ourselves of the seeds of disunity. Communion with Christ strengthens us to overcome, with Christ, the division which sin introduces into our lives. Our Holy Father reminds us:

"The seeds of disunity, which daily experience shows to be so deeply rooted in humanity as a result of sin, are countered by the unifying power of the Body of Christ. The Eucharist, precisely by building up the Church, creates human community" (no. 24b).

Here we see the essential connection of the Holy Eucharist and penance. Through the confession of our sins, which separate us, in varying degrees, from God and from one another, we are prepared to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, uniting us to God and to one another. At the same time, receiving the Body and Blood of Christ enlightens our minds and inflames our hearts to see what keeps us from unity with God and with each other, and to root out from our hearts the seeds of disunity.

Worship of the Holy Eucharist Outside of Mass

In the context of reflecting upon how the celebration of the Holy Eucharist builds up the life of the Church, the Holy Father underlines the importance of worship of the Most Blessed Sacrament outside of the celebration of the Holy Mass. He reminds us that the Real Presence of Christ under the veils of the consecrated bread and wine, from the moment of the Consecration of the Mass, remains as long as the species of the consecrated bread and wine themselves remain, and that, therefore, the Church reserves the Body of Christ in the tabernacle after the distribution of Holy Communion.

The reserved Blessed Sacrament comes directly from the Sacrifice of the Mass and inspires the desire for participation in the Holy Mass and for Holy Communion, also spiritual communion when it is not possible to receive sacramental communion. So important is worship of the Blessed Sacrament that our Holy Father reminds bishops and priests of the responsibility "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 under the Eucharistic species" (no. 25a).

Our Holy Father draws our attention to the profound reality of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. It is spending time with the Lord. He likens it to the experience of the Beloved Disciple, St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, who rested his head upon the breast of Christ at the Last Supper. Through prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, we experience the intimate and inexhaustible love of the glorious Sacred Heart of Jesus, from which Christ unceasingly pours forth His grace upon us, His gift of His true Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist. Through Eucharistic Communion and prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, we lift up our poor and sinful hearts to our Lord and He receives our hearts into His Most Sacred Heart, which is all rich in divine mercy and love.

In "Novo millennio ineunte," the Holy Father’s apostolic letter "At the Close of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000," Pope John Paul II reminded us that our times require, above all, that we be persons of prayer. In other words, he taught us that the new evangelization must be accomplished, first of all, through the power of prayer. Our Holy Father puts a telling question to us:

"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 Blessed Sacrament?" (no. 25b).

As we recognize the need of more intense prayer in our lives, we sense the need to pray in the presence of our Eucharistic Lord. The Holy Father exclaims: "How often, dear brothers and sisters, have I experienced this, and drawn from it strength, consolation and support!" (no. 25b).

Church teaching urges us to pray before the Blessed Sacrament. The example of the saints inspires us to treasure, in a most special way, eucharistic adoration. Our Holy Father quotes St. Alphonsus Liguori: "‘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’" (no. 25c).


Through the Holy Eucharist, first of all by participation in the Sacrifice of the Mass and then by eucharistic worship outside of Mass, we contemplate the Face of Christ as directly and as fully as is possible for us on this earth. From our contemplation of the Face of Christ, we draw the grace to live in Christ each day. It is the Holy Eucharist, above all, which builds up the Church in unity and love. If we truly desire to know Christ, to contemplate His Face, then we will be earnest in promoting eucharistic adoration, "which prolongs and increases the fruits of our communion in the Body and Blood of the Lord" (no. 25c).

St. Louis Reviewonline
April 1, 2005

Copyright © 2005 by St. Louis Reviewonline

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