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Avery DullesDecember 20, 2004
Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

Karol Wojtyla has always had a deep eucharistic piety. In 2003 he released his most recent encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, emphasizing the bonds between the Eucharist and the church. Last spring he announced the beginning of a eucharistic year, which began on Oct. 7 and will culminate at the meeting of the Synod of Bishops in October 2005. The theme for that assembly will be “The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church.” This is therefore a good time to look at the eucharistic ecclesiology of John Paul II.

In the course of his encyclical, the pope quotes, without attribution, a statement of Cardinal Henri de Lubac, S.J., “The Eucharist builds the church and the church makes the Eucharist.” Each was founded by Christ with a view to the other. Unless there were a church, there would be no one to celebrate the Eucharist, but unless there were a Eucharist, the church would lack the supreme source of its vitality.

The church renews itself by continually returning to the sources of its own life. By immersing itself in the Eucharist it takes on the characteristics of that great mystery of faith. Because the greater assimilates the lesser, the usual law of eating is reversed. In a famous passage, Augustine depicts Christ saying, “I am your food, but instead of my being changed into you, it is you who will be transformed into me.”

This transformation means concretely that the ideas, attitudes and sentiments of pastors and faithful are remolded in the likeness of those of Jesus Christ as he gives himself to us in loving obedience to his Father’s command. In this way the church becomes eucharistic.

One of the most original and interesting points in the encyclical is the observation that the Eucharist has the four attributes that we apply to the church in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed: one, holy, catholic and apostolic (EE 26). Although the pope develops only the last of these attributes, apostolicity, all four ecclesial marks may be found in the Eucharist.


Holiness is not just moral rectitude, though it certainly includes this. The Israelites of old were profoundly aware that God was the exemplar and source of all holiness. For any creature to become holy, God must bring it into a union with himself. By adopting Israel, God made it a holy nation set apart and consecrated to his service. In the New Testament we learn that the all-holy God, by an almost incredible act of condescension, appears in the flesh. Jesus Christ, the holy one of God, comes on a mission to save and sanctify the world.

Christ founded the church as the people of God of the New Testament. The First Letter of Peter reminds its readers: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Pt 2:9). The Letter to the Ephesians depicts the church as the fruit of Christ’s loving sacrifice. “He loved the church and gave himself up for it, that he might sanctify it, having cleansed it by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:25-27).

As we know from the Creed, the church is always holy. It is holy in its divine head, Jesus Christ, to whom we sing in the Gloria, “You alone are holy.” It is holy in the doctrines taught by the Lord and in the sacraments by which he remains present with his people. All the sacraments are holy and have power to sanctify, but the Eucharist is “most holy,” because in it Christ himself is substantially present, performing his supreme redemptive act. Thomas Aquinas wrote, in a frequently quoted passage, that the Eucharist contains the entire spiritual wealth of the church.

The holiness of the Eucharist demands that those who receive the sacrament do so with great reverence, lest they defile what is holy. The church at all times bears in mind the warning of St. Paul, “Whoever eats of the bread or drinks of the cup unworthily is guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:27). Conversely, those who become Christ’s members by feeding on his body take on new obligations. It would be a profanation, Paul tells us, for them to enter into sexual union with prostitutes (1 Cor 6:15-17). Pope John Paul in his encyclical reminds the faithful that they should not receive Communion if they have committed serious sin and have not been absolved in the sacrament of Penance (EE 36).

To be made holy by the Eucharist, it does not suffice for us to be physically present at holy Mass or to receive Communion physically. We must participate personally by reverently hearing the Word of God and sharing in the mind of the church as she worships. The congregation is called to join in the church’s self-offering, entering in spirit into Christ’s own redemptive work (Lumen Gentium, No. 11).

Eucharistic holiness is never merely individual; it is ecclesial. The more closely the faithful are conjoined to Christ, the more intimately are they united to one another in his body. The attribute of holiness therefore leads directly into that of unity.


The church is one for a variety of reasons. The Lord founded it with a single mission and a single system of government, under the visible headship of Peter and his successors. It is held together by its Scriptures, its creeds and its sacraments, and by the Holy Spirit, who is at work in the hearts and minds of the faithful.

The holy Eucharist stands out as one of the most important instruments and signs of unity. Although Masses are celebrated in many different times and places, each alone and all together constitute one and the same sacrifice, that of Christ on the cross. Each Mass “re-presents” the sacrifice of Calvary, making it present once again. The Eucharist therefore possesses a mysterious unity that is not paralleled by anything else in history. By participating in the Eucharistic sacrifice and receiving holy Communion, we are drawn into mystical fellowship with one another in Christ.

Paul says in the First Letter to the Corinthians that the church is one body because its members partake of the one bread, which is Christ the Lord (1 Cor 10:17). The fathers of the church were keenly conscious of this unitive power. Many of them, including John Chrysostom, dwell on the symbolism of the bread and wine, which suggest how many things can be fused into unity, as many individuals are in the church. The loaf is made up of many grains of wheat; the chalice is made up from the juice of many grapes.

The Didache of the Twelve Apostles, written about the end of the first century, contains the petition: “As this piece [of bread] was scattered over the hills and then was brought together and made one, so let your church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom.” In the Eucharistic Prayer 3 we ask that “we who are nourished by Christ’s body and blood may become one body, one spirit” in him.

Thomas Aquinas calls the Eucharist the “sacrament of ecclesiastical unity” and the “sacrament of the unity of the Mystical Body.” He also quotes St. Augustine, who calls it “the sign of unity and the bond of charity.”

For the Eucharist to function as a sacrament of unity, a measure of unity must already exist among those who partake of it. They must not only be baptized but must be one among themselves. They must have a will to be in unity and peace with the whole church. If anyone were to receive this sacrament of unity while intending to remain apart from the body and its visible head, in a situation of heresy or schism, the meaning of the action would be contradicted by the contrary disposition. It would be wrong for anyone to say, “I do not want to belong to your community, but I want to receive Communion with you.” Nor could they properly say, “I do not accept your pastors and doctrines, but I want to partake of your sacraments.”

As the pre-eminent sacrament of unity, the Eucharist ordinarily presupposes that the participants are in full ecclesial communion with one another. Communion is normally reserved to Catholics but, as the pope notes toward the end of his encyclical, there are exceptional circumstances in which baptized Christians belonging to other communities may be admitted for the occasion to holy Communion (EE 45).


The question of unity leads directly to another. Unity among whom? Or among what? The mystery of the Eucharist helps us to answer these questions and in so doing points to the catholicity of the church. In instituting the sacrament, the Lord had an absolutely universal vision, embracing all peoples of all times and, it would seem, the whole cosmos. He speaks of his blood poured out not only “for you” but also “for the many,” in the sense of all.

In the first place, the redemptive sacrifice of Christ extends to those who believe, but through their prayers and evangelizing efforts the power of the sacramental sacrifice reaches out to the whole human community. Jesus is the savior of the world (Salvator Mundi). The Eucharist is an acceptable sacrifice that “brings salvation to the whole world,” as we say in the fourth eucharistic prayer.

The pope’s recent encyclical speaks of the “cosmic” character of the Eucharist. The natural elements, transformed by human hands into bread and wine, are further transmuted into the glorified body and blood of Christ. Celebrated on the altar of the world, the Eucharist unites heaven and earth. “It embraces all creation. The Son of God became man in order to restore all creation, in one supreme act of praise, to the One who made it from nothing” (EE 8).

The church of the first centuries was acutely conscious of the Eucharist as a bond among churches. In the Diocese of Rome there was a practice of sending a fragment of the consecrated host from the bishop’s church to outlying parish churches to signify the unity between the Eucharist celebrated by the presbyters and his own. When bishops came on visits, the local bishop would often invite them to concelebrate with him. The faithful of such churches received eucharistic hospitality as a sign of communion. The refusal to recognize a church led inevitably to a refusal to participate in its eucharistic celebrations or to let its members participate in one’s own Eucharist.

The eucharistic prayers of the Roman Missal make it clear that every legitimate Eucharist is celebrated in union with the whole body of bishops and the pope, for otherwise it would be deficient in catholicity. A Eucharist celebrated in separation from the college of bishops and the faithful of their churches would lack the attribute of catholicity. 


As may be seen from the last few sentences, the catholicity of the Eucharist is closely bound up with its fourth attribute, apostolicity. The doctrine derives from Christian antiquity, which recognized that the Eucharist could not be validly celebrated except by a priest ordained by a bishop who stood in the apostolic succession.

Apostolicity expresses the fact that the church at the Eucharist, as elsewhere, is a hierarchical community under the supervision of leaders authorized and empowered to act in the name of Christ. Apostolicity also links each and all of the bishops historically with the Twelve as the source of their powers. Jesus at the Last Supper entrusted the Eucharist to the Twelve, who were his table companions, commanding them to do in commemoration of him what he was then doing.

Explaining the apostolicity of the Eucharist, Pope John Paul II asserts that the ministry of a validly ordained priest links the Eucharist historically to the sacrifice of the cross and to the Last Supper (EE 29). Any eucharistic celebration requires as a condition of its validity the presidency of a bishop or a priest who acts in the person of Christ (EE 32). There can be no such thing as a lay Eucharist or priestless Mass. Deacons and others may, under certain conditions, conduct a service of the word, followed by a Communion service; but care should be taken to make it clear that this is not a Mass, a Eucharist, because the sacrifice cannot be offered without a priest. Those who preside at such services have a responsibility to create in the congregation a hunger for the Eucharist and to make them conscious of the importance of priestly vocations. The local community has a responsibility to foster vocations so that the people will not be left without the priceless gift of the Eucharist. 

The Church’s Need of Renewal

We enter upon this eucharistic year with a deep consciousness that the church is in dire need of renewal. Although it remains irrevocably holy in its divine head and in its apostolic heritage of faith, sacraments and ministry, the church is sinful in its members and in constant need of being purified. Many of the faithful are ignorant of its teachings; some few defiantly reject them. Even the clergy are not exempt from grave and scandalous sins, as we have learned all too well in recent years. The church can be renewed only by turning with ardent love to its eucharistic Lord, asking to be fed on the Bread of Angels and refreshed from the wellsprings of salvation.

Imperfect in holiness, the church is likewise feeble in its unity. It suffers from tensions among national and ethnic groups and from ideological conflicts between different factions. At the table of the Lord, all these differences can be taken up into a higher unity. The worshipers become like grains in a single loaf, drops in one chalice.

To be Catholic is often a mere label that we use without any realization of what catholicity involves. We use it to justify our particularism over and against others. But our horizons are too narrow. The Eucharist can enable us to rise above this timid and inward-looking mentality. It will inflame us with Christ’s loving desire to share the joy of the saints with all the world. As the first fruits of the new creation, the Eucharist can make us look forward in hope to the new heavens and the new earth.

Apostolicity is also difficult to maintain. In spite of our faith, we run the risk of being cut off from the vine that gives true life. The prevalent secular and democratic culture tricks us into imagining that we can produce whatever we need for our salvation. But the Eucharist reminds us that grace and salvation come from on high and that they are channeled through Christ and the apostles. We must humbly receive redemption through disciples commissioned to speak and act in the person of Christ. The church is most of all itself when it gathers in worship around its apostolic leaders, who maintain communion with one another and with their predecessors in the faith. Through the Eucharist celebrated in this way, Christ assembles his flock: one, holy, catholic and apostolic.

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17 years ago
Upon reading the meditation of Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., on the Eucharist (12/20), I am troubled by the part on unity. It is just so pat and self-enclosed. Perhaps some Roman Catholics live in a totally Catholic setting. I work and minister and socialize daily with Christians of many churches. Unity is something we regularly experience as painfully limited, since we cannot gather at the same eucharistic table, even though we have so much in common as Christians. I also see other Christian churches taking bold steps in the direction of mutual recognition of ministry and church polity. When will we as Roman Catholics take the bold steps that acknowledge we are incomplete without the other Christian churches? From Cardinal Dulles’s presentation one could conclude that the only model of unity is a return to the Roman Catholic Church. By contrast, I see Christian unity as always ahead of us, drawing every church beyond where we are now. And I believe that is consistent with the unity for which Christ prayed.

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