Signs of the Times

Eucharist Greatest Gift Christ Gave Church, Says Encyclical

The Eucharist is the greatest gift Christ left his church, a gift that makes the sacrifice of his life present for all time and gives strength and hope to the world, Pope John Paul II wrote in a new encyclical letter. The pope said he issued the letter, his 14th encyclical, in the 25th year of his papacy as a sign of his gratitude and with the desire to share his faith in the sacrament.

The letter, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, on the Eucharist and its relationship to the church, was published on April 17, Holy Thursday. In the letter, the pope reaffirmed the traditional teaching of the church on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, on the need for validly ordained ministers for its celebration and on the importance of following the church’s liturgical norms.


Pope John Paul said he had asked the Vatican offices responsible for sacraments and for doctrine “to prepare a more specific document, including prescriptions of a juridical nature,” on the obligation to follow church rules for the celebration of Mass and adoration of the Eucharist.

The 82-year-old pope also used the encyclical to describe how important the Eucharist has been in his life and to offer a reflection on the Blessed Virgin Mary, “woman of the Eucharist.”

From the day he was ordained in 1946, he said, as a priest, bishop, cardinal and pope, “I have been able to celebrate Holy Mass in chapels built along mountain paths, on lakeshores and seacoasts; I have celebrated it on altars built in stadiums and city squares.” Whether in a grand basilica or a small country church, the pope said, “the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world. It unites heaven and earth. It embraces and permeates all creation.”

Christ’s sacrifice on the cross—his offering of love to God the Father—embraces and redeems all creation and offers it back to God, the pope said. “The church draws her life from Christ in the Eucharist; by him she is fed and by him she is enlightened,” the pope wrote. “This is no metaphorical food,” he said. As the Gospel of John says, “My flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.”

Pope John Paul said the Second Vatican Council led to a “more conscious, active and fruitful participation” in the Mass, but at the same time, “some abuses have occurred, leading to confusion with regard to sound faith and Catholic doctrine concerning this wonderful sacrament.” In some places, he said, eucharistic adoration has almost disappeared, and some people focus so much on its character as a “fraternal banquet” that they forget its sacrificial meaning.

The Mass, the pope said, “makes Christ’s one, definitive, redemptive sacrifice present in time” and allows people of all times to participate in it as if they had been in Jerusalem with Jesus. “The Eucharist is too great a gift to tolerate ambiguity and depreciation,” he said. Faithful observance of liturgical norms is “a guarantee of our love for Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.”

While the pope said he has seen firsthand how beautifully local language, customs and culture can be incorporated into the Mass, creativity has sometimes been overemphasized. “Liturgy is never anyone’s private property, be it of the celebrant or of the community in which the mysteries are celebrated,” he said.

The Eucharist and the church are so intimately connected, the pope said, that those who share the Eucharist must share the church’s faith in the real presence of Christ and acknowledge the unity of faith as passed on and protected by the pope and the bishops in unity with him. Regular eucharistic sharing with other Christians is a hope to be prayed for and a goal to work toward, but it is not a step on the way toward Christian unity, he said. “If this treasure is not to be squandered, we need to respect the demands which derive from its being the sacrament of communion in faith and in apostolic succession,” the pope wrote.

Pope John Paul reaffirmed church teaching that those who have committed a serious sin must go to confession before receiving Communion, but he also said people who are indifferent to the suffering of the poor are not worthy to partake of the sacrament.

In a chapter on the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Eucharist, Pope John Paul described Jesus’ mother as “the first tabernacle in history,” the vessel “in which the Son of God, still invisible to our human gaze, allowed himself to be adored by Elizabeth” as the pregnant Mary visited her cousin. Mary’s yes to the Incarnation and believers’ Amen to receiving Christ in the Eucharist are analogous, he said.

The Gospels do not mention Mary as being with the disciples at the Last Supper, he said, but “Mary must have been present at the eucharistic celebrations of the first generation of Christians.... For Mary, receiving the Eucharist must have somehow meant welcoming once more into her womb that heart which had beat in unison with hers and reliving what she had experienced at the foot of the cross,” the pope wrote.

Bush Seeks Approval of Emergency AIDS Plan

Flanked by congressmen from both parties and members of his cabinet, President George W. Bush on April 29 asked Congress to move forward with funding the emergency plan for dealing with H.I.V.-AIDS that he announced in January. The cause of fighting AIDS “is rooted in the simplest of moral duties,” Bush said during an event in the White House’s East Room that included Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, D.C., and other religious leaders as well as diplomats and representatives of agencies working to fight the spread of H.I.V. and to treat AIDS victims. “Confronting this tragedy is the responsibility of every nation,” Bush said. The plan would direct $15 billion over the next five years to fight AIDS abroad, focusing on 14 African and Caribbean countries where the disease is concentrated.

Catholic, Protestant Scholars Discuss Redemption

An effort begun in 1996 to explore common Catholic and Protestant commitments to basic Christian doctrines concluded with an international symposium on redemption from April 20 to 23 at the seminary of the Archdiocese of New York, St. Joseph’s, in Dunwoodie, N.Y. Gerald O’Collins, S.J., Catholic co-chairman of the event, said that the scholars agreed on the basic point that Christ is the redeemer of all people. Although Catholics and Protestants have differences over the place of the church and the sacraments in making redemption effective for individuals, the denominational disagreements do not keep them from a common affirmation of Christ’s redeeming role, he said.

Pope Criticizes Cuban Crackdown

Pope John Paul II criticized a recent political crackdown in Cuba and appealed to President Fidel Castro for more lenient treatment of 75 dissidents sentenced to long prison terms. The pope made the plea in a letter on April 13 to the Cuban president. Vatican sources said Castro had not responded, and the letter was made public at the Vatican on April 26. The letter, written in the pope’s name by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state, said the pope wanted to express his “deep sadness” at the harsh sentences recently handed out to the dissidents, including the death penalty in a few cases. On April 11 Cuba executed three men who attempted to hijack a ferry to the United States. At the same time, Cuban prosecutors tried scores of dissidents in one-day trials and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from six to 28 years. The dissidents were engaged in such activities as running free libraries, an independent news service and an independent financial association and promoting other reforms.

SARS Forces Changes in Church Services

The Archdiocese of Toronto altered Holy Week services in response to the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome known as SARS. In addition, 500 members of a charismatic prayer group were quarantined after 31 members and two doctors who treated them were identified as probable or suspect cases. The archdiocese is suspending any sharing of consecrated wine and is requesting that the Eucharist be received in the hand and not on the tongue. It also suspended handshaking during the sign of peace, and requested that confession be heard outside the confessional box and that Catholics refrain from touching and kissing the crucifix during the veneration of the cross on Good Friday.

In Singapore, general absolution was used instead of individual confessions and absolution.

News Briefs

• The leaders of Iraq’s Christian churches have called for a new constitution that guarantees the equality of all Iraqi citizens and fully protects religious freedom.

• Eighty-four percent of Americans polled by Fox News/Opinion Dynamics believe that a double murder charge was appropriate in the case of Scott Peterson, who is accused of killing his wife, Laci, and their unborn child, Conner.

• Bishop Robert J. Carlson of Sioux Falls said he has encouraged U.S. Senator Thomas Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota, who is a Catholic, to reconsider his support for legal abortion, but that he “would never break off dialogue or a pastoral relationship” with him or anyone else. The bishop was responding to an article claiming that he sent the Senate minority leader a letter telling him to remove references to being Catholic in his congressional biography and campaign materials because of his public position on abortion.

• On April 24, Pope John Paul II’s pontificate became the fourth-longest in the church’s history, surpassed only by those of Leo XIII, Pius IX and St. Peter.

• Of the military’s 3,035 chaplains, only 367 are Catholic, though there are more than 1.5 million Catholics in the populations chaplains serve: members of the armed forces, military families, veterans’ medical centers and overseas federal agencies.

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