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Pope St. John Paul II… The Church’s Teaching On The Worthy Reception Of Holy Communion Can Never Change

February 16, 2018 Frontpage No Comments

By JAMES MONTI

Those of you who read my preceding Restoring the Sacred essay of two weeks ago may recall that repeatedly I cited Marian passages from a 2003 encyclical of Pope St. John Paul II entitled Ecclesia de Eucharistia. Frankly I must admit that prior to the preparation of my last essay I was not previously familiar with this amazing text, penned by Pope John Paul toward the twilight of his pontificate. Perusing this text has proven to be a journey of spiritual discovery for me, and I return to it now to share with you the insights it offers regarding the fitting celebration of the sacred liturgy and the “hot button” topic of the worthy reception of Holy Communion.
Ecclesia de Eucharistia proved to be Pope John Paul II’s final encyclical, written just two years before his death. Despite the fact that His Holiness was already beset by physical infirmity, the text bristles with that same apostolic intensity that marked his reaffirmations of Catholic doctrine throughout his pontificate.
Whenever my research brings me back to the corpus of Pope John Paul’s pronouncements, I am struck time and again by the clarity and unflinching rigor with which he refutes the theological errors of our time, a very manly determination to protect the vast flock entrusted to him. With a prophetic vision he understood that the old errors of the 1960s and 1970s remained a “clear and present danger” for the Church that could easily regain lost ground.
Before turning to Pope John Paul’s exposition in Ecclesia de Eucharistia on the fitting celebration of the sacred liturgy, I want to begin by citing what the Pontiff has to say in this encyclical about the worthy reception of Holy Communion, because I think it implicitly settles once and for all the question as to whether the Church can ever mitigate her immemorial precept in this regard.
Expressing his concern that the Church’s celebration of the Holy Eucharist was facing “shadows” from certain quarters, Pope John Paul observes, “How can we not express profound grief at all this? The Eucharist is too great a gift to tolerate ambiguity and depreciation. It is my hope that the present Encyclical Letter will effectively help to banish the dark clouds of unacceptable doctrine and practice, so that the Eucharist will continue to shine forth in all its radiant mystery” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, April 17, 2003, n. 10, Vatican website translation — ©Libreria Editrice Vaticana).
After establishing the premise in chapter three that the Church celebrates the Holy Eucharist “in conformity with the faith of the Apostles” such that “This faith remains unchanged and it is essential for the Church that it remain unchanged” (ibid., n. 27), Pope John Paul turns to the Holy Communion issue in chapter four, “The Eucharist and Ecclesial Communion,” beginning by citing the well-known passage from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians that a man must examine himself as to whether he is worthy before receiving Holy Communion (1 Cor. 11:28), but adding to this the patristic teaching of St. John Chrysostom:
“Now therefore, even from this time, with a clear voice I denounce, adjure, entreat and implore, lest we approach this sacred table with any stain, or with an evil conscience, for this approach cannot be called Communion, not even were we to touch that holy Body a thousand times, but condemnation, punishment and an increase of pains” (Homilies on Isaiah, homily 6, n. 3, Patrologia Graeca, volume 56, column 139).
The Pontiff then immediately follows this with his own formulation of this teaching, building upon the words of both the Council of Trent and the Catechism of the Catholic Church in this regard:
“Along these same lines, the Catechism of the Catholic Church rightly stipulates that ‘anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion.’ I therefore desire to reaffirm that in the Church there remains in force, now and in the future, the rule by which the Council of Trent gave concrete expression to the Apostle Paul’s stern warning when it affirmed that, in order to receive the Eucharist in a worthy manner, ‘one must first confess one’s sins, when one is aware of mortal sin’” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 36).
The all-important wording in the above passage is the phrase “now and in the future.” By stating that the rule of worthy Communion is to remain in force not only for “now” but also “in the future,” Pope John Paul is essentially declaring that this precept is an immutable teaching that neither he at some later time nor any Successor of his could ever abrogate. When added to the mass of other testimony from across the ages that this is an irreformable doctrine of the Church, these words of Pope John Paul should serve as a reassurance that we need not fear to wake up one morning only to hear on the news that this teaching has suddenly been abolished, or that this has already happened. It can’t be abolished, no matter what.
His Holiness Pope Francis acknowledged that he can’t change irreformable doctrines when in answer to a question regarding women’s Ordination he replied that Pope John Paul’s definitive declaration on this issue made any change in this regard impossible.
We turn now to what Ecclesia de Eucharistia has to say regarding the fitting celebration of the sacred liturgy. Citing the examples of Christ defending Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus in her lavishing costly ointment to anoint Him and His instruction to the apostles that they were to prepare with care the Upper Room for the Last Supper, Pope John Paul sees in these events biblical precedents for the Church’s tradition of celebrating the Holy Eucharist with ceremonial splendor and beauty:
“Like the woman who anointed Jesus in Bethany, the Church has feared no ‘extravagance,’ devoting the best of her resources to expressing her wonder and adoration before the unsurpassable gift of the Eucharist. No less than the first disciples charged with preparing the ‘large upper room,’ she has felt the need, down the centuries and in her encounters with different cultures, to celebrate the Eucharist in a setting worthy of so great a mystery.
“In the wake of Jesus’ own words and actions, and building upon the ritual heritage of Judaism, the Christian liturgy was born. Could there ever be an adequate means of expressing the acceptance of that self-gift which the divine Bridegroom continually makes to his Bride, the Church, by bringing the Sacrifice offered once and for all on the Cross to successive generations of believers and thus becoming nourishment for all the faithful?
“Though the idea of a ‘banquet’ naturally suggests familiarity, the Church has never yielded to the temptation to trivialize this ‘intimacy’ with her Spouse by forgetting that he is also her Lord and that the ‘banquet’ always remains a sacrificial banquet marked by the blood shed on Golgotha. The Eucharistic Banquet is truly a ‘sacred’ banquet, in which the simplicity of the signs conceals the unfathomable holiness of God. . . .
“With this heightened sense of mystery, we understand how the faith of the Church in the mystery of the Eucharist has found historical expression not only in the demand for an interior disposition of devotion, but also in outward forms meant to evoke and emphasize the grandeur of the event being celebrated. This led progressively to the development of a particular form of regulating the Eucharistic liturgy, with due respect for the various legitimately constituted ecclesial traditions” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, nn. 48-49).
Pope John Paul goes on to cite the huge patrimony of great architecture, art, and music that has arisen over the centuries to lend “grandeur” to the celebration of the Church’s sacred rites.
Parenthetically we would note here that Pope Benedict XVI revisited this same subject nine years later when in a June 2012 Corpus Christi homily he too defended the Church’s practice of surrounding the Holy Eucharist with sacred ceremony, observing that Christ “did not abolish the sacred but brought it to fulfillment, inaugurating a new form of worship, which is indeed fully spiritual but which, however, as long as we are journeying in time, still makes use of signs and rites. . . . Thanks to Christ, the sacred is truer, more intense and, as happens with the Commandments, also more demanding!” (Homily, Holy Mass for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, June 7, 2012, Vatican website translation — ©Libreria Editrice Vaticana).

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Having explained why the Church has developed a richly ceremonial liturgy for the Holy Eucharist, Pope John Paul calls for an end to “a number of abuses which have been a source of suffering for many,” abuses perpetrated by those who “consider the ‘forms’ chosen by the Church’s great liturgical tradition and her Magisterium as non-binding” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 52).
The norms that govern the celebration of the Holy Eucharist are, he affirms, a “concrete expression” of the “authentically ecclesial nature” of this sacrament, and therefore must be faithfully observed, for “Liturgy is never anyone’s private property” (ibid.).
The encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia contains many other valuable reaffirmations of the Church’s teachings, including the great insight that the sacrificial character of the Mass is directly referenced in the very words of consecration, for as Pope John Paul explains, our Lord “did not merely say: ‘This is my body,’ ‘this is my blood,’ but went on to add: ‘which is given for you,’ ‘which is poured out for you’ (Luke 22:19-20)” (ibid., n. 12).
Pope St. John Paul II has left us such a vast legacy of written and spoken words that I think we will all be continuing to learn from him for many years to come.

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