Second Vatican Council and the Holy Eucharist
From the opening paragraphs of the Second Vatican Council, one discovers a renewed emphasis upon the Holy Eucharist as the central focus in the Church's prayer life. In fact this Eucharistic foundation first comes to light in the following excerpt from the tenth paragraph of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy:
From the liturgy, therefore, and especially from the Eucharist, as from a fountain, grace is channeled into us; and the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God, to which all other activities of the Church are directed as toward their goal, are most powerfully achieved.
Within this statement, one clearly sees the intention of the Conciliar Fathers to recognize the Eucharist as the center of the Church's devotional life. Within the liturgy, Eucharistic devotion is encouraged among the faithful as the fountain from which grace is drawn, and the end towards which all other acts of Catholic devotion are directed. In short, as Catholics we derive our spiritual strength principally from the Eucharist. Moreover, our purpose in fulfilling all other devotions is to draw closer to Christ's Real Presence in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist.
In fact, this Eucharistic theme will constantly re-surface within the Second Vatican Council's other documents, as witnessed from the following excerpt of the Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium:
"Each must share frequently in the sacraments, the Eucharist especially, and in liturgical rites. Each must apply himself constantly to prayer, self-denial, active brotherly service, and the exercise of all virtues. For charity, as the bond of perfection and the fulfillment of the law (cf. Col. 3:14; Rom. 13:10), rules over all the means of attaining holiness, gives life to them, and makes them work." [paragraph 42]
As one can read from the above, the Second Vatican Council exhorts all Catholics to partake of the sacraments frequently, particularly the Eucharist which has previously been recognized in Sacrosanctum Concilium as the source and the summit of the spiritual life. In so doing we as individual Catholics perfect the virtue of Charity, which we know from St. Paul to be the most important virtue, the virtue without which all our other acts of piety are meaningless. Charity is perfected through the reception of the Eucharist and the other sacraments in a worthy manner, and through this same action we grow in holiness.
Why are the sacraments, and especially the Eucharist, so intrinsic to the cultivation of Christian Charity? The answer to this question lay in the fact Charity unites men with God, as well as with one another. In such a role, Charity is the fruit of unity with God and with other believers. As the sacrament of communion, the Holy Eucharist is by that very fact the sacrament of unity. Thus the Second Vatican Council's Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, rightly expresses the correlation between the unity of the Church with God and the Eucharist in the following manner:
Before offering Himself up as a spotless victim upon the altar of the cross, He prayed to His Father for those who believe: "That all may be one even as thou, Father, in me, and I in thee; that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that thou hast sent me" (Jn. 17:21). In His Church He instituted the wonderful sacrament of the Eucharist by which the unity of the Church is both signified and brought about. [paragraph 2]
What is of interest to note in the above is the Council's teaching the Eucharist is the sacrament through which the unity of the Church is both signified, and brought about. This simply means the Eucharist is the sign of unity within the Church, or in other words the Eucharist represents the unity of Catholic believers both with God and with each other. However, the Eucharist also brings about this unity which is represented, gathering the faithful into one Body the Church and uniting us with God the Father through the reception of Christ's Body and Blood. As such, the Eucharist is a foretaste of what awaits the believer in Heaven, when united with other believers he will behold God face-to-face.
This last point is also reiterated by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council, as one reads in the 38th paragraph of the Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church, Gaudium et Spes:
The Lord left behind a pledge of this hope and strength for life's journey in that sacrament of faith where natural elements refined by man are changed into His glorified Body and Blood, providing a meal of brotherly solidarity and a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.
And thus another facet of the Holy Eucharist is brought to light by the Second Vatican Council, that of fortification in faith and hope of things to come in the eternal. If I may borrow an expression from the noted Biblical scholar and convert, Dr. Scott Hahn, what we discern from this excerpt of Gaudium et Spes is the Eucharist's connection with covenant theology. For in granting us communion during this lifetime, Christ's Body and Blood is freely pledged within the Catholic covenant as the foreshadowing of the heavenly banquet awaiting us in the life to come.
This divine pledge of Our Lord's Body and Blood, the Second Vatican Council assures us, is so important in uniting the Church that all her other actions are directed towards it. As Presbyterorum Ordinis, the Second Vatican Council's Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, explains:
No Christian community, however, can be built up unless it has its basis and center in the celebration of the most Holy Eucharist. Here, therefore, all education in the spirit of community must originate. If this celebration is to be sincere and thorough, it must lead to various works of charity and mutual help, as well as to missionary activity and to different forms of Christian witness. [article 6]
To reiterate a theme which has become consistent throughout the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, the Eucharist is the center of the Church. As we learn from the Council fathers, not only is the Eucharist central in devotional matters, but in catechetical and educational matters as well. The various other actions of the Church, including corporal works of mercy and missionary apostolate, derive their spiritual foundation from the Holy Eucharist. These latter works, the Council assures us, are the fruits of a sincere Eucharistic faith.
Along these lines, Presbyterorum Ordinis continues by offering us the following insight into the relationship between the Eucharist and all other Catholic action:
The other sacraments, as well as every ministry of the Church and every work of the apostolate, are linked with the holy Eucharist and are directed toward it. For the most blessed Eucharist contains the Church's entire spiritual wealth, that is, Christ Himself, our Passover and living bread. Through His Very flesh, made vital and vitalizing by the Holy Spirit, He offers life to men. They are thereby invited and led to offer themselves, their labors, and all created things together with him. [PO 5]
Basically, one reads in the above a restatement of Sacrosanctum Concilium's radical invitation to make of the Eucharist the source and the summit of our spiritual lives as Catholics. Every work of the apostolate, as well as all other sacraments, are intrinsically linked to the Holy Eucharist, the spiritual end towards which they are directed. All of Catholic action recommended to us from Holy Scripture and Tradition is contained in the Holy Eucharist, which is the very Body and Blood of Our Lord present within our midst today, and without which there can be no life in the spiritual sense. Thus the Council fathers cannot but conclude as follows:
Hence the Eucharist shows itself to be the source and the apex of the whole work of preaching the gospel. Those under instruction are introduced by stages to a sharing in the Eucharist. The faithful, already marked with the sacred seal of baptism and confirmation, are through the reception of the Eucharist fully joined to the Body of Christ. [PO 5]
Repetition is the key to learning, and thus the repetition of Sacrosanctum Concilium's language of "source and summit" with regards to the Eucharist is not intended to be redundant. Rather, the Second Vatican Council seeks to emphasize just how central the Eucharist is to our faith as Catholics. In the above quotation, the Church emphasizes that even the preaching of the Gospel, or evangelization, must find its source and summit in the Holy Eucharist. After all, who is the Gospel but Jesus Christ? Therefore, in preaching the Gospel the Church preaches Jesus Christ.
Yet Jesus Christ, as the Church has always maintained, is really and truly present in the Most Holy Eucharist. Therefore, in preaching the Gospel the Church must, by necessity, preach the Eucharist. Moreover, as Presbyterorum Ordinis goes on to state in the following excerpt, in carrying out any action as Catholics we recall the Eucharist as the end towards which such action is directed:
Thus the Eucharistic Action is the very heartbeat of the congregation of the faithful over which the priest presides. So priests must instruct them to offer to God the Father the divine Victim in the sacrifice of the Mass, and to join to it the offering of their own lives. [paragraph 5]
Moreover, through the ministry of the priesthood the Eucharist extends throughout the entire prayer of the Church, as noted in the following paragraph of Presbyterorum Ordinis:
Priests themselves extend to the different hours of the day the praise and thanksgiving of the Eucharistic celebration by reciting the Divine Office. Through it they pray to God in the name of the Church on behalf of the whole people entrusted to them and indeed for the whole world. [paragraph 5]
Thus what one reads in the above excerpt of the Second Vatican Council is a theology of the Eucharist which extends to the Divine Office. This is no small extension as the Divine Office is the Church's public prayer, and thus we return to Sacrosanctum Concilium's affirmation the Eucharist is both the source and summit of the Church's spiritual life. What therefore follows is that our churches, as houses of prayer, must center around the Eucharist. This too is reiterated by Presbyterorum Ordinis in the following manner:
In the house of prayer the most Holy Eucharist is celebrated and preserved. There the faithful gather, and find help and comfort through venerating the presence of the Son of God our Savior, offered us on the sacrificial altar. This house must be well kept and suitable for prayer and sacred action. There, priests and the faithful are called to respond with grateful hearts to the gift of Him who through His humanity constantly pours divine life into the members of His Body. [paragraph 5]
In light of all the above citations from the Second Vatican Council, one sees that the Council's intention was to center the Church around the Eucharist. Nevertheless, certain individuals raise the objection that the above teaching from the Second Vatican Council applies exclusively within the context of the liturgy, and therefore all acts of Eucharistic devotion must be fulfilled within the Mass. Yet as we will see, such an interpretation is contrary to the intentions of the Second Vatican Council, for the Council does not seek to restrict Eucharistic adoration to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Rather, the Council openly encourages private and popular devotion, as clearly outlined in the twelfth and thirteenth paragraphs of Sacrosanctum Concilium:
The spiritual life, however, is not limited solely to participation in the liturgy. The Christian is indeed called to pray with his brethren, but he must also enter into his chamber to pray to the Father in secret; yet more, according to the teaching of the Apostle, he should pray without ceasing. [ ] Popular devotions of the Christian people are to be highly commended, provided they accord with the laws and norms of the Church, above all when they are ordered by the Apostolic See.
While not directly addressing the issue of Eucharistic devotion, one can nevertheless discern within this excerpt of the Second Vatican Council the mind of the Conciliar Fathers. In essence, our duty as Catholics to pray involves more than simply our Sunday obligation. The Conciliar Fathers encourage private and personal prayer through which the faithful deepen their relationship with Christ, and such prayer involves popular devotion. Of course acts of popular devotion must be approved by the Church, however, those forms of popular devotion ordered by the Apostolic See are to be particularly encouraged. This last point is quite important to keep in mind when defending Eucharistic devotion outside of the Mass within the post Second Vatican Council era. For if one accepts the Papal teachings of Paul VI and John Paul II as authoritative in interpreting the Council, one must accept that the perpetuation of Eucharistic devotion outside of Mass is entirely founded in the renewal intended by the Second Vatican Council. One cannot, therefore, legitimately discourage Eucharist devotion on the basis of the Second Vatican Council's teachings; for the documents themselves are clear, the Eucharist is source and summit of our spiritual life as Catholics.
And it is in such a light, as we read in Ad Gentes, the Second Vatican Council's Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church, that priests consecrate themselves to the service of the Holy Eucharist. For through the Eucharist all priests lead the faithful in joining themselves with the Church's missionary zeal:
"Priests represent Christ, and are collaborators with the order of bishops in that threefold sacred task which by its very nature bears on the mission of the Church. Therefore, they should fully understand that their life has also been consecrated to the service of the missions. By means of their own ministry, which deals principally with the Eucharist as the source of perfecting the Church, they are in communion with Christ the Head and are leading others to this communion. Hence they cannot help realizing how much is yet wanting to the fullness of that Body, and how much therefore must be done if it is to grow from day to day." [paragraph 39]
This paragraph beautifully summarizes the Eucharistic foundation of the Second Vatican Council, relating this Most Holy Sacrament to the Church's three-fold mission of proclaiming the Gospel, sanctifying the faithful, and governing the order and the discipline of the Church. For through the Eucharist the ministry of the priesthood through which we are sanctified, the hierarchy of the Church through which we are governed, and the missionary action of the Church through which the Gospel is preached, are brought together in order to perfect the Church. In short, the Second Vatican Council summarizes the effects of the Holy Eucharist as the source and summit of the Catholic spiritual life. In such a light, the Church's missionary zeal is nothing more than an attempt to bring the non-Catholic into the Catholic Church, so that they may share in this Eucharist faith and draw strength from Our Lord's Real Presence.
Copyright © 2001 by Peter Vere. All Rights reserved.
Used with permission.
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