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The Eucharist Is the Source of the Church's Life

General Audience — April 8, 1992

According to the Second Vatican Council the truth of the Church as a priestly community is realized through the sacraments; it comes to fulfillment in the Eucharist. Indeed, we read in Lumen Gentium that the faithful, "Taking part in the Eucharistic sacrifice, which is the fount and apex of the whole Christian life...offer the divine victim to God, and offer themselves along with it" (LG 11).

The Eucharist is the source of the Christian life because whoever shares in it receives the motivation and strength to live as a true Christian. Christ's sacrifice on the cross imparts to the believer the dynamism of his generous love. The Eucharistic banquet nourishes the faithful with the Body and Blood of the divine Lamb sacrificed for us and it gives them the strength to "follow in his footsteps" (cf. 1 Pet 2:21).

The Eucharist is the summit of the whole Christian life because the faithful bring to it all their prayers and good works, their joys and sufferings. These modest offerings are united to the perfect sacrifice of Christ. Thus they are completely sanctified and lifted up to God in an act of perfect worship which brings the faithful into the divine intimacy (cf. Jn 6:56-57). Therefore, as St. Thomas Aquinas writes, the Eucharist is "the culmination of the spiritual life and the goal of all the sacraments" (Summa Theol., III, q. 66, a. 6).

The Angelic Doctor also notes that the "effect of this sacrament is the unity of the mystical body [the Church], without which there can be no salvation. Therefore it is necessary to receive the Eucharist, at least by desire (in voto), in order to be saved" (III, q. 73, a. 1, ad 2). These words echo everything Jesus himself said about the necessity of the Eucharist for the Christian life: "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day" (Jn 6:53-54).

According to these words of Jesus, the Eucharist is a pledge of the resurrection to come, but it is already a source of eternal life in time. Jesus does not say "will have eternal life," but "has eternal life." Through the food of the Eucharist, Christ's eternal life penetrates and flows within human life.

The Eucharist requires the participation of the Church's members. According to the Council, "Both by reason of the offering and through Holy Communion all take part in this liturgical service, not indeed, all in the same way but each in that way which is proper to himself" (LG 11).

Participation is common to the entire "priestly people," who have been allowed to unite themselves to the offering and the Communion. But this participation differs according to the condition of the Church's members, in accord with the sacramental institution. There is a specific role for the priestly ministry. However, it does not eliminate, but rather promotes the role of the common priesthood. It is a specific role willed by Christ when he charged his apostles with celebrating the Eucharist in his memory, by instituting for this function the sacrament of Holy Orders, conferred on bishops and priests (and on deacons as ministers of the altar).

The purpose of the priestly ministry is to gather the people of God: "All belonging to this people, since they have been sanctified by the Holy Spirit, can offer themselves as 'a sacrifice, living, holy, pleasing to God' (Rom 12:1)" (PO 2).

If, as I have mentioned in the preceding catecheses, the common priesthood is meant to offer spiritual sacrifices, the faithful can make this offering because they are "sanctified by the Holy Spirit." The Holy Spirit, who animated Christ's sacrifice on the cross (cf. Heb 9:14), will give life to the offering of the faithful.

According to the Council, because of the priestly ministry spiritual sacrifices can achieve their goal. "Through the ministry of the priests, the spiritual sacrifice of the faithful is made perfect in union with the sacrifice of Christ. He is the only mediator who in the name of the whole Church is offered sacramentally in the Eucharist and in an unbloody manner until the Lord himself comes" (PO 2).

In virtue of Baptism and Confirmation, as we stated in the preceding catecheses, the Christian is qualified to participate "as if ex officio" in divine worship, which has its center and culmination in the sacrifice of Christ made present in the Eucharist. But the Eucharistic offering entails the involvement of an ordained minister. The offering is fulfilled in the act of consecration carried out by the priest in Christ's name.

In this way the priestly ministry contributes to the full expression of the universal priesthood. As the Council states, citing St. Augustine, the ministry of priests tends to this, that "The entire commonwealth of the redeemed and the society of the saints be offered to God through the High Priest who offered himself also for us in his passion that we might be the body of so great a head [1] " (PO 2).

After the sacrifice has taken place, the Eucharistic communion which follows is meant to provide the faithful with the spiritual force necessary for the full development of the "priesthood," and especially for offering all the sacrifices of their everyday life. We read in the Decree Presbyterorum Ordinis: "Priests must instruct their people 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" (PO 5).

It can be said that according to Jesus' intention in formulating the new commandment of love at the Last Supper, Eucharistic communion enables those who receive it to put it into practice: "Love one another as I have loved you" (Jn 13:34; 15:12).

Participating in the Eucharistic banquet testifies to their unity, as the Council points out in writing that the faithful, "Strengthened in Holy Communion by the Body of Christ...then manifest in a concrete way that unity of the People of God which is suitably signified and wondrously brought about by this most august sacrament" (LG 11).

This is the truth which the Church's faith inherited from St. Paul, who wrote: "The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because the loaf of bread is one, we though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf" (1 Cor 10:16-17). For this reason St. Thomas saw the Eucharist as the sacrament of the Mystical Body's unity [2] . We conclude this ecclesiological-Eucharistic catechesis by emphasizing that, if Eucharistic communion is the efficacious sign of unity, it then gives the faithful a continually new impulse to mutual love and reconciliation, and the sacramental strength necessary for preserving good understanding in family and ecclesial relationships.

[1]   De Civitate Dei, 10, 6: PL 41, 284

[2]   Summa Theol., III, q. 72, a. 3