The Eucharist: A Mystery to be Celebrated

 Dr Antony Nariculam


 The second part of Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Exhortation “Sacramentum Caritatis” speaks about the celebratory dimension of the Eucharist. In 36 paragraphs (Nos. 34 – 69) the document deals with mainly five areas of Eucharistic celebration. They are the Art of Celebration, the Structure of the Eucharistic Celebration, the meaning of Active Participation, the need of Interior Participation and Adoration and Eucharistic Devotion. As an introduction to these themes we come across two key phrases in this document: Lex orandi lex credendi (Rule of prayer as rule of faith) and Ars celebrandi (Art of celebration). The Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist, held in Rome in 2005, on which this document is based, had discussed the relationship between the Eucharistic faith (Part One of this document) and the Eucharistic celebration (Part Two). This relationship is so natural since any liturgical celebration is intrinsically bound up with faith. This article aims at giving an overall picture of the Eucharist as enunciated in this papal exhortation.

1. Some General Observations

 Before we deal with the various aspects of the Eucharistic celebration, some general observations seem to be in place.

1.1  The document refers to the unitary understanding of the three sacraments of initiation, namely, Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist. In fact, Baptism and Confirmation are ordained to the Eucharist. As the document notes, though there are differences between the East and the West in the understanding and interpretation of these three sacraments, it remains true that for the completion of Christian initiation all three sacraments are necessary. The Eastern and Western variations in their interpretation, according to the Pope, are not of a ‘dogmatic’ nature, but only ‘pastoral’. However, the Pope seems to appreciate better the Eastern practice of giving them together.[1]

1.2   The term ‘Transubstantiation’ is not overemphasized unlike in many previous magisterial documents on the Eucharist. However, similar expressions are found in No.6 (substantial change), No.11 (substantial conversion of bread and wine) and Nos. 13,15 (Transubstantiation).

1.3  The relationship between the “Institution Narrative” and the “Epiclesis” is sufficiently clarified. This clarification is important as the “moment” of transformation of the bread and the wine into the Body and Blood of Christ is still being debated in many circles. Referring to the anaphora, the Pope notes: “Along with the words spoken by Christ at the Last Supper, it contains the epiclesis, the petition to the Father to send down the gift of the Spirit so that the bread and the wine will become the body and blood of Jesus Christ” (No.13).

1.4   In many respects the explanation of the Eucharistic celebration is based on the Western tradition, rather than the Eastern. The following may be pointed out as examples:

  • In order to make known to the people the ars celebrandi, it is important that they become familiar with the general Instructions of the Roman Missal (No.40).
  • There is need for a catechesis on the colour of the liturgical vestments (No.40).
  • The homily could be thematic based on the three-year-cycle of the lectionary (No.46).
  • The faithful need to be instructed about the real meaning of the dismissal formula (Ite Missa est) at the end of the Mass (No.51).
  • The Gregorian chant needs to be esteemed in the Latin tradition, and hence the seminarians should be trained in Latin language and the Gregorian chant (No.62).
  • The unity of the faithful within the ecclesial communion is explained relating the second Eucharistic Prayer of the Roman Missal to the invocation of the Holy Spirit (No.15).
  • There is need for a balanced and sound practice of Indulgence (No.21).
  • Priestly spirituality is referred to in relation to the words spoken by the Bishop during the ordination liturgy of the Latin rite (No.80).
  • In order to explain the presentation of the gifts, the document has used the prayers of the Roman Missal (No.92).

1.5    Despite Latin overtones, the document has not failed to mention some of the Eastern practices. They are:

  • The Eastern custom of conferring the three sacraments of initiation together (No.18).
  • Respect for the non-celibate priests found in some Eastern Churches (No.24).
  • The laudable devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary (No.96).

2. Rule of Prayer as Rule of Faith (Lex orandi lex credendi)


Lex orandi lex credendi is a widely accepted dictum in the liturgical tradition. This principle emphasizes the primacy of the liturgical action. There is an intrinsic relationship between faith and its authentic celebration in the liturgy. Therefore, any undue alteration of the liturgical formulae can have negative repercussions on the life of faith of the people. That is precisely the reason why the magisterium of the Church time and again reminds all concerned about not tampering with the liturgical texts.[2] Since the Eucharistic liturgy is an “action of God”, it cannot be subjected to changing trends in the society. As St. Paul says, ‘I have handed over to you what I have received from the Lord’ (1 Cor 11.23). Eucharistic liturgy is part of the Church’s living Tradition being commemorated uninterruptedly on the Lord’s Day (No.37). Therefore, the liturgical prayers as ‘expressions of faith’ should be respected.

3. The Art of Celebration (Ars Celebrandi)


Before dealing with the celebratory dimension of the Eucharist, the document speaks about “Beauty and the Liturgy”. Here the reference is to the ‘aesthetic beauty’ and not ‘aestheticism’. Any liturgical celebration has to be ‘beautiful’. The use of the term ‘beautiful’ is not to be understood simply as a harmony of proportion and form, as a mere decoration. It is the radiant expression of the paschal mystery. It is the truth of God’s love in Christ that encounters, attracts and delights us, enabling us to emerge from ourselves and drawing us towards our true vocation, which is love. The beauty of the liturgy is a glimpse of heaven on earth (No.35). The greatest beauty is when we become ‘one’ with Jesus himself in Holy Communion. It is in this sense that the liturgical action is beautiful.

The ‘art of celebration’ has to take note of two fundamental things. One is proper celebration itself. The other is the consequence of a proper celebration, namely a full, active and fruitful participation of the people in it. In other words, the ‘art of celebration’ is the best way to ensure ‘active participation’ (No.38).

3.1 There are a few elements to be taken care of in the ‘art of celebration’.

3.1.1 Faithful adherence to the liturgical norm

 In this regard the primary duty is that of the Bishops. Then come the priests and the deacons. Therefore, the Pope asks the diocesan Bishops to have ‘model celebration’ in the cathedral churches under their presidentship (No.39).

3.1.2 Fostering the sense of the sacred

One has to take care of a lot of things to foster this sense. The sacred vestments, the furnishings, the sacred space, the signs and symbols, the harmony of the rite, etc are conducive to realize this goal. In addition, the various ‘languages’ used in the liturgy, such as words, music, gestures, silence and movements are also helpful (No.41).

3.1.3 A correct understanding about the Church architecture

The symbolic meaning of the altar, the crucifix, the tabernacle, the ambo and the celebrant’s chair need to be properly understood. The same is valid also regarding paintings and statues. Hence the document suggests the need for training the seminarians and priests to understand and appreciate the Church’s treasury of the sacred art (No.41).

3.1.4        Liturgical Music

It is a patrimony of faith, and hence this heritage must be preserved. As far as liturgical hymns are concerned, it is not correct to say that one hymn is as good as another. Every hymn should be well integrated into the overall celebration. Therefore, its text, music and execution must correspond to the mystery being celebrated, the structure of the rite and the liturgical seasons (No.42).

4. The Structure of the Celebration


The document takes the various parts of the Roman Missal to explain the structure of the Eucharistic celebration. It is explained under seven titles.

4.1    The Liturgy of the Word and the Eucharistic liturgy

There is an intrinsic relationship between these two parts of the Eucharistic celebration. They are not juxtaposed. Indeed, the Word we proclaim is the ‘Word made flesh’ (Jn 1:14). St. Jerome said that ‘the ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ’. Therefore, proper care should be given in its proclamation. Well prepared readers should be appointed to read it. If needed, a short introduction may be given before each reading (Nos. 44-45).

4.2    The Homily


Homily is part of the liturgical action. It is a golden moment to help people to live their faith. Hence generic and abstract homilies are to be avoided. It should be based on the Word of God that touches the life of the community. In short, it should be such that it becomes a vital nourishment for the people (No.46).

4.3    The Presentation of the Gifts

The document speaks about the bread and wine brought for the celebration. Along with  the bread and the wine, we bring to the altar all creation that Christ may transform them and present them to the Father. Through them we bring also all the pain and suffering of the world to the altar.[3]

4.4    The Eucharistic Prayer (Anaphora)

It is the centre and summit of the entire celebration of the Eucharist. It has elements like Thanksgiving, Acclamations, Institution Narrative, Epiclesis, Anamnesis, Offering, Intercession and Doxology. Here the document clearly states the profound unity between the Institution Narrative and the Epiclesis (No.48).

4.5    The Sign of Peace

By its very nature, the Eucharist is a sacrament of peace. The sign of peace during the celebration denotes it. In today’s world, fraught with fear and conflict, this gesture has become particularly eloquent. However, it should be expressed in an appropriate manner without distracting the assembly (No.49).

4.6    The Distribution and Reception of Holy Communion


The rules governing the correct practice in distributing Holy Communion should be respected. The Pope refers to the recent documents in this regard.[4]  He also asks not to neglect the thanksgiving after Holy Communion. Though singing during and after Holy Communion may be good, a silent time for recollection should not be neglected.

In connection with Holy Communion, the document raises a pastoral problem encountered in the pilgrimage centres, and during the funeral or nuptial Masses when there could be the presence of non-Christians or Christians who are not in communion with Catholic faith. In such cases, there is need to find a brief and clear way to remind those present of the meaning of sacramental communion and the conditions required for its reception. In very difficult cases, the document even suggests not to celebrate the Eucharist, and confine the celebration to the liturgy of the Word alone (No.50).

4.7    The Dismissal ( Ite Missa Est)

The dismissal at the end of the Mass is not just sending the participants out after the celebration. It is actually in view of the mission entrusted to the Christians in this world. It succinctly expresses the missionary nature of the Church. The Pope feels that the present formula may not be adequate to express this idea sufficiently well. Therefore, he suggests providing new texts for the final blessing in order to make this idea clearer (No.51).

5Active Participation


The meaning of “active participation” is often misunderstood as the external activity of the participants. Pope Benedict XVI had already spoken about the incorrect understanding of it when he wrote that ‘participation’ is misunderstood to mean “something external, entailing a need for general activity, as if as many people, as often possible, should be visibly engaged in action”.[5] The real “actio”, the Pope continues, “is the action of God himself. This is what is new and distinctive about the Christian liturgy: God himself acts and does what is essential”.[6] According to Vatican II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, active participation means “conscious, devout and fruitful” participation (SC 14).

5.1    For a meaningful participation in the Eucharist, the Pope suggests the following:

  • The specific roles of the various participants like the priest, deacon, lay people, etc are to be respected (No.53)
  • Adapting the celebration to the culture of the place ( The process of inculturation) is a must. Certain abuses that crept into the liturgy in the name of inculturation should not deter us from continuing this process. Incarnation of Christ is the basis of inculturation. In order to avoid possible abuses, the norms laid down by various magisterial documents in this regard must be respected.[7]
  • The interior preparation of the participants is a prerequisite for active participation. This preparation consists in conversion, recollection, silence, sacramental confession in view of receiving Holy Communion, etc (No.55). (However, there could be cases where individuals are not able to receive Holy Communion under the Eucharistic species. In such cases, they need not be discouraged from attending the holy Mass because, as the document observes, their ‘participation at Mass remains necessary, important, meaningful and fruitful’.  For such individuals it is beneficial ‘to cultivate a desire for full union with Christ through the practice of spiritual communion’).[8]

5.2    While provisions are made for active participation, the following categories of people must be given due attention.

  • Special care should be given to the elderly and the sick, and the physically and mentally disabled (No.58).
  • Necessary steps should be taken for the participation of the prisoners (No.59).
  • Another category that requires special attention is the migrants. The Eastern Rite migrants are to be given facilities to participate in the liturgy according to their own ecclesial tradition (No.60).
  • At times it may be useful to celebrate the Eucharist for small groups. But, such celebrations should not give the impression that these groups are parallel to the local Church. These must be occasions to unify the community, and not to fragment it (No.63).
  • It is praiseworthy that the elderly and the sick are given opportunity to participate in the Eucharistic celebration transmitted through radio/television. But it should be remembered that in normal circumstances, it is not sufficient to fulfil the Sunday obligation (No.57).

5.3   The ecumenical aspect of the Eucharistic celebration should be properly understood. Holy Communion should not be taken as a “means” to attain ecumenical communion. Rather, it should be the final fruit of ecumenical dialogue because communion is not merely a personal communion with Jesus. It has to be extended to the Church too (No.56).


6.  Interior Participation


Interior participation is absolutely necessary for active participation, and hence the Pope suggests the following for the same. First and foremost is the mystagogical catechesis in order to enable the people to offer themselves to God in unity with the sacrifice of Christ. For this they need a systematic understanding of the content of faith. Only then can they participate in the Eucharistic celebration in a meaningful and fruitful manner.

A proper mystagogical catechesis means at least three things:

  • The rites are interpreted in the light of the events of Salvation History.
  • The meaning of the signs and the symbols are explained.
  • The significance of the celebration for Christian life is explained, that is with lex orandi and lex credendilex vivendi too is given adequate importance (No.64).

Along with these, people need to be taught about the ‘external reverence’ required of them during the celebration. The gestures and postures are part of it. The best catechesis is perhaps a good celebration itself. In this Eucharistic catechesis, the document seems to be particularly concerned about the usefulness of ‘kneeling’ during the anaphoral prayers. Though it is not obligatory, as different liturgical traditions have varying practices in this regard, Pope Benedict XVI seems to be in favour of this practice (No.65).

7. Adoration and the Eucharistic Devotion


The last section of Part Two of Sacramentum Caritatis is on the Eucharistic devotion. The first observation of the document in this regard is that there is an intrinsic relationship between the celebration of the Mass and adoration (No.66).

After Vatican II, there were objections from some quarters against Eucharistic adoration. The objection raised was: Is not the Eucharist “to be consumed”, and not “to be looked at”? According to the document, this question is based on a misunderstanding. In fact, this distinction is a false dichotomy. In order to justify adoration, the document quotes St. Augustine’: ‘No one eats that flesh without adoring it; we should sin were we not to adore it’.[9]The document further notes that the Eucharistic adoration is simply “the natural consequence of the Eucharistic celebration” (No.66). It prolongs and intensifies it.

7.1  The Pope suggests the following practical steps in order to foster Eucharistic adoration:

  • Adoration should be continued both individually and in community.[10]
  • It is recommended the chapels should be established for perpetual adoration in densely populated areas (No.67)
  • Children getting ready for First Holy Communion should be helped to grow in Eucharistic devotion (No.67).
  • The religious, lay associations and confraternities who spend time in adoration are to be appreciated and encouraged (No.68).
  • Eucharistic procession, especially on Corpus Christi, 40 Hour Adoration and local/national/international Eucharistic Congresses are to be encouraged (No.68).

7.2    In order to emphasize the prime importance of the Eucharistic presence in the house of God, the Pope makes some observations regarding the location of the tabernacle. They may be summarized as follows (No.69):

  • It is advisable to have a chapel of the Blessed Sacrament.
  • If there is no Blessed Sacrament chapel, it is appropriate to continue to keep the tabernacle at the high altar.
  • In the newly built churches, it is good to position the Blessed Sacrament chapel close to the sanctuary. If that is not possible, it is preferable to locate the tabernacle in the sanctuary, in a sufficiently elevated place, at the centre of the apse area, or in another place where it will be equally conspicuous.
  • Where be the tabernacle, it should be readily visible to anybody who enters the church.
  • There should be a sanctuary lamp.
  • The chair of the celebrant should not be placed in front of the tabernacle.


As we have mentioned at the beginning of this article, the two key phrases of this Apostolic Exhortation are “Lex orandi lex credendi” and “Ars celebrandi”. The underlying concern of Pope Benedict XVI seems to be, as in the case of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, a prevalent lack of reverence due to the Eucharistic celebration. The externals of celebration, the requirements of liturgical reform and the steps for active participation should not be at the expense of the sense of the sacred and the need for a fruitful participation.



[1] Sacramentum Caritatis, Nos. 17 -18

[2] Redemptionis Sacramentum 4; Ecclesia de Eucharistia 52, Sacrosanctum Concilium 22

[3] No.47; Redemptionis Sacramentum 70

[4] Redemptionis Sacramentum 80-96

[5] The Spirit of the Liturgy, San Francisco 2000, p.171

[6] The Spirit of the Liturgy, p.173

[7] These norms are contained in the General Instructions of the Roma Missal, the 4th Instruction of the Congregation for the Divine Worship, Varietatis legitimae (1994), Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortations Ecclesia in Africa, Ecclesia in America, Ecclesia in Asia, Ecclesia in Oceania and Ecclesia in Europa

[8] No.55; Ecclesia de Eucharistia 34.

[9] Enarrationes in Psalmos 98:9, CCL XXXIX, 1385

[10] No.67; Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy (2001), Nos.165-165; Instruction Eucharisticum Mysticum (1967).

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