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Online Edition - July-August 2004
Vol. X, No. 5

A Jesuit reflects on Ecclesia de Eucharistia
Some Seldom-Heard Thoughts on a Priest Saying Mass

By James V. Schall, SJ

In his encyclical on the Eucharist, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (April 17, 2003), Pope John Paul II recalled his visit in 2000 to the Cencacle, where, by tradition, the Eucharist was first said in Jerusalem. "Every priest who celebrates Holy Mass, together with the Christian community which takes part in it, is led back in spirit to that place and that time". (EE 4) The Eucharist is not an abstraction.

A priest should say Mass each day. "It is 'important ... for the spiritual life of the priest, as well as for the good of the Church and the world, that priests follow the Council's (Vatican II) recommendation to celebrate the Eucharist daily: 'for even if the faithful are unable to be present, it is an act of Christ and the Church'". (Presbyterorum Ordinis 14, EE 31) A priest may con-celebrate Mass with other priests, though he need not: "An individual priest is, however, permitted to celebrate the Eucharist individually, though not at the same time as a con-celebration is taking place in the same church...." (US Bishops 2003 Guidelines for Con-celebration [USBGC] 4)

When a priest celebrates Mass, he should follow the rubrics and vestments indicated by the Church. "Priests may not con-celebrate in secular attire, in ordinary clerical garb, or by wearing the stole over the cassock". (USBGC 19) At Mass, a priest should normally wear an alb, a stole, and a chasuble. (USBGC 17) A priest should not suggest, by making up his own words or gesture, that he is the one in control of what the Mass is. He too is obedient to what is not his creation. A priest should not impose his personality, however splendid, as if that display is the primary thing occurring at Mass.

"Liturgy is never anyone's private property, be it of the celebrant or of the community in which the mysteries are celebrated.... Priests who faithfully celebrate Mass according to the liturgical norms, and communities which conform to those norms, quietly but eloquently demonstrate their love for the Church". (EE 52) This is the proper spirit motivating a priest at Mass.

Moreover, priests should not themselves simply "attend" Mass as if that substituted for saying their own Mass. "Priests should participate in the Eucharist, fulfilling their office according to their proper order, that is, by celebrating Mass rather than merely receiving communion as lay-persons". (USBGC 6) But there is no substitute for a properly ordained priest. "The assembly gathered together for the celebration of the Eucharist, if it is to be a truly Eucharistic assembly, absolutely requires the presence of an ordained priest.... The community is by itself incapable of providing an ordained minister". (EE 29) This is the way the Church understands Christ to have instituted and provided for the perpetuation of the Eucharist.

The Mass makes the community, not vice versa. It is the proper form of the worship of God. "The Mass makes present the sacrifice of the Cross; it does not add to that sacrifice nor does it multiply it. What is repeated is its memorial celebration ... which makes Christ's one, definitive redemptive sacrifice always present in time. The sacrificial nature of the Eucharistic mystery cannot therefore be understood as something separate, independent of the Cross or only indirectly referring to the sacrifice of Calvary". (EE 12) The Eucharist makes present the sacrifice of Calvary.

The Mass is not simply a "meal" as if no more profound reality were present within it. The pope warned: "Stripped of its sacrificial meaning, it is celebrated as if it were simply a fraternal banquet. Furthermore, the necessity of the ministerial priesthood, grounded in apostolic succession, is at times obscured and the sacramental nature of the Eucharist is reduced to its mere effectiveness as a form of proclamation". (EE 10)

Or to put these points positively, "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 signs conceals the unfathomable holiness of God". (EE 48) The "Banquet" reveals and makes present the Cross.

The Eucharist remains present outside of Mass. A parish or diocese that does not encourage this form of worship, with its relation to the Mass, is incomplete. "The worship of the Eucharist outside of the Mass is of inestimable value for the life of the Church.... Pastors [should] encourage, also by their personal witness, the practice of Eucharistic adoration, and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament (Benediction) in particular, as well as prayer of adoration before Christ present under the Eucharistic species". (EE 25)


James V. Schall, S. J., is Professor of Government at Georgetown University.
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