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The Meaning and Purpose
of the Year of the Eucharist

By Carl E. Olson

On June 13, the feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, or Corpus Christi, John Paul II declared the international "Year of the Eucharist" from October 2004 to October 2005. The year will begin with the International Eucharistic Congress, held in October in Guadalajara, Mexico, and conclude in October 2005 with the Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Rome addressing the Eucharist in the life of the church.

Greater Holiness and Increased Evangelization

So why did the Holy Father declare "The Year of the Eucharist" at this time and what does he hope it will accomplish?

Part of the answer to these questions can be found in his message on Corpus Christi, which referred back to his Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, issued at the close of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000.

In that apostolic letter he wrote, "I therefore wish to insist that sharing in the Eucharist should really be the heart of Sunday for every baptized person." To that end, in his Corpus Christi message, the Holy Father explained that the "Year of the Eucharist" fits into "the context of the pastoral project that I pointed out in the Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, in which I invited the faithful to ‘start afresh from Christ’. By contemplating with greater perseverance the Face of the Incarnate Word, truly present in the Sacrament, they will train themselves in the art of prayer and undertake that high standard of Christian living, an indispensable condition for effectively developing the new evangelization."

The "Year of the Eucharist" is meant to be a time of conversion and inner renewal. There will, of course, be a special focus on the Person of Jesus Christ as He is uniquely and truly present in the Blessed Sacrament. It will be time marked by growth in prayer, especially before the Blessed Sacrament, as the Pope indicates in his most recent encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia ("On the Eucharist in Its Relationship to the Church") where he states, in a beautiful passage:

"It is pleasant to spend time with him, to lie close to his breast like the Beloved Disciple (cf. Jn 13:25) and to feel the infinite love present in his heart. If in our time Christians must be distinguished above all by the ‘art of prayer,’ how can we not feel a renewed need to spend time in spiritual converse, in silent adoration, in heartfelt love before Christ present in the Most Holy Sacrament?"

These inward activities of conversion, prayer, worship, and devotion are meant to manifest in greater holiness and increased evangelization. These two themes appear often in the documents of the Second Vatican Council; both are constants in the writings and teachings of John Paul II. His vision follows a clear and consistent logic: by focusing on the Eucharist, "the center of the Church’s life," Catholics become more like Christ. In turn, they embrace the mission of Christ and they work to evangelize the world. And, as the Holy Father explains in "Eucharist and Mission," there cannot be effective evangelization unless there are "apostles who are ‘experts’ in the celebration, adoration and contemplation of the Eucharist."

Banishing the "dark clouds of unacceptable doctrine and practice"

In Ecclesia de Eucharistia, the Holy Father laments a number of "shadows" that have fallen over the understanding of some Catholics of the Eucharist and the celebration of the Eucharistic liturgy.

He notes that in many places Eucharistic adoration has "been almost completely abandoned," a fact that causes him obvious and deep grief. There are liturgical and catechetical abuses, which cause confusion and even doubt. The sacrificial meaning of the Eucharist is often ignored or devalued and there results an unbalanced emphasis on the Eucharist as "simply a fraternal banquet." Not surprisingly, the ministerial priesthood is also undermined and false forms of ecumenism are practiced, such as offering the Eucharist to non-Catholics in situations that are not extraordinary.

Today some fifty percent of Catholics do not regularly attend Mass on Sunday. Although there has been some dispute about the actual numbers and percentages, it is widely acknowledged that a correct belief about the Eucharist among Catholics, especially the Real Presence, has been in serious decline for many years. Closely related is a general lack of proper reverence and devotion, reflecting confusion about Church teaching regarding the Blessed Sacrament and, in some cases, overt dissent from that teaching.

Seeking to right these wrongs, Ecclesia de Eucharistia begins by emphasizing one of the most famous phrases penned at the Second Vatican Council: the description of the Eucharistic sacrifice as "the source and summit of the Christian life" (Lumen Gentium, 11). Ecclesia de Eucharistia places a purposeful, even forceful, emphasis on the intimate connection between the Paschal sacrifice and the mystery of the Eucharist. "The Mass makes present the sacrifice of the Cross; it does not add to that sacrifice nor does it multiply it," writes John Paul II. "By virtue of its close relationship to the sacrifice of Golgotha, the Eucharist is a sacrifice in a strict sense.".

Mary, "Woman of the Eucharist"

The Holy Father provides another reason for choosing this year as the "Year of the Eucharist," one rooted in the person of Mary and her unique relationship to the Blessed Sacrament. Ecclesia de Eucharistia points out that "this year there will be an eloquent reference to the Blessed Virgin Mary, because of the occurrence of the 150th anniversary of the definition of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception (1854-2004)." John Paul II urges Catholics to "contemplate the Eucharist with the eyes of Mary." Why? So that the Church will offer the "Bread of Salvation, to all peoples that they may recognize Him and accept Him as the only Savior of mankind."

The Eucharist is the "source and summit" of the Faith. Mary, who is the Mother of God and the sinless first disciple of her Son, is also a type of source, having given birth to the Christ, and summit, being full of grace, the life of God. If "the Church and the Eucharist are inseparably united," the Holy Father writes, "the same ought to be said of Mary and the Eucharist" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 57). In light of this, it is no coincidence that 2003 was the Year of the Rosary, for it is through Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, that mankind meets the Savior of the world, the son of Mary.

As his pontificate draws towards its end, John Paul II continues to lead and inspire, his eyes firmly set upon the Eucharist and his heart filled with love for his Savior and the Church. Concluding Ecclesia de Eucharistia, he beautifully articulates the truth about the Blessed Sacrament and asks a question that should resonate with every Catholic during the "Year of the Eucharist":

"Every commitment to holiness, every activity aimed at carrying out the Church's mission, every work of pastoral planning, must draw the strength it needs from the Eucharistic mystery and in turn be directed to that mystery as its culmination. In the Eucharist we have Jesus, we have his redemptive sacrifice, we have his resurrection, we have the gift of the Holy Spirit, we have adoration, obedience and love of the Father. Were we to disregard the Eucharist, how could we overcome our own deficiency?" (par 60).

(This article is adopted from "Your Years in His Real Presence," which appeared in the September 26, 2004 issue of Our Sunday Visitor.)

Carl Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com. He is the co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author of Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He writes regularly for National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, and other Catholic periodicals.

Selected Ignatius Press titles about the Eucharist and the Liturgy

Hidden Manna: A Theology of the Eucharist

Fr. James T. O'Connor

382 pages. Paperback.

This is a profound, readable and comprehensive study of the great Mystery of the Eucharist from apostolic times to the present day. Using every possible source, from Church Fathers, Scripture, the writings of Popes, councils, saints and more, O'Connor presents a beautifully thorough and inspiring study of the Eucharist.

God Is Near Us: The Eucharist, the Heart of Life

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

160 pages. Paperback.

The Second Vatican Council says, "We ought to try to discover a new reverence for the Eucharistic mystery. Something is happening that is greater than anything we can do. The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is the font from which all her power flows."

This profound statement about the Eucharist stands at the center of this book by Cardinal Ratzinger. He compellingly shows us the biblical, historical, and theological dimensions of the Eucharist. The Cardinal draws far-reaching conclusions, focusing on the importance of one's personal devotion to and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, for the personal reception of Communion by the individual Christian, as well as for the life of the Church. For Ratzinger, any transformation of the world on the social plane grows out of the celebration of the Eucharist. He beautifully illustrates how the omnipotent God comes intimately close to us in the Holy Eucharist, the Heart of Life.

Adoration: Eucharistic Texts and Prayers throughout Church History

Ed. by Daniel Guernsey

250 pages. Paperback.

This classic collection offers rich meditation material before the Blessed Sacrament, providing prayerful souls with insights gleaned from the wealth of Church teaching and tradition. The selections are drawn from a variety of sources and times. They come from the Old and New Testaments, the Church Fathers, great saints, popes, councils, traditional prayers. These prayers and meditations offer a rich view of the Eucharist, and their unique perspectives are intended to aid us in our understanding, appreciation and worship of this Sacrament of Sacraments.

Worthy is the Lamb: The Biblical Roots of the Mass

By Thomas Nash

250 pages. Paperback.

In this exciting new book Thomas Nash refutes the common charge that the Mass is "unbiblical" in a resoundingly biblical fashion. From the Garden of Eden to Christ's Ascension, the biblical roots of the Mass go much deeper than the Last Supper and Christ's Passion. Old Testament sacrifices like Abel’s, Abraham’s and the Passover all prefigure and are fulfilled by Christ's Sacrifice, which is made present in the Sacrifice of the Mass. What began on the Cross culminated in everlasting glory when Jesus entered "once for all" into the heavenly holy of holies, as the Letter to the Hebrews provides.

In a time when the Catholic Church is under attack from within and without, Worthy is the Lamb reminds the faithful that the Mass is, as Vatican II affirms, "the source and summit of the whole Christian life." This book will transform your understanding of and participation in the Mass.

Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer

By Bro. Michael Lang

160 pages. Paperback.

This book presents a historical and theological argument for the common direction of liturgical prayer, known as "facing east", and is meant as a contribution to the contemporary debate about the Catholic liturgy. Lang, a member of the London Oratory, studies the direction of liturgical prayer from a historical, theological, and pastoral point of view.

"I hope that this book will help the struggle for the right understanding and worthy celebration of the Sacred Liturgy. I wish the book a wide and attentive readership."

—Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

Know Him in the Breaking of the Bread: A Guide to the Mass

Fr. Francis Randolph

215 pages. Paperback.

In accessible and lively prose, this book explains the ceremonies of the Catholic Mass and their meaning for lay people, including the young. It is designed to meet the widespread complaint that the Mass is boring, incomprehensible, or alienating. Fr. Randolph goes through the Mass step by step, looking at the origin and purpose of the various elements, and relating them to the reader's experience of prayer and the Christian life. Suggestions are made for ways to enhance our appreciation of the liturgy, how to prepare for Mass, and how to carry the grace of the Mass out into the world. A supplementary chapter looks at the use of Latin in the Mass, its past and present value, and explains it in the context of contemplative prayer.

"Fr. Randolph weaves together liturgical, doctrinal, historical, and spiritual themes, bringing the timeless truths of the Lord's Sacrifice and His Real Presence into the context of worship today. The mysteries of the Mass are presented with detailed information that inspires devotion while gently correcting error. This book is not only adult reading. It is an ideal resource for teachers and catechists working with young people."

--Msgr. Peter Elliott, Author, Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite

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