November 12, 2000
volume 11, no. 229

The Holy Father's Wednesday General Papal Audience of November 8th for the THE VICAR OF CHRIST SPEAKS for the November 12, 2000 issue

The Holy Eucharist is the Sacrament of Unity

    1. "Sacrament of piety, sign of unity, bond of charity!" St. Augustine's exclamation in his commentary on John's Gospel (In Johannis Evangelium 26:13) gathers and summarizes ideally the words we just heard, which Paul addressed to the Corinthians: "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (1 Corinthians 10:17). The Eucharist is the sacrament and source of ecclesial unity. Based on the signs of bread and wine, this was confirmed since the origins of the Christian tradition. Thus, the Didache, a writing composed at the beginning of Christianity, affirmed: "As this broken bread was first spread over the hills and, gathered, became only one reality, so will your Church be gathered from the ends of the earth in your Kingdom" (9:1).

    2. Echoing these words in the third century, St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, said: "The same sacrifices of the Lord shed light on the unanimity of Christians cemented with solid and indivisible charity. Because, when the Lord calls his body the bread made up of the union of many grains, he indicates our assembled people, whom he sustains; and when he calls his blood the wine pressed from many bunches of grapes and fused together, he similarly indicates our flock composed of a multitude united together" (Ep. ad Magnum 6). This eucharistic symbolism relating to the unity of the Church returns often in the Fathers and Scholastic theologians. The Council of Trent summarized the doctrinal teaching that our Savior has left the Eucharist to His Church "as a symbol of its unity and charity with which he wishes to be intimately united with all Christians"; hence, the latter is "symbol of the only body, of which he is the head" (Paul VI, "Mysterium Fidei"; see Council of Trent, Decree of the Eucharist, preface and c. 2). The Catechism of the Catholic Church synthesizes it effectively: "Those who receive the Eucharist are united more closely to Christ. Through it Christ unites them to all the faithful in one body -- the Church" (CCC 1396).

    3. This traditional doctrine is firmly rooted in Scripture. In the passage of the First Letter to the Corinthians already quoted, Paul develops it starting from a fundamental topic, that of "koinonía," namely, of the communion that is established between the faithful and Christ in the Eucharist. "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation (koinonía) in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation (koinonía) in the body of Christ?" (10:16). This communion is more precisely described in the Gospel of John as an extraordinary relation of "reciprocal intimacy": "him in Me, and I in him." In fact, in the synagogue of Capernaum Jesus declares: "He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him" (John 6:56).

        It is a topic that will also be underlined in the discourse of the Last Supper through the symbol of life: The vine shoot is verdant and fruitful only if it is grafted onto the stock of life from which it receives sap and sustenance (John 15:1-7). Otherwise it is only a dry branch destined for the fire: "aut vitis aut ignis," life or fire, St. Augustine comments in a succinct way (In Johannis Evangelium 81:3). A unity and communion are delineated here, which is established between the faithful and Christ present in the Eucharist, on the basis of that principle, which Paul formulates thus: "are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar?" (1 Corinthians 10:18).

    4. This communion-koinonía of the "vertical" type, because it unites us to the divine mystery, generates at the same time a communion-koinonía that we can call "horizontal," that is, ecclesial, fraternal, capable of uniting all the participants at the same table in a bond of love. "We who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (1 Corinthians 10:17). The discourse on the Eucharist anticipates the great ecclesial reflection that the Apostle develops in Chapter 12 of the same Letter, when he will speak of the body of Christ in its unity and multiplicity. The famous description of the Church of Jerusalem given by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles also delineates this fraternal unity or koinonía joining it to the breaking of the bread, namely, the eucharistic celebration (Acts 2:42). It is a communion that is fulfilled in the concreteness of history: "And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (...) All those who became believers were together and held everything in common" (Acts 2:42-44).

    5. Therefore, the profound meaning of the Eucharist is denied, when it is celebrated without taking into account the need for charity and communion. Paul is severe with the Corinthians because "when you meet together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat" (1 Corinthians 11:20) because of the divisions, injustices and egotisms. In this case the Eucharist is no longer "agape," namely, expression and source of love. And whoever participates unworthily, without making it bloom in fraternal charity, "eats and drinks judgment upon himself" (1 Corinthians 11:29). "If Christian life is expressed in the fulfillment of the greatest commandment, and that is in the love of God and of neighbor, this love finds its source precisely in the Most Holy Sacrament, which is commonly called: sacrament of love" (Dominicae coenae, No. 5). The Eucharist recalls, renders present and generates this charity.

        Let us take up, then, the appeal of the bishop and martyr Ignatius, who exhorted the faithful of Philadelphia in Asia Minor to unity: The flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ is only one, only one is the chalice in the unity of his blood, only one altar, as the Bishop is one" (Ep. ad Philadelphenses 4). And with the liturgy we pray to God the Father: "Grant that we, who are nourished by his body and blood, may be filled with his Holy Spirit, and become one body, one spirit in Christ" (Eucharistic Prayer III). N.B. Translation by ZENIT ZE00110808

November 12, 2000
volume 11, no. 229

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