How might we understand the Pope’s recent encyclical?

John Paul’s Maundy Thursday letter. Is it his farewell to the Universal Church over which he has presided with such distinction for a quarter of a century? The swansong of the man who will undoubtedly go down in history as St John Paul the Great? Because the encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia is probably the most intensely personal document of the Church’s Magisterium since St Paul’s Epistles to the Corinthians and Galatians.

The Holy Father writes movingly of his own life: his first mass in the crypt of Wawel Cathedral and his experience in the Jubilee Year of celebrating in the Upper Room and standing under the ancient olives of Gethsemane; of the basilicas and churches in Rome and throughout the world, the chapels built along mountain paths, on lakeshores and seacoasts, the altars in stadia and city squares where he has offered that holy sacrifice which for so long has been a daily part of his life and which again he commends (in the words of Vatican II) to his fellow priests as a daily joy, even when they have no choice but to offer it alone.

In all this, Ecclesia de Eucharistia is a document which will give Catholic Anglicans of my generation a curious sense of familiarity, a sense that I have read this before. And then the penny drops: the echo is of the majestic passage in The Shape of the Liturgy where Dix asks ‘Was ever another command so obeyed?’ and writes of a few of the uncountable number of places where and reasons why the Lord’s command has been obeyed. And uncannily, John Paul writes of Our Lady, pregnant with the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, as like a eucharistic tabernacle – just as Eric Mascall did in his moving account of the Graham Street pageant, in which Our Lady Annunciate was enthroned upon the altar in the place of the tabernacle.

Furthermore, when the Pope writes of ‘an aspect of the Eucharist which merits greater attention: in celebrating the sacrifice of the Lamb, we are united to the heavenly liturgy’, he must be earning posthumous cheers from that other great Anglican liturgist, EC Ratcliff.

Distinguished Byzantines

This encyclical has all the hallmarks of John Paul’s style upon it. There is the constant reference to the Second Vatican Council and its documents as doctrinal and pastoral norms, reminding us that as a young Polish bishop he played a key role in the Council and in the shaping of some of its central texts – a fact worth remembering when the ignorant assert or imply that somehow this Pontiff has an agenda of reversing the Council or undermining its ‘spirit’.

There is his constant reminder that the Church Universal breathes with two lungs. He rarely quotes a western authority or writer without at the same time citing an eastern; incidentally, in his phrase (about Nicolas Cabasilas) ‘with discerning faith a distinguished writer of the Byzantine tradition’, I suspect that he may be scoring an ecumenical first in so quoting, in a magisterial context, a ‘separated’ Orthodox theologian. Also of ecumenical significance are his enthusiastic words about the whole Orthodox tradition of sacred art and church decoration.

There is his dense, moving, and theologically profound integration of Our Lady into the theology and devotion of the Eucharist. And this encyclical gathers up some of the profoundest new insights of the twentieth century. Its programmatic opening words, and many of its arguments, recall the ‘Theology of Communion’, that ‘the Eucharist makes the Church’, which has been seen as providing a link between such great thinkers in East and West as de Lubac and Zizioulas and Ratzinger.

When he writes ‘the Eucharist has given me a powerful experience of its universal and, so to speak, cosmic character. Yes, cosmic! Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world. It unites heaven and earth. It embraces and permeates all creation’, John Paul is surely recalling a well-known passage of Teilhard de Chardin.

Ill-informed criticism

Of course, popular journalism and ill-informed criticism concentrated on what could be made to sound controversial or obscurantist. It will be as well to set on record that, contrary to reports, this encyclical does not reverse the amount of shared sacramental life permitted by Vatican II and the current Ecumenical Directory; on the contrary, it affirms it with joy. (A number of secular journalists were misled by not knowing what ‘concelebration’ is. I wonder if newspaper editors allow hacks who have no knowledge of the technicalities of, say, economics, to misinform readers about that subject.)

Needless to say, John Paul does assert the glories and truths of the Catholic Faith, and Catholic Anglicans will applaud him for doing so. The reality of the Eucharistic gift of the Lord’s Body and Blood; the truth (the phrase comes from the ancient sacramentaries, was quoted by Pius XII and Vatican II, and appears twice in this document) that whenever this sacrifice is offered, ‘the work of our redemption is carried out’; the marvellous privilege of Eucharistic Adoration; the importance of celebrating the Eucharist worthily and not reducing it to a folksy meal; the importance of the previous confession of serious sins; the Sunday Obligation; the need for a validly ordained priest (‘succession to the Apostles … necessarily entails the sacrament of Holy Orders, that is, the uninterrupted sequence, from the very beginning, of valid episcopal ordinations’ – none of the Porvoo nonsense here); all these are asserted, but not heavily or aggressively.

The entire tone of this letter is positive and is alive with a sense of the supernatural wonder of this sacrament, of the amazement which it should excite in the heart of the believer. A reading, and rereading, of it, cannot but enrich the faith of each one of us.

John Hunwicke celebrates the Mass in Devon.