Today, in this month of the Precious Blood, let us pause to consider the theme of ecclesial communion in the Eucharist. Ecclesia de Eucharistia, St. John Paul II said: “The heart of the mystery of the Church” is that the Church comes from the Eucharist.
The Eucharistic Prayers are emphatic about this. We can pray them better if learn to hear this repetition. Again, we will focus on Eucharistic Prayer I, the Roman Canon, both lest we think there is anything un-traditional about this theology and because it is longer.
We will see that the more common Prayers II and III say the same thing, but less emphatically. In fact, we find that Vatican II’s insistence on the Church as communion – which, John Paul II never tired of repeating, was the central teaching of the Council – is no innovation, but a re-emphasis on a central teaching of the tradition.
The Roman Canon opens by saying of the sacrifice, “which we offer you firstly for your holy catholic Church.” It then emphasizes union within the Chuch: “to grant her peace, to guard, unite and govern her.” This is the context in which we pray “together with your servant Francis our Pope and N. our Bishop”: we pray for the Pope and Bishop precisely because they mark the unity of the Church.
Next we pray for the rest of us, “Remember, Lord, your servants . . . and all gathered here, whose faith and devotion are known to you. For them, we offer you this sacrifice of praise or they offer it for themselves and all who are dear to them.” The prayer emphasizes the communion gathered around the altar. Strength flows out, and draws us in.
The farthest the prayer reaches from the Eucharistic community is, “and all who are dear to them”: those who come to the altar only in our hearts.
But the prayer repeatedly emphasizes that we are precisely the community of those who offer the sacrifice: “we, your servants and your holy people, offer to your glorious majesty.” “Graciously accept this oblation of our service, that of your whole family.” This is the Church: the family of the oblation.
Later we pray for those who have died. But here, too, we do not just pray at random, but precisely for those who are part of the Eucharistic fellowship: “Remember also, Lord, your servants, who have gone before us with the sign of faith.” The Eucharist spills over even to its members who are gone.
And it draws us into the communion of heaven: “In communion with those whose memory we venerate, especially the glorious ever-Virgin Mary” – in the Roman Canon, a long list of saints follows. The other list, after the consecration, is introduced by “graciously grant some share and fellowship with your holy Apostles and Martyrs.” At the end of the list it says, “Admit us, we beseech you, into their company.”
The Church is the fellowship of the altar. We become the Church through our participation in the altar, and that altar truly builds up a fellowship. The Roman Canon is insistent on this image.
Or, as the tradition says, “The Body [on the altar] builds the Body [which is the Church].”
The newer, shorter prayers say it too. In Eucharistic Prayer II, we are defined as those “worthy to be in your presence and minister to you.” “Partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ” we pray that “we may be gathered into one by the Holy Spirit.”
Here too we pray for the Church. In this world: “Remember, Lord, your Chuch, spread throughout the world, and bring her to the fullness of charity, together with Francis our Pope and N. our Bishop.” Those who have died: “Remember also our brothers and sisters who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection.” And in heaven: “that with the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God . . . and all the saints who have pleased you throughout the ages, we may merit to be coheirs.”
In Eucharistic Prayer III, “you never cease to gather a people to yourself, so that from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice may be offered.” We offer “the oblation of your Church,” “that we, who are nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son and filled with his Holy Spirit, may become one body, one spirit in Christ.”
From the wounded side of Christ is born the Church. All who receive the blood and join in its offering are joined in one body.
Can you think of ways people make a false tension between worship and community? How could you and your parish more boldly discover their unity?