Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Priority of Unity in the Mystery of the Church *

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Priority of Unity in the Mystery of the Church *

Article excerpt


I. Introduction

In his last encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, the late Pope John Paul II reflected personally on the many places in which he was privileged to preside at the eucharist. He recalled the parish church of his first pastoral assignment, the Wawel Cathedral in Poland, Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome, and the many chapels, stadiums, and city squares that formed the backdrop of papal liturgies during his twenty-six years of travel. "This varied scenario of celebrations of the eucharist," the pope acknowledged, "has given me a powerful experience of its universal and, so to speak, cosmic character." (1) Then, in a rather remarkable phrase that captures the centripetal dynamism of the eucharistic sacrament, John Paul II said: "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." (2)

At every eucharist, all of redeemed creation unites in praise of the eternal God. Christ gathers to himself his elect of every time and place, tearing down the walls of enmity that separate human beings from God and human beings from one another (cf. Eph. 2:14). No barriers can obstruct the eucharistic mystery, not even those that exist between heaven and earth or the invisible realm of grace and the visible realm of historical action. The dead join hands with the living; the divisions among tribes and classes fall asunder; and the distances between one local church and all others disappear. In the theology that allows the eucharist, in all its universal and cosmic dimensions, to define the church's essence, manifest unity becomes the chief hallmark of the people of Christ.

Such a vision of the church formed from the eucharist found apt expression in the death and burial rites of the late pontiff. It fell to his successor, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals, to interpret a moment that witnessed an unusual coming together of disparate communities and their representatives as the local church of Rome buried its pastor. In his homily, the future Benedict XVI spoke of the paschal mystery as a movement "toward the cross and resurrection" that John Paul II himself had made during his years of illness. This paschal and eucharistic theme would have struck a chord in the hearts of sacramentally conscious Christians who were among the throngs observing these rites in Rome or through satellite television. Yet, there is reason to think that the message also elicited resonance among non-Christian participants, including the dignitaries and heads of state who would not normally be sharing the same platform. Only a few feet away from the main altar, for example, Syrian President Bashar Assad, perhaps unwittingly, shook the hands of Israeli President Moshe Katsav at the liturgical "sign of peace," a gesture that would have to be explained by both their respective governments. The irony of a Muslim and a Jewish head of state, whose nations are formally at war, giving each other a handshake at the moment of eucharistic sharing, ought to give Christians pause to appreciate the power of the mysteries signified and made present in their liturgy.

The image of the "altar on the world," which took on a certain literalness at the pope's funeral, offers a fitting starting point for reflecting on the church formed from the eucharist. What has come to be called "eucharistic ecclesiology" has its roots among mid-twentieth-century Russian Orthodox theologians who understood the fullness of the one church to be present in every community that celebrates the eucharist. In the period leading up to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), such Catholic scholars as Henri de Lubac and Otto Semmelroth began to test the notion of the church as a sacramental sign that puts into effect God's plan of salvation. Seeking to move beyond secular models that dominated post-Tridentine ecclesiology (for example, Robert Bellarmine's "Perfect Society"), de Lubac noted that the expression "true body" had once designated the church, whereas the later ecclesial term "mystical body" had, at least in some instances, been applied to the eucharist. …

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