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from issue no. 05 - 2003


The Church doesn't create its life by itself

The president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity comments on the Pope’s latest encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia

By Gianni Valente

Cardinal Walter Kasper

Cardinal Walter Kasper

The fourteenth encyclical signed by Pope John Paul II is a document that in sober and cogent wording invites one to look at the «gift of the very holy humanity of Jesus» that the Lord himself offers to his Church in the sacrament of the Eucharist. It is not just a list of warnings and instructions for use. It isn’t “against” anybody. And above all it doesn’t express any attitude of haughty doctrinal pride. If the Church, as the title of the document already suggests, lives by the Eucharist, a received gift cannot by its nature become a term of a presumptuous possession.
In the interview that follows, the man who expresses with similar arguments his own thankfulness for the last papal encyclical doesn’t have the profile of a nostalgic traditionalist. Cardinal Walter Kasper is often numbered among the “progressives” by those who are fond of describing the Sacred College according to the stiff categories of political bi-polarity. Since March 2001 he has been President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. He is therefore ex officioýthe outstanding spokesman of the Roman Curia most involved in relationships with the heads of the other Churches and Christian ecclesial communities. His calm and lucid considerations take on importance not least because of the role entrusted to him, given that the strongest criticisms so far expressed on Ecclesia de Eucharistia have mainly targeted an alleged anti-ecumenical harking-back running through the encyclical.
It should be added that the relationship between Church and Eucharist has been the center of the research and studies done by Kasper in his long career as professor and respected theologian, during the post-Council period.
Every encyclical should normally stress aspects or offer answers to questions felt in the present. Your Eminence, as you see it, what suggested to the Pope that now was a timely moment to write an encyclical on the Eucharist?
WALTER KASPER: More than warning on individual points, the encyclical looks at the general condition of the Church that we have before our eyes. In our time one sees a whole flowering of rituals produced almost at a commercial rhythm, but the very perception of the historic specificity of the Christian sacraments seems to get lost. To take up an image once used by Cardinal Danneels, we are seeing a kind of atrophy, of “blinding”, whereby the sacramentality of the Church itself is no longer perceived, above all in the countries of early evangelization. Vatican Council II, with the constitution Lumen gentium and with that on the liturgy, already recalled attention to the sacramental nature of the Church. But afterwards there came a trivialization, a leveling, that certainly can’t be blamed on the Council. Also thanks to dialogue with our Protestant brethren we have learned the importance of the ministry of the Word. But meanwhile the sacraments have been in danger of ceasing to be the center of gravity of the Catholic pastoral mission.
Have you found passages in the text of the encyclical that repropose with stringent cogency the sacramental nature of the Church?
KASPER: There are many. For example, at paragraph 12, it says on the Eucharist that «the Church lives continually by the redeeming sacrifice, and approaches it not only through a memory full of faith, but also by present contact». The life of grace is transmitted by contact: this is the dynamics proper to the sacraments that is evident in the Eucharist. The memory celebrated in the Eucharist is not only remembrance of a past event on which to nurture subjective religious reflections. At paragraph 11, it states that the Eucharist «is not only the evocation, but the sacramental re-presentation» of the passion and the death of the Lord. The recognition of this objective, real content of the Eucharistic memory also helps in the dialogue with the Lutherans, to let them also see the sacrificial dimension of the Eucharistic celebration.
In what way?

KASPER: The Lutherans in the past have often understood our recognition of the sacrificial character of the Eucharistic celebration as a multiplication of the unique, singular, not reproducible fact of the passion and death of the Lord. But the Catholic Church recognizes that the unique, singular event of the passion and death of Jesus could not be repeated. It is the same event that in sacramental way, and hence mysterious, becomes present in the liturgical celebration. The Eucharist is the present gift of the holy humanity itself of Jesus, and not a figurative representation of that gift staged by men. Whoever eats the Eucharistic bread enters into personal contact with the same unique sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The encyclical at paragraph 12 takes up the teaching of the Council of Trent, when it recognizes that «the mass makes present the sacrifice of the cross, it does not add to it and does not multiply it». And it also quotes on this a beautiful phrase of Saint John Crysostom: «We offer the same Lamb always, and not one today and tomorrow another, but always the same. For this reason the sacrifice is always one alone».
The papal document dwells much on the Eucharist as sacrifice, warning against reductive interpretations …
KASPER: At paragraph 13 it repeats that «the Eucharist is a sacrifice in the proper sense, and not only in the generic sense», as if Christ had offered himself in a figurative sense, as «spiritual food» for faithful. The sacrifice of Christ is the self-giving of the Son to the Father and to us. To reduce it to a convivial brotherly meeting in memory of a past event is a trivialization.
In the general relativism, some people hope that the Church will reaffirm its certainties with an attitude almost of challenge. They hope that a kind of “Catholic pride” that is happy in the possession of its own dogmas. Does this document, in particular, seem to you conditioned by that cultural-ecclesial climate?
KASPER: On the contrary. When the Church repeats its own truths of faith it never furnishes a presumptuous affirmation of self, as if the truths of faith were its own possession. The Christian faith, says Saint Thomas Aquinas, is «perceptio veritatis tendens in ipsam». It is to recognize the truth by stretching toward, asking for it. In this our Orthodox brethren are an example, for whom the repetition of the truths of faith can occur only as doxology, that is as prayer of begging and of rendering thanks to the Lord and to the Holy Spirit in the liturgical celebration. This encyclical, too, seems to me marked by references to asking, to prayer, to humble waiting for what the Lord himself brings about through the sacrament of the Eucharist. For example, paragraph 18 speaks of the eschatological projection that marks the Eucharistic celebration, «in the expectation of your coming». And quoting an antiphon from the solemn feast of Corpus Domini, the Eucharist is described as the anticipation on this earth of Heaven, «pledge of future glory».
In short, repeating the truths of faith is also a way of praying, not the exercise of presumptuous possession…
KASPER: Saint Bonaventure says: we do not possess the truth, it is the truth that possesses us. The dogma itself is like a finger pointing to the Mystery. What counts is the reality of the Mystery, what the Mystery itself brings about, and that comes before the dogmatic definition. Tradition, the depositum fidei, the custody of the truths of faith is essential in the life of the Church. But the “treasure” to which all the formulas of faith safeguarded by Tradition refer and suggest Christ himself. And it is he is who “tradit”, who transmits life to the Church from generation to generation. He is the subject of Tradition. The ecclesiastical magisterium is only a humble servant of his action. And the faith doesn’t stop at the repetition of formulas, but is the recognition of the reality that is indicated by the formulas. In short, also when we repeat the dogmas, when for example we recite the Creed, we more than anything perform an act of prayer, of begging the Spirit. We don’t affirm something we own.
Fractio panis, catacombs of  Priscilla, Rome

Fractio panis, catacombs of Priscilla, Rome

A chapter of the encyclical is titled “The Eucharist builds the Church”. What does the image suggest to you?
KASPER: The rediscovery of the Fathers of the Church, due also to Henri de Lubac, has brought new ways of grasping the connection between Church and Eucharist. The Church celebrates the Eucharist, but the same Church lives by the Eucharist. The whole encyclical is veined with the recognition that the Church does not create its life by itself, it does not build by itself, it does not self-produce. The Church is not purely an exterior body created by the community of believers, and much less a kind of transcendent hypostasis that almost pre-exists the actual workings of Christ in the world. And the communion is not an aggregation of a voluntary sort among believers. It lives by sharing in a reality that precedes it, that is there beforehand and that comes towards us from without.
Paul VI, in the Creed of the people of God, it, too, quoted in the encyclical, wrote that the Church «possesses no other life than that of grace».

KASPER: And at paragraph 23 of the encyclical it says: «The conjoint and inseparable action of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, that is at the origin of the Church, of its constituting of itself and of its perdurance, is operative in the Eucharist». Thanks also to the last Ecumenical Council, we have rediscovered the importance of the epiclesis, that is of the Eucharistic prayer in which the priest begs the Father to send his Spirit, so that the bread and wine may become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. It is not the priest who accomplishes the transubstantiation: the priest begs the Father so that it be brought about by the workings of the Holy Spirit. One can say that the whole Church is an epiclesis.
Yet at times, attending mass, one gets the impression that the community, rather than begging the gift of the Spirit, is celebrating itself.
KASPER: It is a real temptation, one that comes to the surface in many ecclesial milieux, when for example the wish to the Church “from below” is expressed. In the proper sense, it’s not possible to “make” the Church, “organize” the Church. Because the communio doesn’t come from below, it is grace and gift that comes from above.
Doesn’t one expose oneself, in that way, to criticisms about rule by upper levels in the Church?
KASPER: But “from above” means by the Holy Spirit, not by the hierarchy. The Church can’t be “made” from below, but not by the vertex either. Not even the hierarchy, the Pope, the bishops, can think it’s they who “produce” the Church. And in fact, the temptation of “making the Church” is not just confined to grass-root communities and parish groups. It also comes out at the highest levels of the ecclesiastical institution, or in the theological academies, as when the very Eucharistic celebration is reduced to a pretext for “programming”, for building on it pastoral plans. For that Ecclesia de Eucharistia offers a plentiful antidote.
The encyclical forcefully reproposes the essential role of the priest in the Eucharistic celebration. Some see in that a return to the subjection of the community to clerics…

KASPER: I see it otherwise. The subject of the liturgy is Jesus Christ himself. The priest celebrates in persona Christi: he is the servant, the one that gives a voice to Christ. When he says: «This is my body, this is my blood», the body and blood offered is certainly not his. Furthermore, if presented correctly, even the need for ordained ministry to celebrate the Eucharist can overcome the objections of an ecumenical nature.
In what way?
KASPER: As written at paragraph 29, the community cannot give itself the ordained ministry by itself. The priest is sent to it as a gift that goes beyond the capacities of the community, and that it receives «through the Episcopal succession going back to the Apostles». From this standpoint, the necessity of the ordained ministry is a sign that suggests and also gives the flavour of the gratuitousness of the Eucharistic sacrament. It testifies that the community cannot by itself give itself the Eucharist. It cannot produce it as its own capability. As if drawing out of itself by its own efforts something that is immanent to it.
The chapter entitled “The Eucharist and ecclesial communion” reiterates that to receive the communion one needs to be free from the burden of mortal sin.
KASPER: In the First Epistle to the Corinthians Saint Paul has already written that when one takes the Eucharist one puts oneself to the test. The Eucharist and the sacrament of the confession of the sins are necessarily connected. My father, many years ago, did not take communion on Sundays if he hadn’t first confessed, and maybe he might seem a bit exaggerated. But now it seems to me that there is over exaggeration in the opposite direction. One can’t go and take communion without taking account of the state of one’s own conscience.
The document reproposes the norm of the Code of Canon Law whereby those who “obstinately persevere in manifest grievous sin” cannot be admitted to Eucharistic communion. In 1993 the openness of yourself and of Cardinal Lehmann, then Bishop, on the possibility of administering the sacraments to divorced and remarried people made news…
KASPER: I don’t want to go back over that argument. But then we did not say that all remarried divorcees, understood as a sociological category, could take the Eucharist. We suggested only that in the assessment of single cases pastoral discernment is opportune. The rule is to be kept, just as it’s necessary that those who ask to take the sacraments show a sincere intention of conversion. But there are cases in which, for example, people cannot manage to produce the proof of the nullity of their marriage, a nullity of which they are nevertheless sure.
Cardinal Ratzinger himself, some time ago, wrote that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is also studying the question «whether truly every marriage between two baptized people is ipso facto a sacramental marriage», given the total thoughtlessness with which people often get married…
KASPER: Many people get married in ignorance of the conditions and duties of marriage to which one’s assent is necessary, such as the bond of indissolubility. It’s a situation that must be taken into account when delicate cases have to be judged.
The fifth chapter invites us to be attentive to the liturgical decorum of the Eucharistic celebration. Does it seem a worthwhile reminder, in these times?
KASPER: It seems to me interesting to repeat that the liturgy is not private property, it isn’t a no-man’s-land on which to try out one’s creativity. Already before the Council there were so-called “private masses” that were done in a not very dignified fashion. Now this recall to the sobriety of the liturgical rules of the Church seems to me even more timely.
The encyclical indicates as model the priests and communities that faithfully follow the liturgical rules, «they demonstrate, in silent but eloquent fashion, their love for the Church»…
KASPER: It’s also a question of aesthetics. Continual liturgical creativity often gives rise to rituals that can be aesthetically depressing. And then, if we’re talking of the Eucharist, inventing new Eucharistic prayers can express a form of presumption. The celebration is celebration of the Church, it isn’t my celebration. One celebrates in the name of the Church, and for that reason there’s advantage in following the discipline of the Church. I’d never dream of entrusting the invocation to the Spirit to a new Eucharistic prayer invented by me…
The encyclical also invites one to pay attention to the practice of the Eucharistic adoration. There are those who have seen in this suggestion an anti-ecumenical element, pointing out that it is a devotion unknown in the Orthodox tradition and that it was the “banner” of anti-Protestant pastoral activity…
KASPER: The encyclical does no more than register what takes place spontaneously. It is the people of God themselves who employ practices that feed and comfort the life of faith. Devotions that after the Council were put a little to one side, perhaps out of an excess of intellectualism. Now in Germany also I know many parishes and seminaries that practice the Eucharistic adoration. A devotion that also refers to the dimension of the Mystery, and reminds that the mass is not just a fraternal gathering.
The life of grace is transmitted by contact: this is the dynamics proper to the sacraments that is evident in the Eucharist. [...] The Eucharist is the present gift of the holy humanity itself of Jesus
Let us come to the argument that you most follow, for “professional reasons”. What are the implications of the encyclical from the ecumenical point of view?
KASPER: It’s misleading to claim, as some Protestants have done, that this encyclical can create obstacles to ecumenical progress. Others, like Manfred Kock, President of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, have acknowledged with realism that the document marks no step backwards and restricts itself to repeating the rigorous Catholic norms in relations with Christians of other Churches and ecclesial communities in regard to Eucharistic celebration, already expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in the Directory on Ecumenism and in the two Codes of Canon Law.
Despite the inexactitudes contained in many comments, the encyclical also repeats that in individual cases and in particular circumstances a Protestant can receive the Eucharist in a Catholic celebration, provided he is «well disposed». How can one measure whether a person is “well disposed”?
KASPER: I always say: in case of grave spiritual need he must be capable of saying «amen» to the priest offering him the Eucharist. Or rather he must be capable of saying «amen» to the real presence of the body and blood of Christ under the Eucharistic species, consecrated during a mass in which the Pope is prayed for, citing his name. A mass in which prayers are addressed to the Our Lady and the saints are invoked. If he feels he can in conscience say «amen» to all this, it means that he is well disposed…
And how do things stand with the Orthodox in terms of mutual Eucharistic hospitality?
KASPER: With the Orthodox we share valid sacraments and the same Eucharistic faith. Eucharistic hospitality has fewer problems from the doctrinal standpoint. What mainly prompt caution at the moment are assessments of ecclesial timeliness. We need to make sure that cases of Eucharistic hospitality can’t be misinterpreted as manifestations of proselytism.
It’s been said that this encyclical was also inspired by concerns caused by ecumenical celebrations in which so-called “intercommunion” is practiced. And that in Germany the next united session of the Katholikentag and of the Kirchentag (the periodic gatherings of the Catholic and Protestant laity), might provide the pretext for celebrations of this type…
KASPER: The German bishops have been very clear on the point, they have said that it is not allowed. But this is not just a German problem. Many bishops from all over the world bring the matter up when they come here to Rome for ad limina visits. We are separated from the Reformed Churches by a clear difference on the ordained ministry and on Eucharistic doctrine. Whereas there is a possibility of approach on the Eucharist with the Lutherans. Even if we are far from true agreement.
On what is the closer approach to the Lutherans based?
KASPER: The Lutherans believe in the real presence of the body and blood of Christ. For true Lutherans it is very clear that Jesus Christ is present in humanity and divinity under the Eucharistic species consecrated in the celebration. They have objections on the definition of “transubstantiation”. And reservations also about the perdurance of the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist after the end of the Eucharistic celebration. But on the latter point, the discussion is open among them, and there could be new developments.
On the doctrine of the justification, a calm, realist and thoughtful approach with the Lutherans on the texts of the Council of Trent and their first confessions of faith led to the historic agreement signed on 31 October 1999. Might something similar happen in terms of the doctrine on the Eucharist?
KASPER: My hope is just that: one day to arrive at agreement with the Lutherans on the doctrine of the Eucharist similar to that reached on justification. But there are still too many problems open for one to hazard forecasts.
A last question: which quotation cited in the encyclical did you like best?
KASPER: They’re all interesting: those from the Fathers, those from the Council of Trent, the many quotations from the Vatican Council II… As an ecumenist, I think it was a very happy choice to quote several times from Saint John Crysostom, to whom the liturgy celebrated by many Orthodox Churches goes back. That seems to me a good ecumenical sign.

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