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Eucharist Makes the Church (Part 1 of 2)

2/25/2005 - 5:00 AM PST

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Father Paul McPartlan on the Centrality of the Sacrament

LONDON, FEB. 25, 2005 (Zenit) - Theologian Henri de Lubac proposed that the first millennium was characterized by the idea that "the Eucharist makes the Church," whereas the second millennium held more to the idea that "the Church makes the Eucharist."

Father Paul McPartlan -- professor of dogmatic theology at the University of London, member of the Vatican's International Theological Commission and author of "Sacrament of Salvation: An Introduction to Eucharistic Ecclesiology" (T&T Clark/Continuum) -- agrees that both statements are still true today.

He shared with us the centrality, significance and evolution of the Eucharist's relationship with the Church.

Part 2 of this interview will appear Sunday.


Q: What role does the Eucharist play in the life of the Church?

Father McPartlan: The Eucharist is at the very core of the life of the Church and gives the Church its identity.

The Church is the Body of Christ, and, as St. Augustine taught, we receive the body of Christ in order to become the body of Christ: "Be what you see and receive what you are."

The whole mystery of Christ and of the Church as his body is what we receive in the Eucharist. This sacrament therefore renews our life together in Christ; in other words, it renews the Church.

"The Church draws her life from the Eucharist," as Pope John Paul II said at the start of his encyclical "Ecclesia de Eucharistia."

The life that we share in Christ is the life of the Trinity, because Christ is the Son of God incarnate, and that life is one of perfect communion. The phrase we use about receiving the Eucharist is really very significant; we say we are receiving Communion. There is such a lot of meaning concentrated in that phrase.

We are receiving Christ himself, but the life he shares with us is the communion life of the Trinity -- the very life that calls us out of our own individualism and draws us together as the Church.

The Eucharist renews the very gift that makes us to be the Church, and it follows that the community dimension of the Eucharist is of the utmost importance. It is really communities, and ultimately the Church as a whole, that receives the Eucharist, not just lots of individuals.

We should always be conscious of those with whom we receive; the Eucharist renews our life as brothers and sisters, caring for one another and working together to bear witness to the communion life of the Kingdom of God.

Our life in Christ begins, of course, with baptism, and people sometimes think that an emphasis on the Eucharist as making the Church detracts from the importance of baptism in making the Church. We must avoid any such impression.

Baptism and Eucharist are both given to us by Christ and therefore there can never be any rivalry between them. Rather we must understand how they fit together. What baptism begins in us, the Eucharist renews, strengthens and sustains.

For instance, in every Eucharist we are washed by the blood of the Lamb, as it says in Revelation 7:14; it is a washing that renews the washing in water that we received in baptism. We must never forget that there is forgiveness in the Eucharist, particularly expressed when we receive under both kinds and drink from the cup of the Lord.

In a sense, the Eucharist keeps the grace of our baptism fresh in us until the moment when it is consummated at our death. As we pray in the Mass for a deceased person: "In baptism she died with Christ, may she also share his resurrection."

Q: What does it mean that "the Church makes the Eucharist" and "the Eucharist makes the Church"?

Father McPartlan: These two phrases were coined by the great French Jesuit Henri de Lubac [1896-1991], who was a leading pioneer of the renewal of the Church at the Second Vatican Council and became a cardinal toward the end of his long life.

Both are true, of course. However, he thought that the first millennium, and especially the era of the Fathers of the early Church, was characterized by the idea that "the Eucharist makes the Church;" whereas the second millennium, the era of scholasticism, held more to the idea that "the Church makes the Eucharist."

It is clear from the title of the Pope's encyclical that we have returned in recent times, particularly after Vatican II thanks to the work of de Lubac and others, to a more patristic point of view.

The two phrases in fact tend to identify two rather different perceptions of the Church. If we say that the Eucharist makes the Church then we will readily understand that the Church is itself a family of Eucharistic communities, a communion of local churches, which was the patristic model.

However, de ...

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