At the close of the Great Jubilee, John Paul II wished to set out a program to guide the Church’s mission in the third millennium. He sought to give a new impetus to the Church’s pastoral activity by stressing the need for a true pedagogy of sanctity. The guidelines offered by the Pope can be summarized in one phrase, contemplating Christ’s face, words that are rich in meaning for all who have set out on the way of prayer.
Since then the Holy Father has published two important documents that indicate the path along which the Church’s Shepherd, who walks ahead of his flock, wants to guide her steps so as to attain this goal. First, in the Apostolic Letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae (October 16, 2002), he invited the Church to draw close to the “school of Mary,” in order to learn from her how “to contemplate the beauty on the face of Christ and experience the depths of his love” (no.1). Then the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, dated Holy Thursday (April 17, 2003). In it we read: “By proclaiming the year of the Rosary, I wish to put this, my twenty-fifth anniversary, under the aegis of the contemplation of Christ at the school of Mary. Consequently, I cannot let this Holy Thursday 2003 pass without halting before the ‘Eucharistic face’ of Christ and pointing out with new force to the Church the centrality of the Eucharist. From it the Church draws her life. From this ‘living bread’ she draws her nourishment. How could I not feel the need to urge everyone to experience it ever anew?” (no. 7)
In this document, the Pope reiterates the fundamental points of the Church’s doctrine on the Eucharist: the sacrificial value of the Mass (nos. 11-13); the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar (nos. 14-16); the “unifying power” of communion (nos. 21-25); the irreplaceable role of the ministerial priesthood (nos. 26-33). Of particular pastoral interest today is the stress placed on the dispositions needed to approach the Eucharistic banquet fruitfully (nos. 36-39), as well as the reflections on the need to care for due decorum in liturgical celebrations (nos. 47-52). The beautiful chapter on Mary, “Woman of the Eucharist” (nos. 53-58), calls for deep meditation.
In the encyclical, the Eucharist is seen as “source and summit of the Christian life” (no. 1), the apex of the sacramental economy, a reality which “stands at the center of the Church’s life” (no. 3). The Pope quotes no. 14 of the Decree Presbyterorum Ordinis, where it states that the Eucharistic Sacrifice constitutes “the center and root of the whole priestly life” (no. 31). How could one not recall here the teaching of St. Josemaría, who anticipates the terminology of the Council? “Keep struggling, so that the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar really becomes the center and the root of your interior life, and so your whole day will turn into an act of worship--an extension of the Mass you have attended and a preparation for the next. Your whole day will then be an act of worship that overflows in aspirations, visits to the Blessed Sacrament and the offering up of your professional work and your family life.”
In the Eucharist God gives us the food essential for nourishing our struggle for holiness, our search for union with Christ, in order to dedicate ourselves fully to the will of the Father. Each of us is called to make an offering of his own life, in union with Christ’s sacrifice (cf. no. 13). “It is pleasant to spend time with him, to lie close to his breast like the beloved Disciple (cf. Jn 13:25) and to feel the infinite love present in his heart. If in our time Christians must be distinguished above all by the ‘art of prayer,’ how can we not feel a renewed need to spend time in spiritual converse, in silent adoration, in heartfelt love before Christ present in the Most Holy Sacrament?” (no. 25). Only from Him and with Him will we learn to make our lives a spiritual sacrifice pleasing to God (cf. Rom. 12:1).
In this context, there comes to mind a frequently quoted passage from St. Josemaría about the common priesthood of the faithful: “The Christian is obliged to be alter Christus, ipse Christus: another Christ, Christ himself. Through baptism all of us have been made priests of our own lives, ‘to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ Everything we do can be an expression of our obedience to God’s will and so perpetuate the mission of the God-man.” Therefore Eucharistic communion stands out as the most effective force for sustaining our participation in the Church’s redemptive mission and our collaboration in the sanctification of the world.
A small section of the encyclical, where the Holy Father describes what he defines as the “cosmic” character of the Eucharist, deserves careful consideration: “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. The Son of God became man in order to restore all creation, in one supreme act of praise, to the One who made it from nothing. He, the Eternal High Priest who by the blood of his Cross entered the eternal sanctuary, thus gives back to the Creator and Father all creation redeemed” (no. 8).
The Eucharist “spurs us on our journey through history and plants a seed of living hope in our daily commitment to the work before us” (no. 20). Thus the faithful feel “more obliged than ever not to neglect their duties as a citizen in this world . . . contributing with the light of the Gospel to the building of a more human world, a world fully in harmony with God’s plan” (Ibid.).
On October 23, 1966, after many years of exemplary exercise of his priestly ministry, St. Josemaria received a special light from God while celebrating Mass. He always strove to immerse himself, with all the faculties of his soul, in the mystery of Christ’s Sacrifice, fully identified with the mission he had received: that of reminding ordinary Christians of their call to sanctify themselves in the world and to sanctify the world through their work. But on that day he saw everything with new clarity. “At sixty-five years of age, I have made a marvelous discovery. I love celebrating Holy Mass, but yesterday it cost me tremendous effort. What an effort! I saw that the Mass was truly Opus Dei, work, like the first Mass was work for Jesus Christ: the Cross. I saw that the job of the priest, the celebration of the Holy Mass, is the work of confecting the Eucharist. There one experiences pain, joy, and fatigue. I felt in my flesh the exhaustion of a divine work.”
The Holy Mass, as the Holy Father reminds us, “is the sacrifice of the Cross perpetuated down the ages” (no. 11). Each time that it is celebrated, in any corner of the world, “the work of redemption is carried out” (Ibid.). All of God’s omnipotent love enters into the action of each Mass, ensuring its fruitfulness. If we humbly ask our Lord to help us tear out the obstacles raised up our wretchedness, each Mass will bear abundant fruit, both for our own soul and for the world.