The Eucharist and the Evangelical Life.

(Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley, Ofm. Cap. delivered the following address at the Eucharistic Symposium and Congress in Quebec, June 11th – 13th, 2008.)

As a seminarian, I was in Ireland where my family is from at the time of two historic events. The first was the coronation of Pope Paul VI, the second event was the first visit of our first Irish-Catholic President of the United States John F. Kennedy to his ancestral country. In Catholic Ireland it was a grand celebration. The Papal Flag, the American Flag and the Irish Tricolors adorned every telephone pole. In the village where I was there was a Te Deum in the Church. The men were on the St. Joseph’s side and the women on the Blessed Mother’s side. The parish priest and chief Magistrates gave speeches extolling the event. The chief magistrate proudly announced that there would be an amnesty to mark the occasion. He declared that as the Church Bells rang, the doors of the prison would be flung open. The news provoked a great ovation from the parishioners. Only afterwards did I learn that there had not been any prisoners in the local jail since 1917, however the night before, the constable rounded up the town drunks and locked them up so that indeed there would be someone to release when the bells rang. The Curé of Ars as a seminarian got lost on maneuvers and was therefore considered a deserter and had to go into hiding. The marriage of Napoleon III and the Austrian Archduchess occasioned a comic opera amnesty for draft dodgers and deserters that allowed the Curé of Ars the possibility of returning to the seminary.

On a serious note, as a young priest working in Washington with refugees from Central America (eighty percent were undocumented) I longed for an amnesty that would allow my parishioners to escape the precarious circumstances of their lives.

The great amnesty is the one Christ won for us on the Cross and which is present to us in the celebration of the Eucharist. By His stripes we are healed. We are purchased at a great price. The blood of the Paschal Lamb has warded off the Exterminating Angel. Our God loves us and the Eucharist is the celebration of His saving love and our redemption.

In Ecclesia de Eucharistia we read that “The Eucharist as Christ’s saving presence in the community of the faithful and its spiritual food, is the most precious possession which the Church can have on her journey through history” (#9). The more we can penetrate this mystery the more we discover the boundless love of God for us. The Eucharist is love taken to the extreme. We recognize Christ, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus in the breaking of the Bread. When minds are enlightened by Jesus’ words and hearts are enkindled, the signs begin to “speak”. The Eucharist unfolds in a dynamic context of signs that come from Christ Himself and that contain a rich and luminous message. In these signs the mystery opens up before our eyes. (John Paul II, Mane Nobiscum Domine, #14)

Throughout the symposium we are attempting to delve into various dimensions of this mystery which is the source and summit of our life of faith. The Eucharist is called viaticum when administered to the dying as food for their journey homeward. But in a sense, Eucharist is always viaticum where the Bread of Life nourishes us and orients our life on the path that leads us to our destiny in God. In these humble reflections I hope to show the connection between the Eucharist and the Evangelical life. By Evangelical life I do not mean consecrated life but rather the life of faithful discipleship in the Catholic Church where in the Sacraments of initiation we have all been called to holiness, to discern a personal vocation, whether to married life, consecrated life, ministry, etc., and where we are called to be part of a communal mission to transform the world, build a civilization of love and to live our lives as Christ’s disciples in the Church He founded on the Apostles.

As a young priest I never celebrated Mass in English. I worked with immigrants from Latin America in Washington. One day an American friend visited the parish and after Mass made the criticism: “So many of your people do not go to communion.” I was a little offended and made the retort: “It is because they believe.” In the American parishes today it is expected that everyone who attends the Mass will draw near for communion.

In the earliest extant Eucharistic prayers some form of Ta hagia tois hagiois is present as an exhortation summoning the faithful to communion and warning the unworthy to refrain. Fr. Robert Taft, S.J. sites this formulation in Palestine in Cyril/John II of Jerusalem (c. 390), Catechesis 5 in Cyril of Scythopolis (d. ca. 558), Life of St. Euthymius 29, a Palestinian monk (377-473); and in the Oratio de Sacra Synaxi of Anastasius of Sinai (d. after 700). From Syria the Apostolic Constitutions VIII, 13:12-13 (ca. 380), and Theodore of Mopsuestia, Homily 16, 22-23 (ca. 388-392), both have it. And John Chrysostom’s In Mt. Hom. 7,6, indicates that St. John Chrysostom was familiar with this formula in the liturgy of Antioch during the years when he was bishop in that city. This same author sights many other examples and concludes that by the end of the 4th century the Sancta Sanctis had been the common acclamation inviting people to communion throughout the Christian East. (N. 1)

Preaching in Constantinople, St. John Chrysostom gives us a striking image of the liturgical practice of his day: “After the whole sacrifice has been completed ... with a loud voice, with an awful cry, like some herald lifting his hand on high, standing aloft conspicuous for all to see and crying out in that awesome silence, the priest invites some and excludes others, not doing this with his hand, but with his tongue more clearly than with his hand. For that voice, falling on our ears, is like a hand that pushes away and expels some, and leads in and presents others... For when he says: “Holy things for the holy,” he is saying: “If anyone is not holy, let him not approach.” (N. 2)

In the Latin liturgy the Sursum Corda and the Sanctus are prayers that betoken the spirit of the Ta hagia tois hagiois, Sancta sanctis. The Mass begins with a penitential rite that also reminds us of the need for conversion and repentance as a preparation to enter into the sacred mysteries.

When believers truly reverence the sacredness of the Eucharist, that sense of awe and Eucharistic amazement causes people to examine their lives in the light of the commandments and strive to put their lives in order before receiving the Eucharist. Being confronted by the Holy we will flee or we will repent. The very holiness of the Eucharist is an invitation to live the ideals of the Gospel, the costly grace of discipleship.

A Holy Ghost Father who served as a missionary in Africa states that one of the most important symbolic gestures that the Massai people have is to offer one another a handful of grass as a sign of peace and wellbeing. During any dispute a handful of grass offered by one Massai and accepted by another is a guarantee that peace will reign, that neither will turn to violence. This spirit of reconciliation is essential for the celebration of the Eucharist.

Father Donovan gives a moving description of how Mass preparation begins among the Massai people as soon as the celebrant arrives at the village. There is much dancing and prayers for the sick. This sort of pre-celebration can go on for a whole day before the climax in the celebration of the Eucharist. Yet the missionary never knew if indeed the Mass would follow. The leaders of the tribe would have to decide whether they could celebrate the Eucharist. If there had been selfishness or forgetfulness and hatefulness and lack of forgiveness in the life of the village, they would not make a sacrilege out of the Eucharist by calling it the Body of Christ. The celebration would be postponed until the community dealt with its shortcomings.

As the Gospel itself begins with a call to conversion, Repent and believe the Good News, so the Eucharist calls people to repentance and conversion as well as reconciliation. Pope Benedict speaks so eloquently of Eucharistic consistency which demands that we be living lives worthy of reception of the Eucharist. As St. Paul says, “we must eat and drink worthily.” The very sacredness of the Eucharist has been a part of the Catholic Faith from the beginning of the Church. The Eucharistic celebration was part of the disciplina arcani reserved only to those who had been mentored and initiated into faithful discipleship. The catechumens and penitents were excluded from the Eucharistic celebration.

In a world of political correctness and “inclusivity” these ancient practices seem peregrine and even harsh. Yet the awareness of the sacredness of the Eucharist evoked an awe and reverence in the faithful even before they approached the Eucharist. Indeed many sinners have found motivation to overcome their vices because of their desire to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist. Even before we are repulsed by sin and evil we are attracted by grace and beauty.

This attitude so beautifully expressed in Francois Mauriac’s book on Holy Thursday is dismissed by those who would encourage everyone to receive communion without examining themselves. It is what Bonhoeffer described as a cheap grace.

However, where believers are aware of their need to be spiritually prepared for the Eucharist, the call to conversion is part of the experience of the Eucharist. Jesus washes the feet of the Apostles in part to denote the cleansing and repentance that must be in preparation for participation in the Eucharist.

The practices of fasting from all food and drink from midnight and weekly confession as preparations for the Eucharist were still the custom in my youth. There was a great awareness that the way we lived before the Eucharist and how we prepared was very important. Eucharistic consistency was generally understood.

The call to conversion that opens the Gospel is complemented in the Mass by the Penitential Rite. We present ourselves before God and before the community acknowledging our need for forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus says clearly in the Gospel that before we offer our gifts on the altar, we must be reconciled with our brothers and sisters. We need to wear the wedding garment of grace and mercy.

The Gospel Life begins with a longing for the Holy, a hunger for God, and a sense of the transcendent. This is different from the modern culture’s addiction to entertainment and sense of entitlement. We must approach the Eucharist like Moses drawing near the burning bush, with a sense of wonder and awe. At the same time we have a sense of our own unworthiness in the presence of God’s boundless and gratuitous love, like Peter who throws himself at Jesus’ feet and says: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” And the Eucharist is a greater miracle than the miraculous draught of fishes.

In the Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict underscores the need for an authentic catechesis on the meaning of Eucharist that includes “the call to pursue the path of penance” (#20). A culture that has lost its sense of sin and the superficial approach that fails to see the need to be in the state of grace to receive the Eucharist trivializes the grandeur of God’s love. The Holy Father also points out the relationship between the Eucharist and the sacrament of Reconciliation “reminds us that sin is never a purely individual affair, it always damages the ecclesial communion that we have entered through Baptism” (#20).

In Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict discusses the relationship between the Eucharist and moral transformation. He states that the moral life “has the value of a spiritual worship,” citing John Paul II (#82). He goes on to say that this spiritual worship should not be interpreted in a moralistic way, because it is before all else the joyful discovery of love at work in the hearts of those who accept the Lord’s gift, abandon themselves to Him and thus find true freedom. The moral transformation implicit in the new worship is a heartfelt yearning to respond to the Lord’s love with one’s whole being, while remaining aware of our own weakness. The Gospel story of Zachaeus is seen to exemplify this phenomenon. After Zachaeus welcomes Jesus into his home, the tax collector who had experienced the rejection of the good people is overwhelmed by Jesus’ attitude. His contact with Jesus’ love results in the dramatic gesture of giving half of his wealth to the poor, and he pledges to repay fourfold those whom he had defrauded. The moral urgency born of welcoming Jesus into our lives is the fruit of gratitude for having experienced the Lord’s unmerited closeness.

I often contrast Zachaeus with the rich young man who boasted of keeping the commandments but was unable to renounce his goods. For although Jesus looked on him with love, the rich young man failed to understand how much the Lord loved him. Had he perceived that, like Zachaeus, he would gladly have given his wealth away. In the Eucharist we can glimpse Jesus’ love for us that frees us from worldly attachments and fills us with grateful affection for our God who loves us so much.

The Word in the Eucharist

In Vita Consecrata Pope John Paul II reminds us that “The Word of God is the source of all Christian spirituality. It gives rise to a personal relationship with the living God and with His saving and sanctifying will” (#94).

In the 19th century, Russian classic of spirituality, The Way of the Pilgrim, the unnamed author recounts his spiritual journey, which began when he heard the Scripture readings at the Divine Liturgy. The priest read from Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians 11:22, the injunction to “pray without ceasing.” The pilgrim sets out armed only with his Bible and a copy of the Philokalia on his spiritual journey. He never makes it to the Holy Land but he does achieve a life of ceaseless prayer in the Biblical Phrase: “Lord Jesus Christ, have pity on me a sinner.”

What magnificent witnesses we have in our Catholic Tradition of those who have been converted and inspired to holiness by the word of God proclaimed at the Eucharist: St. Anthony of the Desert, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Augustine, Blessed Charles de Foucauld! The British Bishops stated a few years ago that the Word of God finds its home in the Eucharist. Here our Lord speaks to us and leaves us breathless with the challenge: How can we live the demands of His loving word? After the Word of God is proclaimed at the Liturgy of the Word in the lessons, then the Word is “proclaimed” intimately upon the altar in the Bread of love and life. It is in the Living Bread that we find possible what seems impossible. We are created to hear the word, we are to keep it only in our recreation and in the transformation of the Eucharistic sacrament.

In Mane Nobiscum Domine, Pope John Paul II points out that the Council Fathers in Sacrosanctum Concilium sought to make “the table of the word” offer the treasures of Scripture more fully to the faithful. He cites the Council that declares: It is Christ Himself who speaks when the Holy Scriptures are read in the Church (#7). The Holy Father in his Apostolic Letter to inaugurate the Year of the Eucharist draws on the imagery of Luke’s account of the Disciples on the Road to Emmaus. Amid our questions and difficulties, and even our bitter disappointment, the divine Wayfarer continues to walk at our side, opening to us the scriptures and leading to a deeper understanding of the mysteries of God. When we meet Him fully, we will pass from the light of the Word to the light streaming from the “Bread of Life,” the supreme fulfillment of His promise to “be with us always to the end of the age,” (Mane Nobiscum Domine, Introduction #2).

The Liturgy of the Word is the grace-filled encounter with the living God that made the hearts of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus “burn within them.” That same word of life joined to the bread of life forms our hearts anew.

Formation of the Heart

Pope Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est when discussing the Church’s charitable agencies states that: “Those who work for the Church’s charitable organizations must be distinguished by the fact that they do not merely meet the needs of the moment, but they dedicate themselves to others with heartfelt concern... Consequently, in addition to their necessary professional training, these charity workers need a “formation of the heart”: they need to be led to that encounter with God in Christ which awakens their love and opens their spirits to others. As a result, love of neighbor will no longer be for them a commandment imposed, so to speak, from without, but a consequence deriving from their faith, a faith which becomes active through love (Gal 5:6)” (Deus Caritas Est, #31).

This same “formation of the heart” is essential for a life of discipleship and service, for the Evangelical Life. In the same encyclical letter the Holy Father links the exercise of charity along with the administration of the sacraments and proclamation of the word as essential activities in the life of the Church. He cites Justin the Martyr who speaks of the Christians’ celebration of Sunday and links the Eucharist to the Church’s works of mercy. The Bishop employs the offertory gifts to support the orphans, widows, the sick. The Pope also cites the testimony of the great Christian writer Tertullian who recounts how pagans were struck by the Christians’ concern for the needy of every sort.

The formation of hearts is grounded in the wondrous faith in “the goodness and kindness of God” (Tit 3:4), which has appeared to us in Christ Jesus. This reference to Titus is in fact a quotation of the reading used at the Eucharist for Christmas. In other words, the formation of our hearts takes place through our profound faith in our Incarnate Christ and His love for us.

Not only are we loved by God, but we are in Christ loved first. Is there a more beautiful passage in the New Testament than John’s exclamation in his first Epistles: “Love, then consists in this, not that we have loved God but that He has loved us and sent His Son as an offering for our sins” (1 John 10:4). And “we, for our part, love because He first loved us” (1 John 10:19). Pope Benedict emphasizes that our conversions, our turning to God and to our fellow human beings is grounded in the immense grace and energy of God’s first love. “More than anything, they (who serve others in need) must be persons moved by Christ’s love, persons whose hearts Christ has conquered with His love” (Deus Caritas Est, #33). This “first love” clearly comes to us from the cross of Christ. In the cross and resurrection of Christ, as in the Eucharistic reenactment, we have revealed to us not only love but the most humble love of God for us. The correct formation of our hearts as Christians, rising from our contact with word and sacrament, is the evangelical formation that is given to us in the Gospel of the Crucified and Risen Christ.

Formation of our Hearts: Humble love

In the Eucharist, we experience the self-emptying and condescension of Christ who emptied Himself to be accessible to us. St. Bonaventure states so beautifully that we have a God who bows His head to wash the feet of fishermen and who bows His head to kiss His Bride, the Church (Breviloquium 6,5 v 270a).

The Christian turns his heart to behold the Eucharistic Lord who humbled Himself to manifest the first love of the Father, and who also draws us into the divine love which is humble love. We share in the “Christ Form” of our humble and crucified Lord through our baptism, by which the Holy Spirit anoints us. We are anointed into “the sacramental mysticism” by which we share a communion of love in Christ, the Head of the Church and the Great Child of God, with the Father and with all of His children (Deus Caritas Est, #14). It is true that we are configured to our Lord by our participation in priestly, prophetic and kingly service for the salvation of the world, but this configuring includes the very formation of the heart of Christ in humble love.

St. Francis of Assisi and, in our own times, Catherine de Heuck and Jean Vanier have been witnesses of the immense beauty of humble love and the effectiveness of this humble love for the Church and for our brothers and sisters, especially those who suffer and are poor.

Evangelical Counsels

The call to holiness is a call to the Evangelical life and specifically contains an invitation to live the commandments and to embrace a way of life that reflects the evangelical counsels. Generally religious life is characterized by the consecration of the religious to God through the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. John Paul II declared these counsels as lived by Christ as “a radical way of living the Gospel on this earth, and which may be called divine” (Vita Consecrata, #18). He sees this consecration in religious profession as “a special and fruitful deepening of the consecration received in Baptism.” John Paul II also extended his reflections on priestly life to include the evangelical counsels in their unique form for the diocesan priest under the banner: “Priestly life and the radicalism of the Gospel” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, # 27-30). This wonderful document sees the evangelical counsels as a logical expression of pastoral charity: “Jesus Christ, who brought His pastoral charity to perfection on the cross with a complete exterior and interior emptying of self is both a model and source of the virtues of obedience, chastity and poverty which the priest is called to live out as an expression of His pastoral charity for his brothers and sisters” (#30).

Evangelical Counsels and the Laity

Without losing the clarity that the Church desires in explaining the meaning of religious life or the priest’s virtues in view of his representing the Person of Christ, the Shepherd and Head, there is today a keener awareness of the evangelical counsels in the life of the laity. When the Council Fathers wished to articulate the universal call to holiness, they declared: “It is evident to everyone that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity (Lumen Gentium #40). In the Directive on Formation in Religious Institutes we read: “The counsels lived in an authentic a manner as possible have a great significance for all people, for each vow gives a specific response to the great temptations of our time (#11). In other words the human heart tends to be most selfish in the areas of sexuality, personal freedom, and possessions. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the evangelical counsels have a clear application to everyone who aspires to a life of discipleship. The counsels of the laity arise from the Sermon on the Mount and are to be lived in accordance with the distinct and differing conditions of their personal and familial lives.

It must be stated that every Christian who seeks to be faithful to the ordinary high standard of Christ must be one who gratefully receives the call to live chastely in a world addicted to selfish and violent sexual expression. In a world where so many poor persons are disfigured by neglect and injustice, can a true follower of Christ continue to step over Lazarus starving on his porch? And can a true Christian who is inclined by our culture’s “will to power” be faithful without a humble love of the Church and reverent obedience to her teachings and authority?

The Counsel of Chastity

When we look at some common elements in the evangelical counsels as lived by Christians in all states of life we can behold some of the paths which lead us into closeness to Christ. For example, all Christians today face such an onslaught against the actual living of a chaste life. Still in light of our vocation each Christian is called to live humbly and faithfully the chastity that has a profound reverence for the sacrament of marriage and for the proper expression of sexuality within a faithful spousal covenant. And, as Christ makes a gift of Himself in the Eucharist, so each of us is called to make a gift of oneself in profound personal reverence for the other and with a pure heart “to see God” in the many epiphanies of our lives, especially in those who suffer. This chastity which belongs to all is profoundly nourished in the sacramental love Christ alone can give to us, as He declares us beloved brothers and sisters (#3).

The Counsel of Poverty

Pope Benedict XVI in Spe Salvi quotes Maximus the Great who said something dear to so many saints: “The one who loves God cannot hold on to money but rather gives it over in God’s the same manner in accordance with the measure of justice” (Spe Salvi #28). The whole Eucharistic celebration is oriented not merely to adoration and thanksgiving, but also adoration of and thanksgiving for the Lord who became poor for our sake. This living Bread of the humble Christ causes us within the Eucharist to keep turning to our neighbors in need in order to serve them with love. Pope Benedict XVI goes so far as to say that if the Eucharist does not affect our lives, something is missing. “Sacramental mysticism” is social in character. Union with Christ is also union with all those to whom He gives Himself. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). As the Holy Father says in Deus Caritas Est, “We can thus understand how agape also became a term for Eucharist: there God’s own agape comes to us bodily, in order to continue His work in us and through us...Faith, worship and ethos are interwoven as a single reality which takes shape in our encounter with God’s agape” (Deus Caritas Est, #14).

The Counsel of Obedience

John Paul II has spoken of obedience as an imitation of Christ whose food was to do the will of the Father, and it shows the liberating beauty of a dependence which is not servile but filial, marked by a deep sense of responsibility and animated by mutual trust which is a reelection in history of the loving harmony of the Three Persons of the Trinity (Vita Consecrata, #21).

The Eucharist itself is an oblation of Christ’s will in humble love toward the Father and for all. We not only share in the offering of the Eucharist through the hands of the priest but we share in the filial love and obedience of Christ toward the Father. The Lord’s Prayer reflects this as it introduces the Rite of Communion, so that our hearts might be rightly disposed.

There we pray with great confidence, the same spirit as Blessed Charles de Foucauld expresses in his prayer of abandonment into the hands of our Father. Thus we trustingly ask that God’s kingdom come, that His will, not ours, be done.

If we are to draw the proper Christ form from the Eucharist which allows us in whatever state of life to be disciples who live evangelical poverty, chastity and obedience, then it is essential that we be Christians who meet the Lord in personal prayer, which awakes in us the desire to hear the word anew and to offer ourselves really and truly in the Eucharist with Christ. In this way, we are not merely “to keep the counsels” but we are transformed by the Holy Spirit into the poor, chaste and obedient Christ: truly His brothers and sisters.


In commenting on the Eucharistic Congress of 1960, Von Balthazar evokes the famous painting of Raphael, the Disputa del Sacramento, with the heavenly Church gathered around the glorious humanity of Christ. At His feet the dove flies down to the monstrance, which rests on an exalted altar in the middle of the lower half of the painting, surrounded by the earthly Church, which surrounds the mystery in a high degree of movement: adoring, admiring, researching in books, teaching one another in dialogue and disputation... Indeed, having a Eucharistic Symposium!

Here, as at Munich in 1960 and in every Eucharistic Congress, “The Mystery at the heart of Christianity which is here before the general public to be looked at and made an object of discussion, essentially transcends the framework of what is merely earthly, merely human; in the sphere that is irradiated by it, man and his whole cosmos are taken beyond themselves and brought into relationship with a divine-human center that polarizes humanity and imposes a higher law on it.” (N. 3)

It is my prayer that this Eucharistic Congress of Quebec will be an Emmaus experience for many. The two disciples of Emmaus, upon recognizing the Lord, “set out immediately” in order to report what they had seen and heard. The Holy Father points out: “the encounter with Christ, constantly intensified and deepened in the Eucharist, results in an urgent summons to witness and to evangelization. St. Paul wrote in the First Letter to the Corinthians: “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). Paul associates the meal with the proclamation. When we enter into communion with Christ we will sense the duty to be a missionary of the event made present in the rite” (Mane Nobiscum Domine, #24).

Having gathered like the throng in Raphael’s Disputa del Sacramento, may we re-enkindle our Eucharistic amazement that will send us forth to share with those around us that “we have seen the Lord and we have recognized Him in the breaking of the bread.”

God Bless You!


1. Robert Taft, “Holy Things for the Saints: The Ancient Call to Communion and Its Response,” Fountain of Life, ed. Gerard Austin (Washington, DC: The Pastoral Press, 1991): 87-88.

2. St. John Chrysostom, In Heb hom. 17, 4-5.

3. Hans Urs von Balthazar, Explorations in Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991) p. 503.