In 2003 Pope John Paul II wrote an insightful letter that speaks of the mysterious dimensions of the Eucharist. In his writing he states that “I would like to rekindle this Eucharistic ‘amazement’ by the present Encyclical Letter...” His letter clearly indicates that, at least in some quarters, this “amazement” is lacking, that some may have lost their sense of the mystery of the Eucharist. At the same time, the pope is clear that the mysterious dimension of the Eucharist is more than what you or I may feel. It is much more than pious feelings or religious sentiment.
The Eucharistic mystery is not mystery in the sense of putting the pieces of a puzzle together, or assembling clues as one would do in trying to solve a murder mystery. The Eucharistic mystery doesn’t get solved. We have clues to the Eucharistic mystery, but we will never fully understand it. Our comprehension of the mystery may develop over time, but we will never arrive at full comprehension of the mystery.
The mystery, simply and inadequately put, is: How and why is the risen Christ uniquely present in what appears to be merely bread and wine? Over the centuries the members of the Church and its theologians have tried to more deeply understand the mystery, and the pope praises their efforts. There are and have been many ways to explain the Eucharistic mystery, but all of them are more or less inadequate. While we continue to enter more deeply into the mystery, Pope John Paul recalls the cautionary words of Pope Paul VI: “Every theological explanation which seeks some understanding of this mystery, in order to be in accord with Catholic faith, must firmly maintain that in objective reality, independently of our mind, the bread and wine have ceased to exist after the consecration, so that the adorable body and blood of the Lord Jesus from that moment on are really before us under the sacramental species of bread and wine.”
Why did Pope John Paul think the mystery of the Eucharist is not sufficiently appreciated today? One reason he offers is that sometimes some people seem to reduce the Eucharistic mystery to a fraternal meal, even stripping the mystery of its sacrificial dimension. He speaks of those who demonstrate an exaggerated reaction against “formalism,” and he also mentions those who question the need for officially ordained ministers to preside at the Eucharistic liturgy. Such a congregational model of worship would be an unacceptable departure from our Catholic Christian belief and tradition.
Among other reasons for a lack of appreciation of the Eucharistic mystery, not mentioned in the encyclical letter, is that our highly technological culture is increasingly uncomfortable with anything that is not purely rational, and the Eucharist defies the rational, goes beyond what our minds can possibly grasp. We must continue to try to see with the eyes of faith. Some of the mystery is also lost when we limit our understanding of the Eucharist to one theological explanation, or to one Eucharistic spirituality, or to one form of Eucharistic devotion. To exclude other legitimate forms and points of view is to limit the mystery, and mystery, by definition, cannot be grasped or contained by our always inadequate human categories. No pope, no saint, not the greatest of theologians, no catechism, can perfectly explain the Eucharist, our “mystery of faith.”