Certainly one of the most powerful Easter stories is that of the two disciples on their way to Emmaus, joined by the risen Jesus, whom they do not recognize. Later they would recognize him in the breaking of bread. This gospel story tells us a lot about the meaning of the Eucharist.
Eight years ago, on Holy Thursday, Pope John Paul II issued an encyclical letter, addressed to all the people in the Church. This is the fourteenth such letter he had issued as pope, and the theme of this encyclical is the Eucharist. This letter is not meant to be a legal document, in the sense that it is meant to be a formal statement of Church laws. Encyclical letters are not meant to have the same weight as the directives of Church law. Encyclicals are intended to be instructional in character. They are an opportunity for popes to express Church teachings in a way that includes their own personal reflections. Indeed, in this encyclical, Pope John Paul is very personal in sharing his own experiences in celebrating the liturgy over many decades and in so many places around the world.
In the encyclical letter, the pope clearly intends to highlight some of the blessings and challenges that accompany the mystery of the Eucharist in our modern times. In relation the the Eucharist, he speaks of the “lights and shadows’ of our times. The lights would include the liturgical reforms that flowed out of Vatican II which he says promoted “a more conscious, active and fruitful participation” in the celebration of the Eucharist.
He also lists what he calls the shadows. These include the reality that the popularity of Eucharistic adoration outside of Mass has dramatically decreased in the last several decades. Also, in some places, the Eucharist is celebrated more as a fraternal meal, without sufficient expression of the Mass as a sacrifice. In other places, the necessity of an ordained priesthood is sometimes obscured, and in other places, in the interests of promoting ecumenical unity, practices appear that are sometimes contrary to the Church’s traditional expression of her faith.
But while the encyclical offers a helpful summary of traditional Church teaching and discipline regarding the Eucharist, it seems at the same time to be a powerful and deeply personal meditation on the mystery of the Eucharist. After outlining the mysterious dimensions of the Eucharist, Pope John Paul writes that “the thought of this leads us to profound amazement and gratitude.” He then states his desire that this “amazement” may be rekindled wherever it is lacking in the Church. After all, he says, “To contemplate Christ involves being able to recognize him wherever he manifests himself, in his many forms of presence, but above all in the living sacrament of his body and blood. The Church draws her life from Christ in the Eucharist; by him she is fed and by him she is enlightened. The Eucharist is both a mystery of faith and a ‘mystery of light’. Whenever the Church celebrates the Eucharist, the faithful can in some way relive the experience of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus: ‘their eyes were opened and they recognized him’” (Lk 24:31).