Chapter III-2. The Table of the Bread of the Lord
11. The other table of the Eucharistic Mystery, that of the Bread of the Lord, also requires reflection from the viewpoint of the
present-day liturgical renewal. This is a question of the greatest importance, since it concerns a special act of living faith, and
indeed, as has been attested since the earliest centuries, it is a manifestation of worship of Christ, who in Eucharistic
Communion entrusts Himself to each one of us, to our hearts, our consciences, our lips and our mouths, in the form of food.
Therefore there is special need, with regard to this question, for the watchfulness spoken of by the Gospel, on the part of the
pastors who have charge of eucharistic worship and on the part of the People of God, whose "sense of the faith" must be
very alert and acute particularly in this area.
I therefore wish to entrust this question to the heart of each one of you, venerable and dear brothers in the episcopate. You
must above all make it part of your care for all the churches entrusted to you. I ask this of you in the name of the unity that we
have received from the Apostles as our heritage, collegial unity. This unity came to birth, in a sense, at the table of the Bread of
the Lord on Holy Thursday. With the help of your brothers in the priesthood, do all you can to safeguard the sacred dignity of
the eucharistic ministry and that deep spirit of Eucharistic Communion which belongs in a special way to the Church as the
People of God, and which is also a particular heritage transmitted to us from the Apostles, by various liturgical traditions, and
by unnumbered generations of the faithful, who were often heroic witnesses to Christ, educated in "the school of the cross"
(Redemption) and of the Eucharist.
It must be remembered that the Eucharist as the table of the Bread of the Lord is a continuous invitation. This is shown in the
liturgy when the celebrant says: "This is the Lamb of God. Happy are those who are called to his supper"; it is also shown
by the familiar Gospel parable about the guests invited to the marriage banquet. Let us remember that in this parable there
are many who excuse themselves from accepting the invitation for various reasons.
Moreover our Catholic communities certainly do not lack people who could participate in Eucharistic Communion and do not,
even though they have no serious sin on their conscience as an obstacle. To tell the truth, this attitude, which in some people is
linked with an exaggerated severity, has changed in the present century, though it is still to be found here and there. In fact what
one finds most often is not so much a feeling of unworthiness as a certain lack of interior willingness, if one may use this
expression, a lack of Eucharistic "hunger" and "thirst," which is also a sign of lack of adequate sensitivity towards the great
sacrament of love and a lack of understanding of its nature.
However, we also find in recent years another phenomenon. Sometimes, indeed quite frequently, everybody participating in the
eucharistic assembly goes to communion; and on some such occasions, as experienced pastors confirm, there has not been due
care to approach the sacrament of Penance so as to purify one's conscience. This can of course mean that those approaching
the Lord's table find nothing on their conscience, according to the objective law of God, to keep them from this sublime and
joyful act of being sacramentally united with Christ. But there can also be, at least at times, another idea behind this: the idea of
the Mass as only a banquet in which one shares by receiving the body of Christ in order to manifest, above all else,
fraternal communion. It is not hard to add to these reasons a certain human respect and mere "conformity."
This phenomenon demands from us watchful attention and a theological and pastoral analysis guided by a sense of great
responsibility. We cannot allow the life of our communities to lose the good quality of sensitiveness of Christian conscience,
guided solely by respect for Christ, who, when He is received in the Eucharist, should find in the heart of each of us a worthy
abode. This question is closely linked not only with the practice of the sacrament of Penance but also with a correct sense of
responsibility for the whole deposit of moral teaching and for the precise distinction between good and evil, a distinction which
then becomes for each person sharing in the Eucharist the basis for a correct judgment of self to be made in the depths of the
personal conscience. St. Paul's words, "Let a man examine himself," are well known; this judgment is an indispensable
condition for a personal decision whether to approach Eucharistic Communion or to abstain.
Celebration of the Eucharist places before us many other requirements regarding the ministry of the eucharistic table. Some of
these requirements concern only priests and deacons, others concern all who participate in the Eucharistic Liturgy. Priests and
deacons must remember that the service of the table of the Bread of the Lord imposes on them special obligations which refer
in the first place to Christ Himself present in the Eucharist and secondly to all who actually participate in the Eucharist or who
might do so. With regard to the first, perhaps it will not be superfluous to recall the words of the Pontificale which on the day of
ordination the bishop addresses to the new priest as he hands to him on the paten and in the chalice the bread and wine offered
by the faithful and prepared by the deacon: "Accipe oblationem plebis sanctae Deo offerendam. Agnosce quod agis, imitare
quod tractabis, et vitam tuam mysterio dominicae crucis conforma." This last admonition made to him by the bishop should
remain as one of the most precious norms of his eucharistic ministry.
It is from this admonition that the priest's attitude in handling the bread and wine which have become the body and blood of the
Redeemer should draw its inspiration. Thus it is necessary for all of us who are ministers of the Eucharist to examine carefully
our actions at the altar, in particular the way in which we handle that food and drink which are the body and blood of the Lord
our God in our hands: the way in which we distribute Holy Communion; the way in which we perform the purification.
All these actions have a meaning of their own. Naturally, scrupulosity must be avoided, but God preserve us from behaving in a
way that lacks respect, from undue hurry, from an impatience that causes scandal. Over and above our commitment to the
evangelical mission, our greatest commitment consists in exercising this mysterious power over the body of the Redeemer, and
all that is within us should be decisively ordered to this. We should also always remember that to this ministerial power we have
been sacramentally consecrated, that we have been chosen from among men "for the good of men." We especially, the
priests of the Latin Church, whose ordination rite added in the course of the centuries the custom of anointing the priest's hands,
should think about this.
In some countries the practice of receiving Communion in the hand has been introduced. This practice has been requested by
individual episcopal conferences and has received approval from the Apostolic See. However, cases of a deplorable lack of
respect towards the eucharistic species have been reported, cases which are imputable not only to the individuals guilty of such
behavior but also to the pastors of the church who have not been vigilant enough regarding the attitude of the faithful towards
the Eucharist. It also happens, on occasion, that the free choice of those who prefer to continue the practice of receiving the
Eucharist on the tongue is not taken into account in those places where the distribution of communion in the hand has been
authorized. It is therefore difficult in the context of this present letter not to mention the sad phenomena previously referred to.
This is in no way meant to refer to those who, receiving the Lord Jesus in the hand, do so with profound reference and
devotion, in those countries where this practice has been authorized.
But one must not forget the primary office of priests, who have been consecrated by their ordination to represent Christ the
Priest: for this reason their hands, like their words and their will, have become the direct instruments of Christ. Through this fact,
that is, as ministers of the Holy Eucharist, they have a primary responsibility for the sacred species, because it is a total
responsibility: they offer the bread and wine, they consecrate it, and then distribute the sacred species to the participants in the
assembly who wish to receive them. Deacons can only bring to the altar the offerings of the faithful and, once they have been
consecrated by the priest, distribute them. How eloquent therefore, even if not of ancient custom, is the rite of the anointing of
the hands in our Latin ordination, as though precisely for these hands a special grace and power of the Holy Spirit is necessary!
To touch the sacred species and to distribute them with their own hands is a privilege of the ordained, one which indicates an
active participation in the ministry of the Eucharist. It is obvious that the Church can grant this faculty to those who are neither
priests nor deacons, as is the case with acolytes in the exercise of their ministry, especially if they are destined for future
ordination, or with other lay people who are chosen for this to meet a just need, but always after an adequate preparation.