CANON LAW FOR TODAY
By Rev. Frank Morrisey
What is the place of the eucharist in the life of the church?
An examination of the canons on the eucharist in the Code of Canon Law shows that, almost always, they speak of the eucharist in the superlative — “most holy,” “most blessed,” “most august.” Immediately, this gives an indication of the essential place of the eucharist in the life of the church.
Indeed, as canon 897 indicates, the blessed eucharist is the most august of the sacraments, because in it Christ the Lord is contained, offered and received. Also, through the eucharist, the church continually lives and grows, the unity of God’s people is brought about and the Body of Christ is perfected.
Again, speaking in the highest of terms, the same canon tells us that the eucharistic sacrifice is the summit and the source of all worship and of Christian life itself. All the other sacraments, the sacramentals and the works of the apostolate are directed to the blessed eucharist.
Not surprisingly, then, the church jealously protects the eucharist. There are numerous norms relating to its celebration. Although many of these are found in the code, we must turn to the various liturgical texts for details that complement the canonical norms. Canon 2 of the code states very clearly that, only indirectly, does the code address liturgical matters.
Canon 1367 determines that an automatic excommunication is levied against any person who would throw away the consecrated species, or take them for a sacrilegious purpose, such as for a black mass. Absolution from this censure is reserved to the Apostolic See, and even a diocesan bishop cannot absolve from it (except in danger of death cases).
This is a clear indication of the importance the church attaches to the eucharist. To prevent as much as possible such abuses from occurring, the code contains canons referring to the security of the tabernacle, those who have access to it, and the security of the church buildings where the blessed sacrament is reserved.
In relation to the response of the faithful, canon 898 mentions a number of specific obligations that apply to each member of the church. (1) We are to hold the blessed eucharist in the highest honour; (2) to take an active part in the celebration of the most august sacrifice; (3) to receive the eucharist with great devotion and frequently; and (4) to reverence it with the greatest adoration.
However, it cannot be taken for granted that the faithful understand these obligations, especially if their religious education was somewhat lacking or deficient. For this reason, canon 898 imposes on all pastors of the church — the pope, the bishops, parish priests, and those with care of souls — the obligation to instruct the faithful about this sacrament.
In his exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (Nov. 26, 2013), Pope Francis notes that the preaching at mass should have as its purpose to guide the assembly, and the preacher himself, to a life-changing communion with Christ (No. 138). Hopefully, when the faithful recognize this opportunity, they will return in greater numbers to be fed by the eucharist, which is so central to their life of faith.
The celebration of the eucharist is not a private action, depending on the whim of the celebrant. Rather, it is an action of Christ himself and of the entire church. For, in this sacrament, Christ, through the ministry of the priest, offers himself to the Father and gives himself as spiritual nourishment to the faithful who are associated with him in his offering.
It follows, then, that not only must the faithful themselves be suitably prepared to receive communion, but the celebration itself is to be carefully prepared and conducted. Canon 528 even notes that the faithful have the right to a devout celebration of the mass. Furthermore, the parish priest is to take care that the blessed eucharist is the centre of the parish assembly. A parish is, for this reason, identified as a eucharistic community.
At times, when no priest is available for the celebration of mass, other forms of prayer are conducted for the parishioners, but, these too, are basically oriented toward the eucharist. In previous legislation, the parish was defined by its territory; today, it is by its people who are gathered around the eucharist. This is why bishops throughout Canada are doing everything they can to make certain that communities have the eucharistic celebration on a regular basis.
There is a fundamental obligation for the faithful to attend mass each Sunday and holy day of obligation (canon 1247). Of course, there can be excusing causes, such as the absence of a priest to celebrate mass, illness, extreme weather, great distances, and so forth. But, since the eucharist is to become the centre of any Christian’s commitment to Christ, no effort should be spared to attend mass on these days.
The fact that many Catholics today do not attend mass on a regular basis opens up a whole new field for evangelization and pastoral outreach. We have only to speak to those Christians from countries where they are prohibited from attending mass to see the sorrow and absence they feel when mass is not available.
It is possible that, due to a relative abundance of priests in Canada in the past, we took for granted that the mass was there. But this is not always the case today and, possibly, will be even more so in the future.
Morrisey is a professor emeritus of canon law at Saint Paul University, Ottawa, and has been very active over the years in the field of canon law, especially as it applies to dioceses and religious institutes. This is his 15th article in a series.