The Pope’s new Encyclical Letter

On the Holy Eucharist


Comments by Father Aulagnier (May 7th, 2003)





Pope John Paul II, on the feast of Holy Thursday (April 17, 2003), gave the Church his 14th Encyclical Letter on the Eucharist: Ecclesia de Eucharistia.



This Encyclical Letter is very important. It may even be a historical event.


It is a call from the pope to the faithful so that they recover a true Eucharistic devotion.


“From it the Church draws her life. From this “living bread” she draws her nourishment. How could I not feel the need to urge everyone to experience it ever anew” (n7).


However, it is not the only purpose of the Encyclical Letter.

It is also a doctrinal reminder on the Holy Eucharist.


It is my hope, says the Pope, that the present Encyclical Letter will effectively help to banish the dark clouds of unacceptable doctrine and practice, so that the Eucharist will continue to shine forth in all its radiant mystery. (n10)


Yet it is more than that.

It constitutes above all a doctrinal reminder aimed at correcting the notorious insufficiencies of the liturgical reform deriving from the Second Vatican Council and at rectifying the ambiguities of “Institutio Generalis,” a text published by the apostolic constitution “Missale Romanum” and signed by Pope Paul VI on April 3rd 1969.


As a matter of fact, the pope himself declares that he intends to correct the “abuses [that] have occurred, leading to confusion with regard to sound faith and Catholic doctrine concerning this wonderful sacrament ” (n10) and, without hesitation, he adds: “It must be lamented that, especially in the years following the post-conciliar liturgical reform, [...] a number of abuses have been a source of suffering for many” (n52).


In order to do that, the Pope simply returns, in his Encyclical Letter, to all the theological and pastoral critical comments which Cardinal Ottaviani, at the very beginning of the “totalitarian” imposition of this reform, presented to the Supreme Pontiff in office, Pope Paul VI, when he addressed to him the “Brief Critical Examination” (“Bref Examen Critique”).



A- About the Eucharistic sacrifice.


We indeed know that the “Brief Examination” criticizes the ambiguities of the new “Ordo Missae” on the notion of sacrifice and particularly on that of the propitiatory sacrifice.

This is the subject of the second and third chapter.

The pope acknowledges this. He pays great attention to this point in his Letter as he asserts the Catholic doctrine on this subject. He devotes the first four numbers of Chapter I to it:

“The mass, he says, actualizes the sacrifice of the cross”, “The Eucharist is a sacrifice in the proper sense,” etc.



B- About the Real Presence.


The “Brief Critical Examination” also pointed out the ambiguities of the reform about the notion of the real presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist.

The real presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist is a “true, real, substantial” presence which occurs through the substantial conversion from bread into the body of Christ, and from wine into his blood. The Church names this transformation by the very appropriate word of “transubstantiation.” Contrary to what certain texts or rubrics of the liturgical reform implied, it is by no means a spiritual or subjective presence.


On this matter, the pope puts forwards a very substantial reminder in several places in his document and particularly in Chapter I (numbers 15 to 20) as well as in the splendid Chapter V entitled “The Dignity of the Eucharistic Celebration.” “In the mass, the sacramental representation of Christ’s sacrifice implies a very special presence which is termed “real” and “substantial” and wherein, Christ, God-man, is wholly present.” On the matter, the pope cited the Council of Trent in its 13th session, Chapter IV.



C- About the Ministerial Priesthood.


The “Brief Critical Examination” also remarked that the liturgical reform was treating the question of the true minister of the altar in an equivocal way as it was confusing, and almost identifying, the priesthood of the priest with that of the faithful. (BCE chap. 5 and 6)


Here again, the pope takes note of this criticism and devotes to it the whole of Chapter III, which is entitled “The Apostolicity of the Eucharist and of the Church.”


There is no doubt -- and this is what is particularly interesting in this text -- that the wish of Cardinal Ottaviani in his letter to Paul VI at last finds an echo in the pope’s heart. In his “Brief Critical Examination,” he was writing:

“We rest assured that these considerations directly inspired from what we hear in the vibrant voice of the pastors and their flock will always find its echo in His Holiness’s fatherly heart, who is always so profoundly concerned about the spiritual needs of his children of the Church.”


It is now done today.

We had to wait for almost 40 years.

Never mind -- let us give thanks to God who takes care of his Church.

It is in this respect that this Encyclical Letter, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, could very well be historical.




It could also be so in another perspective:

The pope announces in Chapter V the forthcoming publication of another document whose objective will be a reminder, to the priests and the faithful, of the respect owed to the “liturgical norms” in the celebration of the mass. He entrusts certain offices of the Roman Curia with this charge. (n52).



There is no doubt that Cardinal Ratzinger will be the kingpin of this forthcoming document, and that he will seize the opportunity to establish the reform of the reform, which is dear to his heart. This new text will indeed be a good opportunity to bring about the necessary rectification on the liturgical reform, which, as the pope himself asserts it in his Letter, truly needs it. We really cannot see how this new text could wander from the pope’s profound desire, that is to correct abuses and to “banish the dark clouds of unacceptable doctrine and practice” of the liturgical reform (n10).



This is what Jean Madiran wishes.


This is what Archbishop Lefebvre wanted.





“I believe that Vatican II is susceptible of a pia interpretatio (as Saint Thomas did with certain Fathers). I am not opposed to the idea that the pope -- through some documents -- could rectify the ambiguities of the council. Neither am I opposed to the idea of a reform of a reform if, in the reform, there is rectification” (interview with Father de Tanouarn Certitudes n11).


This upcoming text will be the realization of such a reform. Let us hope, for the Church’s good, that it will be a good and definitive realization, and that it will be respected.


Finally, this document is or will be historical in that it prepares the minds to accept liturgical pluralism within the Church. The legitimacy of Saint Pius V’s mass is close to being recognized in the Church. All the writings and acts of the present Roman hierarchy prove it:





1- The creation of Bishop Rifan’s personal apostolic administration with the exclusive right to celebrate Tridentine mass.


2- The celebration of the Tridentine mass by Cardinal Hoyos in Rome in Saint Mary’s Basilica, the 24th of May 2003.


3- The celebration of the Tridentine mass by Bishop Léonard in Belgium the 24th of May 2003.


4- The numerous writings of Cardinal Ratzinger and Cardinal Stickler in favour of Saint Pius V’s mass and their criticism on the liturgical reform.


5- Today’s recognized possibility for the bishops to create personal churches for the faithful attached to that rite.


6- The multiple efforts in order to find a solution regarding Society Saint Pius X’s freedom to celebrate Saint Pius V’s rite.


7- Finally, this very Encyclical Letter and its number 49.




“This led progressively to the development of a particular form of regulating the Eucharistic liturgy, with due respect for the various legitimately constituted ecclesial traditions”



Such are some aspects of this important document, which may be historical.

To have more information about this Encyclical Letter, please see Father Aulagnier’s detailed comment in the rubric Actualités religieuses.



Father Aulagnier




Translated into English by Jean-François Roy