In the Heart of the Church

"The Eucharist in the Midst of the Church Is the Great Sign of Her Vitality"
Cardinal Justin Rigali
Address to Eucharistic Congress
June 16, 2008

Here is the address Cardinal Justin Rigali, archbishop of Philadelphia, gave at the 49th International Eucharistic Congress in Quebec.

The Sunday Celebration

Although my topic is the Eucharist in North America, my pastoral experience is limited to the United States and particularly to the two Archdioceses that I have served: Philadelphia and, prior to this, St. Louis. I am convinced, however, that for so many parishes in North America the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist is the essential experience of the faith and the source of our people’s identity as the Church. It is the central act of parish life in which the faithful offer adoration and thanksgiving to God for their salvation in Christ and seek the grace of the Holy Spirit to grow as faithful disciples.

According to a survey conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate Georgetown University, 2007, feeling the presence of God as well as prayer and reflection are important aspects of Mass for people in the United States. These aspects are in fact realized in the Sunday celebration.

In the sacred Liturgy, the proclamation of the Word immediately begins to draw the faithful into an encounter with Christ through which the Father’s will for daily life is revealed. After our people participate in the Eucharistic action, their reception of the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion strengthens their unity -- begun at Baptism -- with the Most Blessed Trinity and with one another. At this point, the People of God are then sent forth as witnesses of justice, truth and charity in their communities.

With different degrees of realization, the faithful of our dioceses perceive this mysterious plan of God and this is a great blessing for the Church. So many of our parishes have begun to appreciate the centrality of the Eucharist and become vital families of faith. The teaching of Vatican II expressed in the Liturgical Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium has borne fruit in our parishes: “The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the font from which all her power flows” (no. 10).

Despite this central focus on the Eucharist in parochial life, studies report that less than fifty percent of our people regularly attend Sunday Mass with any regularity. For many people the feasts of Christmas and Easter, together with the occasional family baptism, marriage or funeral, are the only encounters with the great mysteries of their faith and the community that celebrates them. The lives of these people reflect an indifference to God that permeates the culture. This situation certainly calls for increased efforts at catechesis to invite a return to the Eucharist of those who do not fully participate in it, and to help strengthen the fidelity of practicing Catholics.

Scripture and the Mass

The celebration of the Liturgy of the Word within the Mass has in fact transformed the lives of many of the people in our parishes. This weekly encounter with Christ through the proclamation of the Word and the homily has provided a school of spiritual formation and a source of teaching the faith of the Church. The people have been guided by zealous priests and deacons through this experience in the application of the faith to their daily lives. In this way they have more deeply experienced the community of the Church.

The Liturgy of the Word has also become the means of catechesis for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the preparation of children for the sacraments of Penance, Holy Communion and Confirmation. Those participating in Scripture study groups, lectio divina and many lay ecclesial movements are being assisted to reach a deeper relationship with Christ when they come to the Liturgy.

Frequent Holy Communion

Every Sunday many of the faithful regularly receive the Body and Blood of Christ and are drawn into an intimate union with Christ. This Sunday Communion is the primary source of their spiritual nourishment on the path to holiness and of their empowerment to live out faithfully the commandments in a culture that is so often opposed to the Gospel.

At the same time, there is a great need to reemphasize what is required for the proper reception of Holy Communion so that the Blessed Sacrament is duly appreciated and reverently received. This would include occasions such as Christmas, Easter, Baptisms, Weddings and Funerals where inactive Catholics or members of other Christian denominations are present. So many Mass booklets used in the United States print the norms of the Bishops for the reception of Holy Communion, indicating the need to both be Catholic and spiritually prepared. A very succinct statement of Pope John Paul II is very relevant to emphasize in today’s situation: “If a Christian’s conscience is burdened by serious sin, then the path of penance through the sacrament of Reconciliation becomes necessary for full participation in the Eucharistic sacrifice” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 37).

Eucharistic Adoration

Through the Rite of Eucharistic Exposition, the adoration of Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament is growing throughout the United States. Parishes are re-establishing the custom of the Forty Hours Devotion, erecting chapels of perpetual adoration and scheduling Holy Hours with extended exposition. This intimate union with the Eucharistic Lord in continuous prayer is a sign of increased reverence and devotion as well as a source of many graces and blessings, not least of which is the discernment of priestly and religious vocations by many of our young people.

At the same time, there is the need to safeguard and teach the proper relationship between the celebration of the Mass and Eucharistic Exposition. This must be done through appropriate catechesis that enables the faithful to understand that exposition is a continuation of the supreme adoration begun in the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice and a deepening of our union with God and one another. Pope Benedict XVI summarized this aspect in Sacramentum Caritatis: “The act of adoration outside Mass prolongs and intensifies all that takes place during the celebration itself” (no. 66).

Full, Conscious, Active Participation

One of the goals of Vatican II was the call to full, conscious and active participation in the Liturgy so that the faithful may grow in holiness and apostolic works. Our people are actively engaged so often when they gather for the celebration of the Eucharist. Through programs of catechesis dedicated to formation and instruction, many have come to understand the mysteries they celebrate, uniting themselves through the action of the rite with our Lord Jesus Christ, and recognizing the consequences for their daily lives of what they celebrate. At the same time, responding to their baptismal graces, our people have assumed many of the liturgical ministries envisioned by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal.

Liturgical Music

The liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council have highlighted the integral role of music within the celebration of the liturgy, especially the Mass. Music has successfully engaged the faithful in the action of the rite, leading to adoration, praise and thanksgiving. As such, it has had a formative role within the celebration of the Mass. For so many parishes, music is normative at the Sunday Mass. In addition to the retention by some communities of traditional Gregorian chant, many forms of contemporary music are effectively used. Yet there is a need to re-examine the forms of music that are used and the lyrics that are sung. Since music is at the service of the Liturgy, it is important that the lyrics authentically express the truth contained in the texts of the rites and that the forms of music are respectful of the sacred mysteries celebrated. Work must continue in this important field.


Within the North American continent a variety of ethnic communities, both native to this land and those who have immigrated, reside and celebrate the Catholic faith. The diversity is great and a manifestation of the universality of God’s kingdom. On any given Sunday, Mass is celebrated in a great variety of languages as the Church strives to meet the needs of the people. In addition to language, cultural aspects, as permitted and approved by Church law, have been included in the liturgy. Much more needs to be accomplished in this area, under the guidance of the Church, to engage the different communities and their cultures in the faith. In this process, the proper balance between the unity of the faith and cultural diversity needs to be constantly maintained.

Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of the Priest

In certain areas of the continent due to the shortage in the number of priests, parishes do not have regular access to the Sunday Mass. Instead, a Sunday Liturgy of the Word with or without the Distribution of Holy Communion is celebrated, or one of the hours of the Liturgy of the Hours. Doctrinal questions concerning the true meaning of the Eucharist and the nature of the ordained ministry can arise when these interim rites are celebrated frequently. These celebrations call for an increase in prayer for vocations to the priesthood, as well as a proper catechesis on the meaning of the Eucharist as sacrifice, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the nature of the ordained priesthood and its essential role in the Church.

The Eucharist as Source of Justice and Charity

Many parishes who devoutly and faithfully celebrate the Eucharist and deeply reflect on the mystery they have experienced, are undergoing a profound moral transformation that empowers them as witnesses of justice and charity. Communion with God is leading so many communities to communion with others; as a result the face of God is more often recognized in others and the bonds of mutual love in Christ are strengthened. As a result parishes commit themselves to the practice of the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy in service to the community. This is an exhilarating effect of Eucharistic piety.

The celebration of the Eucharist in North America continues to be filled with many challenges. At the same time it bears splendid witness to the mighty works that God is accomplishing in and for His people. In a world that God is always drawing closer to Himself through the Blood of the Lamb, the celebration of the Eucharist in the midst of the Church is the great sign of her vitality and the assurance of her share in Christ’s victory.

© Innovative Media, Inc.

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