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VATICAN LETTER Sep-10-2004 (880 words) Backgrounder. With photo posted Sept. 7. xxxi

Back to basics: Pope begins renewed focus on Eucharist

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- After an intense quarter-century of teaching, writing and traveling, Pope John Paul II is going back to the basics with a renewed focus on the Eucharist.

He has convened a special eucharistic year that begins in October. Last year he wrote an encyclical extolling the Eucharist as the source and culmination of the church's life. He has convened a Synod of Bishops on the same topic for the fall of 2005.

And more frequently he speaks of the importance of the Eucharist in the life of each Catholic.

The Eucharist has a "transforming power" that provides the courage to live the faith and to spread the Gospel, the pope said in June before leading a eucharistic procession through downtown Rome.

"There's a very close connection between the Eucharist and announcing Christ," he said.

In fact, said Cardinal Jozef Tomko, who heads the Vatican's committee for international eucharistic congresses, the pope is convinced that unless Catholics have a firm understanding of the Eucharist the church's many missionary and social activities lose meaning.

"More and more, the Holy Father is turning back to the central mysteries of the faith," Cardinal Tomko said in an interview Sept. 8.

"He is focusing now on the Eucharist as the special presence of Jesus Christ among us. But this is a mystery -- the idea that Christ has given his own body for us to eat. It is a very hard language for people to accept," he said.

Cardinal Tomko will be the pope's personal representative at the International Eucharistic Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, Oct. 10-17, when the eucharistic year is inaugurated. The pope would have liked to go, but his poor health makes the trip impossible. Instead, he'll speak to the assembly via a TV link.

In the United States, most discussion of the Eucharist this year has revolved around the controversy over Catholic politicians who disagree with church teaching on abortion. Some bishops have said they would refuse to give Communion to such politicians.

Despite the risk of politicizing the Eucharist, many observers in Rome and at the Vatican are not unhappy the Communion issue has been raised.

"The whole question of being in a proper disposition to receive the Eucharist is something that's been practically untouched for decades in many parts of the world," said U.S. Father Thomas D. Williams, a member of the Legionaries of Christ who teaches at Rome's Regina Apostolorum University.

"In the aftermath of the political debate, I think the coming year will be an opportunity for instruction on what this means," he said.

Father Williams said he also expects deeper reflection on other questions -- for example, what the host is made of. Controversy was stirred in August when a New Jersey bishop said a local girl's first Communion was invalid because it used a no-gluten wafer made of rice instead of wheat.

After reading blogs -- Web journals -- full of people slamming the church on this issue, Father Williams said, "There's a lot of ignorance out there, and I think this will be a year of instruction."

Of course, the pope's focus will go beyond liturgical details. He is most concerned that Catholics understand how the Eucharist embodies fundamental truths for the church, including Jesus' redemptive sacrifice and his continued presence in the world.

"It's part of his continual hammering of the theme: 'The world needs Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ comes to us in an exceptional way through the Eucharist.' I think he sees this as essential," Father Williams said.

Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark, N.J., said his archdiocese has begun preliminary planning for the eucharistic year. He said most of his parishes already have regularly scheduled eucharistic adoration, and some have perpetual adoration. It's part of a U.S. trend that owes something to the pope's consistent teaching on this issue, he said.

During a visit to Rome, Archbishop Myers said that in his experience the more the Eucharist is integrated into parish and diocesan life "the more fruitful the vocations, the more confessions are heard and the more the life of the church is enriched."

The Eucharist in all its implications seems a perfect theme for the final years of this papacy, but it's been dear to the pope his whole life.

As an archbishop in Poland, he would complain loudly and publicly every year that authorities had kept the annual Corpus Christi procession out of Krakow's central square. It wasn't right, he said, that the Eucharist -- the body of Christ -- should be carried over the "uneven and potholed roads" of the city's periphery.

And, addressing a vast crowd at the procession in 1978, he deftly linked the Eucharist with a call for recognition of the church's legal status. The church "is building itself on the Eucharist," he said, and the nation's authorities cannot deny that truth.

Father Williams predicted the 2004-2005 year of the Eucharist would have a ripple effect throughout the church. He said it's very much in keeping with the pastoral style of this pope, who has dedicated years to Mary, the rosary and the family, among other things.

"He just keeps throwing out the net, and every time these things affect a lot of people positively," he said.


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