Pope St. John Paul and the Eucharist Inextricably Linked

COMMENTARY: As we observe a National Eucharistic Revival in the United States and prepare for a national Eucharistic Congress, it’s timely and providential for us to consider John Paul II’s love and teachings on the Eucharist.

Pope John Paul II prepares Communion during an outdoor Mass he celebrated on September 13, 2003 in the town of Roznava, Slovakia.
Pope John Paul II prepares Communion during an outdoor Mass he celebrated on September 13, 2003 in the town of Roznava, Slovakia. (photo: Sean Gallup / Getty)

On April 27, we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the canonization of Pope St. John Paul II. It’s hard to believe that it’s already been a decade since the beloved pontiff, along with Pope St. John XXIII, was raised to the dignity of the altar.

As we reflect on these 10 years of Masses in his honor and intercessions and supplications to his heavenly friendship, it would be a noble thing for us to highlight one of the central aspects of Pope John Paul’s teachings and spiritual legacy to humanity and the Church.

The heart and soul of John Paul was his profound relationship with the Lord Jesus, which was seen and lived by his intense and passionate love for the Lord’s Eucharistic Presence. In many respects, the life of John Paul was a life lived in the intervals between the offering of the Mass and his time before the Blessed Sacrament. The man’s entire life was focused on Jesus Christ, which meant it was always focused on the Eucharist.

Countless stories are told of his devotion to the Eucharist.

One such story recounts how his personal staff were looking for him in the Apostolic Palace and grew alarmed when they couldn’t find him. They had checked the chapel but he wasn’t there, or so they thought. Only after a few other sweeps of the palace did an aid actually walk into the chapel, rather than just opening the door and visually scanning the room. When the person walked into the chapel, he discovered the Pope lying prostrate, arms extended in cruciform, and in deep contemplation before his Eucharistic Lord.

As we observe a National Eucharistic Revival in the United States and prepare for a national Eucharistic Congress in June, it’s timely and providential for us to consider John Paul II’s love and teachings on the Eucharist. Pope St. John Paul II’s love for humanity, his reverence for human dignity, his admonitions to protect universal human rights, his expectation of virtue and holiness among the children of God, and his constant call for unity and peace were all inspired, grounded, and sustained by his firm and unequivocal belief and love for the Lord Jesus truly present in the Blessed Sacrament, as well as the constant sense of awe and hope that he received and lived by on account of his being such a faithful adorer of the Eucharistic Lord. The Pope’s Masses, Holy Hours and extended time before the Blessed Sacrament in adoration were his source of strength and perseverance.

If John Paul had not been so devoted to the Eucharistic Lord, the Lord would not have been able to do such miraculous and world-changing things through him. If there had been no Eucharistic devotion in the man, then there would never have been a Pope St. John Paul II.

From the beginning of his pontificate, he directed the Church to her Eucharistic Lord. The love and homage of the man for the Blessed Sacrament wanted to yell from the rooftops, “The Lord is with us! Trust in him. Be not afraid!”

In John Paul’s first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, he spoke of the Eucharistic Lord and wrote:

The Church never ceases to relive his death on the Cross and his Resurrection, which constitute the content of the Church's daily life. Indeed, it is by the command of Christ himself, her Master, that the Church unceasingly celebrates the Eucharist, finding in it the "fountain of life and holiness,” the efficacious sign of grace and reconciliation with God, and the pledge of eternal life (7).

The essential commitment and, above all, the visible grace and source of supernatural strength for the Church as the People of God is to persevere and advance constantly in Eucharistic life and Eucharistic piety and to develop spiritually in the climate of the Eucharist (20).

About a month after issuing his first encyclical, John Paul introduced his custom of writing an annual letter to priests on Holy Thursday. It would be a custom he retained throughout his pontificate. The letters were often endearing, corrective, and encouraging. They often contained calls for priests to show a greater love and attentiveness to the Eucharist. In his Holy Thursday letters, there were countless invitations to priests to pray before the Blessed Sacrament on a regular basis.

Pope St. John Paul II knew how grace was able to work through him in the Blessed Sacrament and so he wanted every priest (and every believer) to receive the same healing, inspiration, and affirmation from the Lord. The saintly pope knew that he was able to be a witness to hope because he was someone who first steadfastly hoped in the Lord. He wanted every priest (and all believers) to have this same hope and to be a witness to hope to others and such a hope could only be found and nourished in the intimacy and warmth of the Lord Jesus, truly present among us in the Eucharist.

As a type of Alpha and Omega experience, the beginning and end, it was precisely these yearly Holy Thursday letters that gave rise to Ecclesia de Eucharistia, John Paul II’s 14th and last encyclical to the Church. He explains:

From the time I began my ministry as the Successor of Peter, I have always marked Holy Thursday, the day of the Eucharist and of the priesthood, by sending a letter to all the priests of the world. This year, the twenty-fifth of my Pontificate, I wish to involve the whole Church more fully in this Eucharistic reflection, also as a way of thanking the Lord for the gift of the Eucharist and the priesthood: “Gift and Mystery.” … From [the Eucharist] 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? (7).

This final encyclical was the saintly pope’s last words to the Church on this level of authority. And so, it is fitting that the encyclical would center on the presence of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, since the Eucharist was always his personal focus as well as the center of his life as Universal Shepherd of the Church.

The Holy Father begins Ecclesia de Eucharistia by recalling his experience of offering the Mass in the Upper Room of Jerusalem. The pilgrimage to the Holy Land was a part of his celebration of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. In recounting the moving experience, he writes:

The Upper Room was where this most holy Sacrament was instituted. It is there that Christ took bread, broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying: “Take this, all of you, and eat it: this is my body which will be given up for you” (cf. Mk 26:26; Lk 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24). Then he took the cup of wine and said to them: “Take this, all of you and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all, so that sins may be forgiven” (cf. Mt 14:24; Lk 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25). I am grateful to the Lord Jesus for allowing me to repeat in that same place, in obedience to his command: “Do this in memory of me” (Lk 22:19), the words which he spoke two thousand years ago.

Throughout the encyclical, as an almost point-by-point summary of his life and priestly ministry, John Paul II calls the Church to a constant state of awe and amazement before the presence of God among us. He exhorts us to preserve and show the proper reverence for the Eucharist in all we say and do and to truly live with the Eucharist as the “summit and source” of our lives.

And John Paul II points us back to the Eucharist as the only real source of unity both within the Church and among all the peoples of the world.

In concluding the encyclical, Pope St. John Paul II says with a father’s heart and a shepherd’s conviction:

Allow me, like Peter at the end of the Eucharistic discourse in John’s Gospel, to say once more to Christ, in the name of the whole Church and in the name of each of you: “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68). At the dawn of this third millennium, we, the children of the Church, are called to undertake with renewed enthusiasm the journey of Christian living… Every commitment to holiness, every activity aimed at carrying out the Church’s mission, every work of pastoral planning, must draw the strength it needs from the Eucharistic mystery and in turn be directed to that mystery as its culmination” (60).

The encyclical was issued in 2003. It was quickly followed by John Paul II declaring a Year of the Eucharist in 2004-2005. And how moving and providential it was that the saintly pope should die with the Year of the Eucharist. He died as he had lived, devoted and close to his Eucharistic Lord.

The legacy of Pope St. John Paul II is vast and expansive. He accomplished much for the Gospel in his over two-and-a-half decade-long pontificate. But none of it would have happened, or meant anything if it did, if it wasn’t grounded on his constant reliance on the Eucharistic Lord, whom he knew loved him and was always with him.