The Eucharist, the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium 11). It is at the very heart of our Catholic faith and the depth of its mystery is without limit. Let us reflect on the great mystery on the Eucharist from the perspective of health care, considering how Our Lord’s body and blood in the Eucharist is effective in the healing of our brothers and sisters who suffer illness.
The Sacrament of the Eucharist is one among the seven sacraments of the Church. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it is grouped with Baptism and Confirmation as one of the sacraments of Christian initiation by which the faithful “receive in increasing measure the treasures of divine life and advance toward the perfection of charity” (CCC 1212). While there is no question that the sacrament of the Eucharist belongs in this category, it is also evident that the sacrament of the Eucharist fits the Catechism’s description of the sacraments of healing. “The Lord Jesus Christ, physician of our souls and bodies, who forgave the sins of the paralytic and restored him to bodily health, has willed that his Church continue, in the power of the Holy Spirit, his work of healing and salvation, even among her own members. This,” the Catechism says, “is the purpose of the two sacraments of healing: the sacrament of Penance and the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick” (CCC 1421). Penance and Anointing are grouped in the Catechism as the sacraments of healing. Nevertheless, the Catechism also affirms the healing purpose of the Eucharist.
The Eucharist brings about spiritual healing by cleansing us from sin and restoring us in charity. In the Catechism, this effect of the Eucharist is compared to the effect of natural food. “As bodily nourishment restores lost strength, so the Eucharist strengthens our charity, which tends to be weakened in daily life; and this living charity wipes away venial sins” (CCC 1394). The Catechism goes on to quote St. Ambrose, who speaks of the Eucharist as a remedy for sin and concludes, “Because I always sin, I should always have a remedy.” The Catechism also teaches that “the Eucharist preserves us from future mortal sins” though “it is not ordered to the forgiveness of mortal sins [which] is proper to the sacrament of Reconciliation” (CCC 1395). The Eucharist does not have the same healing purpose as the sacrament of Reconciliation, but it does have a healing purpose.
The comparison between bodily nourishment and the Eucharist gives us a clear illustration of the Eucharist’s healing effects. The provision of bodily nourishment is essential to the practice of health care. While food and water are not, properly speaking, medicine, they are necessary to the maintenance and restoration of bodily health. The Eucharist has a similar purpose. It nourishes, maintains and restores charity to a person’s soul. The sacrament of Reconciliation may be the necessary medicine for a soul that is sick. But the Eucharist is needed to maintain the soul’s health, to strengthen its “immune system” to fend off minor ailments and to prevent serious illness in the first place.
The Catechism gives special recognition to the Eucharist’s healing purpose when it is received as viaticum. The Latin word ‘viaticum’ literally means “provision for a journey.” In the tradition of the Church, viaticum has come to refer to Eucharist when it is received in the time when a person prepares for death, the final journey to God. The Catechism calls the Eucharist as viaticum “the seed of eternal life and the power of the resurrection… the Eucharist is here the sacrament of passing over from death to life, from this world to the Father” (CCC 1524). It explicitly groups the Eucharist as viaticum with the sacraments of healing in a way that mirrors the sacraments of initiation. “Thus, just as the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist form a unity called ‘the sacraments of Christian initiation,’ so too it can be said that Penance, the Anointing of the Sick and the Eucharist as viaticum constitute at the end of Christian life ‘the sacraments that prepare for our heavenly homeland’ or the sacraments that complete the earthly pilgrimage” (CCC 1525).
This, of course, is the ultimate healing. The divine life that is received through Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist is brought to its fulfillment in Penance, Anointing of the Sick, and Eucharist as viaticum. Many of those who are involved in health care know how this final healing of the soul can be a great consolation and source of hope. When the healing of the body becomes futile, the healing of the spirit can be brought to completion in the Eucharist, the most holy Body and Blood of Christ, by which we make the ultimate Passover journey from death to new life.