Carl E. Olson

In Truth and Tolerance, published shortly before he was elected Pope Benedict XVI, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger discussed orthopraxy, understood as right practice, and orthodoxy, commonly thought of as right thinking. “Mere praxis,” he wrote, “gives no light.” That is, to simply take part in religious rituals without comprehension and assimilation of what is really transpiring is of little value. “To be orthodox,” he explains, referring back to the early Church, “therefore, meant: to know and to practice the right way in which God wishes to be glorified. It refers to worship and, on the basis of worship, to life.”

This passage came to mind as I first read Sacramentum Caritatis, Benedict’s Apostolic Exhortation “On the Eucharist as the Source and Summit of the Church’s Life and Mission” (March 13, 2007). This lengthy work is a post-synodal document that summarizes and reflects upon the Year of the Eucharist, which began in October 2004 with the International Eucharistic Congress, held in October in Guadalajara, Mexico, and concluded in October 2005 with the Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Rome.

In various works Benedict has approached the subject at hand with, first, an examination of orthodoxy–the theological truths–and then a consideration of orthopraxy–how those truths are lived, practiced, and comprehended in the concrete day-to-day life of the Christian. So, for example, the first two sections of The Spirit of the Liturgy looked first at the big theological picture: the “Essence of the Liturgy” and “Time and Space in the Liturgy,” reflecting on the place of liturgy within reality and history, and the necessity of sacred places, as well as the importance of the direction of liturgical prayer. Then the third part offered specific thoughts on art and liturgy, including the use of statues, images, and music, while the final section examined “Liturgical Form,” and commented on issues such “active participation,” posture, and vestments.

This same approach is seen even more clearly in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, (“God Is Love”). The first part, on the unity of love, was a nuanced theological examination of the nature and meaning of love; the second part, on the practice of love, contemplated how the orthodox understanding of love is to be lived out in both the life of the Church and in the secular realm. In this way the Church’s social teachings–about justice, charitable activities, the political order–will be properly understood in the light of the Church’s understanding of love.

Likewise, Sacramentum Caritatis, which consists of three major sections, begins with the Mystery of the Eucharist. This includes reflections on the Trinity and the Eucharist (7-8), Jesus as the true sacrificial Lamb (9-11), the Holy Spirit (12-13), the Church (14-15), the other Sacraments (16-29), eschatology (teachings about the end times, 30-32), and the Virgin Mary (33). The second section considers the Eucharist as a “Mystery to be Celebrated, in which the doctrines of the Church are placed within the context of the worship of the Church, with an examination of “the connection between the lex orandi and the lex credendi, and stressing the primacy of the liturgical action.” (par 34). The Mass is discussed in some detail (39-51), as well as the meaning of “authentic participation,” (52-63) a topic addressed at length by Cardinal Ratzinger in The Spirit of the Liturgy, and concludes with remarks on Eucharistic adoration and devotion (66-69). The third and final section is on the Eucharist as a “Mystery to be lived.” The Holy Father considers interconnected topics such as spiritual worship, Sunday obligation, Eucharistic culture, and the social implications of the Eucharistic mystery (70-93).

In explaining his approach to the structure of Sacramentum Caritatis, Benedict writes,

“I wish here to endorse the wishes expressed by the Synod Fathers by encouraging the Christian people to deepen their understanding of the relationship between the eucharistic mystery, the liturgical action, and the new spiritual worship which derives from the Eucharist as the sacrament of charity. Consequently, I wish to set the present Exhortation alongside my first Encyclical Letter, Deus Caritas Est, in which I frequently mentioned the sacrament of the Eucharist and stressed its relationship to Christian love, both of God and of neighbour: ‘God incarnate draws us all to himself. We can thus understand how agape also became a term for the Eucharist: there God’s own agape comes to us bodily, in order to continue his work in us and through us'” (par 5).

Even if Benedict had not specifically connected the two, some parallels between Sacramentum Caritatis and Deus Caritas Est are transparent. The encyclical opens by quoting from 1 John 4:16: “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in god, and God abides in him.” The apostolic exhortation begins by stating the Holy Eucharist is “the sacrament of charity” that is “the gift that Jesus Christ makes of himself, thus revealing to us God’s infinite love for every man and woman.” The Gospel of John is then quoted twice.

As with Deus Caritas Est, this apostolic exhortation is both theologically rich and pastorally wise. When his first encyclical was presented, some commentators were surprised by its straightforward and accessible nature. But this marked an obvious continuation of the style and approach found in his writings as a priest, archbishop, and cardinal: nuanced, but never esoteric; deliberate, but never ponderous; exhaustive, but never exhausting.

Hopefully readers will not steer clear from reading Sacramentum Caritatis because of its length (nearly 32,000 words) or extensive footnotes (256 in all). (By way of contrast, Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, [April 17, 2003] was about 18,000 words in length and had 104 footnotes.) It is nothing short of a Eucharistic Catechism, a work of essential reading for anyone wanting to better comprehend and appreciate the Church’s teachings about the Eucharist and the ramifications, if you will, of those teachings. Without wanting to keep anyone from reading the actual document, and without pretending to do more than offer a few comments, here are some brief thoughts upon a first reading.

The catechetical-like approach (a good thing, in my estimation) can be seen in how Sacramentum Caritatis begins its first major section by establishing the relationship between the great mystery of the Trinity and the mystery of the Eucharist: “The first element of eucharistic faith is the mystery of God himself, trinitarian love” (par 7). Within this context, Benedict emphasizes the relational reality of the Triune God gifting man with a share of His divine life through the Eucharist: “But it is in Christ, dead and risen, and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, given without measure (cf. Jn 3:34), that we have become sharers of God’s inmost life. Jesus Christ, who “through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God” (Heb 9:14), makes us, in the gift of the Eucharist, sharers in God’s own life” (par 8).

The Holy Father emphasizes the Jewish context and dimensions of the institution of the Eucharist, beginning with the Exodus (par 10). He firmly places Jesus within the context of that great event and the Passover celebration and then expounds on how Jesus transformed the Passover meal into something far greater: “Jesus thus brings his own radical novum to the ancient Hebrew sacrificial meal. For us Christians, that meal no longer need be repeated. As the Church Fathers rightly say, figura transit in veritatem: the foreshadowing has given way to the truth itself. The ancient rite has been brought to fulfilment and definitively surpassed by the loving gift of the incarnate Son of God” (par 11).

Changes to the liturgical celebration–the form–made throughout history are not a matter of personal whim or arbitrary happenstance, but are prompted and guided by the Holy Spirit: “This great mystery is celebrated in the liturgical forms which the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, develops in time and space. We need a renewed awareness of the decisive role played by the Holy Spirit in the evolution of the liturgical form and the deepening understanding of the sacred mysteries” (par 12).

The Eucharist is “constitutive of the Church’s being and activity” (par 15). That is, the absence of the Eucharist means, strictly speaking, the absence of “church,” which is why Protestant groups are not formally called “churches” (cf., Dominus Iesus, par 17). The positive side of this fact is that the “emphasis on this eucharistic basis of ecclesial communion can also contribute greatly to the ecumenical dialogue with the Churches and Ecclesial Communities which are not in full communion with the See of Peter. The Eucharist objectively creates a powerful bond of unity between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches, which have preserved the authentic and integral nature of the eucharistic mystery. At the same time, emphasis on the ecclesial character of the Eucharist can become an important element of the dialogue with the Communities of the Reformed tradition” (par 15).

In the Eastern Catholic (and Orthodox) Churches, the usual practice is to administer the sacraments of baptism, chrismation (confirmation) and Eucharist all at once (in succession) to a newborn or young child. In the West, confirmation usually comes after first Communion, often several years later. The different traditions exist because of pastoral reasons, but Benedict indicates that the Western Churches should reconsider the process of Christian initiation in order to emphasize the proper place of the Blessed Sacrament in the life of the Christian and the Church: “As the Synod Fathers said, we need to ask ourselves whether in our Christian communities the close link between Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist is sufficiently recognized. It must never be forgotten that our reception of Baptism and Confirmation is ordered to the Eucharist” (pars 17-18).

Priests are cautioned–warned, really–to not make themselves the focal point of Mass, but to submit their personality to the greater good of the Eucharistic liturgy: “As a result, priests should be conscious of the fact that in their ministry they must never put themselves or their personal opinions in first place, but Jesus Christ. Any attempt to make themselves the centre of the liturgical action contradicts their very identity as priests. The priest is above all a servant of others, and he must continually work at being a sign pointing to Christ, a docile instrument in the Lord’s hands. This is seen particularly in his humility in leading the liturgical assembly, in obedience to the rite, uniting himself to it in mind and heart, and avoiding anything that might give the impression of an inordinate emphasis on his own personality” (par 23).

Benedict comments at length on the difficult situation of those who are divorced and remarried. “The Synod of Bishops confirmed the Church’s practice, based on Sacred Scripture (cf. Mk 10:2- 12), of not admitting the divorced and remarried to the sacraments, since their state and their condition of life objectively contradict the loving union of Christ and the Church signified and made present in the Eucharist. Yet the divorced and remarried continue to belong to the Church, which accompanies them with special concern and encourages them to live as fully as possible the Christian life through regular participation at Mass, albeit without receiving communion, listening to the word of God, eucharistic adoration, prayer, participation in the life of the community, honest dialogue with a priest or spiritual director, dedication to the life of charity, works of penance, and commitment to the education of their children” (par 29). He offers further thoughts on annulments and the need for improved pre-marital direction and guidance.

The eschatological end of the Eucharist is considered briefly: “For us, the eucharistic banquet is a real foretaste of the final banquet foretold by the prophets (cf. Is 25:6-9) and described in the New Testament as “the marriage-feast of the Lamb” (Rev 19:7-9), to be celebrated in the joy of the communion of saints” (par 31). This aspect of the Eucharistic reality was explored at greater length in John Paul II’s encyclical (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, pars 18-20).

The liturgy should be beautiful since it is “is a radiant expression of the paschal mystery, in which Christ draws us to himself and calls us to communion.” This isn’t a matter of aesthetics or snobbery, but “the concrete way in which the truth of God’s love in Christ encounters us, attracts us and delights us, enabling us to emerge from ourselves and drawing us towards our true vocation, which is love.” And: “Beauty, then, is not mere decoration, but rather an essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God himself and his revelation. These considerations should make us realize the care which is needed, if the liturgical action is to reflect its innate splendour” (par 35). In sum, “Everything related to the Eucharist should be marked by beauty” (par 41).

If the liturgy is celebrated properly, the issue of active participation takes care of itself. “The primary way to foster the participation of the People of God in the sacred rite is the proper celebration of the rite itself” (par 39). This means respecting the proper roles of the bishops and priests and “an appreciation of the value of the liturgical norms.”; when those are subverted or confused, serious problems arise. In what might be the understatement of the Apostolic Exhortation, Benedict writes: “The eucharistic celebration is enhanced when priests and liturgical leaders are committed to making known the current liturgical texts and norms, making available the great riches found in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and the Order of Readings for Mass. Perhaps we take it for granted that our ecclesial communities already know and appreciate these resources, but this is not always the case” (par 40).

Benedict is emphatic about the matter of sacred music, a topic he has written much about in works including The Spirit of the Liturgy. “Generic improvisation or the introduction of musical genres which fail to respect the meaning of the liturgy should be avoided.” There’s little doubt that he is referring, in part, to forms of popular and “rock” music. “As an element of the liturgy, song should be well integrated into the overall celebration. Consequently everything–texts, music, execution–ought to correspond to the meaning of the mystery being celebrated, the structure of the rite and the liturgical seasons.” He reiterates the directive of the Second Vatican Council that Gregorian chant should be given pride of place: “Finally, while respecting various styles and different and highly praiseworthy traditions, I desire, in accordance with the request advanced by the Synod Fathers, that Gregorian chant be suitably esteemed and employed as the chant proper to the Roman liturgy” (par 42).

Homilies need to get better! “Given the importance of the word of God, the quality of homilies needs to be improved” (par 46). In particular: “Generic and abstract homilies should be avoided.” In other words, the homilies should actively take up the content of the readings, especially the Gospel reading, and not simply be an opportunity for simplistic platitudes.

Too often, the Sign of Peace becomes a distraction; in some parishes in sometimes seems to be the climax of the Mass. “We can thus understand the emotion so often felt during the sign of peace at a liturgical celebration. Even so, during the Synod of Bishops there was discussion about the appropriateness of greater restraint in this gesture, which can be exaggerated and cause a certain distraction in the assembly just before the reception of Communion” (par 49).

Benedict insists that weddings, funerals, and other occasions are not reasons for Communion to be given to non-Catholics, or Catholics living in situations that would keep them from rightfully receiving the Eucharist. “In these cases, there is a need to find a brief and clear way to remind those present of the meaning of sacramental communion and the conditions required for its reception” (par 50).

A matter of great importance to the Holy Father is the issue of “active participation” (pars 52-63). He knows that many Catholics believe that doing things during Mass reflects such participation, but he corrects this incorrect understanding. “It should be made clear that the word “participation” does not refer to mere external activity during the celebration. In fact, the active participation called for by the Council must be understood in more substantial terms, on the basis of a greater awareness of the mystery being celebrated and its relationship to daily life” (par 52). And: “Clearly, full participation in the Eucharist takes place when the faithful approach the altar in person to receive communion” (par 55).

The laity and clergy alike should know some Latin, specifically certain prayers and songs. “Similarly, the better-known prayers of the Church’s tradition should be recited in Latin and, if possible, selections of Gregorian chant should be sung. Speaking more generally, I ask that future priests, from their time in the seminary, receive the preparation needed to understand and to celebrate Mass in Latin, and also to use Latin texts and execute Gregorian chant; nor should we forget that the faithful can be taught to recite the more common prayers in Latin, and also to sing parts of the liturgy to Gregorian chant” (par 62). Notably, Benedict does not address the matter of the Tridentine Mass (sometimes, incorrectly, called “The Latin Mass” by some).

Eucharistic adoration and devotion is strongly encouraged, even exhorted: “With the Synod Assembly, therefore, I heartily recommend to the Church’s pastors and to the People of God the practice of eucharistic adoration, both individually and in community” (par 67). And, “besides encouraging individual believers to make time for personal prayer before the Sacrament of the Altar, I feel obliged to urge parishes and other church groups to set aside times for collective adoration” (par 68).

The tabernacle should be in a prominent place and easily seen from within the church: “Therefore, the place where the eucharistic species are reserved, marked by a sanctuary lamp, should be readily visible to everyone entering the church” (par 69). Exceptions are discussed.

There is no place for “privately opposed, publicly supportive” when it comes to the Eucharistic life, for Catholics must live with what is described as “eucharistic consistency: “Worship pleasing to God can never be a purely private matter, without consequences for our relationships with others: it demands a public witness to our faith. Evidently, this is true for all the baptized, yet it is especially incumbent upon those who, by virtue of their social or political position, must make decisions regarding fundamental values, such as respect for human life, its defence from conception to natural death, the family built upon marriage between a man and a woman, the freedom to educate one’s children and the promotion of the common good in all its forms. These values are not negotiable. Consequently, Catholic politicians and legislators, conscious of their grave responsibility before society, must feel particularly bound, on the basis of a properly formed conscience, to introduce and support laws inspired by values grounded in human nature” (par 83).

Reception of the Eucharist leads to the desire to witness and evangelize: “The more ardent the love for the Eucharist in the hearts of the Christian people, the more clearly will they recognize the goal of all mission: to bring Christ to others” (par 86).

Authentic peace and justice are found and understood in the light of the Eucharist, not through ideologies or political movements. “In discussing the social responsibility of all Christians, the Synod Fathers noted that the sacrifice of Christ is a mystery of liberation that constantly and insistently challenges us. I therefore urge all the faithful to be true promoters of peace and justice: ‘All who partake of the Eucharist must commit themselves to peacemaking in our world scarred by violence and war, and today in particular, by terrorism, economic corruption and sexual exploitation'” (par 89). And: “In a particular way, the Christian laity, formed at the school of the Eucharist, are called to assume their specific political and social responsibilities” (par 91).

In conclusion: “True joy is found in recognizing that the Lord is still with us, our faithful companion along the way. The Eucharist makes us discover that Christ, risen from the dead, is our contemporary in the mystery of the Church, his body. Of this mystery of love we have become witnesses. Let us encourage one another to walk joyfully, our hearts filled with wonder, towards our encounter with the Holy Eucharist, so that we may experience and proclaim to others the truth of the words with which Jesus took leave of his disciples: “Lo, I am with you always, until the end of the world” (Mt 28:20)” (par 97).