Benedict’s Love Letter to the Eucharist

The Eucharist is a mystery to be believed, to be celebrated and to be lived. Pope Benedict XVI released his post-synodal exhortation on the Eucharist.
by EDWARD PENTIN | Source:
VATICAN CITY — After months of anticipation, Pope Benedict XVI has finally released the post-synodal exhortation on the Eucharist. It’s a document intended to strengthen devotion for the Blessed Sacrament. And general reaction to it has been highly favorable.

Entitled Sacramentum Caritatis (The Sacrament of Charity), the 130-page document was presented at a Vatican press conference March 13 by Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice, who served as relator general of the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist held in October 2005, and Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, the synod’s secretary general.

The lengthy document, signed by the Pope Feb. 22, is a papal reflection of the synod. Benedict divided his Eucharistic reflections into three parts: the Eucharist as a mystery to be believed, to be celebrated, and to be lived.

Overall, Sacramentum Caritatis contains little that is new, but it highlights and re-articulates the central importance of the Eucharist to the Catholic faith. Cardinal Scola said the exhortation reaffirms “the Holy Father’s insistence over these two years of his pontificate on the truth of love,” a topic that represents “one of the crucial themes upon which the future of the Church and of humanity depend,” the cardinal said.

Archbishop Eterovic said the document, “in presenting the great truths of Eucharistic faith in a way accessible to modern man, considers various current aspects of [Eucharistic] celebration and calls for a renewed commitment to building a more just and peaceful world, in which the Bread broken for everyone’s life becomes … the exemplary cause in the fight against hunger and all forms of poverty.”

Benedict writes in the introduction to Sacramentum Caritatis that its goal is to encourage the “Christian people to deepen their understanding of the relationship between the Eucharistic mystery, the liturgical action, and the new spiritual worship that derives from the Eucharist as the sacrament of charity.

“Consequently,” the Pope states, “I wish to set the present exhortation alongside my first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), in which I frequently mentioned the sacrament of the Eucharist and stressed its relationship to Christian love, both of God and of neighbor.”

The message that the Eucharist is both the “food of truth” and the “love of God” runs throughout the document. According to the Holy Father, in the sacrament the Lord “truly becomes food for us, to satisfy our hunger for truth and freedom,” and that since only the truth can make us free, “Christ becomes for us the food of truth.”

Benedict’s renowned theological scholarship is evident throughout Sacramentum Caritatis.

“The main thing to note about this document is its theological depth — the emphasis on unity in the sacramental life, that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the sacramental life, that from there all the other sacraments, particularly baptism, reconciliation and marriage, all flow,” said Father Robert Gahl, professor of moral philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. “But the Holy Father not only reaffirms traditional doctrine, he renders it more beautiful and profound than former expressions.”

The Pope also tackles contentious issues that were extensively discussed at the 2005 synod. Noting the “difficulties and even occasional abuses” in the liturgy since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the Holy Father stresses that the sound development of the liturgy is an organic process.

“The changes that the council called for need to be understood within the overall unity of the historical development of the rite itself,” Benedict instructs, adding that emphasis on the importance of ars celebrandi (the art of proper celebration) “leads to an appreciation of the value of liturgical norms.”

In many ways, say Vatican observers, the Pope’s post-synodal document provides additional information that can assist in correcting misinterpretations of the Second Vatican Council’s liturgical reforms.

“There are no liturgical police — if people are intent on abuse, no coercive backing will achieve the desired result,” noted one Vatican official speaking on condition of anonymity. “But the vast majority of the faithful will be grateful for this explanation of what the Church’s thinking is.”

Receiving Communion

Paragraph 83 alludes to the problem of dissenting Catholic politicians receiving holy Communion. “Fundamental values, such as respect for human life, its defense 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,” the Pope writes.

“Consequently,” he states, “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.”

But the paragraph does not specify that bishops are bound to deny Communion to all politicians who openly dissent from Church teachings on crucial moral issues like abortion and homosexual “marriage.”

Instead, it instructs that bishops “are bound to reaffirm constantly these values as part of their responsibility to the flock entrusted to them.” The English translation renders the original Latin praecepta (precepts) as “values.”

Archbishop Bruno Forte, a member of the doctrinal commission of the Italian bishops conference and a member of the 2005 synod, told the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera March 14 that the paragraph underlines the obligation of pastors to “recall” Catholic politicians to the faith so they can be an “inspiration to others.”

But Archbishop Forte also pointed to Paragraph 89 in which the Pope writes: “it is not the proper task of the Church to engage in the political work of bringing about the most just society possible; nonetheless, she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the struggle for justice.” Ultimately, “each bishop must evaluate [the situation] according to conscience,” said Archbishop Forte, and that “objective criteria” must be taken into account with the individual legislator concerned.

In another section of Sacramentum Caritatis, The Pope upholds the need to bar reception of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, but he describes the problem as “a complex and troubling pastoral problem, a real scourge for contemporary society.”

At the same time, the Holy Father stressed that the Church encourages couples who are in irregular marriages because of a previous divorce “to live as fully as possible the Christian life through regular participation at Mass,” even if they can’t receive Communion. In doing so, the Vatican official said, Benedict “articulates the law but at the same time underscores the pastoral reality, that every pastor is gravely bound to reach out to divorced and remarried Catholics in every way possible.”

Priestly celibacy was another frequent topic for discussion at the synod. Reflecting on that discussion, Benedict states, “While respecting the different practice and tradition of the Eastern Churches, there is a need to reaffirm the profound meaning of priestly celibacy, which is rightly considered a priceless treasure.”

Added the Pope, “I therefore confirm that it remains obligatory in the Latin tradition. Priestly celibacy lived with maturity, joy and dedication is an immense blessing for the Church and for society itself.”

This affirmation of priestly celibacy “was the strongest I’ve seen a papal document,” said Father Gahl.

In other sections, the Holy Father “heartily” recommends the practice of Eucharistic adoration “both individually and in community.” Benedict stresses the Eucharist cannot be “relegated to something private and individual,” and also emphasizes that it is important not to “lose a sense of Sunday as the Lord’s Day.”

Sacramentum Caritatis also advocates a greater use of Latin, and expresses the Pope’s desire that Gregorian chant “be suitably esteemed and employed as the chant proper to Roman Liturgy.” The Holy Father also notes in the document that he has asked relevant Vatican offices to investigate changing the placement of the Sign of Peace to before the Offertory, another matter that was discussed at the synod.

Bishop Reno Fisichella, rector of the Pontifical Lateran University, said the Pope deftly handled all of the issues Sacramentum Caritatis addresses.

“On each of these themes, the words of Benedict XVI are to the point, justified, firm and decisive,” he wrote in the Italian bishops’ newspaper Avvenire March 14.

“I am convinced,” Bishop Fisichella said, “a spirituality of the Eucharist will grow [out of the document], and that its complex expressions will bear fruit and support the witness of each believer.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.

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