Benedict XVI's long-awaited Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharist, Sacramentum Caritatis (The Sacrament of Love), was released on 13 March. It embodies the 50 propositions of the 2005 Synod of Bishops, Benedict's own concerns about Eucharistic faith and practice, and draws upon themes raised in John Paul II's final encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia and Benedict's first encyclical Deus Caritatis Est.
With so much ignorance, misinformation and defective practice evident throughout the Church, a solid, authoritative teaching document on the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament - the crux of what it means to be Catholic - is more than timely.
Sacramentum Caritatis, with the proportions of an encyclical, sets out the key truths of Eucharistic doctrine, calls for the dignified, correct celebration of the Mass and reminds us of the need for Eucharistic life to impact on everyday life.
The Exhortation is divided into three sections, each considering one of the three dimensions of the Eucharist: 'the Eucharist, a Mystery to be believed,' 'the Eucharist, a Mystery to be celebrated,' and 'the Eucharist, a Mystery to be lived.'
In his introduction, Benedict refers to 'the orderly development of the ritual forms in which we commemorate the event of our salvation' from the earliest centuries 'to the liturgical renewal called for by the Second Vatican Council'.
While noting 'the difficulties and even the occasional abuses' which had accompanied this renewal he insists these 'cannot overshadow the benefits and the validity of the liturgical renewal, whose riches are yet to be fully explored'. Benedict points out that 'the changes which the Council called for need to be understood within the overall unity of the historical development of the rite itself, without the introduction of artificial discontinuities'.
The first section, 'the Eucharist, a Mystery to be believed,' highlights the 'free gift of the Blessed Trinity' and illustrates 'the mystery of the Eucharist on the basis of its Trinitarian origin.'
In instituting the sacrament of the Eucharist, says Benedict, 'Jesus anticipates and makes present the sacrifice of the Cross and the victory of the resurrection. At the same time, he reveals that he himself is the true sacrificial lamb, destined in the Father's plan from the foundation of the world ...'.
The 'decisive role played by the Holy Spirit in the eucharistic celebration' is next noted, 'particularly with regard to transubstantiation.' The words of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem are quoted from his Catecheses, in which he states that we 'call upon God in his mercy to send his Holy Spirit upon the offerings before us, to transform the bread into the body of Christ and the wine into the blood of Christ. Whatever the Holy Spirit touches is sanctified and completely transformed'.
Benedict next stresses the importance of confession calling on all priests to 'dedicate themselves with generosity, commitment and competency to administering the sacrament of Reconciliation' and 'to limit the practice of general absolution exclusively to the cases permitted'.
Role of the priest
He reminds priests to 'be conscious of the fact that in their ministry they must never put themselves or their personal opinions in first place, but Jesus Christ'. He warns, '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'.
Benedict then reaffirms 'the beauty and the importance of a priestly life lived in celibacy as a sign expressing total and exclusive devotion to Christ, to the Church and to the Kingdom of God' as remaining 'obligatory in the Latin tradition'.
The indissolubility of marriage is likewise reaffirmed. Here, while acknowledging the 'complex and troubling pastoral problem' of the divorced and remarried, he upholds 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.'
In part two, 'The Eucharist, a Mystery to be Celebrated', Benedict observes pointedly that participation in the liturgy is best served by 'the proper celebration of the rite itself' with 'faithful adherence to the liturgical norms in all their richness'. A bishop's responsibility in this regard is to ensure there is 'unity and harmony in the celebrations taking place in his territory'.
A sense of the sacred should be fostered with 'the use of outward signs which help to cultivate this sense, such as, for example, the harmony of the rite, the liturgical vestments, the furnishings and the sacred space'.
Art, says Benedict, should play a key role, especially church architecture, 'which should highlight the unity of the furnishings of the sanctuary, such as the altar, the crucifix, the tabernacle, the ambo and the celebrant's chair', offering 'the Church a fitting space for the celebration of the mysteries of faith, especially the Eucharist.'
Benedict adds, 'Everything related to the Eucharist should be marked by beauty. Special respect and care must also be given to the vestments, the furnishings and the sacred vessels, so that by their harmonious and orderly arrangement they will foster awe for the mystery of God, manifest the unity of the faith and strengthen devotion'.
In this regard, the calibre of sacred music is a major factor: 'In the course of her two-thousand-year history, the Church has created, and still creates, music and songs which represent a rich patrimony of faith and love. This heritage must not be lost. Certainly as far as the liturgy is concerned, we cannot say that one song is as good as another.
'Generic improvisation or the introduction of musical genres which fail to respect the meaning of the liturgy should be avoided. 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.
'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.'
The need to improve the standard of homilies is underlined, these needing to be based on the Scripture readings and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, while concern is expressed at distracting 'exaggerations' connected with the sign of peace with the need for greater restraint at this time.
The distribution of Communion has been a problem area, as at weddings and funerals, where there are non-Catholics or lapsed Catholics present. 'In these cases', insists Benedict, '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.'
Referring again to participation at Mass, Benedict reminds us that this 'does not refer to mere external activity during the celebration', but rather 'in more substantial terms, on the basis of a greater awareness of the mystery being celebrated and its relationship to daily life.' The inner disposition can be fostered 'by recollection and silence for at least a few moments before the beginning of the liturgy, by fasting and, when necessary, by sacramental confession. A heart reconciled to God makes genuine participation possible.'
Benedict calls for a greater use of Latin, certainly at international gatherings, so as 'to express more clearly the unity and universality of the Church'. He recommends also that 'the better-known prayers of the Church's tradition' should be recited in Latin by congregations.
In this regard, he asks '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.'
Benedict's reminder about reverence for the Eucharist is timely, with the need for 'kneeling during the central moments of the Eucharistic Prayer'. The Pope also strongly recommends 'the practice of eucharistic adoration, both individually and in community.'
Regarding the location of tabernacles Benedict's position is quite clear:
'The correct positioning of the tabernacle contributes to the recognition of Christ's real presence in the Blessed Sacrament. Therefore, the place where the eucharistic species are reserved, marked by a sanctuary lamp, should be readily visible to everyone entering the church. It is therefore necessary to take into account the building's architecture: in churches which do not have a Blessed Sacrament chapel, and where the high altar with its tabernacle is still in place, it is appropriate to continue to use this structure for the reservation and adoration of the Eucharist, taking care not to place the celebrant's chair in front of it.
'In new churches, it is good to position the Blessed Sacrament chapel close to the sanctuary; where this is not possible, it is preferable to locate the tabernacle in the sanctuary, in a sufficiently elevated place, at the centre of the apse area, or in another place where it will be equally conspicuous'.
In part three, 'The Eucharist, a Mystery to be Lived', Benedict reminds us about Sunday Mass obligation, the importance of Sunday as a day of rest and the care to be taken with Sunday assemblies in the absence of a priest that these 'do not encourage ecclesiological visions incompatible with the truth of the Gospel and the Church's tradition.'
Under the heading of Eucharistic consistency, Benedict refers to the need for 'a public witness to our faith' beyond our presence at Sunday Mass. This 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. There is an objective connection here with the Eucharist (cf. 1 Cor 11:27-29). Bishops are bound to reaffirm constantly these values as part of their responsibility to the flock entrusted to them.'
Under 'the social implications of the eucharistic mystery' Benedict explains that while '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'. Here she can 'play her part through rational argument' reawakening 'the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper.'
Benedict concludes Sacramentum Caritatis with the announcement that the Vatican will be publishing a Eucharistic Compendium 'which will assemble texts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, prayers, explanations of the Eucharistic Prayers of the Roman Missal and other useful aids for a correct understanding, celebration and adoration of the Sacrament of the Altar'.
While there is nothing new or surprising in the Apostolic Letter, considering the profusion of documents on the Eucharist and liturgy that have been published since Vatican II, the present document brings together all the key elements with the full weight of Church authority. It will serve as a valuable teaching instrument for priests, religious and lay people in every diocese, empowering bishops to address with more vigour defective beliefs and practices connected with the Eucharist in their dioceses.