Pope Benedict on the Eucharist

(This is Neil.) Tomorrow morning, the text of Pope Benedict’s Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, will be released. It might be a good time to look at the Pope’s earlier writings on the Eucharist. I would like to do so with the aid of an article written by Eamon Duffy for the current issue of New Blackfriars. But, first, a couple caveats. The thought of Benedict XVI, in the form of various articles and books composed when he was a theologian or a cardinal, is not necessarily predictive of the contents of Sacramentum Caritatis. Also, I would like the following to help us appreciate what is distinctive in his thought, so I will ask a few questions after each section for the sake of further discussion. Finally, for reasons of simplicity, I will refer to the current Pope as simply “Joseph Ratzinger,” instead of alternating “Father Ratzinger,” “Cardinal Ratzinger” or repeating “the then-Joseph Ratzinger.” No disrespect is meant, of course.  

Professor Duffy, I think, illustrates four themes in the Pope’s thought:

First, the Pope has always been appreciative of “the mysterious world of the liturgy” which he encountered in small-town Bavaria. Recalling a Corpus Christi procession, the then-Joseph Ratzinger wrote: 

I can still smell those carpets of flowers and the freshness of the birch trees: I can see all the houses decorated, the banners, the singing: I can still hear the village band which, indeed, sometimes dared to do more, on this occasion, than it was able to! I remember the joie de vivre of the local lads, firing their gun salutes.  

What is distinctive about this? A grateful Joseph Ratzinger would never be one of the liturgists who (as Duffy writes) criticized a preconciliar theology which, in their minds, had “forgotten that the Eucharist had been instituted to be eaten, not carried about on carpets of flowers or show into the air over by lads with guns.” Ratzinger would even declare about the procession, seemingly in a populist vein, that “we do not need to look anxiously over our shoulders at our theological theories to see if everything is in order and can be accounted for.”  We can here ask when we should worry about contexts when the Eucharist seems removed from the context of Jesus’ words, “Take and eat … take and drink …” When does the Eucharist become some sort of holy object that we “use,” perhaps unconsciously, to reinforce communal solidarity or social order? Pope Benedict would caution us against an exaggerated suspicion.   

Second, Pope Benedict would be inspired by Romano Guardini’s little book, The Spirit of the Liturgy. Professor Duffy describes it thus: 

Guardini laid great emphasis on the communal aspects of the liturgy, “the Liturgy does not say ‘I,’ but ‘we’” and on its transcendence of the merely local or any particular congregation. In the liturgy, the Christian “sees himself face to face with God not as an entity, but as a member of the unity” of the Church. The liturgy was the immemorial distillation of Christian experience, so just as it discouraged the individual or the merely local, it also discouraged strong and immediate motion in favor of restraint. Yet it was never frigid, its texts full of longing, hope and love for God – “emotion flows in its depths … like the fiery heart of the volcano. The liturgy is emotion, but it is emotion under the strictest control.” This universalizing restraint, the “style of the liturgy,” in the words of another of Guardini’s chapter titles, trained and liberated Christians into wider and deeper feelings than their own, drew them into the universal aspirations of the whole of redeemed humanity, identified them with the Christ whose prayer the liturgy was. 

Joseph Ratzinger would appreciate Guardini’s moving elucidation of the “time-transcending grandeur” of the liturgy. Perhaps here we might ask ourselves two questions. How might our views of “restraint” do justice to those of our charismatic and Pentecostal brothers and sisters who would remind us that the experience of the Spirit at Pentecost seemed rather unrestrained – like the effects of “too much new wine” (Acts 2:13)? Furthermore, when do our “universal aspirations” lead us to completely neglect the importance of inculturation? At the Synod, the Nigerian Archbishop John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan praised the “ancient rites” of both East and West, stating, “I believe these are themselves products of an inculturation that took place many centuries ago under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” But the Archbishop went on to declare, “That same Spirit has not gone to sleep.” He had earlier referenced the “songs and lyrics,” “drumming and rhythmic body movements” of African liturgies. Perhaps the Pope will lead us to reflect more deeply and profoundly on the meaning of “restraint” and “universality” today than we usually do, ninety years after Guardini published The Spirit of the Liturgy.

Duffy reminds us that Guardini had “celebrated so-called ‘dialogue masses’ at an alter facing the people, and using vernacular hymns, in a desire to let the liturgy speak clearly once again.” At the Council, a young Joseph Ratzinger would suggest that the preconciliar Mass didlack a communal dynamic – it was “a lonely hierarchy facing a group of laymen each of whom is shut off in his own missal or devotional book.” He would note that St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila had seemingly drawn little spiritual nourishment from the Tridentine Mass as it was then celebrated. But he would increasingly worry about the radical change represented by the Missal of Paul VI, writing in his autobiography:  

It was reasonable and right of the Council to order a revision of the missal such as had taken place before and which this time was to be more thorough than before, above all because of the introduction of the vernacular. But more than this now happened. The old building was now demolished, and another was built, to be surely largely using the old building plans. 

The third theme in the Pope’s thought, then, is his belief that “when liturgy is self-made … it can no longer give us what its proper gift should be, the encounter with the mystery that is not out own product, but rather our origin and the source of our life.” We must, he would say, experience liturgy as a given, otherwise we lose a sense of divine priority, that our self-giving can only occur because God has first given Himself. The Pope worries about the possibility of “festival[s] of self-affirmation,” “banal self-gratification,” “self-initiated and self-seeking worship.” 

This raises rather interesting questions about how we might imagine the history of the liturgy, particularly the inevitably human element in this history. When we think of Holy Scripture, for instance, the Pontifical Biblical Commission has cautiously endorsed sociological exegesis and recognized that the biblical texts “are bound in reciprocal relationship to the societies in which they originated.” Thus, while we certainly believe in divine inspiration, we must grasp that the biblical texts do reflect the economic and institutional life of particular contexts if we wish to understand why Jesus was an itinerant preacher or the formation of the urban social structure of the Pauline communities.  

Furthermore, when we think about tradition, we might have to acknowledge certain moments of sudden, even disruptive, change. For instance, as I’ve posted earlier, Eugene Fisher of the USCCB has written that “no one for almost two millennia ever thought to question” the ancient Christian polemics of contempt against Jews and Judaism. As he writes,

 Thus, Nostra Aetate, distinctive among the Conciliar documents, does not cite previous Councils of the Church, nor the Church Fathers, nor even theologians of the stature of Augustine and Aquinas. It was, as Cardinal Walter Kasper of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews has said, the very “beginning of the beginning” of the Church’s official understanding of its relationship to Jews. 

If we cannot exclude a human element from the history of Scripture, surely we cannot exclude that element from a history of the liturgy, and if tradition proves to occasionally be disruptive, we need not imagine a completely harmonious, imperceptible development of the liturgy. Or so it would seem. But Pope Benedict would warn us about the danger of forgetting that the liturgy must be a given. How do we preserve this essential sense of divine priority? 

The fourth theme in the thought of the Pope is probably the most important. The liturgical reformers – Guardini included – had sought a master “form,” a Gestalt, behind the liturgy. They believed that it was a meal. These liturgists claimed that to speak of the Mass as a sacrifice referred to a hidden theological essence, but that the meal structure should determine its visible performance. To Joseph Ratzinger, the separation of theological content from liturgical structure was impossible, even schizophrenic. He claimed that the fundamental form of the Eucharist after the Apostolic Age (when, according to him, we can begin to speak about fundamental form) was not a meal, but Eucharistia, the prayer of thanksgiving. Joseph Ratzinger even suggested that, aside from discussions of 1 Corinthians 11, the patristic and medieval literature does not designate the Eucharist as a meal. Duffy thinks that this is overstated and points us to the Corpus Christi antiphon “O Sacrum Convivium” (which is quoted in Ecclesia de Eucharistia). But Joseph Ratzinger suggested that “the Eucharistic thesis is able to put the dogmatic and liturgical levels in touch with each other.” 

In this Eucharistic thesis, Jesus’ words “this is my body, this is my blood, given for you” come from the Temple sacrifices and from the account of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah. Thus, the Canon of the Mass is “the true sacrifice, the word of the Word: in it speaks the one who, as Word, is life.” The meal element is merely in the fact that these are also the words said before the sacred meal. Of course, it might also exist in the nourishment of the Eucharist, but the Eucharist to Joseph Ratzinger is always the “banquet of the reconciled.” It is not a recreation of Jesus’ table-fellowship with sinners. We can continue to separate the Eucharist from other “meal interpretations”: the Eucharist is not a continuation of the annual Passover meal, nor should it look primarily to the Agape of Corinth, described by Paul, as a predecessor.  

Joseph Ratzinger even wrote: 

The real mistake of those who attempt uncritically to deduce the Christian liturgy from the Last Supper of Jesus is certainly the basis of all Christian liturgy, but in itself it is not yet Christian. 

In the thought of Joseph Ratzinger, as Duffy says, the Mass, to fulfill Israelite religion – the future Pope would later speak further of the Eucharist as the thanksgiving sacrifice, drawing on the toda in various Psalms – had to actually be freed “from the historical contingencies which surrounded its origins.” This requires, needless to say, a very reverential and continuous view of tradition. 

Duffy then notes that Ratzinger’s rejection of the paradigm of a meal has rather dramatic consequences on his view of the liturgy. Joseph Ratzinger does not support any sort of individualism, but has disliked the new orientation of sanctuaries – the versus populum was only meant to conform to the “primordial model of the Last Supper” which Ratzinger has criticized. He likewise has disliked the kiss of peace and other institutions meant to cultivate the community spirit of a meal. These, to him, would seem like mere distractions from the one great action of the liturgy – Christ’s self-giving on the cross, in which we participate with silence, ideally facing the rising Sun together so that the Eucharist might open towards eternity in yearning for the Savior’s return.  

I remain somewhat curious about Joseph Ratzinger’s belief that the Mass had to be freed from the historical contingencies which surrounded its origins, so that we cannot directly relate the Mass to Scriptural precedents. Is the Mass unique in this? Would we say this about anything else? Is there a history to this sort of claim? I wouldn’t know. We certainly do need to continue to reflect on the relationship between meal and sacrifice.

 In any case, after these questions, I should probably express a note of gratitude to Eamon Duffy for his article, and, of course, Pope Benedict himself. I have much to think about. Incidentally, some readers might wish to know that I’ve posted, drawing on John Baldovin, SJ, on Pope Benedict on liturgy in a more general way here.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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6 Responses to Pope Benedict on the Eucharist

  1. Pes says:

    Thanks for this article, Neil.

    We certainly do need to continue to reflect on the relationship between meal and sacrifice.

    If there is no Sacrifice, we are eating ashes. I agree with Flannery O’Connor: “if it’s just a symbol, to hell with it.” The Sacrifice must have priority, always. Without it, said Paul, our faith is vain.

  2. Todd says:

    This discussion point flared at the 2005 synod and was one of the few interventions by Pope Benedict who said the Mass was both meal and sacrifice and that was the end of it.

    We accept the nature of Christ as fully human and fully God. We can certainly embrace the notion of meal and sacrifice as each having an appropriate priority.

  3. Neil says:

    Dear Pes,

    Thanks for writing. Let me clarify:

    As far as I know, no serious Catholic theologian would deny that the Eucharist is a sacrifice. In fact, assuming that we carefully clarify that the Eucharist is a sacramental enactment of Christ’s “once and for all” sacrifice of atonement, a good many Protestants would seem to agree with us (see, for instance, the recent Lutheran-Orthodox Bratislava Statement).

    This is not in question.

    The question is whether this dogmatic content can be communicated by the visible performance of a meal. As Eamon Duffy has reminded us, the then-Joseph Ratzinger expressed skepticism about this possibility.

    Of course, if we suggest that the fundamental form of the Eucharist is not a meal, we distance our celebrations from New Testament and apostolic precedents, whether the agape described in 1 Corinthians 11 or the Last Supper itself. Thus, in his collection, The Feast of Faith, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that “the Last Supper of Jesus is certainly the basis of all Christian liturgy, but in itself it is not yet Christian,” meaning that we should not look to it for liturgical form.

    But, in any case, the discussion would seem to be about visible performance, not dogmatic content: How do we communicate the sacrificial character of the Mass?

    Thanks again.


  4. Pes says:

    Of course it’s both meal and sacrifice, and both aspects are important. But logic would seem to demand that there is no meal without the Sacrifice. So yes, Neil, I agree that the discussion is not about this point. I’d rephrase your question to, “How do we best reinforce our perception of the sacrificial nature of the Mass?” Because there is the source of our gratitude and hope. Cheers, P

  5. Todd says:

    “How do we best reinforce our perception of the sacrificial nature of the Mass?”

    For clergy, pray the words speaking of sacrifice and make the gestures authentic.

    For laity, attend to the words and seek the connection between what is preached and prayed and one’s life.

    For all, live the sacrifice one celebrates at Mass in one’s daily life. If any sense of sacrifice is paramount, giving example of Christ’s sacrifice in the world would be.

  6. Neil says:

    Dear Pes,

    Thanks for writing again. I don’t think that I would quarrel with your rephrasing of the question. So, “How do we best reinforce our perception of the sacrificial nature of the Mass?”

    Todd has some suggestions, but let’s assume, for the purposes of this discussion, that we do have a reverential clergy and attentive laity.

    The question, then, is whether we can reinforce of perception of the sacrifical nature of the Mass through the visible performance of a meal. I think that many liturgists would say yes; the writings of the then-Joseph Ratzinger would suggest that he is at least skeptical. The Apostolic Exhortation does not do much with the idea of a “meal,” which goes, if I remember correctly, unmentioned whenever the manner and details of celebration are discussed.

    What do you think?


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