At the end of the last session, we tried to guess where the pope might take us—recall, he talked about the inner life and love of the Trinity, the Father sending the Son, the Son’s climactic act of salvation—the "Paschal Mystery"—and now we move to the Spirit.
Since we’re talking about the Eucharist—meaning both the sacrament per se and the Mass—what might we expect to look at, or hear about, next? (Of course, you may have already read the next section, so you know!)
The Work of the Holy Spirit
As we saw, the pope has made clear in talking about the Eucharist, he’s talking just as much about how it is celebrated—i.e., the Mass—as he is the sacrament itself. So, as he begins to talk about the Spirit, notice what he says right away:
With his word and with the elements of bread and wine, the Lord himself has given us the essentials of this new worship. The Church, his Bride, is called to celebrate the eucharistic banquet daily in his memory. She thus makes the redeeming sacrifice of her Bridegroom a part of human history and makes it sacramentally present in every culture. 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 (12, emphasis added).
This move by the pope may surprise us—he leaps, as it were, over all the things we expect him to say about the work of the Holy Spirit, right to something that seems pretty mundane: how the Church carries out her liturgy! He is going to say more about that in the second section of his letter, so we can wait till we get there to look closer at that; and when we do, I’ll share some other writings by the pope that may help fill out his thought here. But for now, note he is, as it were, planting his flag: the celebration of the liturgy is all about cooperating with the work of the Holy Spirit, through "the evolution of the liturgical form."
Next, the holy father goes where we expected, talking about
The Paraclete, Christ's first gift to those who believe, already at work in Creation (cf. Gen 1:2), is fully present throughout the life of the incarnate Word: Jesus Christ is conceived by the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. Mt 1:18; Lk 1:35); at the beginning of his public mission, on the banks of the Jordan, he sees the Spirit descend upon him in the form of a dove (cf. Mt 3:16 and parallels); he acts, speaks and rejoices in the Spirit (cf. Lk 10:21), and he can offer himself in the Spirit (cf. Heb 9:14). In the so-called "farewell discourse" reported by John, Jesus clearly relates the gift of his life in the paschal mystery to the gift of the Spirit to his own (cf. Jn 16:7). Once risen, bearing in his flesh the signs of the passion, he can pour out the Spirit upon them (cf. Jn 20:22), making them sharers in his own mission (cf. Jn 20:21).
The Spirit would then teach the disciples all things and bring to their remembrance all that Christ had said (cf. Jn 14:26), since it falls to him, as the Spirit of truth (cf. Jn 15:26), to guide the disciples into all truth (cf. Jn 16:13). In the account in Acts, the Spirit descends on the Apostles gathered in prayer with Mary on the day of Pentecost (cf. 2:1-4) and stirs them to undertake the mission of proclaiming the Good News to all peoples. Thus it is through the working of the Spirit that Christ himself continues to be present and active in his Church, starting with her vital center which is the Eucharist (Ibid., emphasis added).
Then the pope comes back to "The Holy Spirit and the eucharistic celebration": "Against this backdrop we can understand the decisive role played by the Holy Spirit in the eucharistic celebration, particularly with regard to transubstantiation" (13). Benedict goes on to cite many of the early Church Fathers on this subject.
But we might wonder why he chooses to emphasize this?
I think his point is to emphasize the action of all Three Divine Persons in the Mass.
When we participate in the Mass, we address so many of our prayers to the Father, and we hear, and the priest repeats, the words and actions of the Son. We sometimes lose sight of the equally strong presence—perhaps not so obvious—of the Holy Spirit.
So, for example, we often emphasize how the bread and wine become Jesus through the words of the Son, spoken by—and through—the priest; but here the pope is making clear the Spirit is every bit as active—and while it may seem obvious, we remember: you can’t have this miracle of Christ becoming present in the Mass without the action of the Holy Spirit—which, by the way, parallels his Incarnation…and really, every moment of Jesus’ ministry, on earth and now in heaven.
In this context, there’s also a really image of the Holy Spirit’s action in relation to the Eucharist, we might think about.
Recall some of the principal images or symbols of the Spirit: among other, you have water and fire. Now think of the matter of the Eucharist—at least, of the bread: wheat, grains, right? The bread we use for Mass, how do you make it? Take wheat, make flour, combine it with…water…and you bake it, which requires…heat—fire!
Here’s a copy of a great, but simple hymn, let’s try it together, and listen especially for the last lines:
Father we thank Thee who has planted
Thy holy name within our hearts.
Knowledge and faith and life immortal
Jesus The Son to us imparts.
Thou, Lord, didst make all for Thy pleasure,
Didst give man food for all his days,
Giving in Christ the bread eternal;
Thine is the power, be Thine the praise.
Watch o'er Thy Church, O Lord, in mercy,
Save it from evil, guard it still,
Perfect it in Thy love, unite it,
Cleansed and conformed unto Thy will.
As grain, once scattered on the hillsides,
Was in the broken bread made one,
So from all lands Thy Church be gathered
Into Thy kingdom by Thy Son.
That happens to come from the Didache, which is a document summarizing Catholic belief, from the first century, perhaps as early as AD 40-60! Now that’s old school!
The point is, it is the Holy Spirit who takes the "grain, once scattered on the hillside" and in the broken bread, makes it one"—meaning both the Eucharist, and? The Church.
We saw how the pope’s thoughts track with our Creed. As you may have noticed in the Creed, right after we profess our faith in the Spirit, we immediately shift to the Church. The pope does the same in this letter. In this last section of part one, he talks about the life of the Church, the Church through history, the sacraments, and the eternal destiny of the Church. Last he talks about the Virgin Mary.
One of the captions in this exhortation is a striking statement: "The Eucharist, causal principle of the Church" (14). Let’s look at some of what he says.
Through the sacrament of the Eucharist Jesus draws the faithful into his "hour;" he shows us the bond that he willed to establish between himself and us, between his own person and the Church. Indeed, in the sacrifice of the Cross, Christ gave birth to the Church as his Bride and his body. The Fathers of the Church often meditated on the relationship between Eve's coming forth from the side of Adam as he slept (cf. Gen 2:21-23) and the coming forth of the new Eve, the Church, from the open side of Christ sleeping in death: from Christ's pierced side, John recounts, there came forth blood and water (cf. Jn 19:34), the symbol of the sacraments. (SC 14).
Think of that! The Eucharist—our celebration of the Mass, and our sharing of his Body and Blood, takes us right to that "moment," that "hour," in which we, as part of his Bride, are born "from the open side of Christ, sleeping in death."
This reminds us of the inexpressible intimacy of Eucharistic communion, and also the inseparable relationship between Eucharistic communion, and ecclesial communion. This, of course, raises all sorts of delicate questions, but this is where we understand why the Church handles this subject as she does: i.e., why can’t everyone share the Eucharist with us? Why is it that even some Catholics can’t?
The pope himself raises this subject here; but before we look at what he said, note something he says first, that may be even more startling:
The Eucharist is thus constitutive of the Church's being and activity. This is why Christian antiquity used the same words, Corpus Christi, to designate Christ's body born of the Virgin Mary, his eucharistic body and his ecclesial body. This clear datum of the tradition helps us to appreciate the inseparability of Christ and the Church (15, emphasis added).
He goes on to repeat what St. Thomas Aquinas taught: the "res"—i.e., the "thing" or purpose of the Eucharist "is the unity of the faithful within ecclesial communion" (Ibid.).
So, here and later, he will talk about how a lack of true ecclesial communion makes eucharistic communion inauthentic—i.e., those in mortal sin (20-21), for those who are in marriages that contradict Christ’s teaching (29), and for those in public office who, on matters of grave importance, take a stance directly contrary to Church teaching (83). Pertaining to other Christians, his point rather is that, in the absence of ecclesial communion, eucharistic communion is premature (15).
The Eucharist and the other Sacraments
We might find some surprising things here:
1. Confirmation. One might be the question of the order in which we receive the sacraments of initiation—baptism, confirmation and the Holy Eucharist. Many may be surprised that the western—that is, the Roman—Church celebrates these sacraments not only at variance with the tradition of the East, but of the origin of these sacraments. I.e., the traditional order, from the early Church, is baptism/confirmation/ Eucharist, which the East preserves but in the West, we only some of the time observe this order.
The pope concedes: "Yet these variations are not properly of the dogmatic order, but are pastoral in character" (18). So why even raise the point? The pope answered that in the prior paragraph:
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. Accordingly, our pastoral practice should reflect a more unitary understanding of the process of Christian initiation.
When confirmation does not follow right after baptism, its connection to baptism (in the early Church, and still with adult converts, confirmation came immediately after baptism) is obscure; likewise, the implication of the order we’re used to—baptism/Eucharist/ confirmation—is that the goal is confirmation; and in fact, that is what a lot of folks think, that achieving confirmation is a kind of religious "graduation." But note what the pope said: the Eucharist is, properly, our "graduation," our "end state" as far as "full initiation" is concerned.
So the pope makes his first, specific request: "Bishops' Conferences should examine the effectiveness of current approaches to Christian initiation" (18). I.e., the pope is calling for a re-examination; and this could mean, some time in the future, the Latin Rite of the Church—i.e., our Roman branch—will change her practice, perhaps to move confirmation back to before first Eucharist. As it happens, some dioceses are already looking at this, and to my knowledge, nothing actually prevents a diocese, or even a parish, from doing so on their own. We should expect this to resurface, probably some years down the road.
2. Penance and Indulgences
Some bullet-points from the holy father:
· "The Synod Fathers rightly stated that a love for the Eucharist leads to a growing appreciation of the sacrament of Reconciliation" (20).
· "A balanced and sound practice of gaining indulgences, whether for oneself or for the dead, can be helpful for a renewed appreciation of the relationship between the Eucharist and Reconciliation. By this means the faithful obtain ‘remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven’" (21).
· "The use of indulgences helps us to understand that by our efforts alone we would be incapable of making reparation for the wrong we have done, and that the sins of each individual harm the whole community. Furthermore, the practice of indulgences, which involves not only the doctrine of Christ's infinite merits, but also that of the communion of the saints, reminds us ‘how closely we are united to each other in Christ ... and how the supernatural life of each can help others’" (Ibid.).
(Note: I didn't actually get to this tonight, I will cover it next week...)
3. The anointing and care for the sick
· "If the Eucharist shows how Christ's sufferings and death have been transformed into love, the Anointing of the Sick, for its part, unites the sick with Christ's self-offering for the salvation of all, so that they too, within the mystery of the communion of saints, can participate in the redemption of the world" (22).
· In this context, the pope reminds us that the most important "Last Rite" is Viaticum—i.e., the Eucharist (Viaticum means "food on the way."); "its administration should be readily provided for" (Ibid.). So, for example, we train laypersons to bring the Eucharist to the sick; and while it’s not well known, we can and will bring the Precious Blood to the sick, although this requires advance planning, since the Blood of Christ is not normally reserved like the Body of Christ. Still—this makes it possible for those who are very ill, and perhaps can’t swallow, or are minimally responsive, to receive the Eucharist in their last days.
4. Holy Orders
Again, some "bullet points":
· "The intrinsic relationship between the Eucharist and the sacrament of Holy Orders clearly emerges from Jesus' own words in the Upper Room: ‘Do this in memory of me’ (Lk 22:19). On the night before he died, Jesus instituted the Eucharist and at the same time established the priesthood of the New Covenant" (23).
· "…[W]e need to stress once again that the connection between Holy Orders and the Eucharist is seen most clearly at Mass, when the Bishop or priest presides in the person of Christ the Head" (Ibid., emphasis original).
· "…[P]riests 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" (Ibid.).
· "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" (Ibid.).
· "It is not sufficient to understand priestly celibacy in purely functional terms. Celibacy is really a special way of conforming oneself to Christ's own way of life. This choice has first and foremost a nuptial meaning; it is a profound identification with the heart of Christ the Bridegroom who gives his life for his Bride" (24, emphasis added).
· About vocations: "Families should generously embrace the gift of life and bring up their children to be open to doing God's will. In a word, they must have the courage to set before young people the radical decision to follow Christ, showing them how deeply rewarding it is" (25).
5. Regarding Marriage: "The Eucharist, a nuptial sacrament" (27).
· "Pope John Paul II frequently spoke of the nuptial character of the Eucharist and its special relationship with the sacrament of Matrimony: ‘The Eucharist is the sacrament of our redemption. It is the sacrament of the Bridegroom and of the Bride’ (Ibid.).
· "By the power of the sacrament, the marriage bond is intrinsically linked to the eucharistic unity of Christ the Bridegroom and his Bride, the Church (cf. Eph 5:31-32)" (Ibid.).
· "The mutual consent that husband and wife exchange in Christ, which establishes them as a community of life and love, also has a eucharistic dimension. Indeed, in the theology of Saint Paul, conjugal love is a sacramental sign of Christ's love for his Church, a love culminating in the Cross, the expression of his ‘marriage’ with humanity and at the same time the origin and heart of the Eucharist" (Ibid.).
· "The indissoluble, exclusive and faithful bond uniting Christ and the Church, which finds sacramental expression in the Eucharist, corresponds to the basic anthropological fact that man is meant to be definitively united to one woman and vice versa (cf. Gen 2:24, Mt 19:5)" (28).
The Eucharist and our destiny
The concluding paragraphs of this first section touch on "eschatology" and also on the Virgin Mary; these might seem unrelated, but they really aren’t.
"Eschatology" is the theology of our final end or destiny—often we refer to the "Last Things": death, judgment, hell and heaven. In this context, we think especially of those who have gone before us, and pray for them; and we think of the final judgment, and our resurrection—God willing, to eternal life.
This is really important to keep us from mainly seeing the Mass as a "backward" glance, to the saving events of the Lord’s time on earth. The Mass just as much is about a "forward" glance, to the completion of the salvation of humanity and this world.
But we can also understand eschatology as not just about last things, but ultimate things; in that sense, the eschaton—final reality—is always present and can "break into" our world at any moment. This is true of all the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist and the Mass. Really, this is what sacraments do—they are means whereby the eternal, the life of God—in a word, grace—"break into" our ordinary world. "[E]specially in the liturgy of the Eucharist, they [i.e., the sacraments] give us a real foretaste of the eschatological fulfillment for which every human being and all creation are destined (cf. Rom 8:19ff.)" (30). "Even though we remain ‘aliens and exiles’ in this world (1 Pet 2:11), through faith we already share in the fullness of risen life. The eucharistic banquet, by disclosing its powerful eschatological dimension, comes to the aid of our freedom as we continue our journey" (Ibid.).
In this context, the pope reminds us to pray for the dead—who, when we realize the Mass transcends time and space, aren’t really absent from us, but are truly present, particularly in the Mass. Indeed, the pope says that Christ has already " inaugurated the eschatological age" (31)—we already belong to the "age to come" even if we don’t fully see it!
So why mention the Blessed Mother at just this point?
"From the relationship between the Eucharist and the individual sacraments, and from the eschatological significance of the sacred mysteries, the overall shape of the Christian life emerges, a life called at all times to be an act of spiritual worship, a self-offering pleasing to God" (33).
Everything we’ve looked at presents a great challenge for our continuing journey; it is just at this point it helps to look ahead, and see an "icon" of this reality before our eyes: Mary!
"Mary's Assumption body and soul into heaven is for us a sign of sure hope, for it shows us, on our pilgrimage through time, the eschatological goal of which the sacrament of the Eucharist enables us even now to have a foretaste" (Ibid.)
"In Mary most holy, we also see perfectly fulfilled the ‘sacramental’ way that God comes down to meet his creatures and involves them in his saving work" (Ibid.).
As we finish up this first third of the pope’s exhortation, what questions remain?
Even though the holy father divided his letter into the categories of "believe," "celebrate" and "live"—can you see how they already overlap and connect?
Concluding this section with the Blessed Mother—what thoughts or reactions does that prompt? Do you like that idea, or not? Does it make sense?
Thinking of the Virgin Mary, what are some ways she, or her role in salvation history, seem particularly "eucharistic"?
Next week’s reading assignment: SC 34-42, as well as Scriptures cited. Handout from Spirit of the Liturgy, pages 171-77.