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Reflecting on God's Action in the Eucharist  
Jerome Hall  
   

Sacramentum Caritatis is an apostolic exhortation on the Eucharist as source and summit of the Church's life and mission.

Why This Study Guide?
Since 1947, when Pius XII wrote Mediator Dei, the first papal encyclical on the liturgy, we have received a number of statements, from Popes, bishops, and the Second Vatican Council, on the importance of our liturgical prayer. During these 60 years we also have experienced great changes in the way we pray together. Even though changes have occurred in the form, the prayer of the liturgy remains the same: together, through Christ, we respond to the Father's love. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy underlines this point: Christ celebrates the liturgy; it is God's work in which we participate by the grace of the Holy Spirit. The liturgy is the prayer that Christ prays in his body, the Church. In light of the many changes we have seen, we need to consider why we sing and pray together, and why we sing and pray aloud. Pope John Paul II, in his 1998 Apostolic Letter Dies Domini, called us to make the Sunday Eucharist the center of our weekly feast of the Lord's Day. The distillation of this teaching is in the Catechism of the Catholic Church's treatment of Sunday. In 1997, Cardinal Roger Mahoney wrote to the people of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles: "Gather Faithfully Together." Many other bishops have encouraged us to a new appreciation of the privilege of celebrating the Eucharist.

In this apostolic exhortation, Pope Benedict urges us to "eucharistic enthusiasm," calling us to reflect on the connection between God's action in the eucharistic mystery, our celebration of the liturgy, and the service of our neighbor through which God transforms the world. He underlines that salvation is God's work, and shares with us his wonder at the ways God draws us, as willing co-workers in Christ, into the accomplishment of that salvation.

This study guide aims at helping us read carefully what the Pope says to us, reflecting and praying on the mystery we are celebrating. It will help us to share and discuss our reflection with friends in Christ and to keep learning to celebrate God's gift more fully as the year progresses.

Key theological themes
As he develops his argument, Pope Benedict sounds several key themes that arise from the biblical and patristic renewal of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and are found in many texts that treat the Church's liturgy. Since, in a sense, the Pope takes these points for granted, it can be helpful to keep them in mind as we read this exhortation.

The Revelation of the Trinity through Jesus Christ. Jesus' gift of self, in his ministry, in his action at the Last Supper, and in his Passion and death, expresses God's love for all men and women. Jesus is God's gift to us; God is the giver, and Jesus' self-gift embodies the love with which God sent the incarnate Son into the world. By his self-emptying love of God and neighbor, Jesus expresses how God lives; he reveals the love that is the essence of God's life. In Jesus' relationship, in the Holy Spirit, with the Father, and in his expression of his love of God through his love of neighbor, we are shown that God's life is wrapped up in the self-giving ("self-communication") of the Father to the Son, in the response of the Son to the Father's love, and in the Holy Spirit's binding Father and Son together as mutual love. This giving and responding, we believe, is eternal, so we say the Son is "begotten of the Father before all ages," that is, outside of time. The mutual love of the three Persons isn't just something that God does, but is the way that God lives. The outpouring of the Trinity in the Incarnation, then, reveals the inner life of God. It tells us that God's holiness involves a humility in loving service that we find reflected in Jesus' reaching out to sinners, outcasts and the poor, in his pouring self out in love, in his ministry, at the Last Supper, and on the Cross.

The Gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. The glorified Christ, together with the Father, sends the Holy Spirit to stir up faith in persons touched by Jesus' life, and to make them his body, the sacrament of God's salvation for the world. Because of the continuing outpouring of the Holy Spirit, there is a tangible, though invisible, presence of Christ, both as God's gift and as the only proper human response to God's love, in the Church's entire tradition of prayer and service. The Spirit has faithfully guided our liturgical prayer through the history of the Church, and continues to do so today. It is in the Spirit that we give ourselves to the Father in union with Christ's self-offering. It is in the Spirit that God transforms our lives, configuring them to Christ and giving us communion with all the saints.

The New Covenant in Jesus Christ. Uniting in his body both God's offer of love and the perfect human response of total openness to God, Jesus becomes the new and everlasting covenant between God and God's creation. The Holy Spirit, binding the members of the Church together as body of Christ, makes them the sign or sacrament of God's self-gift, definitively received in Christ. The unity of the Church, then, expresses the accomplishment of God's gift in the Paschal Mystery. The eucharistic celebration, with its dynamic of offering, transformation, reception, and mission, makes present the fullness of God's work in Jesus Christ. The Mass, the sacrificial meal of the new covenant, unites us as worshippers in God's sanctification of both the Church and the world.

As we read through Sacramentum Caritatis, we will hear Pope Benedict touch on all these points. He calls us to be aware of how much God loves us, and to respond with "eucharistic enthusiasm," with wonder, in celebration and in service. Precisely because the celebration of the Eucharist involves us in common action, it will be helpful for us not just to read what the Pope says, but also to gather for conversation in small groups, so we can share what the Pope's reflections stir up in our hearts. To help with that process, the few words about each paragraph can serve as an introduction to prayerful reading of the paragraph. Questions for discussion follow the few words about each paragraph of the text.

Introduction
The exhortation begins by stating that the Eucharist, the sacrament of charity, is the gift Christ himself makes that manifests God’s love for us.
[Read paragraph 1 from the document.]

The Pope develops the image of Jesus as servant, washing the disciples' feet. Isaiah wrote about the Servant of God; in Jesus, God's servant becomes our servant. How comfortable are we with this image of God's infinite love? Where do we let God wash our feet? Do we let ourselves wonder at God's love for us in Christ?

The food of truth
It is in the sacrament of the Eucharist that Christ meets us, becomes our companion, and shows us the truth about love, the very essence of God.
[Read paragraph 2 from the document.]

A "Gospel truth" that God is love! Are we Christians known for inviting all people to accept God's gift of love? Can we name a handful of the ways that our parish embodies this message of the Gospel? Do we feel that this truth of the Gospel is at the center of our life as disciples?

The development of the eucharistic rite
We see in this exhortation how the Synod Fathers reaffirmed the liturgical reforms and renewal  that began with the Second Vatican Council. The Holy Spirit has guided our liturgical history, keeping the Eucharist at the center of the Church's life. The liturgical reforms decreed both by the the Council of Trent and by the Second Vatican Council need to be understood as providentially guided historical developments of the rite. "Traditionalists" who criticize the reforms of the Second Vatican Council as a break in tradition are wrong. There was no break but rather an orderly development under the guidance of the Spirit in the Church. Extremists on the left, who say the liturgical tradition was caught in a dead end and needed to be jettisoned in one sense or another, are also wrong. The Holy Spirit has been at work in every age, keeping the Church faithful in celebration, and at the same time gracefully moving the Church to greater understanding, to reform, and renewal. This is a particularly Catholic way of looking at our history!
[Read paragraph 3 from the document.]

From Pius X to Benedict XVI, how much "orderly development" do we notice? Think of Pius X's contributions: urging frequent Communion, congregational singing, and participation of children in the sacraments. Can we rejoice that God is at work in our liturgical history?

The Synod of Bishops and the Year of Eucharist
The Pope reminds us of the buildup to the Jubilee Year for the new millennium, and to the celebration of the Year of the Eucharist in 2004-2005. During that year, there was a focus on reawakening Eucharistic faith, increasing the quality of eucharistic celebrations, and promoting eucharistic adoration. All of this was to encourage people to reach out to those in need.
[Read paragraph 4 from the document.]

Reaching back in our memory through the last ten years, what events of faith and prayer stand out? Papal liturgies of repentance and seeking forgiveness, interfaith prayer in Assisi and Rome, the Holy Year, Pope John Paul's funeral Masses, Pope Benedict's taking up of his ministry? What do we remember from our parish's life? What memories move us to thanksgiving and wonder?

The purpose of this Exhortation
It will offer directions for a renewed commitment that should increase fervor in the Eucharist. Pope Benedict supported the Synod Fathers in their desire to encourage people to further their comprehension of the relationship between eucharistic mystery and liturgical action.
[Read paragraph 5 from the document.]

Note that the initiative comes from God. God's love comes to us bodily, that is, in the body of Christ that is the Church, in a way we can respond to and cooperate with as God continues working in and through us.

God's love comes to us bodily! Might we be called to greater reverence for the other members of our parish, with whom we celebrate this great mystery? How clearly do we see the link between the Eucharist and the love of God and our neighbor? Where do we need God's help in seeing that connection? Might we keep praying for each other as we read through this text?

Part I: The Eucharist, a Mystery to be Believed.

These paragraphs are full of theology and spirituality. They contain more than can be absorbed in one sitting. Try reading them slowly, savoring them, returning to them in contemplation. Try to let yourself share Pope Benedict's wonder at God's love!

"This is the work of God:
that you believe in him
whom he has sent" (John 6:29)

The Church's eucharistic faith
6. When the priest says the words, "The mystery of faith!" he shows his wonder in the mystery that we celebrate and the change in the bread and wine. Our faith grows and is nourished in the encounter with the Risen Lord that takes place in the sacraments.
[Read paragraph 6 from the document.]

This paragraph sums up so much of what we believe that it could be a source of our study and prayer for weeks. Read it again, sentence by sentence, stopping to let it sink in!

Our liturgy expresses faith, and builds up faith. As we celebrate we discover more deeply what we believe about God's love. It's important that we keep coming back! In what ways do we find ourselves sharing Pope Benedict's wonder at God's work in the Eucharist?

The Blessed Trinity
and the Eucharist

The bread come down from heaven
7. Pope Benedict makes us aware that Trinitarian love is the first element of Eucharistic faith.

Note that Jesus, in his gift to us, is first of all the gift of the Father. Jesus offers the totality of his life, a life characterized by his awareness of God's love for him, and by his conviction that God wants to love all human persons with that same love. Jesus' self-offering ministry expresses and responds to the Father's love.
[Read paragraph 7 from the document.]

Does this picture of the Father's love deepen my understanding of Jesus' love for me?

A free gift of the Blessed Trinity
The exhortation shows how the Eucharist reveals the plan guiding salvation history. In the Eucharist, God becomes a part of our human condition. This mystery of faith that we celebrate is a mystery of Trinitarian love. We are called into that mystery by faith.

The wonder of the Paschal Mystery is that we are brought, through our union with Christ, into the very life of God. We come to relate to the Father in Jesus Christ, confident that when the Father sees us he sees the Beloved, and pours out the Spirit of Love on us and through us!
[Read paragraph 8 from the document.]

Is there cause for rejoicing here?

The Eucharist:
Jesus the true Sacrificial lamb

The new and eternal covenant in the blood of the Lamb
We read that the new and eternal covenant was brought about through Christ’s obedience unto death. It is in the crucifixion of Christ, that God’s freedom and our freedom meet.

Pope Benedict puts heavy stress on the newness of Christian worship. That newness has to do with the coming together of God's freedom not just with the human freedom of Jesus, but, in every celebration of the Eucharist, with our freedom.
[Read paragraph 9 from the document.]

Are we being called to a level of personal presence that we don't always bring to church? In our contemplation of Christ's self-gift, do we see a level and intensity of freedom that we might yearn for?

The institution of the Eucharist
The ritual meal in which the Eucharist took place commemorated the deliverance of the people of Israel. But the freedom brought by the Exodus was itself a sign of the freedom from sin and death which would result from God's final, definitive work of salvation. Jesus' blessing of the bread and wine proclaims that God is at work in his self-offering, and that through his death God will establish that new covenant of forgiveness. His action interprets his impending suffering and death, and promises that his disciples will share by faith in God's lasting faithfulness, in his Resurrection.
[Read paragraph 10 from the document.]

Can I be filled with wonder as I contemplate Jesus' action, his interpretation of his suffering and death, his trust in God's faithfulness, and his care for his disciples? Offering ourselves, eating and drinking our communion in his self-offering, we are brought into Jesus' relationship with the Father!

Figura transit in veritatem
The newness of God's action in Jesus' self-offering brings about the fulfillment of the ancient Passover rite. In the phrase, "Do this in remembrance of me," Jesus shows that he expects that the Church will receive the gifts, and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, will develop the liturgical form of the sacrament. Through our celebration of the rite, we are brought into Jesus' self-giving, and our lives are changed as they are offered in Christ. It is this transformation, of which the transformation of the bread and wine is a sacrament, that is the radical newness of the worship that we offer.
[Read paragraph 11 from the document.]

The newness of Christian worship happens in us, as we are brought into Jesus' "hour" and find, offering ourselves with him, that God's faithfulness is greater than we ever imagined. Is this a truth that we keep growing into, by God's grace, as we pray together from year to year?

The Holy Spirit and the Eucharist

Jesus and the Holy Spirit
Here the Holy Spirit's activity is traced through the entirety of Jesus' life, and the foundation is laid for the Spirit's action in the Church's offering of her life in Christ.

By celebrating the eucharistic banquet daily, the Church makes the redeeming sacrifice of Christ sacramentally present and part of human history.
[Read paragraph 12 from the document.]

Christ and the Spirit are at work in the Church, in our preaching, our ministry of service and in our prayer together as Christ's Body. The Spirit abides with us, making Christ present, and bringing us more and more into union with Christ. Where do we notice ourselves growing in the Spirit?

The Holy Spirit and the eucharistic celebration
This paragraph refers to the role the Holy Spirit plays in the Eucharistic celebration. Pope Benedict urges us all to use the eucharistic prayers as foundations for our meditation, so that we come to appreciate more fully the work of Christ and the Spirit in our transformation into the one body of Christ.
[Read paragraph 13 from the document.]

In what ways does our parish stand out as the body of Christ?

The Eucharist and the Church

The Eucharist, causal principle of the Church
We see in the sacrament of the Eucharist how Jesus draws us into his time of sacrifice. We can adore the mystery of Christ in the Eucharist because Christ gave himself to the Church on the cross. We must remember that Christ is the one who loves us first.

Jesus is the gift of the Triune God. Jesus' gift of self is the perfect expression in a human life of the Trinity's life. We respond to that love, but God has taken the initiative. Our offering of self is always in response to God's reaching out to us in Jesus Christ.
[Read paragraph 14 from the document.]

The Church, then, is a gift of God's love. We do not save ourselves. God takes care of our salvation. Can our prayer, preaching, and ministry be more firmly rooted in God's love for us and for all people?

The Eucharist and ecclesial communion
We see the inseparability of Christ and the Church as we understand that the Eucharist is constitutive of the Church’s being and activity. This Eucharistic center makes it necessary that every celebrating community be open. As the community is drawn into the Lord’s arms, it is inserted into his one body.

Through the Eucharist God unites us in the body of Christ and makes us members one of another. We are constantly challenged to remain open to God's work in all the baptized.
[Read paragraph 15 from the document.]

In every Eucharist we pray for the whole Church. In January we join other Christians in a week of prayer for unity. How do we see our parish communities, which often worship in different styles, with different types of music, remaining close to each other in faith and prayer? In what ways are we able to pray and work with the Orthodox Christians in our area? With Protestant Christians? Can we share our love for the Eucharist, even though we are not able to join them in sacramental Communion?

In the next part, we'll continue making our way through the first third of Sacramentum Caritatis. In the paragraphs to come, the Pope reflects on the relationship between the Eucharist and the other sacraments.

Jerome Hall, SJ,
is an assistant professor in the Department of Word and Worship at Washington Theological Union, where he teaches courses on presiding, the liturgical year, and the sacraments.

This is the first in a series of six articles reflecting on the apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis. Those using the study guide may find it helpful to read the document, which can be found online at the Vatican's web site, www.Vatican.va.

Part I: Reflecting on God's Action in the Eucharist
Part II: Each Sacrament Connects to the Eucharist
Part III: The Liturgy as Communal Ritual Action
Part IV: The Eucharist: A Mystery to be Celebrated
Part V: The Eucharist Changes the World: Effects on the Person
Part VI: The Eucharist Changes the World: Effects on Society and Culture

 
         
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