Part Two of Pope Benedict XVI's Sacramentum Caritatis focuses
on the Eucharist as a mystery to be celebrated. This section of the
Pope's 2007 post-synodal apostolic exhortation especially reflects
his comprehensive commitment and dedication to the principles
of liturgical reform as expressed in Sacrosanctum Concilium. This
article and the one that will follow in the next issue of Pastoral
Liturgy® expound on Benedict XVI's particular emphasis in
explaining the Eucharist as a celebration. In this issue I will delineate
how the Pope stresses the meaning of the Eucharist as communal
ritual action. The sacrament is best understood as an
ecclesial act that is dynamic and adapting to culture and time.
Viewing the Eucharist as celebrative action militates against
deeming it a static reality or a thing. In the article for the July/August issue, I will address what Benedict XVI means by full participation
in that liturgical action.
In the West, classical renderings of God's mystery often have
stressed the awesome and off-putting reality of the divine that
defies both human intelligibility and ordinary experience. In The
Idea of the Holy (translated by John W. Harvey, University of
Chicago Press, 1958), Rudolf Otto characterizes the Mysterium
Tremendum as the fascinating "wholly other." For Otto, mystery,
or the numinous, overshadows human living with a sense of
dread and even unworthiness, accentuating the chasm between
the divine and the human. And yet, Christian belief in the
Incarnation challenges and changes certain classical conceptions
about God's mysterious nature. Christianity does not take away the
powerful awesomeness of God but emphasizes the divine as selfcommunicating.
God radically enters into the human condition
and continually redeems humanity through transformative experiences
of sacramental reality. Basic to God's self-communication
is sacramental mystery, which is the human encounter of Jesus
Christ in the midst of human living. God bestows humanity with
the primordial sacrament of Christ and graces our ecclesial life
with specific liturgical actions that continually draw us to God
through Christ and in the Spirit.
In Meeting Mystery: Liturgy, Worship and Sacraments (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 2006), liturgical theologian Nathan
Mitchell underlines that God's mysterious self-communication
through Christ is not so much comprehended as encountered.
God's mystery meets up and intersects with our lives. Mitchell
says that liturgy's principal aim is to "know and name connections
between God, world, and humankind" (page 201). The metaphoric
speech of liturgy, he notes, "lets the celebrating assembly
recognize the body of Christ as simultaneously on and at the
table. And only metaphor leads to affirming God as simultaneously
incomprehensible yet incomprehensively near. Divine and
human interaction is revealed in the holy juxtapositions of things,
people, and places whereby the liturgy makes available God's loving
connectedness to humankind.
In Sacramentum Caritatis, Benedict XVI underscores that
in the life of the Church, the Eucharist stands as the powerful and
central mediator of God's self-communicating love. The love of
God is expressed uniquely in the eucharistic action of the Church
gathered in Jesus' name. It is in that context that the faithful
encounter the transformative self-offering of God. Our God
offers himself to humanity in the gift of Jesus' life, death, and
Resurrection. That gift continuously is poured out for humankind
as "a radiant expression of the Paschal Mystery, in which
Christ draws us to himself and calls us to communion" (SC, 35).
As Christians, one of the primary ways we understand
God's self-gift in Christ is through the Church's liturgical action.
The liturgy celebrated is a key educational resource in the life of
the faithful. The lex orandi, or the law of prayer, leads the faithful
more deeply into the lex credendi, or law of belief. The Pope
underscores the intrinsic relationship between worship and creed
wherein the Eucharist celebrated authentically will instruct the
Church in the mystery of faith (SC, 34).
In SC, 35, Benedict XVI points out that the liturgical action
communicates uniquely and essentially through beauty. A theological
aesthetics of the liturgy is much more than its artful connotation
or its proportion or form. Theological beauty is the love
of God poured out and communicated to humanity that the
Church experiences in the Eucharist. The splendor of God's glory
exceeds all worldly beauty and can transform even death into the
radiant light of the Resurrection. The beauty of the liturgical
action is "an attribute of God himself and his revelation" (SC, 35).
Therefore, the liturgy's intrinsic beauty is Christ himself.
Benedict XVI focuses on the symmetry between the ontological
and moral beauty of the liturgy. When a faithful people
become the living reality of Christ in the world, there is beauty.
The appreciative value of Christ's love is achieved when the living
body realizes its true purpose and form in its participation in the
paschal reality of the Christ. Such conceptions militate against
modern romantic notions of aesthetics that can be removed from
the moral life.
In SC, 36, Pope Benedict quotes Saint Augustine's sermon on the
Eucharist indicating that "the bread you see on the altar, sanctified
by the word of God, is the body of Christ. The chalice, or rather,
what the chalice contains, sanctified by the word of God, is the
blood of Christ" and "you yourselves are what you have received"
(Sermon 227, 1:PL 38, 1099). The Pope is drawing a direct line
between the eucharistic action and Christ's agency of that action.
Moreover, he stresses that the body of Christ gathered or assembled
is the principal or integral subject of the liturgical action.
Edward J. Kilmartin helps to explain the meaning of this
cohesion. "Between the action of Christ and the action of the
Church in the eucharistic celebration there exists an intimate
organic unity. For the priestly act of the Church is based on a participation
in the priesthood of Christ" (Edward J. Kilmartin,
Robert J. Daly, The Eucharist in the West: History and Theology,
Collegeville, MN.: Liturgical Press, 1998, p. 262). In other words,
the eucharistic action is the complete work of the Christ in us.
The local assembly gathered with its ministers at the eucharistic
table does not stand in for Christ but is Christ. Furthermore,
through and in the eucharistic action, we encounter Christ as he
has ever been encountered. The Christian community's authenticity
rests on its claim that Christ is as present to them now as he
ever has been present to humankind.
I am fond of saying to my students that Christ died and left
us a Church, accentuating that our experience of the risen Christ
is discovered in our experience of the Church. The Pope highlights,
in SC, 37, that the eucharistic liturgy is the action of the
risen Christ and, therefore, that the locus of God's self-communication
in Christ is found in the Eucharist. "The Church celebrates
the Eucharistic sacrifice in obedience to Christ's command, based
on her experience of the Risen Lord and the outpouring of the
Holy Spirit." Such action transcends time and context and cannot
be held hostage by human trend. Furthermore, such teaching is
foundational to our Christian tradition.
Similar to the understanding of the intrinsic beauty of the eucharistic
action in SC, 35, Benedict XVI stresses in SC, 38, that the
"art" of celebrating the Eucharist is more than mere aesthetics.
The art of eucharistic celebration is directly related to the full,
active, and fruitful participation of all the faithful in that action,
accentuating that "(t)he ars celebrandi is the best way to ensure
their actuosa participatio" SC, 38. The precision, dexterity, adroitness
of the community's celebration of the Eucharist leads to its
full realization as the people of God and a royal priesthood.
The renewal of the liturgy after the Second Vatican Council
returned the Church not only to the art of celebrating the Eucharist
according to its ancient tradition but also elicited a proper understanding
of the ministry of the eucharistic action itself. This can
be seen especially in restoring the proper ministerial role of the
diocesan Bishop regarding his stewardship of the local Church's
liturgical life. The Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on the
Church Lumen Gentium reminds us that:
||A bishop marked with the fullness of the sacrament of Orders,
is "the steward of the grace of the supreme priesthood,"
especially in the Eucharist, which he offers or causes to be
offered, and by which the Church continually lives and
grows . . . . Every legitimate celebration of the Eucharist is
regulated by the bishop, to whom is committed the office of
offering the worship of Christian religion to the Divine
Mystery and administering it in accordance with the Lord's
commandments and the Church's laws, as further defined by
his particular judgment for his diocese. (Lumen Gentium, 26)
Pope Benedict recalls this renewed understanding by stressing
that the bishop of the local Church is the principal liturgist of
that local assembled Church, procuring the proper moderation,
promotion, and guardianship of its communal ritual life. The
presbyters and deacons share the presidential ministry of the
bishop and share in the responsibility to carry out the art of liturgical
celebration in the diocese. Yet Benedict XVI underscores
that the bishop "is the celebrant par excellence with his Diocese"
SC, 39. The bishop models the local liturgical life. This is why the
cathedral of every diocese should exemplify the art of celebration
for the presbyters, deacons, and lay faithful. The local Church
should look upon the liturgical action of the cathedral church as
the measure of its liturgical life.
An appreciation and understanding of the liturgical norms
of the Church as articulated by the General Instruction of the
Roman Missal, the Order of Readings for Mass, and other key
books as well as a comprehensive awareness and grasp of the
symbolic value of the liturgy are necessary for fostering the art of
celebrating the Eucharist. Here SC, 40, places great value on
proper liturgical education for ecclesial communities, so that they
are exposed to the rich liturgical resources that the Church provides.
Ongoing programmatic education of the local Church in
liturgical study necessitates exposure to the symbolic harmony of
the rites, the genres, and languages, music, gestures, silence, and
movement, employed in the liturgy. Too often parish adult faith
formation and children's catechesis have not included mystagogical
approaches to education originating in and emanating from
the liturgy. Connecting the lex orandi to the lex credendi as foundational
in the local community's educational pedagogies will
enrich and enliven the art of celebrating.
Paying particular attention in SC, 41, to how environment
and art affect the liturgical life of the Church, Pope Benedict
establishes a number of principles concerning edifice and image.
The first liturgical-aesthetic principle he articulates is that of
unity. The sanctuary must establish symmetry and equilibrium
whereby altar, ambo, chair, crucifix, and tabernacle are evenly or
proportionally related. Secondly, art and architecture need to
keep in mind the liturgical action for which it serves. Sacred art
and architecture is to offer a fitting space for the assembly of the
faithful to celebrate the mysteries of faith. Thirdly, sacred art is
oriented for instructing God's people about the meaning of their
faith. Pope Benedict underscores that "religious iconography
should be directed to sacramental mystagogy." (SC, 41). Art and
architecture serve to direct and guide the faithful's visual understanding
of Christianity. Therefore, a sensitivity to the history of
art on the part of pastoral leaders and in the training of seminarians
is necessary to understand and impart the role that art and
architecture has played in Christian formation.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Built of
Living Stones: Art, Architecture and Worship provides a complementary
resource to Vatican documents for probing the theory,
practice, and meaning of environment and art for Catholic worship.
Built of Living Stones engenders a comprehensive ecclesiology
of art, architecture, and complete liturgical environment
using the resources of art history and numerous Church documents
concerning the liturgy, doctrine, and canon law.
As Pope Benedict writes about the role of song in the liturgical
action, he quotes from Saint Augustine's sermon that notes
song as an expression of joy and love. The two-thousand year history
of Christianity embodies a rich heritage and patrimony of
song. Even though there is no one musical genre for the liturgical
action, music nevertheless must follow the flow of worship and
find integration in it. Citing Sacrosanctum Concilium and the
General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the Pope advises that the
long-standing tradition of Gregorian chant in the Latin Church
remains "esteemed and employed as the chant proper to the
Roman liturgy." (SC, 42).
Consonant with his steadfast commitment to the liturgical renewal
of the Second Vatican Council and in continuity with his reflection
on the Eucharist as liturgical action, Benedict XVI in paragraphs
43-51 addresses the intrinsic unity of the communal ritual action
by focusing on the variously related structures of the eucharistic
celebration. Fundamental to the structures of the Mass is the
inseparable Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
A seminal agenda of the liturgical renewal after the Second
Vatican Council was the interrelated symmetry established
between word and sacrament. The two feed off the same reality.
In SC, 44, we are instructed that the bread of life comes from the
two tables of word and Body of Christ.
The unalterable place of the word in eucharistic worship is
emphasized in SC, 45. The presence of Christ in the scriptures
ministered through the Lectionary must not be downplayed from
other eucharistic presences. Benedict XVI approaches the subject
of liturgical memory, often referred to as anamnesis, instructing
the reader that liturgically we do not journey to the past, but we
encounter Christ presently in and through the liturgical action.
This is significant for our understanding of the word of God and
how the scriptures speak to us in the context of communal ritual
action. Furthermore, the Christ-event extends to other ministries
of the word such as lectio divina and especially the Liturgy of the
Hours. These other ministries of the word can help us to understand
and participate more fully in the eucharistic action.
Far from being a hiatus from the liturgy, the homily is central
to the liturgical action and extends the proclamation of the
word of God so that the faithful may connect that word to their
lives. In SC, 46, the Pope stresses that the quality of homilies
needs to be improved in order to engender a deeper understanding
of the word of God that, in turn, bears fruit in the lives of the
faithful. Without careful preparation, adequate knowledge of the
scriptures, and a theological background, the preaching will be
deficient and ineffective. The catechetical role of preaching should
not be downplayed, especially when the feast or the season in the
liturgical year orients the Church to a particular theme in its ministry
of the word.
Like the homily, the Preparation of the Altar and the Gifts
is not a hiatus or an interval between the liturgies of word and
sacrament. The Pope reminds us that "in the bread and wine that
we bring to the altar, all creation is taken up by Christ the Redeemer
to be transformed and presented to the Father" (SC, 47).
Furthermore, the pain and suffering of the world are united with
Christ. The gestures of this rite are to be simple.
SC, 48, reminds us that the eucharistic prayer is the apex of
the eucharistic action and its significance needs to be emphasized.
There is a great need for the faithful to develop a spirituality of
the eucharistic anaphora. For them to do so, a deep appreciation
of the various structures of the prayer need to developed. A theology
of the liturgy demonstrates how anamnesis leads to epiclesis,
which leads to intercession. Through a variety of eucharistic prayer
texts, the Church provides rich examples of eucharistic discourse.
Liturgical education needs to stress that the Preface and Sanctus
are part of the eucharistic prayer.
SC, 49, comments on the Sign of Peace, especially in highlighting
that in a world fraught with conflict, fear, and violence,
the peace of Christ stands as a stark contrast to such a world. The
Church has a deep responsibility to be a sign of this peace and
reconciliation for the world. The serious nature of this gesture as
part of the eucharistic action requires a certain restraint and
sobriety in its embodiment.
Pope Benedict exhorts attention to a proper theology of the
Communion Rite, so that it may be carried out according to Church
norms. SC, 50, urges that the ordained (ordinary) and extraordinary
ministers ensure that the theological significance of the Communion
Rite be understood through correct practice. This rite, by its
nature, embodies comprehensive ecclesiological significance in
that the local eucharistic assembly enacts the Church's ministerial
self-understanding in the postures, gestures, decorum, and ordering
of its communion ministry (Mark E. Wedig, "Reception of
the Eucharist Under Two Species," Rite, vol. 38 (3): 8-12).
This section of Sacramentum Caritatis and the conclusion
of this article, both dedicated to the primacy of the liturgical
action in the Eucharist, end by reflecting on the meaning and
purpose of the Rite of Dismissal. Even though the Ite, missa estoriginated as a simple dismissal ending the eucharistic liturgy, its
meaning in the history of the Mass developed to be more than a
mere ritual conclusion. The eucharistic action of the communal
ritual itself is linked to the Church on mission in the world. SC, 51,
correlates the action in the Eucharist directly to the People of God's
involvement in acts of justice, peacemaking, and reconciliation.
In conclusion, the community's understanding of the
eucharistic action can be measured by the degree to which the
assembly and its involvement in the world are directed toward the
same end. The kingdom of God both realized and experienced in
the word and sacrament becomes the Church's identity and practice
in society. The primacy of the liturgical action reaches its fulfillment
when the Church's ritual life and its missionary praxis
are unified in lives of the faithful.
1. Why is the eucharistic liturgy best understood as a mystery
to be encountered or celebrated more than something to
be understood? Related to the phenomena of encounter and
celebration, why is the liturgy best understood as an action
instead of a thing?
2. Pope Benedict XVI describes liturgical celebration as an art.
What are the essential characteristics of an artful liturgy
according to the Holy Father?
3. In Benedict XVI's examination of the structure of the eucharistic celebration, he addresses the essential relationship of word
and sacrament. Explain why these two structures of eucharistic
prayer cannot be understood fully without each other?
4. What is your reaction to the statement, "The local assembly
gathered with its ministers at the eucharistic table does not
stand in for Christ but is Christ?" Have you considered that the
assembly is Christ?
5. How do you experience the risen Christ in the Church?
6. Other than the Creed, give examples of prayers in the Mass
that express our belief.
7. Have you considered all creation in the bread and wine?
8. Do you see a reason for a restrained and sober offering of the
Sign of Peace? How is the Sign of Peace offered in your parish?
Do people continue to offer it while going to Communion?
9. How does considering the action of the Eucharist as related to
the assembly's involvement in peacemaking and reconciliation
efforts broaden your perception of what occurs during Mass?