June 8, 2007

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Eucharist is closely tied to other sacraments of the Church

(Fourth in a series)

Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic exhortation on the Eucharist, “The Sacrament of Charity,” describes the Eucharist’s relationship to the other sacraments of the Church.

Baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist are the sacraments of initiation. “If the Eucharist is truly the source and summit of the Church’s life and mission, it follows that the process of Christian initiation must constantly be directed to the reception of this sacrament. 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” (n. 17).

The pope wonders if the order of the sacraments of initiation needs more attention. The ecclesial customs of the East and the practice of the West are different. The variations are of a pastoral, not a dogmatic order.

The Eastern custom is to confirm infants at the time of baptism. In the Roman rite, confirmation for youth often follows first Eucharist at differing age levels. The pope asked that in cooperation with the Roman Curia, bishops’ conferences examine the effectiveness of current approaches (cf. n. 18).

The Holy Father wrote, “It should be kept in mind that the whole of Christian initiation is a process of conversion undertaken with God’s help and with constant reference to the ecclesial community, both when an adult is seeking entry into the Church, as happens in places of first evangelization and in many secularized regions, and when parents request the sacraments for their children” (n. 19).

He points out that the sacraments of initiation are not only key moments for those receiving them, but also for the entire family. He says, “Here I would emphasize the importance of First Holy Communion” (n. 19).

There is an intrinsic relationship between the Eucharist and the sacrament of reconciliation. Love for the Eucharist leads to a growing appreciation of the sacrament of reconciliation. “We know that the faithful are surrounded by a culture that tends to eliminate the sense of sin and to promote a superficial approach that overlooks the need to be in a state of grace in order to approach sacramental communion worthily” (n. 20).

It might be helpful to address this sensitive issue. In the Church’s desire to promote frequent Communion, it seems that everyone feels obligated to receive Communion, no matter what their spiritual state might be; to refrain from reception seems to be an embarrassment. The fact is that no one should feel obligated to receive Communion, highly valued as the practice is, and no one should rashly judge those who do not receive on a given occasion.

Pope Benedict noted: “The Synod recalled that bishops have the pastoral duty of promoting with their dioceses a reinvigorated catechesis on the conversion born of the Eucharist and of encouraging frequent confession among the faithful. … I ask pastors to be vigilant with regard to the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation and to limit the practice of general absolution exclusively to the cases permitted, since individual absolution is the only form intended for ordinary use” (n. 21).

The practice of communal reconciliation services has become common; of course, provision must be made for individual confession of sins and the required act of contrition, conferral of a penance and individual absolution.

“Finally, 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.’ 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” (n. 21).

The Church’s teaching on indulgences is based on the doctrine of Christ’s infinite merits, which are available to help and atone for all Christians; also, it is based on our teaching about the communion of saints. Our union with the saints includes our understanding that the supernatural life of each can help others.

The exhortation relates the Eucharist and the anointing of the sick. “Jesus did not only send his disciples forth to heal the sick; he also instituted a specific sacrament for them: the anointing of the sick. … If the Eucharist shows how Christ’s suffering 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 all” (n. 22).

In addition to the anointing of the sick, the Church offers those who are about to leave this life the Eucharist as viaticum to strengthen them on the way. †

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