May 18, 2007

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Summer series focuses on Holy Father’s exhortation on the Eucharist

(First in a series)

At the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI iestablished a new collegial system involving bishops around the world in the deliberation of Church affairs.

He launched a series of international synods, meetings of representative bishops. The last synodal assembly of bishops in Rome was held from Oct. 2-23, 2005. The topic for consideration was the Eucharist, the sacrament at the heart of the Church.

During a synod, the assembled bishops hear formal presentations, make brief observations on the topic and also gather in small language groups for in-depth discussion. The discussion groups draw up proposals on the topic for presentation to the Holy Father, who composes a post-synodal or apostolic exhortation largely drawn from the bishops’ proposals and the formal presentations made during the assembly.

On Feb. 22, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI signed his first exhortation under the title “Sacramentum Caritatis: On the Eucharist, Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church.” The exhortation was published on March 12, 2007.

Since the apostolic exhortation speaks to the very life of the Church, I thought it might be helpful if in my annual summer series of columns I provide a summary of its teachings and, hopefully, helpful commentary as well.

The exhortation begins with these words:

“The sacrament of charity, the Holy Eucharist is the gift that Jesus Christ makes of himself, thus revealing to us God’s infinite love for every man and woman. This wondrous sacrament makes manifest that ‘greater’ love which led him to ‘lay down his life for his friends’ (Jn 15:13). Jesus did indeed love them ‘to the end’ (Jn 13:1). In those words, the Evangelist introduces Christ’s act of immense humility: before dying for us on the Cross, he tied a towel around himself and washed the feet of his disciples. In the same way, Jesus continues, in the sacrament of the Eucharist, to love us ‘to the end,’ even to offering us his body and blood. What amazement must the Apostles have felt in witnessing what the Lord did and said during that Supper! What wonder must the Eucharistic mystery also awaken in our own hearts!” (n. 1).

It is interesting to note that the Holy Father refers to the Eucharist as the “Sacrament of Charity,” which is not all that common as a name given to the sacrament.

One hears an echo of the theme of the pope’s first encyclical letter, “Deus Caritas Est” (“God is Love”), in which he expounds on the profound theme of God’s love and our response in charity.

The Eucharist, a gift of God’s love, empowers us to imitate His love and to live lives of charity. “In this sacrament, the Lord truly becomes food for us, to satisfy our hunger for truth and freedom. Since only the truth can make us free (cf. Jn 8:32) Christ becomes for us the food of truth.”

The Holy Father thus introduces another prevalent theme of his teachings, namely our human quest for truth and the freedom that authentic truth confers. The Eucharist, the source and summit of the life and mission of the Church, is the “food of truth.”

“In the sacrament of the Eucharist, Jesus shows us in particular the truth about the love which is the very essence of God. It is this evangelical truth which challenges each of us and our whole being. For this reason, the Church, which finds in the Eucharist the very center of her life, is constantly concerned to proclaim to all, opportune importune [when convenient and inconvenient] (cf. 2 Tm 4:2) that God is love. Precisely because Christ has become for us the food of truth, the Church turns to every man and woman, inviting them freely to accept God’s gift” (n. 2).

The introduction of the apostolic exhortation continues by reflecting on the value of the Second Vatican Council, noting that “the difficulties and even the occasional abuses … cannot overshadow the benefits and the validity of the liturgical renewal, whose riches are yet to be fully explored,” and recommending the application of a “hermeneutic of continuity” to the continuing work of implementing the renewal (n. 3).

Even before becoming our pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has pleaded for continuity in liturgical developments that flow from and are consistent with the Church’s centuries-old liturgical tradition. “Concretely, the changes which the Council called for need to be understood within the overall unity of the historical development of the rite itself, without the introduction of artificial discontinuities” (n. 3).

“I wish here to endorse the wishes expressed by the Synod Fathers by encouraging the Christian people to deepen their understanding of the relationship between the Eucharistic mystery, the liturgical action and the new spiritual worship which derives from the Eucharist as the sacrament of charity” (n. 5). †

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