Sacramentum Caritatis: The Sacrament of Charity

Pope Benedict XVI has released an apostolic exhortation in which he reflects on the Eucharist and the spiritual riches that the Church draws from it.

This guide will help you understand the essence of what Pope Benedict said in his apostolic exhortation - what he wants you to know about the Eucharist and its celebration.

Sacramentum Caritatis - The exhortation is titled Sacramentum Caritatis - a Latin phrase meaning "the sacrament of charity" or "the sacrament of love." By giving it this name, Benedict continued his theme of presenting the truth in terms of love, as when he named his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est ("God is love").

The document grew out of the 2005 Synod of Bishops, which had been called by John Paul II. The Synod of Bishops is a body drawn from the world's bishops that meets periodically to discuss important pastoral and theological questions.

The document is divided into three parts, which proclaim the Eucharist "a mystery to be believed," "a mystery to be celebrated," and "a mystery to be lived."

A Mystery to Be Believed - The first section of the exhortation deals with the Church's faith regarding the Eucharist. Indeed, the Mass refers to the Eucharist as "the mystery of faith." Benedict explains: "With these words, spoken immediately after the words of consecration, the priest proclaims the mystery being celebrated and expresses his wonder before the substantial change of bread and wine into the body and blood of the Lord Jesus, a reality that surpasses all human understanding. The Eucharist is a 'mystery of faith' par excellence: 'the sum and summary of our faith'" (6).*

The Pope explains that the Eucharist is "a free gift of the Blessed Trinity" in which "God's whole life encounters us and is sacramentally shared with us. God is a perfect communion of love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." Christ "makes us, in the gift of the Eucharist, sharers in God's own life" (8).

"In instituting the sacrament of the Eucharist, Jesus anticipates and makes present the sacrifice of the cross and the victory of the resurrection. At the same time, he reveals that he himself is the true sacrificial lamb" (10). The Holy Spirit also plays a decisive role in the celebration of the Eucharist, such as in "the petition to the Father to send down the gift of the Spirit so that the bread and the wine will become the body and blood of Jesus Christ" (13).

The Eucharist is also closely tied to the Church. "This is why Christian antiquity used the same words, corpus Christi [Latin, "the body of Christ"], to designate Christ's body born of the Virgin Mary, his eucharistic body and his ecclesial body" (15).

Human destiny, or "eschatology" as theologians call it, is tied to the Eucharist. "For us, the eucharistic banquet is a real foretaste of the final banquet foretold by the prophets (cf. Is. 25:6-9) and described in the New Testament as 'the marriage-feast of the Lamb' (Rev. 19:7-9)" (31).

We are also united in the Eucharist to those who have died, and Benedict states, "I wish, together with the synod fathers, to remind all the faithful of the importance of prayers for the dead, especially the offering of Mass for them, so that, once purified, they can come to the beatific vision of God" (32).

A special sign of human destiny is the Blessed Virgin. "God's gifts to us have found their perfect fulfillment in the Virgin Mary, Mother of God and our Mother. Mary's Assumption of 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" (33).

The Eucharist and the Sacraments

The longest section in the first part of Pope Benedict's apostolic exhortation deals with the relationship of the Eucharist to the other sacraments.

Together with baptism and confirmation, the Eucharist is one of the three sacraments of initiation. "It must never be forgotten that our reception of baptism and confirmation is ordered to the Eucharist" (17).

The Eucharist is also closely tied to 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. The loss of a consciousness of sin always entails a certain superficiality in the understanding of God's love" (20).

Consequently, "bishops have the pastoral duty of promoting within their dioceses a reinvigorated catechesis on the conversion born of the Eucharist and of encouraging frequent confession among the faithful. All priests should dedicate themselves with generosity, commitment, and competency to administering the sacrament of reconciliation" (21).

There is also a special relationship between the Eucharist and the anointing of the sick. "The relationship between these two sacraments becomes clear in situations of serious illness: In addition to the anointing of the sick, the Church offers those about to leave this life the Eucharist as viaticum" (22).

The connection of the Eucharist to the sacrament of holy orders is obvious, since only priests are capable of celebrating the Eucharist, where they humbly serve in persona Christi, or in the place of Christ.

"Any attempt to make themselves the center of the liturgical action contradicts their very identity as priests. The priest is above all a servant of others, and he must continually work at being a sign pointing to Christ, a docile instrument in the Lord's hands. 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" (23).

In the Latin Church, priests are also conformed to Christ by the practice of celibacy, and Benedict states that "there is a need to reaffirm the profound meaning of priestly celibacy, which is rightly considered a priceless treasure. ...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" (24).

Finally, "the Eucharist, as the sacrament of charity, has a particular relationship with the love of man and woman united in marriage. A deeper understanding of this relationship is needed at the present time. ...The Eucharist inexhaustibly strengthens the indissoluble unity and love of every Christian marriage. 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" (27).

In this connection, Pope Benedict touched on the problem of divorce and remarriage without an annulment, noting that "the Synod of Bishops confirmed the Church's practice, based on Sacred Scripture (cf. Mark 10:2-12), of not admitting the divorced and remarried to the sacraments. ...Where the nullity of the marriage bond is not declared and objective circumstances make it impossible to cease cohabitation, the Church encourages these members of the faithful to commit themselves to living their relationship in fidelity to the demands of God's law, as friends, as brother and sister; in this way, they will be able to return to the table of the Eucharist" (29).

A Mystery to Be Celebrated

The second section of the exhortation dealt with the celebration of the Eucharist in the liturgy.
One of the themes Benedict touched on was beauty in the liturgy: "Everything related to the Eucharist should be marked by beauty. Special respect and care must also be given to the vestments, the furnishings, and the sacred vessels, so that by their harmonious and orderly arrangement they will foster awe for the mystery of God, manifest the unity of the faith, and strengthen devotion" (41).

The role of beauty in the liturgy extends to the music that is used in it. "In the course of her two-thousand-year history, the Church has created, and still creates, music and songs that represent a rich patrimony of faith and love. This heritage must not be lost. Certainly as far as the liturgy is concerned, we cannot say that one song is as good as another. Generic improvisation or the introduction of musical genres that fail to respect the meaning of the liturgy should be avoided" (42).

The Pope also stated, "I desire, in accordance with the request advanced by the synod fathers, that Gregorian chant be suitably esteemed and employed as the chant proper to the Roman liturgy."

A special concern that the Pope expressed was the art of properly celebrating the liturgy - known in Latin as the ars celebrandi. He observed that "the is the fruit of faithful adherence to the liturgical norms in all their richness" (38) and stated that "the simplicity of its gestures and the sobriety of its orderly sequence of signs communicate and inspire more than any contrived and inappropriate additions" (40).

* Unless otherwise indicated, numbers in parentheses refer to the numbered sections within Sacramentum Caritatis.

Reprinted from Holy Cross August 5, 12, 19, 2007 Bulletin

Holy Cross Reflections are articles which were previously published in the Holy Cross bulletin.