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Letter #44, 2023 Wed Feb 15: More on the Mass

    Pope Benedict XVI distributes communion. This photo was taken while he was still Pope, more than 10 years ago; he resigned the papacy on February 11, 2013 (Photo by Paul Badde/EWTN)

    In the ecclesial communities arising from the Reformation [i.e., in the Protestant churches], the celebrations of the sacrament are called ‘Supper.’ In the Catholic Church the celebration of the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ is called ‘Eucharist’ [‘Thanksgiving’]. This is not a casual, purely linguistic distinction...” —Pope Benedict XVI (1927-2022), in a recently published “last essay” on the meaning of the Mass and communion, dated December 2018, in which he explores differences in the Protestant and Catholic understandings of the Mass (here is a link to the complete book of 15 of his “last essays” (link); full text of his essay on communion below)

    ‘Eucharist’ is the translation of the Hebrew word ‘berakah,’ thanksgiving, and indicates the central nucleus of Jewish faith and prayer at the time of Jesus. The texts on the Last Supper often tell us that Jesus ‘gave thanks with the prayer of blessing,’ and so the Eucharist, together with the offerings of bread and wine, is to be considered the core of the form of his Last Supper.” —Ibid.

    Pilgrims who went to Jerusalem could join together in companies called ‘chaburot.’ The Christians continued this tradition. They are his ‘chaburah,’ his family, which he has formed from his company of pilgrims who travel the road of the Gospel along with him through the land of history. Thus celebrating the Eucharist in the ancient Church was from the beginning linked to the community of believers and with this to strict conditions of access.” —Ibid.

    Already the primitive Church did not phenomenologically repeat the Supper, but rather, instead of the Supper in the evening, deliberately chose the morning for the celebration of the encounter with the Lord, which already in the earliest times was no longer called Supper, but Eucharist. Only in the encounter with the Risen One on the morning of the first day is the institution of the Eucharist complete, because only with the living Christ can the sacred mysteries be celebrated. Ibid.

    Letter #44, 2023 Wednesday, February 15: Ratzinger on the Eucharist

    Joseph Ratzinger, elected Pope Benedict XVI on April 19, 2005, resigned from the papacy on February 11, 2013, 10 years ago this month, but he continued to write on various topics during his retirement, up until his death on December 31, 2022, six weeks ago.

    Among those four, the most interesting is an essay on the Eucharist and its meaning, entitled “The Meaning of Communion.”

    The Italian Vaticanist Sandro Magister brought attention to this essay a week ago, on February 7 (link).

    This was immediately covered in the Catholic press, in a piece by Hannah Brockhaus for Catholic News Agency entitled “Benedict XVI describes ‘Protestantization’ of the Eucharist in posthumous publication” (link), and also here.

    Most observers have focused on the fact that this essay speaks of different Catholic and Protestant understandings of the Eucharist, of the Mass itself, what it is.

    But the most striking thing about this essay is that its focus is not so much on this difference, but on the central question of what the Mass is, what the Eucharist is — and only once this is established, does it then discuss how this true meaning of the liturgy, of the Mass, affects the understanding of whether there can be “inter-communion,” or what the criteria are to receive communion.

    ***

    If we are to consider the Mass as a whole, we see that it is a ceremony which begins with repentance for sins committed (“Lord have mercy”), continues with readings, moves to a consecration which recalls at once the Last Supper (the words of the consecration are the same words Jesus used at the first Holy Thursday Last Supper), the Good Friday Crucifixion (which was the actual moment when He offered his body as a redemptive sacrifice for the world) and the Easter Sunday morning Resurrection (when he arose bodily from the dead, never more to die).

    What Ratzinger is saying is that, if we focus only on the Last Supper, and on the fact that the Mass we are celebrating is a commemoration of the Last Supper — therefore, a type of supper, a community meal — we are reducing it.

    This is the central point he is expressing here.

    Therefore, Pope Benedict’s words are well worth reading for all who seek a deeper understanding of the faith, and of the liturgical ceremony we call the Mass. —RM

    One of Pope Benedict’s last essays, on Communion

    February 7, 2023

    By Sandro Magister

    The Catholic Mass as No One Ever Explained It Before. A Brand New Work From Pope Benedict

    Of the 15 texts Benedict XVI wrote after his resignation from the papacy and arranged to have released after his death, in the volume published by Mondadori, “What Christianity is. A spiritual quasi-testament,” four are making their debut, and among these one stands out above the rest.

    It is 17 pages long and bears the title “The meaning of communion.”

    It was completed on June 28, 2018, just when a very heated clash was underway within the German Church and between it and Rome on the question of whether or not to give Eucharistic communion to Protestant spouses as well, in the case of interconfessional marriages, with Pope Francis in confusion, now leaning yes and now no, and sometimes with the yes and no spoken together.

    In this text of his, Joseph Ratzinger goes to the root of the question.

    If Catholics also reduce the Mass to a fraternal supper, as it is for Protestants, then everything is permitted, even that intercommunion — he writes — should become the political seal of German reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as indeed happened “before the eye of the television camera.”

    But the Mass is not a supper, even if it was born during the last supper of Jesus. Nor is it derived from Jesus’ meals with sinners.

    From the start it has been only for the community of believers, subject to “strict conditions of access.” Its true name is “Eucharistia,” and at its center is the encounter with Jesus risen. More than many liturgists, those who grasped its essence – Benedict recalls – were the young people who silently adored the Lord in the consecrated host, during the World Youth Days in Cologne, Sydney, and Madrid.

    The first part of Benedict’s essay is reproduced below. Erudite, yet spry. With flashes of personal memories and with quick and evocative references to questions such as the foundations of priestly celibacy or the meaning of the “daily bread” invoked in the Our Father.

    Publication is authorized by the Piergiorgio Nicolazzini Literary Agency (PNLA), © 2023 Mondadori Libri SpA, Milan, and © 2023 Elio Guerriero as editor.

    THE MEANING OF COMMUNION

    by Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI

    In recent centuries the celebration of the Supper has by no means occupied a central place in the ecclesial life of the Protestant Churches. In not a few communities the Holy Supper was celebrated only once a year, on Good Friday. […]

    It is evident that in terms of this sort of practice the question of intercommunion has no significance whatsoever.

    Only a substantial adoption of today’s form of Catholic common life can make the question urgent in human terms.

    In the ancient Church, surprisingly, the daily celebration of Holy Mass was considered obvious from very early on.

    As far as I know, there was no discussion around this practice, which established itself peacefully.

    Only in this way can we understand the reason why [in the “Pater noster”] the mysterious adjective “epiousion” was almost obviously translated with “quotidianus.”

    For the Christian, the “supersubstantial” is the everyday necessity.

    The daily Eucharistic celebration showed itself necessary above all for priests and bishops, as “priests” of the New Covenant.

    The celibate way of life had a significant role in this.

    Direct, “corporal” contact with the mysteries of God, already in the time of the Old Testament, played a significant role in excluding conjugal relations for the officiating priest on days when he was responsible for this.

    However, since now the Christian priest no longer had to deal with the holy mysteries temporarily, but was forever responsible for the body of the Lord, for the “daily” bread, it became a necessity to offer himself completely to him. […]

    Yet for the laity, the practice of receiving Communion underwent notable evolutions.

    Of course, the Sunday precept demanded that every Catholic participate in the celebration of the mysteries on the Lord’s day, but the Catholic conception of the Eucharist did not necessarily include the weekly reception of Communion.

    I recall that in the era following the 1920s there were, for the various states of life in the Church, days of Communion which as such were always days of Confession too, and these took on a prominent position in family life as well.

    It was a precept to confess at least once a year and to receive Communion during the Easter season. […]

    When the farmer, the head of the family, had confessed, a particular atmosphere reigned on the farm: everyone avoided doing anything that could upset him and thus endanger his condition of purity in view of the holy mysteries. In these centuries, Holy Communion was not distributed during the Holy Mass, but separately, before or after the Eucharistic celebration. […]

    But there have also always been tendencies toward more frequent Communion, more tied to the liturgy, which gained strength with the beginning of the liturgical movement. […] Vatican Council II recognized the good reasons for this and tried to highlight the internal unity between the common celebration of the Eucharist and the personal reception of Communion.

    At the same time, especially during the years of the war, in the evangelical camp a division developed between the Third Reich and what were called the “deutsche Christen,” Christian-Germans, on one side, and the “bekennende Kirche,” the confessing Church, on the other. This split led to a new accord between the “bekennende Christen,” the confessing evangelical Christians, and the Catholic Church.

    One result was a push in favor of common Eucharistic Communion between the confessions.

    In this situation there grew the desire for a single body of the Lord that today, however, risks losing its strong religious foundation and, in an externalized Church, is determined more by political and social forces than by the interior search for the Lord.

    In this regard there comes back to my mind the image of a Catholic chancellor of the Federal Republic who, before the eye of the television camera and therefore also before the eyes of religiously indifferent people, drank from the Eucharistic chalice.

    That gesture, shortly after the advent of reunification, appeared as an essentially political act in which the unity of all Germans became manifest.

    Thinking back on it, still today I feel anew with great force the estrangement of faith that came from this.

    And when presidents of the Federal Republic of Germany, who at the same time were presidents of the synods of their Church, have regularly called aloud for interconfessional Eucharistic Communion, I see how the demand for a common loaf and chalice may serve other purposes.

    It may be enough to make just a few remarks on the current situation of Eucharistic life in the Catholic Church.

    One process of great impact is the almost complete disappearance of the sacrament of Penance, which, following the dispute on the sacramentality or lack thereof of collective absolution, in practice has disappeared in large parts of the Church, managing to find a certain refuge only in the shrines. […]

    With the disappearance of the sacrament of Penance, a functional conception of the Eucharist has spread. […]

    Those present at the Eucharist understood purely as a supper obviously also receive the gift of the Eucharist.

    In such a situation of a very advanced Protestantization of the understanding of the Eucharist, intercommunion appears natural.

    On the other hand, however, the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist has not entirely vanished, and above all the World Youth Days have led to a rediscovery of Eucharistic adoration and thus also of the presence of the Lord in the sacrament.

    Starting from Protestant exegesis, ever more support has been gained for the opinion according to which what prepared the way for the Last Supper of Jesus were the Master’s “meals with sinners,” and only on the basis of these could it be understood.

    But is not so.

    The offering of the body and blood of Jesus Christ has no direct connection with the meals with sinners.

    Apart from the question of whether or not Jesus’ Last Supper was a Passover meal, it is situated in the theological and juridical tradition of the feast of Pesach [also called Passover, link; this feast recalls the Exodus of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt].

    As a result, it is closely connected with family, home, and membership in the people of Israel.

    In keeping with this prescription, Jesus celebrated Pesach with his family, that is to say with the apostles, who had become his new family.

    Thus he complied with a precept according to which pilgrims who went to to Jerusalem could join together in companies called “chaburot.”

    The Christians continued this tradition.

    They are his “chaburah,” his family, which he has formed from his company of pilgrims who travel the road of the Gospel along with him through the land of history.

    Thus celebrating the Eucharist in the ancient Church was from the beginning linked to the community of believers and with this to strict conditions of access, as it is possible to see from the most ancient sources: “Didachè,” Justin Martyr, etc.

    [Note: The Didache, or The Teaching of the Twelves Apostles, was discovered in 1885, and is dated to about the year 125 A.D. Part of it discussing the liturgy, the Eucharist, and so it is one of our earliest sources on how the first Christians understood the liturgy. One place says this (link): “On the Lord’s day, when you have been gathered together, break bread and celebrate the Eucharist. But first confess your sins so that your offering may be pure. If anyone has a quarrel with his neighbor, that person should not join you until he has been reconciled. Your sacrifice must not be defiled. In this regard, the Lord has said: ‘In every place and time offer me a pure sacrifice. I am a great king, says the Lord, and my name is great among the nations.’ []” Also, Justin Martyr (c. 100 to 165 A.D.) writes this about the early Christian Eucharist (link): “Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to ge’noito [so be it].”

    [Here begins again Pope Benedict’s essay:]     This has nothing to do with slogans like “open Church” or “closed Church.”

    Instead, the Church’s profound becoming one, a single body with the Lord, is prerequisite in order that she may have the strength to bring her life and light into the world.

    In the ecclesial communities arising from the Reformation, the celebrations of the sacrament are called “Supper.”

    In the Catholic Church the celebration of the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ is called “Eucharist.”

    This is not a casual, purely linguistic distinction.

    In the distinction of the denominations there is manifested instead a profound difference tied to the understanding of the sacrament itself.

    The well-known Protestant theologian Edmund Schlink, in a closely followed speech during the Council, stated that he could not recognize the institution of the Lord in the Catholic celebration of the Eucharist. […]

    He was evidently convinced that Luther, by returning to the pure structure of the Supper, had overcome the Catholic falsification and visibly re-established fidelity to the Lord’s mandate, “Do this….”

    It is not necessary here to discuss what has been established as a fact in the meantime, namely that from a purely historical perspective even Jesus’ Supper was altogether different from a celebration of the Lutheran Supper.

    It is instead correct to observe that already the primitive Church did not phenomenologically repeat the Supper, but rather, instead of the Supper in the evening, deliberately chose the morning for the celebration of the encounter with the Lord, which already in the earliest times was no longer called Supper, but Eucharist.

    Only in the encounter with the Risen One on the morning of the first day is the institution of the Eucharist complete, because only with the living Christ can the sacred mysteries be celebrated.

    What happened here? Why did the nascent Church act this way?

    Let us return for a moment to the supper and to the institution of the Eucharist by Jesus in the course of the supper.

    When the Lord said “Do this,” he did not mean to exhort his disciples to the repetition of the Last Supper as such.

    If it was a celebration of Pesach, it is clear that, in keeping with the precepts of the Exodus, Pesach was celebrated once a year and could not be repeated several times during the year.

    But even apart from this, it is evident that the mandate given was not to repeat the entire supper of that time, but only the new offering of Jesus in which, in keeping with the words of institution, the tradition of Sinai is tied to the proclamation of the New Covenant witnessed to especially by Jeremiah.

    The Church, which knew itself bound to the words “Do this,” therefore knew at the same time that the supper was not to be repeated as a whole, but that it was necessary to extrapolate what was essentially new and that for this a new overall form had to be found. […]

    Already the most ancient account of the celebration of the Eucharist that we have — the one handed down to us from around 155 A.D. by Justin Martyr — shows that a new unity was formed that consisted of two fundamental components: the encounter with the Word of God in a liturgy of the Word, and then the “Eucharist” as “logiké latreia.

    [Note: This is a reference to St. Paul’s definition of the liturgy in Romans 12:1 as “rational (or spiritual) worship”: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”].

    “Eucharist” is the translation of the Hebrew word “berakah,” thanksgiving, and indicates the central nucleus of Jewish faith and prayer at the time of Jesus.

    The texts on the Last Supper often tell us that Jesus “gave thanks with the prayer of blessing,” and so the Eucharist, together with the offerings of bread and wine, is to be considered the core of the form of his Last Supper.     

    It was especially J.A. Jungmann and Louis Bouyer who stressed the significance of “Eucharistia” as a constitutive element.

    When the celebration of the institution of Jesus that took place in the setting of the Last Supper is called Eucharist, what is validly expressed with this term is both obedience to the institution of Jesus and the new form of sacrament developed in the encounter with the Risen One.

    This is not a matter of a reproduction of the Last Supper of Jesus, but of the new event of the encounter with the Risen One: novelty and fidelity go hand in hand.

    The difference between the denominations “Supper” and “Eucharist” is not superficial and casual, but indicates a fundamental difference in the understanding of Jesus’ mandate.

    [End, essay of Emeritus Pope Benedict on Communion from 2018]

    Special Note: If you wish to support these letters, and such video conversations, please click here. Your contribution is essential to support this type of free content. We cannot continue to do it without you! —RM—