On the Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis
The three parts into which Benedict XVI divides his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis reflect the harmony between dogma, liturgy, and life. The Eucharist is a mystery that has to be believed, celebrated, and lived. The considerations that follow focus on the relation between faith and celebration, and between celebration and life. Both themes are very present in the preaching and teaching of the founder of Opus Dei, St. Josemaría Escrivá.
Pope Benedict XVI emphasizes that the Synod of Bishops, whose conclusions gave rise to this Apostolic Exhortation, “reflected a great deal on the intrinsic relation between Eucharistic faith and celebration.” The faith of the Church, said the Pope, “is nourished in a special way at the table of the Eucharist.”
To ensure that the faithful’s participation in the Eucharist leads to an effective growth in their faith and strengthens their divine life, it is important that the celebration of the rite be done well. This is perhaps one of the central teachings of this document. A refined obedience to the liturgical norms shows that the faith that is celebrated is the faith that is believed. Through obedience to its rites, the Church guarantees a harmony between the faith that is believed and the faith that is celebrated. As Benedict XVI pointed out: “for two thousand years this way of celebrating has sustained the faith life of all believers, called to take part in the celebration as the People of God, a royal priesthood, a holy nation (cf. 1 Pet 2:5, 9).”
Through fidelity to the rites, the minister shows that the Eucharist is, more than a human work, a divine action. The careful following of gestures and signs, in accord with the cadence and order prescribed by the liturgy, expresses “on the part of the minister, a docile openness to receiving this ineffable gift.” Thus the liturgical norms help the celebrating minister as well as those participating to adequately situate themselves in regard to the sacred action that is being carried out.
The liturgical rhythm expresses in a special way the serene beauty of God’s love. “The simplicity of its gestures and the sobriety of its orderly sequence of signs communicate and inspire more than any contrived and inappropriate additions.” The beauty in the liturgy is an expression of God’s glory, a reflection of heaven upon earth. The liturgy is a divine rather than a human action. It is a gift received which, as a divine action, is not subject to our whims or to current fashions.
The Pope insists that “the best catechesis on the Eucharist is the Eucharist itself, celebrated well.” A Christian who marvels at the mystery being celebrated will grow in his spirit of adoration and piety. The careful celebration of the liturgy will lead him to God.
After considering the relationship between faith as believed and faith as celebrated, so important for fostering authentic participation by the faithful, the Exhortation offers a new opportunity to consider the profound relationship between the Eucharist and Christian life. The Holy Father refers to the Eucharist as the sacrament of charity, thus emphasizing the relationship between the sacrament of the Eucharist and Christian love, both love for God and love for neighbor. Some words of St. Josemaria are quite germane here: “Keep struggling, so that the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar really becomes the center and the root of your interior life, and so your whole day will turn into an act of worship—an extension of the Mass you have attended and a preparation for the next. Your whole day will then be an act of worship that overflows in aspirations, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, and the offering up of your professional work and your family life.”
The relationship between the Eucharist, Christian life and apostolic mission, is central to the teachings of St. Josemaría. Eucharistic faith has to be present and operative not only in the moment of the celebration, but should embrace one’s whole life. As he vigorously affirmed, being a Catholic can never mean simply “going to church, taking part in sacred ceremonies, being taken up with ecclesiastical matters, in a kind of segregated world, which is considered to be the ante-chamber of heaven, while the ordinary world follows its own separate path.” On the contrary, ordinary life is the true setting for one’s Christian life: “where your fellow men, your yearnings, your work and your affections are. There you have your daily encounter with Christ.”
These words of the founder of Opus Dei, spoken forty years ago in the context of an open-air celebration of the Eucharist, can help us to understand the relationship between the Eucharist and life. The Pope in his Apostolic Exhortation insists that the Eucharist, “as a mystery to be ‘lived,’ meets each of us as we are, and makes our concrete existence the place where we experience daily the radical newness of the Christian life.” The laity, specifically, are called to carry out their Christian vocation in the setting of their daily life. Conformed to Christ through the Eucharist, their mission is to be witnesses to God’s love in their ordinary life, and particularly in their work and family.
The divine life that stems from the Eucharist is, therefore, inseparable from our apostolic mission, as the Holy Father says when commenting on the words Ite misa est with which the sacred minister greets the faithful at the conclusion of the celebration: “These few words succinctly express the missionary nature of the Church. The People of God might be helped to understand more clearly this essential dimension of the Church’s life, taking the dismissal as a starting-point.” The founder of Opus Dei expressed this relationship between life and mission very succinctly: “Your apostolate must be the overflow of your life ‘within.’” The Church’s mission is to spread the life and the charity of Christ, which flows forth from the Eucharist as from its source. The Apostolic Exhortation is a reflection on the Eucharist as the source and summit of the Church's life and mission, that is, the sanctification of the world.
Sacramentum Caritatis is thus a good opportunity to appreciate the gift of the Eucharist with renewed gratitude and to understand more fully the connection between the Eucharist and Christian life.