In the Heart of the Church

Reflections on the Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Benedict XVI
Sacramentum Caritatis

Eucharist and priesthood, faith and life, celebration and mission, worship and love
by Claudio Cardinal Hummes
Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy

The Second Vatican Council already emphasized the nature and importance of the spirituality proper to diocesan priests as such. At that time, priests seeking the path of holiness would often turn to the spirituality of some religious Order or Congregation.

The Council, on the other hand, taught something else: "Priests will acquire holiness in their own distinctive way by exercising their functions sincerely and tirelessly in the Spirit of Christ". It then immediately specified that priests may do this in exercising the threefold munus: by being "ministers of the Word of God", "as ministers of the sacred mysteries, especially in the sacrifice of the Mass", and "by governing and shepherding the People of God" (cf. Presbyterorum Ordinis, n. 13).

In his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (1992), noting that many candidates to the priesthood today come from the new movements and forms of spirituality, the late Servant of God Pope John Paul II said: "The fact that seminarians and diocesan priests take part in particular spiritualities or ecclesial groupings is indeed, in itself, a factor which helps growth and priestly fraternity. Such participation, however, should not be an obstacle, but rather a help to the ministry and spiritual life which are proper to the diocesan priest" (n. 68).

The word "spirituality" derives from "spirit". Wondering about someone's spirituality means inquiring what spirit moves and inspires him or her in the discovery and realization of meaning in life, in the search for goals and in understanding what his or her crucial aspirations are. For us Christians, this spirit is necessarily the Spirit of Christ. He must be our incentive and our inspiration. We must aspire to him.

Consequently, the priest must also live this spirituality, centered on Christ, but with specific features according to his vocation, ministry and mission. He must be inspired by Christ, the Servant and Head of the Church, in his triple munus of Prophet, Priest and Pastor, since it is through this triple munus of Christ that the priest truly participates in his own right by virtue of his Ordination.

Benedict XVI also has priests constantly in mind in the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, whose theme is the Eucharist, source and summit of the Church's life and mission. The Christian priesthood was founded on Christ, who placed it essentially in connection with the Eucharist when at the Last Supper he said to his Apostles: "Do this in remembrance of me" (Lk 22:19; I Cor 11:25).

The Pope says that "the Eucharist is thus constitutive of the Church's being and activity" (n. 15). In this sense, it is the centre of the Church's life.

In his Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia (2003), John Paul II also taught that "the heart of the mystery of the Church" was expressed in the affirmation: "The Church draws her life from Christ in the Eucharist" (Introduction); hence, "the Eucharist builds the Church and the Church makes the Eucharist" (n. 26).

The good of the Church

As for the Council, it affirmed: "The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are directed towards it. For in the Most Blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely, Christ himself, our Pasch and the living bread, which gives life to men through his flesh that flesh which is given life and gives life through the Holy Spirit" (Presbyterorum Ordinis, n. 5).

If the Eucharist is the heart of the Church's life, it must also form the spirituality of all Christians.

In Sacramentum Caritatis, Benedict XVI affirms: "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 Eucharistic sacrifice nourishes and increases within us all that we have already received at Baptism with its call to holiness, and this must be clearly evident from the way individual Christians live their lives" (n. 79).

However, the Pope added, "The Eucharistic form of the Christian life is seen in a very special way in the priesthood. Priestly spirituality is intrinsically Eucharistic.... In order to give an ever greater Eucharistic form to his existence, the priest... should make his spiritual life his highest priority.

"He is called to seek God tirelessly, while remaining attuned to the concerns of his brothers and sisters. An intense spiritual life will enable him to enter more deeply into communion with the Lord and to let himself be possessed by God's love, bearing witness to that love at all times, even the darkest and most difficult" (ibid., n. 80).

"Letting oneself be possessed by God's love" is truly fundamental in spirituality and is profoundly Eucharistic. Christian and priestly spiritual life, in fact, draws life from an ever renewed personal and community encounter with Jesus Christ. This powerful encounter consists in the concrete and special experience of being touched by the love of Jesus Christ, of being loved personally by him and as a result, of becoming capable of responding to this love.

It is in feeling loved and in loving that human happiness consists. The same is true of spirituality.

The Eucharist presents itself as the best opportunity for experiencing this living experience of Christ, for meeting the One who gives himself to us without reserve in his Body and in his Blood that he gave for our salvation.

In the Eucharist, he loved us to the very end and, as he taught his disciples at the Last Supper, he has taught us to love our brothers and sisters as he has loved us, especially the poorest and those suffering the most: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (Jn 13:34-35).

As we have seen, the Pope urges every priest to "make his spiritual life his highest priority", since he is "called to seek God tirelessly". The priest is called "to seek God", not only in the sense of pursuing a greater theoretical knowledge of God, but also in living a lively and profound experience of God.

Vital presence of God

In the absence of this experience, which must already be sought during the seminary years and constantly renewed in the presbyteral ministry, the priest will encounter major difficulties in living his vocation and his mission. God cannot be merely an abstract idea, a doctrine, a programme of life; above all, he must be Someone with whom to develop a strong, personal relationship and friendship, filial, adult and responsible, a binding relationship of unconditional dedication to the mission of saving humanity.

For this reason, the Pope affirms that the priest must "seek God tirelessly while remaining attuned to the concerns of his brothers and sisters". Together, the priest and Jesus Christ are dedicated unreservedly to the salvation of humanity. Side by side, they set out on mission.

Thus, just as Jesus spent entire nights in prayer with the Father, undoubtedly talking to him about how his mission in this world is proceeding, the priest must do likewise.

His constant reference to God and, in a different dimension, the total gift of himself to the mission together with men and women, even at the cost of his life, appears profoundly Eucharistic. It is at the school of the Eucharist that the priest is strengthened on this spiritual and pastoral journey of life.

Consequently, the Pope declares: "I join... in recommending 'the daily celebration of Mass, even when the faithful are not present" (n. 80).

Whenever possible, it would obviously be better to celebrate Mass with the participation of the faithful. This was warmly recommended by the Second Vatican Council and Benedict XVI confirms it by making his own what the Synod Fathers have recognized, in other words: "The Synod Fathers acknowledged and reaffirmed the beneficial influence on the Church's life of the liturgical renewal which began with the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council" (n. 3).

Nonetheless, the Pope bases his recommendation of daily Mass, even without the participation of the faithful, on the argument that it is consistent with "the objectively infinite value of every celebration of the Eucharist" (n. 80). Indeed, Holy Mass is also an act which is equivalent to a universal or even cosmic and also eschatological embrace, so that even in the physical absence of the faithful it continues to be essentially communitarian, involving the entire Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church.

Daily celebration of Mass also has a "unique spiritual fruitfulness. If celebrated in a faith-filled and attentive way, Mass is formative in the deepest sense of the word, since it fosters the priest's configuration to Christ and strengthens him in his vocation" (n. 80).

Mass: daily focal point

Furthermore, the celebration of Holy Mass must not be merely one of the many activities of the day but, on the contrary, its central moment, the most important act of the priestly ministry.

There is no more exalted, meaningful, involving, salvific, transforming or vivifying event in the world, none more merciful in regards to human misery, than the celebration of the Eucharist, which makes present in history, renewing each time, the one Paschal Sacrifice of Jesus Christ offered to the Father for our salvation.

If Holy Mass is the most important daily act in human history, it must be celebrated with the greatest possible dignity and care. Benedict XVI writes: "The liturgy is a radiant expression of the Paschal Mystery, in which Christ draws us to himself and calls us to communion..., the truth of God's love in Christ encounters us, attracts us and delights us, enabling us to emerge from ourselves and drawing us towards our true vocation, which is love" (n. 35).

All this is God's action. Now, "[s]ince the Eucharistic liturgy is essentially an actio Dei which draws us into Christ through the Holy Spirit, its basic structure is not something within our power to change, nor can it be held hostage by the latest trends" (n. 37).

Having considered this, one understands the importance of "faithful adherence to the liturgical norms in all their richness; indeed, for 2,000 years this way of celebrating has sustained the faith life of all believers" as stressed by the Pope (n. 38), and he adds: "Attentiveness and fidelity to the specific structure of the rite express both a recognition of the nature of Eucharist as a gift and, on the part of the minister, a docile openness to receiving this ineffable gift" (n. 40).

As well as by a dignified celebration of the Eucharist, Eucharistic spirituality, which must constitute the backbone of presbyteral spirituality, is strengthened by Eucharistic devotion.

Visits to and adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle during the course of the day are among its most traditional expressions, as the example of so many saints has confirmed. Truly, the hours spent before the Most Blessed Sacrament are among the most precious in a priest's life.

We all learn this from the time we attended the seminary. These hours are priceless opportunities to experience a long moment of prayer and personal encounter with the Lord.

We know that in recent decades, with the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council, it has not always been easy to understand the relationship between the celebration of Holy Mass and Eucharistic Adoration.

The Pope mentions this incomprehension and corrects it, affirming: "During the early phases of the reform, the inherent relationship between Mass and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was not always perceived with sufficient clarity. For example, an objection that was widespread at the time argued that the Eucharistic Bread was given to us not to be looked at, but to be eaten.

"In the light of the Church's experience of prayer, however, this was seen to be a false dichotomy.... Eucharistic Adoration is simply the natural consequence of the Eucharistic Celebration, which is itself the Church's supreme act of adoration" (n. 66).

The Trinitarian aspect

To manifest all the richness of the Eucharistic mystery in the context of priestly spirituality, it is right to give further emphasis to the following aspects.

First of all, the Trinitarian character of the Eucharistic faith.

The Church encounters in the Eucharist the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity and is inserted into its communion of life and love through the memorial of the Paschal Mystery of the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, celebrated and made sacramentally present.

Pope Benedict XVI says: "The Eucharist reveals the loving plan that guides all of salvation history (cf. Eph 1:10; 3:8-11). There the Deus Trinitas, who is essentially love (cf. I Jn 4:7-8), becomes fully a part of our, human condition. In the bread and wine under whose appearances Christ gives himself to us in the paschal meal (cf. Lk 22:1420; I Cor 11:23-26), 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.... But it is in Christ, dead and risen, and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, given without measure (cf. Jn 3:34), that we have become sharers of God's inmost life" (n. 8).

All this began when the Father sent forth his Son, made man in the Virgin Mary's womb by the action of the Holy Spirit. In this context, the Pope cites the illuminating Gospel passage: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him (Jn 3:16-17)" (n. 7).

The other Eucharistic element is the gift without reserve which Christ makes of himself for the life of the world. "This is my body which is given for you.... This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood" (Lk 22:19-20).

Thus, Jesus in the Eucharist of the Last Supper anticipated the gift of his life on the Cross. He gave himself totally: "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (Jn 15:13).

Every time the priest celebrates the Eucharist, he learns from Christ to give his own life without reserve for humanity's salvation. This complete gift of himself, made possible by a growing configuration with Jesus Christ, dead and risen, also sustains and nourishes the priest in the charism of celibacy.

In the Eucharist, Christ distributes the Bread of Life, which is himself, dead and risen. This is the true Bread for which every human being profoundly hungers.

We have all been created for communion with the divine life of the Most Holy Trinity. It is a life of love, because God is love, a life of loving and of feeling loved. The Eucharistic Bread is the testimony and gift of this divine love.

Solidarity with the poor

Yet at the same time, it reminds us that in this world material bread, indispensable for our survival, has not been distributed in a just or fraternal way. Indeed, many go hungry. They die of hunger. Practical and effective solidarity with the poor is a form of coherency necessary for anyone who partakes of the Eucharist.

The Pope says: "Our communities, when they celebrate the Eucharist, must become ever more conscious that the sacrifice of Christ is for all, and that the Eucharist thus compels all who believe in him to become 'bread that is broken' for others, and to work for the building of a more just and fraternal world.

"Keeping in mind the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, we need to realize that Christ still continues today to exhort his disciples to become personally engaged: 'You yourselves, give them something to eat' (Mt 14:16)" (n. 88).

In this broad vision of the Eucharist perceived as "bread broken for the life of the world", Benedict XVI urges us, ever and again, to let ourselves be involved in building a world of true peace founded on "justice, reconciliation and forgiveness" (n. 89), but a world that "liberate[s] the immense masses of the poor from destitution" (n. 90).

Lastly, it is necessary to consider that "an authentically Eucharistic Church is a missionary Church" (n. 84). The Eucharist compels the priest to be a missionary.

Some priests go in mission ad gentes. All, however, are called to be missionaries among the people of their own parish and diocese. Missionary in the strict sense of the word means people who decide to set out and meet the people, especially Catholics who have fallen away.

The field of missionary action is vast. The harvest is ripe and truly risks being wasted. Today, the Church has a new awareness that only a genuine missionary spirit can renew her.

The Pope writes: "The love that we celebrate in the Sacrament is not something we can keep to ourselves. By its very nature it demands to be shared with all. What the world needs is God's love; it needs to encounter Christ and to believe in him.

"The Eucharist is thus the source and summit not only of the Church's life, but also of her mission.... We cannot approach the Eucharistic table without being drawn into the mission which, beginning in the very heart of God, is meant to reach all people. Missionary outreach is thus an essential part of the Eucharistic form of the Christian life" (n. 84).

These are a few of the points contained in Sacramentum Caritatis that form part of an authentic presbyteral spirituality. In this way, Benedict XVI shows once again his love for and closeness to priests.

Copyright L'Osservatore Romano
October 17, 2007

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