Pope Benedict XVI’s Eucharistic vision: A key to understanding his life and theology
Editor’s note: Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI died on Saturday morning, Dec. 31, the Vatican announced. Pope Francis announced the pope emeritus’s health had been worsening on Wednesday.
Riven between consolation and desolation, the young Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., “fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host” (“The Wreck of the Deutschland”). In less poetic but no less intense terms, Joseph Ratzinger, a cardinal at the time, understood the Eucharist to be “the mystical heart of Christianity, in which God mysteriously comes forth, time and again, from within himself and draws us into his embrace.” “The Eucharist,” he wrote in Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith(first published in German in 2002), is “the fulfillment of the promise” made by Jesus: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all to myself” (Jn 12:32).
Throughout his long ecclesial and academic ministry, there was never, for Joseph Ratzinger, a divorce between theology and spirituality, between Christian thought and devotion. In this he was manifestly a keen and grateful student of St. Augustine: pastor, doctor, spiritual guide. Pope Benedict’s homilies, like Augustine’s, are theologically rich and his theological works spiritually nourishing. Whether homilies, catechesis or treatises, they all testify to a profound spiritual and theological sensibility. They will continue to be read and appropriated for generations.
Whether homilies, catechesis or treatises, they all testify to a profound spiritual and theological sensibility. They will continue to be read generations.
In the quotation from Hopkins above, the Jesuit poet no doubt had first in mind the consecrated host present in the tabernacle. But one also senses intimations of the host who is Jesus himself: “the heart of the Host.” Heart speaks to heart, as the mentor of Hopkins, John Henry Newman, exclaimed. Newman also deeply influenced Pope Benedict, who had the joy of beatifying him during his apostolic visit to England in 2010. Like Newman, Benedict placed the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist at the very center of Catholic faith and devotion.
Perhaps nowhere is Pope Benedict’s eucharistic mysticism set forth so fully as in his apostolic exhortation “The Sacrament of Charity” (2007). It was written to sum up and disseminate more widely the fruit of the meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. The very first sentence reads: “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.” Of course, it is the Gospels’ narrative of the life, death and new life of Jesus that vividly displays the height and breadth and length and depth of the love of Jesus. Meditation upon the Gospels’ story preceded for Ratzinger, as it did for St. Ignatius Loyola, the contemplation on God’s love that is the climax of the Spiritual Exercises. The meditative Liturgy of the Word prepares the table for the more contemplative Liturgy of the Eucharist. Scripture and sacrament, story and supper, mutually illumine each other.
Like Newman, Benedict placed the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist at the very center of Catholic faith and devotion.
Access to the Heart
Here one confronts, in our contemporary context, a challenge unknown to St. Ignatius Loyola and the many guides to the Christian life of previous centuries. Some present-day biblical studies seem to block rather than foster access to the Jesus of Christian faith. Pope Benedict expresses his concern in the foreword to the first volume of his trilogy, Jesus of Nazareth.Reliance on historical-critical approaches alone has led to the spread of unwarranted skepticism concerning our knowledge of Jesus. The unhappy result is that the figure of Jesus becomes “increasingly obscured and blurred.” Here Benedict voices a heartfelt lament: “Intimate friendship with Jesus, on which everything depends, is in danger of clutching at thin air.”
What accounts for the fact that Benedict devoted such commitment and labor to bring his volumes on Jesus to term, save for his conviction that friendship with Jesus, and through Jesus with the Father, stands at risk? Benedict’s proposed Christological reading of Scripture does not entail rejection of the legitimate exercise of historical-critical analysis. He sought, rather, to broaden and deepen it through a faith-filled apprehension that did not leave Jesus as a strange figure from the past, but as one with whom personal relationship is possible today.
It may be suggestive, then, to consider Benedict’s Jesus volumes as contemporary spiritual exercises designed to render accessible once again the Jesus of the Gospels who, as Benedict insisted, is the real Jesus. The crucified and risen Jesus is as contemporary to us as he was to the first disciples. The exercise of critical reason needs to be complemented by the insights of the reasons of the heart. For, as Joseph Ratzinger wrote: “Love seeks understanding. It wishes to know even better the one whom it loves. It ‘seeks his face,’ as Augustine never tires of repeating.”
Behold the Pierced One
In both his homilies and his other writings, Benedict showed great sensitivity to the spiritual importance of images. Perhaps no image from the Gospels so captivated him as that of the pierced side of Jesus, described in the Gospel of John (19:31-37). He titled one of his books Behold the Pierced One,and the image recurs five times in his encyclical “God Is Charity” (2005). In consonance with many fathers of the church, Benedict saw the blood and water pouring from the pierced heart of Jesus as symbols of sacramental life in the church: baptism and Eucharist. He taught in the encyclical that “one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God.” And he ceaselessly affirmed the enduring presence of Christ’s love in the eucharistic mystery.
But the eucharistic mysticism Benedict propounded is not merely a contemplative gazing upon the Lord, crucified and risen. It is entering, in communion with Christ, into his paschal mystery: his death, resurrection and ascension. There is an actualism to his understanding of the Eucharist, a participatio actuosa in Christ’s eucharistic action. Benedict writes in “God Is Charity”: “The Eucharist draws us into Jesus’ act of self-oblation…we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving.”
So intimate is the communion the Eucharist effects between Christ and the Christian that Joseph Ratzinger did not hesitate to speak of our becoming Eucharist in Christ. In a rich essay, “Eucharist and Mission,” he comments upon the first eucharistic prayer:
We ask that Christ’s sacrifice might become present not just in an exterior sense, standing over against us and appearing, so to speak, like a material sacrifice, that we might gaze upon (as people once gazed upon the physical sacrifices of old). We would not in that case have entered into the New Covenant at all. We are asking rather that we ourselves might become a Eucharist with Christ, and thus become acceptable and pleasing to God.
The intimacy of the relation of the individual to Jesus could lead to the suspicion that Benedict’s eucharistic mysticism, though intense, is purely individualistic. That would be a complete misreading of Benedict’s theological-spiritual vision. Though the Christian’s relation to Jesus, savior and Lord, is supremely personal, it is never private. The reception of the eucharistic body of Christ incorporates the recipient into the risen Lord’s ecclesial body. Benedict built upon (indeed, he probably played a major role in composing) John Paul II’s last encyclical, “Ecclesia de Eucharistia” (2003). The church arises from the Eucharist, as blood streams forth from the pierced heart of Christ, sanctifying the disciples standing at the foot of the cross.
Augustine provided Joseph Ratzinger with a core insight that the theologian-pope explored throughout his ministry: that of the Christus totus.In the section of “The Sacrament of Charity” where he develops the concept, he teaches that the eucharistic celebration is the work of the whole Christ, head and members. Christ, of course, is the prime agent. He is the bridegroom who continues to give himself to nourish his beloved. Benedict often repeated Augustine’s insistence that unlike ordinary food, the Eucharist transforms those who feast upon it into Christ. They do not transform Christ into themselves; they are incorporated into the body whose sole head is Jesus Christ. Yet Christ’s grace is such that he always associates his church with his eucharistic sacrifice offered “for you and for many.”
Thus it would be a serious error to understand Benedict’s eucharistic mysticism as countenancing any gnostic removal of the earthly and the bodily. Rather, in reading him, one is repeatedly struck by how corporeal and corporate this “mysticism” is. It can serve as a salutary antidote to a widespread New Age gnosticism. Thus he writes in Behold the Pierced One:
The most intimate mystery of communion between God and man is accessible in the sacrament of the Body of the Risen Lord; conversely, then, the mystery lays claim to our bodies and is realized in a Body. The Church, which is built upon the sacrament of the Body of Christ, must herself be a body. And she must be a single body, corresponding to Jesus Christ’s uniqueness…
It would be a serious error to understand Benedict’s eucharistic mysticism as countenancing any gnostic removal of the earthly and the bodily.
Central to Benedict’s teaching about the tri-form body of Christ—the risen body of the Lord, his eucharistic body and his ecclesial body—is its constitutive relationality. Through his risen body Christ is totally communicable. His eucharistic body is the sacramental realization and sharing of his new life. His ecclesial body is the incorporation of the many into loving communication with their redeemer. There is a mutual indwelling (what Charles Williams and Bishop Robert Barron, learning from Dante, have called “co-inherence”) among the participants—an enhancement, not a diminishment of personhood. For the outcome of eucharistic relationality is not fusion but communion in the Spirit.
Newness and Transformation
The supple structure that undergirds Pope Benedict’s reflections might be called the grammar of newness and transformation. The novum, the newness, is Christ himself, fully revealed in his paschal mystery. The New Testament, Benedict insisted, does not give witness to new ideas but to the new person, the new [eschatos] Adam. By his death and resurrection Jesus has accomplished the true Exodus, transforming death itself into newness of life. He has inaugurated the new creation.
The Eucharist, celebrated on the Lord’s Day of resurrection, the eighth day of the new creation, immerses all who celebrate it into this mystery of faith. It offers a love beyond our capacity, one that we can only gratefully receive. Truly to receive it does not entail a passive undergoing, but an active transforming, a radical shift in our center of gravity.
In a now famous commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, the late David Foster Wallace spoke of “the default setting” into which we seem naturally “hard-wired”: namely, our self as “the absolute center of the universe.” Though Wallace did not use the word, the condition he described seems strikingly similar to what the tradition terms “original sin.”
The supple structure that undergirds Pope Benedict’s reflections might be called the grammar of newness and transformation.
If baptism orients us away from this primordial self-referential condition toward the renewal of creation in Christ, the Eucharist plunges us ever more deeply, if we allow it, into paradise regained. In his most systematic work, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, Ratzinger speaks of the fundamental assent of faith made at baptism. But he goes on to say of our assent: “only with difficulty can it peer out from behind the latticework of an egoism we are powerless to pull down with our own hands.” We are, indeed, the recipients of God’s mercy, Ratzinger writes, yet this does not relieve us of the need to be transformed. The privileged encounter with the Lord in the Eucharist fosters this ongoing transformation.
In numerous places Benedict sketched the contours of this eucharistic transformation of the recipients. In one of his most striking passages he writes:
The Eucharist is never an event involving just two, a dialogue between Christ and me. Eucharistic Communion is aimed at a complete reshaping of my own life. It breaks up man’s entire self and creates a new “we.” Communion with Christ is necessarily also communication with all who belong to him: therein I myself become a part of the new bread he is creating by the transubstantiation of the whole of earthly reality.
“The Sacrament of Charity” unfolds in three major sections: the Eucharist is a mystery to be believed, celebrated and lived. The third section, “a mystery to be lived,” speaks of the eucharistic form of the Christian life. Benedict writes: “A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented.” It is no longer the breaking of the host to be shared among many, but the breaking of the unity of the body of Christ. Hence eucharistic mysticism is intrinsically social and calls forth a new way of being, thinking and acting. For “the union with Christ brought about by the Eucharist also brings a newness to our social relations: this sacramental mysticism is social in character.”
Each pope brings to the Petrine ministry a distinct set of gifts, a particular style unique to himself. Many have commented upon the distinctive styles of Pope Benedict and Pope Francis. What is often missed in the (sometimes invidious) comparisons is the similarity of their theological vision. These words of “The Sacrament of Charity” could well have been penned by either of these successors of St. Peter: “The mystery of the Eucharist inspires and impels us to work courageously in our world to bring about that renewal of relationships which has its inexhaustible source in God’s gift.... In a particular way, the Christian laity, formed at the school of the Eucharist, are called to assume their specific social and political responsibilities.” The Eucharist is the sacrament of the kingdom, inspiring and impelling the faithful toward its eschatological consummation.
Reorientation and Recapitulation
When one thinks of Joseph Ratzinger in connection with the church’s liturgical practice, the first association for many is his advocacy of celebrating the Eucharist ad orientem, “facing east.” Clearly, he expressed his preference for this and gave theological and pastoral reasons for this option. But he never made it the only valid position. Indeed, throughout his pontificate he celebrated Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica versus populum, facing toward the people. Of course, because of St. Peter’s geographical layout, the celebrant both faces east and faces the congregation.
As always for Benedict, the fundamental issue and principle was Christological. Facing east is facing toward the rising sun, the cosmic symbol of the Christ who comes. He writes in The Spirit of the Liturgy: “The fact that we find Christ in the symbol of the rising sun is the indication of a Christology defined eschatologically.”
Many have lamented the loss of an acute sense of the eschatological in contemporary Catholicism. Benedict’s eucharistic mysticism gives form to the conviction that Jesus Christ, the new [eschatos] Adam, by his death and resurrection has inaugurated the “last days.” But he is equally clear that the final consummation of all things in Christ has not yet been fully realized; thus his reorientation of Christian faith, hope and love toward the Christ who is present and yet is to come. At the very beginning of his book Eschatology, he writes: “The Eucharist is at once the joyful proclamation of the Lord’s presence and a supplication to the already present Lord that he may come, since, paradoxically, even as the One who is present, he remains the One who is to come.”
It is in this light that Benedict’s ad orientem proposal takes its correct bearing. Far from being a “turning of the priest’s back to the people,” as it is too facilely criticized, it is the symbolic embodiment of both priest and people on pilgrimage toward their coming Lord. From this perspective the geographic east is less important than the spiritual east—the reorientation of our bodies and our being toward Christ that he may “easter in us” (as Hopkins prays). Indeed, “every Eucharist is Parousia, the Lord’s coming,” Benedict writes, “and yet the Eucharist is even more truly the tensed yearning that he would reveal his hidden Glory.” The universal call to holiness issued anew by the Second Vatican Council can be enabled and sustained only by the risen Lord, who alone is the Holy One, the true revelation of God’s glory.
When, then, Jesus Christ comes again “to judge the living and the dead,” his coming will recapitulate all in himself, put under his headship, both human history and the whole of creation. Significantly, the final section of The Spirit of the Liturgy is devoted to “matter.” Unlike much of ancient thought influenced by Plato, the authentic Christian tradition does not counsel flight from the body and matter but their transformation. It comes as no surprise that Benedict, both as theologian and pope, voiced appreciation for the vision of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. Like Teilhard’s, Benedict’s eucharistic mysticism descends to the depths of matter so that rising it may converge on Jesus Christ who is alpha and omega, Lord of history and cosmos. To him the whole eucharistic assembly raises the cry: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Rv 22:20).
I suggest that Benedict XVI’s lasting challenge and legacy to the church he loved and served so wholeheartedly may be these words from “Sacramentum Caritatis:”
The Sacrament of the Altar is always at the heart of the Church’s life: thanks to the Eucharist, the Church is reborn ever anew! The more lively the Eucharistic faith of the people of God, the deeper is its sharing in ecclesial life in steadfast commitment to the mission entrusted by Christ to his disciples….Every great reform has in some way been linked to the rediscovery of belief in the Lord’s Eucharistic presence among his people.