Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later, Pope Benedict XVI, was one of the greatest and most prolific theologians of our modern times, contributing volumes of written work to the treasury of our faith. In 2008, Benedict put together a volume called Collected Works: Theology of the Liturgy, which consisted of his previous writings. These writings were all written before he became Pope and covered every aspect of the liturgy. In part C, which deals specifically with the Eucharist, Benedict included four homilies he gave during the late 1970s and early 1980s on the Eucharist. As we find ourselves in the midst of the Church-declared Eucharistic Revival, I thought it might be interesting to examine the Cardinal’s thoughts concerning the Eucharist, since they were written much closer to the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. To that end, today begins a four-part series in which I aim to summarize these homilies.
During the Chrism Mass in 1980, Ratzinger delivered the first of his selected Eucharistic homilies, titled “On the Question of the Adoration of the Eucharist and Its Sacredness.” Pope John Paul II had, just a few weeks prior, delivered a letter to all the bishops of the Church entitled, Dominicae Cenae – On the Mystery and Worship of the Eucharist. Ratzinger was inspired enough by the letter to extrapolate two key themes and expound on them in his homily, which we will examine here.
The first theme Ratzinger covers is that of Eucharistic adoration. He affirms that the Eucharistic sacrifice is a mystery in which the Lord gathers His people into community. However, Ratzinger laments that we have recently come to overemphasize what he calls a “mere sign of brotherly fellowship,” to the detriment of the element of sacrifice. He expresses concern that we have minimalized the Eucharist to a simple half hour of time during the week and have placed Eucharistic adoration “on the edge of things.” He tells us that instead, our days have been consumed with worldly thoughts and worldly business. In other words, we make very little sacrifice to partake in the Eucharist, particularly in the form of Eucharistic adoration.
We know that our consecrated priests, those who have received the Sacrament of Holy Orders, play a unique role in the Sacrament of the Eucharist as they operate in persona Christi and have very particular powers to offer sacrifice to consecrate the Eucharist by virtue of their vocation. However, the laity are also called to partake in the priesthood by offering sacrifice within their own vocations. Ratzinger asserts that it is in Eucharistic adoration that both the consecrated and the lay expressions of the priesthood, collide. For the consecrated priest, all of his sacrifices are ordered to the Eucharist, which ought to come forth from adoration of the Lord. For the layperson, a sacrifice is made in order to take time out of one’s day and worldly occupations to sit and commune with the Lord in adoration.
Another point Ratzinger makes about Eucharistic adoration is that it is a very personal act of communion in which the adorer is directly communicating with the Lord. He says:
…a person cannot communicate with another person without knowing him. He must be open for him, see him, and hear him. Love or friendship always carries within it an impulse of reverence, of adoration. Communicating with Christ therefore demands that we gaze on him, allow him to gaze on us, listen to him, get to know him.
We make sacrifices to spend time with our loved ones in order to nurture and deepen the relationship. How much more will our relationship with Jesus deepen if we offer our priestly sacrifice of time to be with Him, communicating with Him in Eucharistic adoration?
The final point that Ratzinger makes about our time spent in Eucharistic adoration is that it helps to form and develop our conscience. He asserts that as we regularly and consistently come face to face with the body of Jesus Christ, we are exposed to the violence He suffered for each and every one of us, to the point of death. As we face that violence, we experience sin and its effects in our everyday lives, and our dispositions are moved and purified. In contemplation of what the flesh before our eyes endured, we grow in compassion, love of neighbor, and love of God. In adoration, charity increases.
The second theme Ratzinger extrapolates from John Paul’s letter is that of the sacred nature of the Eucharist. He laments that over the last 15 years (from 1980) that our thinking has been influenced by “desacralization.” Desacralization is the act of taking something that was once dedicated to sacred and religious activity and giving it over to an outside entity for worldly use. In other words, as Ratzinger refers to our thinking, we have taken the sacred spaces in our hearts and minds and given them over to the world. Therefore, we have relegated our hearts and minds to only engage in sacred activity for the hour we are at Mass, or some other finite period of time in which we are otherwise engaged in sacred activity when, in fact, we should be doing the opposite by striving to bring sacredness to the rest of our lives and making every moment holy.
Ratzinger explains that when the Temple veil was torn in two at the moment of Jesus’ death, the separation between the holiest of holies and the outside world was destroyed. Prior to Jesus’ death, all sacred activity took place beyond the veil and was reserved for a select few, but after the barrier was destroyed, what is holy can no longer be separated from what is ordinary. While the sacred reaches out into everyday life, the imperfect, and even profane, seeps in. Rather than withdrawing behind a barrier, the holiness of God emerges from behind the veil to come face-to-face with humanity.
This reality has practical implications for us as believers in the sacred nature of the Holy Eucharist. When we receive the Eucharist at Mass, we become tabernacles – before only present behind the veil – and we take Jesus into the world. Therefore, the way we live our lives must reflect that the sacred is amongst us in the world. According to Ratzinger, “It demands we lead lives directed toward the New Jerusalem, that we bring the world into the presence of Jesus Christ, and that we purify it for this; that we take the presence of Jesus Christ into everyday life and thereby transform it. Reverence has become, not superfluous, but more demanding.” Since we are both body and spirit, and because we are social creatures, we, “need a visible expression of reverence, the rules of play for its social form, for its visible sign in this sick and unholy world.” Ratzinger is asserting that if we have reverence for the Eucharist, we will not keep it behind closed doors and we will live reverent lives in totality, presenting a physical and visible sign to a world that desperately needs it. He brings his point to a close by explaining that the most clear and effective means by which we can communicate reverence and holiness to the world is by what we do with our hands. The priests’ hands are anointed and are the means by which the Eucharist is consecrated, while our hands are anointed in a different way:
We give and we take with our hands; we heal and we hit with our hands. Among all peoples, men lift up their hands whenever they turn in prayer to him who is above them. Our hands are anointed…Let us ask the Lord that this sign of the anointing of our hands may more and more be made real in our lives, that our hands may more and more be instruments of blessing, that through his mercy we ourselves may become a blessing and, thus, receive blessing.
To conclude, I will present a quote from John Paul’s letter, which Ratzinger also presented in his homily, and offer it as a prayerful call to action: “Let us be generous with our time in going to meet Him in adoration and in contemplation that is full of faith and ready to make reparation for the great faults and crimes of the world. May our adoration never cease” (Dominicae Cenae #3).
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For part one of my reflection series on Cardinal Ratzinger’s eucharistic homilies, click here.
For part two of my reflection series on Cardinal Ratzinger’s eucharistic homilies, click here.
For part three of my reflection series on Cardinal Ratzinger’s eucharistic homilies, click here.
For part four of my reflection series on Cardinal Ratzinger’s eucharistic homilies, click here.