Jun 15, 2004

Cardinal Ratzinger: The Living Liturgy: A Gift from Heaven

Online Edition – June 2004

Vol. X No. 4

Cardinal Ratzinger: The Living Liturgy: A Gift from Heaven

God and the World is a book-length interview with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 1981, has been one of the closest advisors to Pope John Paul II. Cardinal Ratzinger is a theologian who taught at the University of Regensburg before becoming Archbishop of Munich-Freising. He was also a peritus (expert) at the Second Vatican Council.

This book is the third extensive interview with the head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office. The earlier books were The Ratzinger Report (1985) and Salt of the Earth (1996), both published in English by Ignatius Press. God and the World is the result of an interview with the cardinal by the German journalist, Peter Seewald. The 460-page interview was first published in German in 2000, with a preface by the cardinal. The English edition, translated by Henry Taylor, was published in 2002, also by Ignatius Press. (Order info: www.ignatius.com, or call 1-800-651-1531.)

The following excerpt concerning the Eucharist is from a chapter on the Sacraments, and it is reprinted with permission of the publisher. (Italicized text denotes Mr. Seewald’s questions and comments.)



The Most Sacred Action at the Most Sacred Place

Around the year 150 after the birth of Christ, a learned man by the name of Justin presented the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius with a tract in defense of the Christians. We owe to this a very early description of the celebration of Mass: "On what is called the day of the sun," it says, "all those who live in the city and in the country gather together. Then the memorials of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read out to everyone, as much as there is time for. When the reader has finished, then the person presiding urges people to imitate all the good things they have heard. After that, we all stand up and pray. After the prayer, bread, wine, and water are brought up; the president offers up prayers and thanksgivings with all his might, and the people utter their assent by saying Amen. Then there is the distribution. Each person receives his share of what has been consecrated; but the deacons take it to those who are absent. Now, this feeding is called the Eucharist. Only those people who accept our teaching as true, who have been purified by the bathing for the remission of sins, and who live in the way that Christ demands are allowed to take part." This ceremony seems to have remained just the same for two thousand years, right up to today.

Yes, the basic structure of the Eucharist is outlined here, even though particular parts of it have, of course, developed since then.

Perhaps we need a certain time in order to understand that beneath all these things is hidden something more than just some arbitrary ceremony. The wonderful pictures in church windows can be seen only when you look at them from the inside. Can you, please, explain for me a little about the structure of a Holy Mass?

The first part is the Liturgy of the Word. We gather together under the Word of God, just as the original community did at Sinai, to hear and to receive. In the text we heard just now, there is talk about readings, about prophets and evangelists. This has taken on a particular structure within the service, so that we hear prophet, apostle, and Christ, as they say. Under the heading of prophet, we understand the whole of the Old Testament; under that of apostle, the apostolic letters; and under that of Christ, the Gospel. In that way we hear the Word of God, which is, so to speak, divided into three sections. We are now told that the exhortation follows, that is, the Word needs to be expounded, because it comes to us, in a sense, from afar off and needs to be brought nearer to us so that we can understand it.

This basic foundation for the Mass, being gathered together under the Word that renews us, teaches us, and enlightens us, is followed by the actual service of the Eucharist itself. This in turn is made up of three parts. First of all the gifts are provided, bread and wine. This is a image of our bringing to the Lord the whole of creation. Then follows the prayer of thanksgiving. That is to say, the bishop or the priest joins in the prayer of thanksgiving offered by Jesus on the night before He died. This is the great act of praise of God. It includes both our thanksgiving for Christ and our remembrance of His words and actions in the last hours of His life — and thus also the transubstantiation of the bread and wine, which are now no longer our gifts but the gifts of Jesus Christ, in which He gives Himself, in accordance with His words at the Last Supper.

Justin, an ancient writer, talks of the gifts being, as he puts it, "eucharistified". In other words: bread is no longer bread, but is the Body of Christ. And wine is no longer wine, but the Blood of Christ. The gifts, therefore, are changed into a living Word, into the Word of Christ, the Word of thanksgiving of the Lord.

Justin also mentions certain conditions for the sharing of Holy Communion that follows. This is the worship of those who are believers, he says. Just as the Lord gathers together the Twelve at the Last Supper, so likewise the Eucharist is the gathering together of those who have become believers in Christ, who by baptism have become the Church. To that extent, both the structure of the celebration and the conditions for admission to it have in fact become quite clearly developed, already in this early stage, and have remained determinative to this day.

The Eucharist is seen as the most sacred action in the world, carried out in the most sacred place in the world. The Body, the Blood, the Soul, and even the Godhead of Jesus, it is said, are present in this sacrament. Let me ask again, quite particularly: Is it true that a new miracle happens each day in this action? The transformation of bread and wine into flesh and blood — surely that can only be meant as a symbol.

No. The Church believes firmly that the Risen One truly gives Himself here, wholly and entirely. To be sure, at various periods in the Church’s history there have, again and again, been disputes about this. The first great dispute cropped up in the early Middle Ages, the second in the sixteenth century. Luther held out in favor of transubstantiation here, with great emphasis, while Calvin and Zwingli, in their different ways, were in favor of a symbolic understanding, so that from this developed the great division within the Reformation movement.

While Luther, in any case, held the view that this presence of Christ was necessarily associated with the moment of the celebration, the Catholic Church believes that the presence of Christ within these gifts continues. For if bread and wine have truly been "transubstantiated", that is, if the gifts of the earth have really become the gifts of the Lord, then the Lord has thereby irrevocably taken possession of them. And of course in our own century there has been renewed debate about this. But even if exegetes have found themselves divided on this question, nonetheless non-Catholic exegetes such as Käsemann have strongly defended the Real Presence. It is clearly stated and described, they say, in the words of Scripture themselves. And indeed, Scripture — and likewise the whole of the primitive tradition of the Church — is unequivocal: Christ does not just give us symbols; He truly gives Himself. That means that Communion is an encounter between one person and another. That Christ enters into me, and I may enter into Him.

But anyone can see that the wine remains wine

But this is not a statement of physics. It has never been asserted that, so to say, nature in a physical sense is being changed. The transformation reaches down to a more profound level. Tradition has it that this is a metaphysical process. Christ lays hold upon what is, from a purely physical viewpoint, bread and wine, in its inmost being, so that it is changed from within and Christ truly gives Himself in them.

If, then, someone has received Christ in this way — how will this most Holy Sacrament then take effect upon a person? Or, at least, how might it take effect?

There, too, we must leave aside all thought of what is miraculous and magical. This is a personal process. The Risen One, who is now present — the expression "Body and Blood" always refers to the entirety of the Incarnate Lord, who how continues to live in bodily form in the new world of the Resurrection — is not a thing. I don’t receive a piece of Christ. That would indeed be an absurdity, but this is a personal process. He Himself is giving Himself to me and wants to assimilate me into Himself.

Once, in a sort of vision, Augustine thought he heard these words: "Eat me; I am the bread of the strong". Jesus is saying here that it is the opposite to how it is with ordinary food that your body assimilates. That food is lesser than you, so that it becomes part of your body. And in my case, it is the other way around: I assimilate you into me. I am the stronger; you will be assimilated into me. This is, as we said, a personal process. Man, if he abandons himself in receiving this, is, in his turn, received. He is made like Christ, made to resemble Christ. And that is what is really happening in Communion, that we allow ourselves to be drawn into Him, into His inner Communion, and are thus led finally into a state of inner resemblance.

How should we prepare ourselves to receive Holy Communion?

It is right when I truly enter into its form and its reality. When I allow myself to be touched, to be spoken to, by the Word of God. When I direct myself toward Christ in the prayers shaped in the primitive tradition of the Church. True sharing in the payer and the celebration of the Eucharist means that I listen, receive, and that the door opens up within me, so to speak, through which Christ may enter into me. And, on the other hand, that my own self becomes so free and open that I can begin to enter into HIM.

How should we actually receive Holy Communion?

In a way that is appropriate for the presence of the Lord. The signs of reverence we use have changed in the course of time. But the essential point is that our behavior should give to inner recollection and reverence an outward bodily expression. Earlier, Communion used to be received kneeling, which made perfectly good sense. Nowadays it is done standing. But this standing, too, should be standing in reverence before the Lord.

The attitude of kneeling ought never to be allowed to disappear from the Church. It is the most impressive physical expression of Christian piety, by which, on one hand, we remain upright, looking out, gazing upon Him, but, on the other, we nonetheless bow down.

"Man is never so great", said John XXIII, "as when he is kneeling."

And that is why I believe that this attitude, which was already one of the primitive forms of Old Testament prayer, is something essential for Christians.

Communion in the hand, or directly in the mouth?

I wouldn’t want to be fussy about that. It was done in the early Church. A reverent manner of receiving Communion in the hand is in itself a perfectly reasonable way to receive Communion.

After receiving the Sacrament, what can we meditate upon?

We should first seek to turn our inner gaze upon Christ. There are aids to prayer, which help us to turn ourselves in this direction and to turn toward Him from within. In doing this, I should place my day in His hands and ask Him to let His presence take effect in me. It is important to entrust oneself to Him, which may be expressed in quite particular kinds of prayer, according to one’s situation.

Is the circle of those who have the right to receive Communion as clearly defined as it was before?

Yes. From the earliest records on — we can see it in the First Letter to the Corinthians — that is quite clear. It is a problem of our own day that we take part in Communion rather as a kind of rite of socialization, by which we ensure, so to speak, our mutual solidarity. There is a danger, then, that it might become simply a sign of friendship and belonging. And that is much too little. In this way, not only do we lose sight of the holy and essential thing that is offered us here, but the necessary inner cleansing never takes place within man.

Saint Paul warns of the danger of no longer distinguishing this transubstantiated bread from any other. Today we have somehow lost our grasp of the distinction — and that makes for a multiplicity of problems. Then divorced people who have remarried, for example, feel they are the only ones excluded, and then that rightly looks like an unfair discrimination. I think we all ought to look at ourselves more critically; we ought to distinguish the Body of the Lord and to know that we are all, again and again, in need of penance before we receive Holy Communion. There are conditions for being admitted to this. We have no right to the Lord on our own account, but through the rules of the Church He shows us when we may receive Him.

And is that the difference between a Catholic Eucharist and an ecumenical Lord’s Supper fellowship?

Yes. The Catholic Eucharist is always associated with membership in the community of faith of the Catholic Church. And the Eucharist itself, we are convinced, should only ever be celebrated by an ordained priest. The Protestant celebration of the Lord’s Supper, on the other hand, is subject to different rules. We know that people can also meet the Lord here, but we cannot allow the fact to be obscured that the question of apostolic succession and of priesthood — as of the Catholic faith and teaching in its entirety — marks a boundary here.



The Editors