June – July 2012
Vol. XVIII, No. 4
The Form of the Eucharistic Celebration
in the Thought of Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
by Owen Vyner
In a recent interview, the Papal Master of Ceremonies, Monsignor Guido Marini, was asked about Pope Benedict XVI’s innovation of celebrating the Mass with a crucifix on the altar. Monsignor Marini responded that in the mind of Pope Benedict this action brought out the sacrificial dimension of the Mass through having the celebrant and the faithful turn toward the crucified Lord.
This change in papal liturgies surprised many. For those who are familiar with the writings of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, however, there was no surprise at all. Cardinal Ratzinger had made mention of celebrating the Mass with an altar cross in The Spirit of the Liturgy. In fact, when he became Pope Benedict, many of the themes he had incorporated in his writings as a theologian found their way into his teachings as pope.
Once such theme is his understanding of the form of the Eucharist. Both as Cardinal Ratzinger and as Pope Benedict, he has repeatedly stated that the Eucharist is much more than a meal. And yet the meal theme is still given great prominence in many parish liturgies.
With this in mind, we will examine the form of the Eucharist in the thought of Cardinal Ratzinger in particular, his insights concerning the Mass as a meal and his understanding of the nature of sacrifice, as well as the practical ramifications of the celebration of the Eucharist as a sacrifice rather than as a meal. It is important to note that in his emphasis on the sacrificial nature, this does not mean that he does not believe that there is a meal element to the Mass. In fact he often speaks of the “banquet of the reconciled,” or of the Lord feeding us. So when the question is phrased in terms of “meal versus sacrifice” it is not so much a question of opposites but one of emphasis.
Trent or Luther?
In The Feast of Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger poses the question regarding the “form” of the liturgy. This question was a pertinent one that had occupied the thoughts of liturgical scholars between the two World Wars. Its pertinence lay in the fact that if it was possible to deduce a form of the liturgy, and in so doing understand the very nature or essence of the liturgy, then this form could provide the basis for any “re-form” of the liturgy.
Cardinal Ratzinger points out that the New Testament provides a relatively full account of the institution of the Eucharist. The Gospels reveal that the Eucharist was instituted within the context of the Last Supper. Thus it seemed settled that the form of the Eucharist is that of a meal and that Christ’s command, “Do this!”, applied to the repetition of the meal structure.1
On the surface the claim that the form of the Eucharist is that of a meal appears to resolve the question. However, this solution provides a grave and seemingly insurmountable problem to dogmatic theologians. This, after all, was the position of Martin Luther and had been condemned by the Council of Trent. Thus the question: Luther or Trent; meal or sacrifice? This question is not merely a theoretical one posed by the liturgical scholars in the middle of the twentieth century.
There are also practical ramifications. For Cardinal Ratzinger, many of the theories that emphasize the Upper Room over Calvary pass very quickly from theory into practice and often lead to the manipulation of the liturgy.2 Cardinal Ratzinger thus responds to the question of whether the Eucharist is fundamentally a meal.
His most extensive treatment can be found in two works, The Feast of Faith, and God Is Near Us: The Eucharist, the Heart of Life. In God Is Near Us, Cardinal Ratzinger addresses the issue within the context of Paul’s admonition of the early Christian community after a dispute had erupted regarding the Eucharist. He sees Paul’s words as highly relevant to the Church today since a disruption also seems to have taken place between “progressives” and “traditionalists.” The progressive party, he says, argues that “with the traditional form of celebrating the Mass, the Church has strayed far from the original intentions of the Lord. The Lord, they say, held a simple meal of fellowship with His disciples, and He said: ‘Do this in remembrance of me!’ But it is precisely this that the Church does not do, they say.” So they reject elaborate rituals, vestments, and incense. “The watchword that emerges from such reflections is: desacralization,” he writes.3
There are essentially two forms of the argument that the Eucharist is fundamentally a meal, the cardinal observes. The first contends that the Eucharist is a continuation of Jesus’ fellowship with sinners. There are several instances in the Gospels when Jesus is at the table with tax collectors and sinners (c.f. Mt 9:9-13; Mk 2:13-17; Lk 5:29-30, 7:34, 15:1). Jesus revealed the mercy of God by sharing a meal with them and therefore the Church is called to extend this same mercy to all by welcoming everyone to the eucharistic table in an inclusive manner and without conditions.
Cardinal Ratzinger points out that, as tempting as this view is, it contradicts what is actually found in the Bible.4 In all of the Gospel accounts, the Last Supper was not shared with publicans and sinners. Furthermore, he argues, the Last Supper was subject to the form of the Passover, which means that it was held in a family setting. It is precisely the new family of the household of God, the Church founded upon the Twelve, with whom He eats this meal. Jesus cleanses the Twelve before He eats with them, thus the Eucharist is not a sacrament of reconciliation but the sacrament of the reconciled. Additionally, not only is this view unscriptural, it is also highly problematic from a soteriological (theology of salvation) perspective since it identifies the Eucharist with a Lutheran doctrine of justification.5 Finally, this view radically contradicts the entire eucharistic inheritance of the New Testament, which requires a discernment prior to receiving the Eucharist and specifically warns against approaching the Eucharist in sin (c.f. I Cor 11:27-29).6
The second argument of the meal theory is that the Eucharist is a continuation of Christ’s daily table fellowship with His disciples.7 But this argument also contradicts the biblical witness. First, there is a festal quality about the Eucharist: “Through the provision of wine, it was lifted from its everyday ordinariness, and shown to be a festal celebration.”8
Second, the Eucharist was based on a Passover meal that is a specific annual festival. Cardinal Ratzinger counters the claim that Christ commanded the Church to repeat the meal with the quip: “No more than I can keep Christmas whenever I feel like it can the Passover just be continually repeated.”9
Finally, there is no evidence that the Eucharist was celebrated daily in apostolic times. In fact, the New Testament references seem to point to a Sunday Eucharist.
In addressing the question about the Eucharist as a meal, Cardinal Ratzinger cites the research of Jesuit liturgical scholar Joseph Jungmann. Father Jungmann argues that in the earliest forms of the Church’s liturgy, the eucharistia the anamnestic (memorial) prayer in the form of thanksgiving is far more prominent than the meal aspect. By the end of the first century the basic structure is not the meal but the eucharistia. In fact, according to Father Jungmann, the term “supper” used by Luther was a complete innovation. From his research Father Jungmann claims that after I Corinthians 11:20, the designation of the Eucharist as a meal does not occur again until the sixteenth century.10
Cardinal Ratzinger finds Father Jungmann’s solution to be both faithful to the biblical witness and to the doctrine of Trent that the Eucharist is a sacrifice. First, the eucharistia is a participation in the prayer of Jesus on the night before He offered Himself to the Father for the life of the world. Also, since the eucharistia includes the prayer of gratitude for the gifts of the earth, it already expresses any element of the “meal” that the liturgy contains.11 Thus, in the eucharistia there is no opposition between sacrifice and meal:
[E]ucharistia is the gift of communio in which the Lord becomes our food; it also signifies the self-offering of Jesus Christ, perfecting his trinitarian Yes to the Father by his consent to the Cross, and reconciling us all to the Father in this ‘sacrifice’. There is no opposition between ‘meal’ and ‘sacrifice’; they belong inseparably together in the new sacrifice of the Lord.12
Finally, if the basic structure of the Mass is not the meal but the eucharistia then the liturgical (form) and the dogmatic (content) aspects still remain distinct, but in a manner that “seeks and determines” the other. Whereas other theologians had claimed that the essence of the Mass is a sacrifice (dogmatic level) and the visible form is a meal (liturgical level), through using the concept of eucharistia, Cardinal Ratzinger turns this view on its head. He contends that the Last Supper is not the liturgical form but the foundation of the dogmatic content of the Eucharist. As for the form, at the time of the Last Supper it did not yet exist. The form only takes shape when the Church becomes separated from Israel.13 This last point is an essential one. The real mistake of those who attempt uncritically to deduce the Christian liturgy directly from the Last Supper lies in their failure to see this fundamental point: the Last Supper of Jesus is certainly the basis of all Christian liturgy, but in itself it is not yet Christian.14
The Importance of Sunday
The Eucharist of the early Christian Church was celebrated on a Sunday, Cardinal Ratzinger explains. Sunday signified the first day of the new creation. It was already called the “Day of Lord” in the first century. As such, while the dogmatic content of the liturgy is the Last Supper, it is Sunday that becomes the inner basis for the Eucharistic celebration. Sunday is the day of the Resurrection, when Christ gathered His disciples and they gathered around Him. Sunday, the Lord’s Day, offered the actual starting point for the shaping of the Christian liturgy.15 Hence, while the Eucharist does take substantial elements from the Passover tradition, the eucharistic actions are taken out of the context of Passover and placed within the new context of the “Lord’s Day” and therefore within the very heart of the Paschal Mystery.16 Cardinal Ratzinger states in The Spirit of the Liturgy:
Here is the real heart and true grandeur of the celebration of the Eucharist, which is more, much more than a meal. In the Eucharist we are caught up and made contemporary with the Paschal Mystery of Christ.17
With the shift from meal to eucharistia, does this represent a decline from the original pristine form of the Eucharist? Has the meal dimension been subordinated to the “word” dimension of the eucharistia?
The seeming hiatus between Jesus and the Church posed by these questions is a fundamental issue for Cardinal Ratzinger and a theme that he returns to again and again. The underlying problem is the relationship between history and dogma, and the trend in current theology to set Jesus and the Church in opposition to each other. Ratzinger responds that there is no hiatus between Christ and the Church: the Lord’s gift of the Eucharist is not a rigid formula but is open to historical development:
Here, as so often, ‘progressive’ reformers exhibit a fundamentally narrow view of Christian beginnings, seeing history piecemeal, whereas the sacramental view of the Church rests upon an inner developmental unity.18
He concludes stating, “Once the concept of the ‘meal’ is seen to be historically a crass oversimplification … many of the current theories just fade away.”19
The Essence of Sacrifice
If it can be stated that the form of the Eucharist is not so much a meal but the eucharistia, and that this prayer of thanksgiving is the prayer of the Son’s self-gift to the Father on the Cross, then we see that there is a link between the eucharistia and sacrifice. How does Cardinal Ratzinger explain the concept of sacrifice?
There are two central themes in Cardinal Ratzinger’s understanding of sacrifice. The first is his concept of the “spiritual sacrifice,” the logike thysia or the oblatio rationabilis (lit., Greek: sacrifice of the word; Latin: rational sacrifice). Pope Benedict also referred to this concept in his homily on the Roman Canon on January 7, 2009. The second theme is his focus on love as the heart of sacrifice. His most extended discussion on this topic appears in his address to the Fontgombault Liturgical Conference in 2001 and it is delineated in his encyclical on Christian love, Deus caritas est.
Cardinal Ratzinger begins his discussion on sacrifice with the understanding of sacrifice as the destruction of something precious to man. He asks the question: “What pleasure is God supposed to take in destruction?”20
In response he notes that prior to the Babylonian exile there was an increasing criticism by the prophets of Temple worship (c.f. I Sam 15:22; Hos 6:6; Amos 5:21-27, 7:44-48).21 Israel had begun to understand that the essence of worship was not destruction, that it was prayer. The man at prayer is the true sacrifice.22 Christ’s purification of the Temple is understood within this light.
The ancient worship was coming to an end and in its place is the true worship of the Son freely surrendering Himself as the lamb in His sacrifice of thanksgiving. At this time the Hellenistic world was also looking to leave the world of animal worship of substitution in order to arrive at true worship. Thus the searching of Israel coincided with the Hellenistic experience. The consequence of this searching is the idea of logike thysia, that is, a sacrifice of the word, or a spiritual sacrifice. This concept seemed to influence Saint Paul when he exhorted the Romans, “to offer themselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (Rom 12:1).23 It also later enters the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I) through the reference to the rationabile obsequium, that is, “spiritual worship.” This is a sacrifice to God that does not involve the transfer of property but the offering of mind and heart expressed in word.24
Therefore, what is the fruit of centuries of developments in Jewish and Greek thought is now adopted by Christianity in the Eucharistic Prayer, which forms the very heart of the Mass. Cardinal Ratzinger is quick to point out that this spiritual worship is not to be understood simply as speech but the “transmutation of our being into the logos, the union of ourselves with it.”25
Moreover, this transformation is not something that man can do himself, but through the logike thysia man is able to encounter the Logos (Word) who draws us to himself in His total sacrifice on the Cross. Hence, this spiritual worship which is taken up in the Eucharistic Prayer is an entering into the prayer of Christ and therefore into His self-surrender to the Father in the Holy Spirit. Cardinal Ratzinger is able to conclude from this that what develops as a spiritual understanding of sacrifice goes to the heart of the essence of Christ’s sacrifice made present in the liturgy.26
In returning to the question whether sacrifice is the destruction of something dear to man, we see that the sacrifice on the Cross, which fulfills all anticipatory sacrifices, is not destruction but the self-surrender of love. Man unites himself to the Son’s self-donation through the Son drawing us to Himself so that man might become love. Sacrifice and love are united.
Love, the Heart of Sacrifice
In City of God, Saint Augustine describes sacrifice as “every work which allows us to unite ourselves to God in a holy fellowship.”27 Using this as his starting point, Cardinal Ratzinger explains that Augustine understood that the Old Testament sacrifices were symbols that pointed to a proper understanding of sacrifice. The ancient forms of worship had to be transformed so that symbol could give way to reality. The reality to which the sacrifices pointed is the love of God and neighbor (c.f. Mark 12:28-33). However, this love is only true when it leads man to God, which is man’s true end, and it is this love alone that can bring about the unity of men.28
The concept of sacrifice is linked to authentic love and to community. As such, a proper understanding of sacrifice is not confined to an individual relationship with Jesus who is my personal Lord and Savior but is expanded to include my neighbor. Thus the understanding that sacrifice is the work that unites man to God must be broadened to include the community.
Sacrifice then, as Cardinal Ratzinger explains, is transforming union with God whereby man becomes conformed to God who is love. This union between God and man involves the abolition of difference between God and creation: “God all in all” (I Cor 15:28). The abolition of difference that is brought about by this union with God opens man to his neighbor.
It is necessary to describe the process by which this union takes place since it is foundational to Cardinal Ratzinger’s thought on sacrifice and love.
In the first place, this union does not involve the absorption of the individual into God. To speak of an “abolition of difference” does not refer to a destruction of difference, but rather to the transformation of difference into the higher union of love. The path to this higher union involves conversion and purification and as such it takes the shape of the Cross.29
It is Calvary, more than the table, that leads to unity. It is Calvary, Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, that is the path of love and union that draws man to God (cf. Jn 12:32).
Again, difference is not destroyed man still has his role to play according to his calling in life. God takes the initiative to arouse love in the heart of man so that man will respond to this love. And, as Cardinal Ratzinger states, “The initiative of God has a name: Jesus Christ, the God Who Himself became man and gave us to Himself.”30 Man’s response to this initiative is given expression in the liturgy when the faithful unite themselves to Christ’s gift of self on the Cross.
We can now see more clearly what Cardinal Ratzinger means by “the form of the Eucharistic celebration.”
In the first place, the form of the Mass is not so much a meal but the Son’s eucharistia to the Father, which anticipates His sacrifice on the Cross, and which is given its definitive response by the Father in the Resurrection. It is the Paschal Mystery, celebrated on the Lord’s Day, that is the form of the Eucharist.
Everything that is contained in the Son’s sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Father on behalf of humanity is contained in His eucharistia. He commands the Church to do this in His memory so that she now offers this same eucharistia and participates in His prayer to the Father. Thus we can see that the Son’s “yes” to the Father in the Holy Spirit, contained in the Eucharistic Prayer, is at the very heart of this sacrifice. So, while the form of the Eucharist is Sunday the Paschal Mystery its heart is the Eucharistic Prayer. In joining in the Son’s eucharistia the faithful offer themselves spiritually and so enter into a union of transforming love with God. Their union in the body of Christ then forms the basis for fraternal union.
It is within this entire context that Ratzinger cautions against focusing exclusively on the meal aspect since it loses sight of the Paschal Mystery, and ultimately is a rejection of the mystery of Christ:
Those attempts to tell us that we should “get back” to a simple profane meal … are only in appearance a return to origins. In reality, they are a step back behind the turning point of the Cross and the Resurrection… This is not restoring the original state, but abandoning the mystery of Easter and, thereby, the very center of the mystery of Christ.31
Cardinal Ratzinger contends that if we understand that the true form of the Mass is the Son’s offering of love to the Father, then no one can believe that to speak of the Mass as a sacrifice is an “appalling horror.”32
One of Cardinal Ratzinger’s concerns regarding certain theories of the nature of the Mass is that these theories pass quickly into practice.
The Church historian Eamon Duffy considers the issue of versus populum (the priest facing toward the people) in celebrating the Mass as paradigmatic of the meal-oriented view in the mind of Cardinal Ratzinger.33 Addressing the 11th International Colloquium of CIEL (Centre International d’Études Liturgiques) Professor Duffy quotes Cardinal Ratzinger in The Spirit of the Liturgy thus:
The Eucharist, so it was said, had to be celebrated versus populum. The altar, as can be seen in the normative model of St. Peter’s, had to be positioned in such a way that the priest and people looked at each other and together formed the circle of the celebrating community. This alone, so it was said, was compatible with the meaning of the Christian liturgy, with the requirement of active participation. This alone conformed to the primordial model of the Last Supper.34
Cardinal Ratzinger notes that the practice of the priest facing the people became so ubiquitous that it almost appeared that celebration versus populum was a fruit of the Council though in fact it was never mentioned in the Council documents.35
Contributing to this shift toward the meal view of the Eucharist was the “falling into oblivion” of the meaning of the eastward celebration of the Mass and the priest was seen to be “celebrating the Mass with his back to the people.” This lack of understanding of the significance of the priest facing the east explains why the meal becomes the normative idea for the liturgical celebration, Cardinal Ratzinger believes.36
In response to the view that celebration of the Mass versus populum alone corresponds to the “Do this!” command of the Last Supper, three points must be made.
First, the Eucharist is not simply a meal. In his address to the International Eucharistic Conference in Quebec, the pope stated: “The Eucharist is not a meal with friends. It is the mystery of a covenant.”37 Thus if the sole grounds for justifying that the Mass be celebrated versus populum is that it is a meal, in the mind of Pope Benedict XVI this argument can no longer be justified.
Second, the sacrificial nature of the Mass does not diminish the communal aspect of the liturgy but rather expresses it in the best possible way.
The principle Actor in the Liturgy is God, who acts in His Son and through the gift of the Holy Spirit. This Son, who is Logos, speaks to man in the liturgy, and in the words of Cardinal Ratzinger, “comes with His body, blood, and His soul, His flesh, and His blood, His divinity, and His humanity, in order to unite us to Himself to make of us one single ‘body.’”38
Thus, Christ’s promise that if He be lifted up that He will draw all men to Himself is most fully expressed in an understanding of the Mass as sacrifice. True unity is consequently brought about by the faithful turning toward the Lord (conversi ad Dominum) and being gathered by Him. This can be expressed outwardly by celebration of the Mass ad orientem (the priest facing east) and also through a common turning of the faithful to an “interior east of faith.”39 So Cardinal Ratzinger suggested placing a crucifix on the altar so that the priest and the faithful may be gathered around the Crucified One. And since he has become pope he celebrates Mass precisely in this manner, which is now called the “Benedictine altar arrangement.”
Finally, in The Spirit of the Liturgy, Cardinal Ratzinger observed that it is a mistake to consider St. Peter’s Basilica as a normative model for the celebration of the Eucharist versus populum. As St. Peter’s faces the west, it was not a matter of the priest “facing the people” but of turning to the east.40 Furthermore, following theologian and liturgist Father Louis Bouyer, Cardinal Ratzinger contends that the belief that people faced each other during meals in antiquity is mistaken: the participants all faced the same direction on the convex side of a C-shaped table and the other side was left empty for servers. So in order to emphasize the communal character of a meal based on the model of antiquity, this would be best expressed by all participants being on the same side of the table.41
One of Cardinal Ratzinger’s greatest criticisms of the manner in which the liturgy has been celebrated in the post-Conciliar period is the horizontalizing of the Mass: when the main focus is on the role of the community, God has been more and more excluded from the picture, and the shift to a meal-centered view of the Mass is a significant cause of this problem. His response as a theologian and as pope has been to critique a false understanding of the communal celebration of the Eucharist whereby the community becomes closed in on itself, and to restore an authentic gathering of the Church around the Lord in His Eucharistic sacrifice. In this “turning toward the Lord,” the Church participates in the Son’s relationship with the Father in the Holy Spirit, and therefore in true Communio.
Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict emphasizes a sacrificial understanding of the form of the Eucharistic celebration, over that of a simple meal. He contends that the latter is a misunderstanding of history, scripture, and liturgical theology.
Pope Benedict’s insights concerning the form of the Mass and of the relationship of meal and sacrifice are well summarized in this quote from his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum caritatis:
Jesus thus brings His own radical novum to the ancient Hebrew sacrificial meal. For us Christians, that meal no longer need be repeated. As the Church Fathers rightly say, figura transit in veritatem: the foreshadowing has given way to the truth itself. The ancient rite has been brought to fulfillment and definitively surpassed by the loving gift of the incarnate Son of God… “More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of His self-giving.” Jesus “draws us into Himself.” The substantial conversion of bread and wine into His body and blood introduces within creation the principle of a radical change, a sort of “nuclear fission” … which penetrates to the heart of all being, a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all.42
The ancient rite has been brought to fulfillment and surpassed. The Mass is a sacrifice of transforming love.
2 Joseph Ratzinger, “The Theology of the Liturgy” in Alcuin Reid, ed., Looking Again at the Question of the Liturgy with Cardinal Ratzinger: Proceedings of the July 2001 Fontgombault Liturgical Conference (Farnborough: Saint Michael’s Abbey Press, 2003), 21.
5 Feast of Faith, 43. Speaking of Schurmann’s thesis that the Eucharist was just a continuation of Jesus’ daily fellowship with His disciples, Cardinal Ratzinger writes: “His thesis … identifies the Eucharist of Jesus with a strictly Lutheran doctrine of justification, namely, the pardoning of sinner; ultimately, among those who see Jesus’ eating with sinners as the only solid fact about the historical Jesus which has come down to us…”
27 Looking, 25. Cardinal Ratzinger, speaking of Augustine’s theology of sacrifice, says: “Anyone who has understood this will no longer be of the opinion that to speak of the sacrifice of the Mass is at least highly ambiguous, and even an appalling horror.”
33 Eamon Duffy, “Benedict XVI and the Liturgy” in Uwe Michael Lang, ed., The Genius of the Roman Rite: Historical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspectives on Catholic Liturgy (Chicago: Hillenbrand Books, 2010), 17.
42 Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis: Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharist as Source and Summit of the Church’s Life and Mission (Washington, DC: USCCB Publishing, 2007), no. 11.
Owen Vyner has a BA in History and Political Science from the University of Western Australia, a Graduate Diploma of Education from the University of Notre Dame (Australia), a Master of Theology degree from the John Paul II Institute for Marriage & Family (Melbourne), and most recently a Licentiate in Sacramental Theology from the Liturgical Institute (Mundelein, Illinois). He has published articles in Antiphon, Anthropotes, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review. In September he will begin doctoral studies at the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne. He and his wife Terri are parents of two children from Korea.
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