As a genre, the post-synodal apostolic exhortation poses something of a challenge to a gifted writer like Pope Benedict XVI.
Such exhortations are intended to summarize the proceedings of a three-week-long synod, involving hundreds of speeches by bishops and dozens of advisory resolutions. Then all of the proceedings are massaged by another committee of bishops through several drafts until the Holy Father signs the exhortation in his own name.
Readers who are familiar with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s clear and challenging writing style will note that the Holy Father’s voice is rather muted in the post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the Eucharist, Sacramentum Caritatis (The Sacrament of Charity).
There are, to be sure, clear signs of the papal hand in the drafting process — the document likely sets a record for references to St. Augustine, Benedict’s favorite author, and other Church Fathers, from whom the Holy Father has long sought his theological inspiration.
One innovation is the use of the title “food of truth,” which is the first one Benedict uses in Sacramentum Caritatis; this spotlights a dimension of the Eucharist that has not been previously brought to the fore. The importance of truth in Benedict’s thought is reflected in his own choice of motto — Cooperatores Veritatis (Co-workers in the Truth).
While Catholics likely are accustomed to thinking about the Eucharist as the “food of life” and “food for the journey,” Benedict highlights that Jesus is “the Way, the Truth and the Life,” and thus the Eucharist is also the “food of truth.”
Yet on the whole, Sacramentum Caritatis is remarkable not so much for what it teaches, but rather for what it represents — a remarkable consensus across the Church on what is the “source and summit” of the Christian life, in the oft-quoted phrase of Vatican II. The style of the exhortation is to devote one or two paragraphs to a long list of aspects of the Eucharist — the Eucharist and the Church, the Eucharist and the sacraments, the Eucharist and social doctrine, and so forth — and what emerges is that so many issues that were items of great controversy in years past are now largely resolved.
Perhaps the best example is the question of priestly celibacy. In the space of one brief paragraph, Pope Benedict simply summarizes the synod discussion before adding, “I therefore confirm that it remains obligatory in the Latin tradition.”
Likewise, the treatment of other previously vexing questions, such as the placement of the tabernacle, the proper use of liturgical books and even the active participation of the laity, are all dealt with in summary form.
On the last, Benedict writes that “active participation” is primarily a matter of interior disposition rather than external activity, a position that is now rather widely accepted. The intense debates that the very phrase “active participation” sparked 30 or even 15 years ago have faded away.
John Paul’s Legacy
In a sense, Sacramentum Caritatis is not so much its own document, but rather an index to a series of other documents on the Eucharist that go back to the beginning of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate.
In 1980, John Paul published a letter on Eucharistic doctrine and practice, Dominicae Cenae (The Mystery and Worship of the Eucharist).
John Paul continued to write annual Holy Thursday letters to priests, many of which took up Eucharistic themes. In 1998, there was the apostolic letter on the Lord’s Day, Dies Domini (Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy), which addressed the Sunday Eucharist, and then the 2003 encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia (The Eucharist in Its Relationship to the Church) and the 2004 apostolic letter inaugurating the Year of the Eucharist, Mane nobiscum Domine (The Year of the Eucharist).
In addition, there was a new edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal in 2000, and in 2004 there was the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum (Certain Matters to Be Observed or to Be Avoided Regarding the Most Holy Eucharist) on the proper celebration of Mass.
As a result, by 2007 there were few issues that had not already been dealt with, and at some length. The exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis summarizes all that, and puts it in the context of God’s love, the topic of Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (Christian Love).
The exhortation is also notable for what it does not say. The Holy Father chose not to take up in any definitive way the issues he had spoken about as Cardinal Ratzinger, such as the direction the priest faces while celebrating Mass, the use of the Tridentine Mass, or the admission to holy Communion of politicians at odds with Church teaching.
For that, perhaps another, more personal initiative, rather than a synod summary, is necessary.
Father Raymond J. de Souza served as the Register’s Rome correspondent from 1999-2003. He writes from Kingston, Ontario.