Benedict XVI on the Here-and-Now Reality of the Sacraments

Joseph Ratzinger’s homilies highlight that only the eternal can always be relevant.

(photo: Cropped book cover)


Homilies on the Church’s Sacraments

By Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict)

Ignatius Press, 2020

137 pages, $14.95

To order: or (800) 651-1531 


A few months ago, a parishioner asked if it “still counts” to watch a prerecorded rather than a livestreamed Mass. The question reveals both the benefit and the danger of what has become a common practice during the pandemic. But more importantly, it touches on the truth of the sacraments and provides an opportunity to consider what the sacraments are and what they are not.

The benefit of livestreaming is that it enables the faithful to maintain a connection to the Mass and their parish when they cannot go to Mass. The good instinct of that parishioner was that it is better to view Mass as it is happening and not as it was.

But there is a danger to livestreaming that most people probably don’t realize. Namely, that it can decrease the faithful’s sense of the here-and-now reality of the sacraments. It risks reducing the Mass — and by extension all sacraments — to a simple ceremony that we access on our own terms, in the time and place of our own choosing. Rather than entering into the reality of the sacrament, our time and place become determinative. Still worse, livestreaming can make the liturgy a spectator sport, as when you watch Mass while still in your pajamas, sitting in your easy chair and drinking coffee.

Although it gives us a sense of being present, the livestreamed event in fact occurs in another place and (given the standard delay or “latency”) at another time. It doesn’t in fact make that event present to us. That’s why neither a prerecorded nor a livestreamed Mass “counts.”

Into this context comes the publication of a collection of homilies by Joseph Ratzinger entitled Signs of New Life: Homilies on the Church’s Sacraments. The book gathers homilies from throughout his episcopate, from his time as cardinal-archbishop of Munich and Freising through his pontificate as Benedict XVI. It provides two homilies on each of the seven sacraments. These 14 homilies are flanked at the beginning and the end by homilies on the Church, which herself is like a sacrament.

It is extraordinary to encounter throughout this book Ratzinger’s consistency of thought and teaching over more than 30 years. One discovers in his earlier homilies many of the same themes — even the same expressions — that we know from his pontificate. One such theme is that here-and-now reality of the sacraments. It is their very purpose to put man in contact with his Redeemer not in a vague, general sense, but at a particular time and in a particular place.

In one homily on baptism, Ratzinger observes, “The main word of Easter liturgy is hodie — today. Today it happens.” The sacraments are not reminiscences but actual contact with Christ and his grace. They accomplish precisely what we desire but can never receive from livestreaming: the making present of Christ and his grace here and now. Through the visible signs of the sacraments, Christ himself touches the believer with his grace, in real time. Thus the power of Christ risen from the dead is communicated to each soul by the pouring of the water and the speaking of the words.

Of course, there’s the danger of distorting this truth so as to confine the sacraments in the present — to make them relevant. Rather than allowing them to transform our lives, there’s the temptation to hijack them for our secular, timebound purposes. I recently heard of a theology professor who, in light of the recent protests, riots and racial tension, asked students, “If liturgy ignores justice is it truly Eucharist?” The not-so-subtle goal was to instrumentalize the Mass to serve our times, rather than conforming our times to the eternal grace and truth communicated by the Mass. But the “today” of the sacraments cannot be conformed or confined to our time. It is the making present of that eternal “today” of Christ’s victory so as to imbue our time with meaning and purpose.

Or consider the standard confirmation homily that tells the confirmandi that the sacrament is to prepare them for what they will encounter “out there in the real world.” Once again, the sacrament is seized to serve the meaning of the moment rather than to introduce the eternal “today” into the world. Worse still, the “out there” is increasingly not the “real world” at all, but a virtual reality. It is the “cult of unreality,” as Father Edward Leen termed it back in the 1930s.

Ratzinger regrets, “We have trimmed the meaning of the sacraments to fit the comprehensible context of our life.” Such trimming, of course, misses the point of the sacraments entirely. They are more real than anything we encounter in life. They bring us into contact with the One who alone is necessary and real. We are not to trim their meaning to fit our life. We are to bring their reality — that direct contact with the Almighty — into the world and live accordingly. The sacraments are timely because they put us in touch with what is timeless. Only the eternal can always be relevant.

As one would expect, in these homilies, Ratzinger not only conveys the Church’s saving doctrine, he also does so in a beautiful and pleasing manner. In his preaching he exemplifies the old adage fortiter in re, suaviter in modo (“strong in deed, gentle in manner”). The homilies are not only full of strong teaching but also provide great examples of how to speak clearly to different groups on different occasions.

Ratzinger also demonstrates how to catechize with the liturgy and in the liturgy without reducing it to a lecture. He displays, as always, great confidence that the Church’s liturgy teaches us if we let it. Confident likewise in the sacramental principle — “the invisible comes to us through visible things” — he adroitly draws out the meaning of the liturgy and its appointments. His style is that of the Church Fathers and serves as a great example to today’s spiritual fathers as well as to those future fathers in the seminary. He provides a great example of how to bring out the meaning of the liturgy’s texts, words and actions. More preaching modeled on this would be a great gift to the Church.

Father Paul Scalia is the episcopal vicar for clergy for the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia.