On this past February 22, the Feast of the Chair of Peter, our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI published his Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum caritatis, "On the Eucharist as the Source and Summit of the Church's Life and Mission." Sacramentum caritatis is the fruit of the Eleventh Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which was celebrated from October 2-23, 2005.
Because the Holy Eucharist is the source of our life in the Church and its highest expression, I will devote the next weeks to a commentary on Sacramentum caritatis. It is my hope that you will obtain a copy of the Apostolic Exhortation. It is available at our Catholic religious goods stores and bookstores. It is also available on line at the website of the Apostolic See: www.vatican.va; and at the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: www.usccb.org. If you have any difficulty obtaining the document, please contact the Office of the Archbishop.
Context of the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist
The Eleventh Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops was convoked by Pope Benedict XVI's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, as part of his extraordinary effort, at the end of his pontificate, to promote the knowledge and love of the Most Blessed Sacrament. On Holy Thursday of 2003, Pope John Paul II published his Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, "On the Eucharist in Its Relationship to the Church," a complete and remarkably striking presentation of the Church's teaching on the Holy Eucharist. In Ecclesia de Eucharistia, he announced a forthcoming "more specific document" on the care to be taken in observing the norms of the Sacred Liturgy (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 52b).
By mandate of Pope John Paul II, the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, "On Certain Matters To Be Observed or To Be Avoided regarding the Most Holy Eucharist," was prepared by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments with the help of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, at the head of which the future Pope Benedict XVI was then serving. Pope John Paul II approved the Instruction and "ordered it to be published and to be observed immediately by all concerned" on March 19, 2004 (Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, n. 186).
Year of the Eucharist
Pope John Paul II then announced the Year of the Eucharist to be observed from October 2004 to October 2005. The inspiration for the Year of the Eucharist, he explained, "came from two events" which served "to mark its beginning and end," that is, the International Eucharistic Congress which took place from October 10-17, 2004, in Guadalajara, Mexico, and the Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops which was held in the Vatican from October 2-23, 2005, on the subject of the Holy Eucharist (Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Mane nobiscum Domine, "For the Year of the Eucharist," 7 October 2004, n. 4). Pope John Paul II also asked that World Youth Day, celebrated in Cologne, Germany, from August 16-21, 2005, be centered on the Holy Eucharist. Regarding World Youth Day 2005, he wrote: "I would like the young people to gather around the Eucharist as the vital source which nourishes their faith and enthusiasm" (Mane nobiscum Domine, n. 4).
The context of the Synod of Bishops was nothing less than the Holy Spirit at work through the Shepherd of the Universal Church to help us all to grow in our knowledge and love of the greatest gift which is ours in the Church, the Holy Eucharist. Pope John Paul II did not live to celebrate either World Youth Day 2005 or to preside at the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, who had worked so closely with Pope John Paul II during most of his pontificate, carried forward his extraordinary work on the Holy Eucharist.
In reading Sacramentum caritatis, we should keep in mind the great love of the Church, of us, the living members of the Church, which inspired Pope John Paul II to convoke and Pope Benedict XVI to conduct the Synod of Bishops for the purpose of promoting Eucharistic faith and practice. At the conclusion of Ecclesia de Eucharistia, Pope John Paul II wrote these words to us:
In the humble signs of bread and wine, changed into His Body and Blood, Christ walks beside us as our strength and our food for the journey, and He enables us to become, for everyone, witnesses of hope. If, in the presence of this mystery, reason experiences its limits, the heart, enlightened by the grace of the Holy Spirit, clearly sees the response that is demanded, and bows low in adoration and unbounded love (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 62b).
May these words of the most beloved and great Pope John Paul II inspire our reading of Sacramentum caritatis.