Reflection on Sacramentum Caritatis

Author: Cardinal Walter Kasper

Reflection on Sacramentum Caritatis

Cardinal Walter Kasper
President, Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

Sacrament of charity, sacrament of unity

The great theologian Thomas Aquinas defined the Eucharist not only as the sacramentum caritatis [sacrament of charity] but also as the "sacrament of unity", thereby inscribing it in a great tradition to which the First Letter to the Corinthians already attests: "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (I Cor 10:16-17).

The Fathers of the Church held that the Body of Christ born of Mary, the Eucharistic Body of Christ and the Ecclesial Body of Christ are one.

Thus, by means of Communion, the Eucharist not only unites the individual with Jesus Christ in the depths of his or her heart, but also unites Christians with one another in a bond of love.

The Church is continually regenerated by the Eucharist; she draws from it her origin and strength.

This idea, taken up in the Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, shows clearly that the Eucharistic mystery is closely connected with the vocation to unity of all Christ's disciples, Although imperfect, the real communion in which we already find ourselves at this moment, on the basis of the one Baptism in the name of the Triune God, culminates in Eucharistic Communion, as the Apostolic Exhortation maintains.

Therefore, the impossibility of celebrating the Eucharist with those of our brothers and sisters who, while baptized, are not in full communion with the Catholic Church, is a real wound in the Body of Christ which causes deep suffering and inspires a strong desire to restore unity.

The ecumenical commitment, defined by the Second Vatican Council as one of its principal tasks and by Pope Benedict XVI as a pastoral priority, is thus not an accidental appendage.

Rather, it is rooted in the foundation and heart of the Church, in Baptism and in the Eucharist, the two major sacraments. This explains the presence of the prayer for unity in all Eucharistic Celebrations.

In the Latin liturgy, the Second Eucharistic Prayer thus states: "May all of us who share in the Body and Blood of Christ be brought together in unity by the Holy Spirit". After the "Our Father" and before Communion, we pray for unity and peace for the Church.

Priority to the Eucharist

It is therefore understandable that, from the outset, ecumenical dialogue should have reserved an extremely important role to the theme of the Eucharist.

The Second Vatican Council had already asserted that the unity of the Church is built up and grows through the celebration of the Eucharist in each of the Eastern Churches (cf. Unitatis Redintegratio, n. 15).

Thus, since the first document of the Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, entitled "The mystery of the Church and of the Eucharist in light of the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity" (1982), we find many positive ideas which reemerged later in Sacramentum Caritatis.

The situation of the Ecclesial Communities born from the 16th century Reformation is more difficult since they "have not preserved the proper reality of the Eucharistic mystery in its fullness, especially because of the absence of the Sacrament of Orders" (Unitatis Redintegratio, n. 22).

Yet even with them, the gap has noticeably narrowed in the last 40 years. With the Anglican Communion it was possible to achieve a significant accord on the Eucharist from the very first phase of dialogue (1968-81).

As a result of dialogue, Lutherans and Reformed Churches have officially abandoned as no longer appropriate the harsh 16th-century accusation which branded Holy Mass an "idolatrous Curse".

Documents such as "The Supper of the Lord" (1978) and above all the Declaration "Baptism; Eucharist and Ministry" of the Faith and Life Commission (1982), testify if not to full consensus at least to the broad convergences which we have reached in the meantime on the questions of the Real Presence and the sacrificial character of the Eucharist.

Inspired by the liturgical reform implemented by. the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council, many Ecclesial Communities have renewed their liturgical orders, even introducing into them a Eucharistic Prayer, although the canon of the Mass was severely criticized by Luther.

The questions of ecclesial ministry and, linked to it, of the relationship between Eucharist and Church, still remain unresolved.

Luther's sermon on "The Sacrament of the holy, true Body of Christ" (1519) shows that this connection is also central to Reformation thought.

Until, the end of the 1970s, Lutherans and Protestants had no official Eucharistic Communion. The. Catholic Church and the Eastern Churches still remain faithful to this ancient tradition common to all Christians of the primitive Church.

Eucharistic Communion

The Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis treats in detail the question of Eucharistic Communion, on the basis of the Second Vatican Council (cf. Unitatis Redintegratio n. 8; Orientalium Ecclesiarum, nn. 25ff.).

Like the Council, the Exhortation also starts with two principles: the intrinsic bond that exists between Eucharistic Communion and ecclesial communion and the need to avoid making the Eucharist a "means" to be used indiscriminately for the purpose of achieving unity.

"Yet it remains true that, for the sake of their eternal salvation, individual non-Catholic Christians can be admitted to the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick. But this is possible only in specific, exceptional situations and requires that certain precisely defined conditions be met" (n. 56).

It would be wrong, however, to think that the Exhortation is limited to a mere "non possumus".

The text also shows, indirectly, how it is possible to advance in this area, so sensitive from. the pastoral viewpoint: certainly not by means of insistent coercion or an obstinate praxis contrary to Church discipline.

The Eucharist is the Sacrament of faith, it is the celebration of` the mystery of faith. It follows that the possibility of progress in this area depends on a deepening of faith and on an agreement concerning the still unresolved questions of faith.

In expounding the Eucharistic mystery and in interpreting Church teaching on it, the Exhortation itself makes a significant contribution to achieving such an accord.

Meanwhile, Sacramentum Caritatis also underlines the importance of catechesis. The best catechesis is the celebration of the Eucharist itself and the mystagogical introduction of the faithful into the Eucharistic mystery.

Personally, I consider equally important the reference that Sacramentum Caritatis makes to spiritual communion.

Protestants above all will not be able to refute this reference, given the importance they attribute to faith as personal and spiritual communion with Christ and the widespread practice among them of having a liturgy of the Word without a Eucharistic celebration.

Thus, we see that "crumbs" of understanding not only exist in doctrine but also in practice.

It is likewise obvious that the Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis also ardently longs "for the day when we will be able to celebrate the Holy Eucharist together with all believers in Christ, and in this way to express visibly the fullness of unity that Christ willed for his disciples (cf. Jn 17:21)" (n. 56).

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
22 August 2007, page 10

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069