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from issue no. 10 - 2010

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“What they found most striking was the mystery as such ...”


We republish an artice by Gianni Cardinale in which ample passages from the discourse delivered on 25 September 1997 by Joseph Ratzinger to the Eucharistic Congress of Bologna are reported. The then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, beginning with an ancient legend about the origin of Christianity in Russia re-proposes the essentials of Saint Paul’s teaching on the Eucharist.


by Gianni Cardinale


Detail of the <I>Crucifixion</I>, Giotto and workshop, Lower Basilica of Saint Francis, Assisi

Detail of the Crucifixion, Giotto and workshop, Lower Basilica of Saint Francis, Assisi

The lesson conducted by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in Bologna’s old sports hall was a moment of truth for the Italian National Eucharistic Congress held in Bologna on September 20-28. September 25, when the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith addressed the Congress, was dubbed “Ratzinger Day” by the Italian bishops’ daily Avvenire, though the rest of the media highlighted what the Bavarian-born cardinal later said at a press conference. In response to a question about heretics of centuries past who had been burned at the stake, Ratzinger said: “The Church must always be tolerant; so we ask the Lord to forgive these events and to avoid repeating such errors”.
But the commentators who focused on the lesson, The Eucharist as the Genesis of the Mission, which he held for the Congress proper were few and far between. And yet it was a truly excellent speech, an example of catechesis reflecting wonder and respect in regard to the mystery of the faith.

“The mystery as such is for the mind a beacon of the power of truth”
Ratzinger began with a story: “According to an ancient legend about the origins of Christianity in Russia, Prince Vladimir of Kiev was searching for the true religion for his people and, one by one, the representatives of Islam from Bulgaria, of Judaism and of the Pope from Germany presented themselves, each proposing their faith as the right one and the best of all. But none of their proposals satisfied the prince, who did not decide until his delegates had attended a solemn liturgical celebration in the Church of Saint Sophia in Constantinople. They returned full of enthusiasm and told the prince: “We found ourselves with the Greeks and we were taken to the place where they celebrate the liturgy of their God ... We cannot say if we were in heaven or on earth ... we felt that God was living there among men ...”. Ratzinger went on: “What they found most striking was the mystery as such which, by transcending the realm of debate, was to the mind a beacon of the power of truth”.
From this story, Ratzinger moved on to assess how liturgy is normally conceived and practised today: “All the talk since the 1950s about missionary liturgy is ambiguous at the least and problematical. In many liturgist circles, the excessive result has been that the instructive element in liturgy and the understanding of it, also in relation to outsiders, has become the primary criterion of liturgical form. Moreover, the theory that liturgical forms should be chosen on the basis of ‘pastoral’ considerations implies the same anthropocentric error”.
After this introduction, Ratzinger moved on to the first part of his lesson, entitled “The Theology of the Cross as the Presupposition and Foundation of Eucharistic Theology”. “If then”, said the Prefect of the former Holy Office, “we try to perceive of the bond between Eucharist and faith as Paul perceived it, then Christ’s death on the cross is interpreted according to categories of worship and this is the innate presupposition of any Eucharistic theology. It is only with difficulty that we can still perceive the greatness of this intuition. An event inherently profane – the execution of a man in the most cruel of ways possible – is described as cosmic liturgy, as the key to a heaven that had been locked, as the fact in which everything that every religion had ever wanted to signify and strive for, in vain, finally becomes reality ... Given this, we can say that the theology of the cross is Eucharistic theology and vice versa. Without the cross, the Eucharist would always be empty ritual. Without the Eucharist, the cross would be just a cruel, profane event”.

“Sign of a New Beginning”
In the second part of his lesson, Ratzinger re-proposes the “Eucharistic Theology in the First Letter to the Corinthians”. “If the lamb represents Christ first of all, then bread becomes the symbol of Christian existence. Unleavened bread becomes the sign of a new beginning: being a Christian is presented as an endless feast that starts with new life ... In fact, the Eucharist itself ... transpires as the permanent foundation of the life of Christians, as the force giving form to their existence ... The Eucharist is much more than liturgy or a ritual but, by the same token, it shows that the Christian life is more than a moral commitment ... The real and deepest purpose of creation and, in his turn, of the human being according to the Creator’s will is none other than this becoming one single thing, ‘All of God in all of us’. The ‘eros’ of the created is assumed by the ‘agape’ of the Creator and thus becomes that sacred beatifying embrace of which Saint Augustine speaks ... The Eucharist does not offer any certainty of salvation as if by magic, almost. It always demands that our liberty be called into play. And so there is also always the danger of losing salvation. It is always necessary to keep the judgment of the future in sight”.
At this point, the cardinal addressed “the last and most important Eucharistic text in the First Letter to the Corinthians, which also contains Paul’s account of its institution: 11, 17-33”. In his commentary on this text, Ratzinger states: “Reverential awe is a basic condition if the Eucharist is to be authentic, and the very fact that God becomes so small, so humble, and that he hands himself over to us, placing himself in our hands, must surely heighten our reverence, must stop us from wandering away in our distraction and sense of self-sufficiency. If we realize that God is present and we behave accordingly, then others will also see this in us, as the envoys of the prince of Kiev saw when they felt that heaven was here on earth”.

“The Incarnation is not a philosophical idea but a historical event”
On this point, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith makes this underlying observation: “Paul introduces himself decisively into the doctrine of the Eucharist and into the message of the Resurrection, in obedience to the tradition which is binding even at the level of individual words. For, through it, the holiest reality and, therefore, the reality that truly sustains comes down to us. Paul, that impetuous spirit, creative, who from the moment of his encounter with the Risen One and on the basis of the experience of his faith and ministry opened new horizons for Christianity, in the central zone of the faith is really the faith’s administrator who does not ‘adulterate’ ( II Corinthians 2, 17) the word. Rather, he transmits it as the precious gift of God which is removed from our arbitration and for this very reason has the capacity to enrich everyone”. Ratzinger went on: “Therefore, it is false to speculate and profoundly in contrast with the Biblical message when it is said today that while the offerings in the Mediterranean area are ryebread and wine other cultures should use their own characteristic products in the matter of the Sacrament. The Incarnation, to which we make appeal on this point, is not however just any general philosophical principle by which things spiritual should always be embodied and expressed according to case by case situations. The Incarnation is not a philosophical idea but a historical event which by its very singularity and truth is the point at which God introduces himself into history and the place of our contact with him. If, as the Bible demands, it is taken not as principle but as event then the outcome is the exact opposite: God has forged a bond at a precise historical point with all its limitations and he wishes his humility to become ours. Allowing ourselves to bond with the Incarnation means embracing this self-bonding by God: these very gifts – extraneous to other cultural environments including the German one – become for us the sign of his unique and singular workings, of his unique historical figure. They are the sign of his coming among us, of him who was a stranger to us and who, through his gifts, makes us closely bonded. Our only response to this divine condescension can be humble obedience which, within the tradition received and in faithfulness, itself receives the gift of the certainty of His nearness”. The cardinal concludes: “Paul forcefully demands the self-examination of communicants: ‘A person who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord is eating and drinking his own condemnation’ ( I Corinthians 11, 29). Whoever is looking for a type of Christianity that is just good news, which does not contain any threat of judgment, is falsifying it. The faith does not reinforce the haughtiness of a sleeping conscience, the self-sufficiency of people who declare their personal desires their norm of life and who thus reduce grace to a devaluation of God and man on the grounds that, in any case, God could not and would not be capable of saying anything except yes to everything. Undoubtedly however man who suffers and struggles knows that ‘God is greater than our feelings’ ( I John 3, 20) and that in every failure I may be full of trust because Christ has suffered for me and paid in advance even for me”.

“The True Essence of Christian Mysticism”
The third part of the lesson addresses the theme of “Martyrdom, the Christian Life and Apostolic Ministry as the Realization of the Eucharist”. In it, Ratzinger describes Saint Polycarp’s martyrdom as “the Christian becoming Eucharist”. He goes on to analyze the first verse of chapter 12 of the Letter to the Romans where “the apostle urges the Romans ‘to offer’ their bodies ‘as a living sacrifice, dedicated and acceptable to God’, which is to say, offer themselves and, in fact, this is their ‘kind of worship as sensible people’.” Ratzinger trains a special light on this “latter expression, which is not really translateable. In Greek it is ‘logikè latreia’ – logical worship”. The cardinal adds: “We find the same expression in the Roman Canon where immediately before the consecration we pray that our offering become ‘rationabilis’. It is not enough – indeed, it is false – to translate this as ‘become reasonable’. Rather, we pray that it become a sacrifice of the Logos. In this sense, we pray for the transformation of the gifts but, here too, not only for this. Instead, the prayer goes in the precise direction the Letter to the Romans intends: we ask that the Logos, Christ, who is the true sacrifice, assume us in his offering, that he ‘render’ us ‘logos’, that he render us, as the word says, truly reasonable so that his sacrifice may become ours and be accepted by God as our own, that it may be imputed to us”. And he went on: “I am convinced that the Roman Canon with its invocation also grasped the true meaning of the Pauline exhortation in Romans 12”. Thus, Saint Paul and the Roman Canon “ensure that we understand the true essence of Christian mysticism. The mysticism of identity, in which the Logos and the interiority of man merge, is overcome by means of a Christological mysticism: the Logos, who is the Son, makes us sons in the sacramental communion we experience. And if we become sacrifice, when we ourselves become according to the Logos, this is not a process limited to the spirit that leaves the body behind as if it were something far from God. The Logos itself became body and offers himself to us in his body. For this reason we are invited to offer our bodies as worship according to the Logos, that is, to be drawn in all our bodily existence into communion with Christ”.

“So that the mission be something more than propaganda ...”
In concluding, Ratzinger summed up his reflections by returning to the theme of his lesson (The Eucharist as Genesis of the Mission) and appealed to the figure of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: “So that the mission be something more than propaganda for a particular idea, or publicity for a certain community – so that it originate from God and conduct to Him – it must have as its life source more profundity than that of plans of action and the strategies they inspire. It must have origin in a higher and deeper place than publicity and the art of persuasion. ‘Christianity is not a feat of persuasion but something truly great’, Saint Ignatius of Antioch once put it well. The form and the way in which Thérèse of Lisieux is the patron saint of missions can help us understand what this means”.


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