In the Heart of the Church

Reflections on the Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Benedict XVI
Sacramentum Caritatis

Marriage, family, Eucharist, life
by Alfonso Cardinal Lopez Trujillo
President of the Pontifical Council for the Family



The "literary genre" of Apostolic Exhortations that began with Evangelii Nuntiandi was also chosen by His Holiness Benedict XVI for his first Post-Synodal Document. The theme of the Synod has been a privileged subject in his books. After attentively following the interventions in the Synod Hall, the Pope accepted and published at the end of the Synod its propositions. In this Exhortation, he develops and deepens them.

The Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis shows a dynamic ecclesial communion, cum Petro and sub Petro, in many vital matters, crucial for the community of believers and for humanity itself.

In the Hall, the many doctrinal and pastoral interventions on the family and closely linked to life that were given in the light of the Eucharist, attracted attention. They moved the hearts of the Pastors, offering certain basic directives "aimed at a renewed commitment to Eucharistic enthusiasm and fervour in the Church" (Sacramentum Caritatis, n. 5).

Also striking is the Pope's special encouragement to families, to enable them to draw inspiration and strength from this Sacrament. The Document also provided a providential opportunity to explain several questions about which some confusion had arisen in various places. The Successor of Peter, as teacher of the faith, has been speaking of these matters since the very first months of his Pontificate.

In Sacramentum Caritatis, the Holy Father addresses the family and the Eucharist in various paragraphs; he starts from basic presuppositions for a deeper understanding of the love between man and woman [united in marriage], a necessary foundation in all the ages (cf. Sacramentum Caritatis, n. 27). This is also an important part of his first Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est.

Eucharist and nuptial mystery

The nuptial mystery stems from the redemptive power of Baptism, which establishes the whole of Christian existence in a nuptial dimension with God. The Cross itself is present and active in the Eucharist.

By virtue of its sacramental character, the conjugal bond is an intrinsic sign of the sacred unity between Christ the Bridegroom and the Church, his Bride (cf. Sacramentum Caritatis, n. 27).

In fact, since the Eucharist is a "mystery of faith", it is par excellence the "sum and summary of our faith" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1327), "constitutive of the Church's being and activity" (Sacramentum Caritatis [SC], n. 15), and "the supreme sacramental. manifestation of communion in the Church" (ibid.) as well as in the family, the domestic Church, "a primary sphere of the Church's life" (SC, n. 27).

In the sacrifice of the Cross, "Christ gave birth to the Church as his Bride and his body", which "leads us to reflect on the causal connection between Christ's sacrifice, the Eucharist and the Church" (SC, n. 14).

In general, it can be said that the Holy Father pieces together in summary form various elements that have been reaffirmed in the Papal Magisterium and which we can only present briefly here.

Eucharist, sacraments of initiation

The Bishops see in the sacraments of initiation "key moments not only for the individual receiving them but also for the entire family" (SC, n. 19). Baptism and Confirmation lead to entry into the Eucharistic community, especially to reception of the Eucharist and to the "importance of a personal encounter with Jesus" (ibid.).

The efforts made in parishes are well known but must involve the whole family even more, especially today when there is the risk of tragic pressure to dissolve the family institution.

For this reason it is necessary to increasingly associate Christian families with the course of initiation to the sacraments. Most important in the context of the family is the memorable day of First Holy Communion, the first personal encounter with Jesus.

The Eucharist, as a nuptial sacrament, "inexhaustibly strengthens the indissoluble unity and love of every Christian marriage" (SC, n. 27).

In the family the domestic Church (Lumen Gentium, n. 11) women have a unique mission "that needs to be defended, protected and promoted. Marriage and motherhood represent essential realities which must never be denigrated" (SC, n. 27).

Eucharist, unicity of marriage

On the basis of the nuptial character of the Eucharist, the Pope reinterprets the theme of the unicity of Christian marriage (monogamous). In this perspective, he emphasizes the unitive aspect of marriage as opposed to polygamy, which in certain places is a real challenge to pastoral care. Only a long and patient process can help those who desire to open themselves to the Christian faith and "to integrate their life-plan into the radical newness of Christ" (SC, n. 28).

Christ "calls them to embrace the full truth of love, making whatever sacrifices are necessary in order to arrive at perfect ecclesial communion" (ibid.). This calls for pastoral care "that is gentle yet firm" (ibid.).

The Holy Father, with balance and depth, addresses the problem of polygamy with an invitation to the radical newness of Christ, in whom the human life-plan is integrated in accordance with the original model of God's design. We know well that this topic causes deep pastoral concern in various regions.

Eucharist and indissolubility

The Pope reaffirms the indissoluble ties of the marriage bond in the light of the Eucharist, which expresses the irreversibility of God's love in Christ for his Church. He then goes on to speak of the sorrowful situations of many of the faithful who have celebrated the Sacrament of Matrimony and have then divorced and remarried.

After reaffirming that despite their situation they continue to belong to the Church who cares for them with special attention, the Pope lists several ways to participate in the life of the Ecclesial Community for these faithful who, although without receiving Eucharistic Communion, may nevertheless live a Christian way of life.

Since the Covenant of redemption unites us to Christ and since matrimony is and must be the sacramental representation of this redemptive Covenant between Christ and the Church, the union between man and woman, not only because of natural law but also because of this new divine status, must be an "indissoluble, exclusive and faithful bond" (ibid.).

Thus, it can be said that the Eucharist is the loftiest expression of the mystery of redemption; but at the same time, it is a sacramental expression of the mysterious reality that unites a man and a woman (cf. ibid.).

The Pope then proposes that those who are unable to fulfill the new bonds they have contracted (those divorced and remarried) because of objective conditions, should live "their relationship in fidelity to the demands of God's law, as friends, as brother and sister" (SC, n. 29).

Basically, he is reasserting the doctrine of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, n. 84.

Eucharist and coherence

In Propositio n. 46, the Synod spoke of the Eucharistic coherence on non-negotiable values in respect for and defense of human life, of the family founded on the marriage between a man and a woman, to which politicians and legislators must have a sense of their grave responsibility via a correctly formed conscience.

Therefore, "Catholic politicians and legislators, conscious of their grave responsibility before society, must feel particularly bound on the basis of a properly formed conscience, to introduce and support laws inspired by values grounded in human nature.

"There is an objective connection here with the Eucharist (cf. I Cor 11:27-29). Bishops are bound to reaffirm constantly these values as part of their responsibility to the flock entrusted to them" (SC, n. 83).

Young people and life

At the conclusion of this commentary, it seems to me important to present what the Holy Father says about the need for the Christian formation of young people who are preparing for marriage:

"Given the complex cultural context which the Church today encounters in many countries, the Synod also recommended devoting maximum pastoral attention to training couples preparing for marriage and to ascertaining beforehand their convictions regarding the obligations required for the validity of the Sacrament of Matrimony. Serious discernment in this matter will help to avoid situations where impulsive decisions or superficial reasons lead two young people to take on responsibilities that they are then incapable of honoring. The good that the Church and society as a whole expect from marriage and from the family founded upon marriage is so great as to call for full pastoral commitment to this particular area.

"Marriage and the family are institutions that must be promoted and defended from every possible misrepresentation of their true nature, since whatever is injurious to them is injurious to society itself" (SC, n. 29).

Each one of the points considered here certainly deserves to be explored further in the light of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis.

I renew my deepest gratitude to the Holy Father for this gift he has given to the Church.

Copyright L'Osservatore Romano
 August 15, 2007


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