Feast of Peace: Pope Benedict XVI on meal and sacrifice

I just got back last night from a lovely conference on Pope Benedict XVI’s theology at Notre Dame. I offer a brief outline of the paper I presented, which will be collected, along with the other papers presented, in a volume expected to be finished in November 2012 and to be given to the pope in honor of his 85th birthday. I don’t know the name of the volume yet, but it will be published by Notre Dame Press. I enjoyed meeting some wonderful new people and having some great conversations. The complete list of papers and speakers can be found here.

“The Feast of Peace: The Eucharist as Sacrifice and Meal in Benedict XVI’s Theology,” by Kimberly Hope Belcher, presented at the Notre Dame Institute for Church Life Conference “God is Love: Explorations in the Theology of Benedict XVI” on March 27, 2012. To be published with Notre Dame Press, 2012.

Abstract: In Pope Benedict XVI’s theology, the Eucharist is a sacrifice because it is the sacrifice of the cross, made accessible to human beings forever through the eucharistic prayer. It is also a meal, however, precisely because the divine sacrifice completes itself in a community meal that also obliges Christians to ethical service and communal love.

Part 1: Meal and Sacrifice in Benedict XVI

Although Benedict expressed deep concern about calling the Eucharist a “meal” in earlier reflections, in his papal works on the Eucharist, especially in Deus Caritatis Est and Sacramentum caritatis, he uses meal imagery for the Eucharist much more positively.

Part 2: Love and sacrifice

For Pope Benedict, sacrifice has an essentially positive definition that is often overlooked or misunderstood. The sacrifice of the mass, in particular, is grounded in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and ultimately in the trinitarian love. To participate in the Eucharist, then, is to participate in this trinitarian love offered as our salvation, not to offer a work of human merit to a hostile God.

Part 3: Feast of peace

Given this understanding of the sacrifice of the Eucharist, its meal dimension can be seen as the necessary completion of God’s sacrificial self-giving to humanity in incarnation, passion, and resurrection. The meal dimension of the Eucharist highlights the completion of Christ’s sacrifice in the gathering of his new body, the church, and is also the consummate icon of God’s self-revelation in all creation as beauty.


  1. Sounds interesting. The whole sacrifice/meal dichotomy is totally unnecessary. It is, to my mind, the result of us having forgotten what sacrifice entailed to the ancient Jews, as well as to pagans. After an animal had been sacrificed (and possibly parts of it burnt), the flesh would be distributed to the priests and/or those bringing the sacrifice to be eaten. So a sacrifice naturally included a meal.

    The Eucharist is a true sacrifice, as Trent makes clear, and so it includes a meal as a matter of course: Christ was given up as a sacrifice for our sins, and we are given His sacred flesh to feast on and be nourished by. The Church has always held this and this idea is firmly established in her practice. I think those in recent decades who have complained that the Church has downplayed the “meal” aspect of the Eucharist have lost sight of this original concept of sacrifice.

    The Eucharist is a meal, but it is not a cosy meal like a family dinner. There was nothing cosy about the first Eucharist in the Upper Room; it was a rather sombre affair. No, the Eucharist is a sacrificial banquet, which is to say a deeply serious, sacred meal, and it ought to be treated as such.

    1. I don’t think the complaint has been the downplaying of the meal but rather the neglect of the sacrificial aspect of the Mass in the post-Vatican II experience of the Mass.
      The consumption of the “Holocaust” of course is critical to the completion of the sacrifice by the priest sacrificing and then sharing what remains with others who are present. What I think many more traditional Catholics have lamented with some expressions of the post-Vatican II Mass is an emphasis on Meal as though it is a supper-like celebration rather than a “deeply serious, somber sacred (sacrificial) meal” in gratitude for the price our Lord paid to free us from the eternal punishment of our sin. Of course the Resurrection/Ascension/Pentecost events must be factored in to this somber and joyful experience which should be soberly celebrated. But both aspects of the Mass in both forms EF and OF are clearly present.

    2. Spot on, Gideon.

      I think we need to regain the awareness, as you state, that a sacrifice, understood scripturally, necessarily entails the eating of the sacrificial elements. It’s another case of “both/and”. There’s no meal without the sacrifice, and the sacrifice is made complete by the meal.

  2. I think this discussion requires us to think carefully about what we are committed to when using our metaphors. The saving work of Christ, and hence the Eucharist which flows from it, is unique. When we use general categories–a meal, a sacrifice–the syntactical forms of the sentences might suggest that we are saying it’s one meal like other meals, or one sacrifice like other sacrifices. But that’s a mistaken inference, rather like supposing that our use of eating the body and drinking the blood implies cannibalism: the sacrifice metaphor has to be informed by the biblical arguments about the nature of sacrifice culminating in Hebrews, and the meal metaphor by a sense that the food and drink in question are in various ways out of the ordinary. We’re using these terms metaphorically, to talk about something strictly incomparable: something we can only name and point to on the basis of an intuitively shared experience, not classify.From this it follows that there is no direct correlation between ‘orthodoxy’ and the metaphors through which that belief is expressed. If there’s a comparative argument to be had about the appropriateness of sacrifice or meal language, it turns on questions of ethics and aesthetics (do these metaphors do an appropriate job of focusing the attention of particular people in particular cultures?), not on the absurd suggestion that the self-gift of God can be ‘accurately’ comprehended in categories derived from everyday experience.

    1. Fr. Philip – I quite agree, though sometimes, for purposes of abstraction, it is necessary to use general terms. But perhaps we would do good consistently to refer to the Eucharist as ‘the true and perfect sacrifice’ and to its meal aspect as ‘the sacred banquet’ – ‘meal’ being a somewhat base and generic term, probably explaining the widespread illusion of the Eucharist-as-family-dinner (as I think the Neocatechumenals tend to have, what with their communing sitting down and passing the hosts from one to another).

      1. The catechesis for the the Tridentine Mass in most
        pre-Vatican II catechisms separate the discussion of the Mass from the “Sacrifice of the Mass” and “Receiving the Holy Eucharist.” It is made clear, though, that both are a part of the Mass itself. But your point of calling these parts of the Mass, “The True and Perfect Sacrifice” and “The Sacred Banquet” are spot on as well.
        It’s not either/or but both/and. But I think what is lost on most laity today is the necessity of the priest to complete the Sacrifice of the Mass by His consumption of the Sacrificial Victim. As everyone here knows, out of a false sense of hospitality or allowing home etiquette to trump liturgical theology and the doctrine of the Sacrifice of the Mass, it has been suggested and even executed in some parishes in the past that the priest-celebrant receive Holy Communion last, after everyone else has. That’s an over-emphasis on “home etiquette” and truly a deformation of the meaning of how the priest-celebrant completes the Sacrifice by consuming the Offerings first.

  3. In Mysterium Fidei (The Holy Eucharist, 1965) Paul VI refers frequently to the Sacrifice of the Mass. I do not see much about a meal. I think his view is that we should keep the sacrificial understanding foremost in mind. My guess is that Pope Benedict would agree. It is a question of which aspect they address:
    “Nor is it right to be so pre-occupied with considering the nature of the sacramental sign that the impression is created that the symbolism – and no-one denies its existence in the holy Eucharist – expresses and exhausts the whole meaning of Christ’s presence in this sacrament.” (Paragraph 11).

    Meanwhile Pope John Paul II, in his letter on the Holy Eucharist (24 Feb 1980) seems to take the same approach. Paragraph 9 begins “The Eucharist is above all else a sacrifice. It is the sacrifice of the Redemption and also the sacrifice of the New Covenant.”
    Then in the middle of paragraph 11 he considers how sometimes everybody goes to communion, presumably with nothing on their conscience: “there can also be, at least at times, another idea behind this: the idea of the Mass as only a banquet…”

    1. I think the point of emphasizing the sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist over and above other dimensions (e.g. sacred meal) is because if the Eucharist isn’t a sacrifice, then it could not be possibly “one and the same” sacrifice with Christ’s self-offering on Calvary. Added to that is the Church’s position that the Last Supper was sacrificial as well.

      1. Exactly Jeffrey.
        I think that the concept of sacrifice seems old fashioned or worse: possibly the idea of animal sacrifice comes to mind.
        It seems to me that the modern concept of sponsored parachute jumps, marathon runs and similar is really a sort of sacrifice of our time and energies.
        Another reason for playing down the sacrifice is to draw closer to those, such as protestants, who would not agree. The aim is not to exclude or offend anybody.
        All three Popes seem to think that there is a danger in forgetting the sacrificial aspect of Mass.

  4. I appreciate Fr Phillip’s reminder that even when we refer to the Eucharist as a sacrifice, we are using a metaphoric reference: this should not mean that it lacks “reality”, but is a reminder that it is an event which establishes/renews a one-of-a-kind relationship with God which only conditionally can be called a sacrifice. My question is this: what do Roman Catholics believe that Protestants are missing out on by not recognizing the Eucharist as a sacrifice; how is their relation to God impoverished or imperiled? Or conversely, what IS the “danger in forgetting the sacrificial aspect of the Mass,” as Peter Hayden put it?

    1. I think that the place to look is in CCC1356 and after. Without the sacrifice we would fail to achieve the various purposes set out.
      These sections say why the Sacrifice is offered rather than saying what would happen without it or what the dangers of ignoring it would be. Presumably it would change the service into a prayer meeting like the Daily Office, useful but missing its main purpose.
      I think this is what the Popes I mentioned had in mind.

    2. What do Roman Catholics believe that Protestants are missing out on by not recognizing the Eucharist as a sacrifice; how is their relation to God impoverished or imperiled? Or […] what IS the “danger in forgetting the sacrificial aspect of the Mass,” as Peter Hayden put it?

      Excellent questions, Michael. They require us to start “further up” in our apologetics, or at least in our understanding (i.e. comprehension) of the Catholic faith.

      I think I would start by making this point: if the Eucharist is not celebrated as a sacrifice (as well as a banquet), its identity with (or as) the covenantal meal at the Last Supper is diminished or, worse, eliminated. Jesus identified the blessed bread and wine of the Last Supper with His body and blood — in the present tense — being given and being poured out. He was pre-presenting (i.e. anticipating) His self-offering on the cross the very next day.

      When Jesus said to “do this” in His memory, we must ask, “how much of what He was doing is He asking us to continue doing?” Is it only the thanking of God (an eucharistia in its own right) and the eating of bread and the drinking of wine under these auspices? Or does it involve the identifying of that blessed bread and wine with Christ’s body and blood, and not only in a generic sense, but in a sacrificial sense: a body being broken/given for us, and blood being poured out for us?

      If Jesus was pre-presenting (anticipating) His physical bodily sacrifice, did He intend for His followers to re-present (commemorate) that sacrifice?

  5. I must excuse myself for my initial comment and admit I am in no position to speak for the Protestants (being a Byzantine Catholic myself) but I wonder if any of them would object to recognizing that reception of the Eucharist entails some kind of self-offering to God, which in some way is joined, and actually made possible by Christ’s unique self-offering to the Father. What I imagine most take reserve to is that (typical Roman-Catholic) idea of “sacrifice” which a) involves an offering of the Body and Blood of Christ to the Father by Christ/the priest/the faithful, and b) that this offering is “propitiatory” (a support for our petitions to God). I say “Roman Catholic” because though the teaching has filtered down to certain Eastern Catholic Churches through the ages, I do not see it represented in the Byzantine anaphoras of Sts John Chrysostom and Basil the Great, though there are traces of it in the Preparatory rites (Proskomide) and the Transfer of the Gifts (the Great Entrance) of these Liturgies. What dominates is the idea of “memorial” (certainly in the strong biblical sense of “making present”) of the salvific mysteries of Christ, including the Second Coming.
    As to the reference to the CCC it is interesting to note that, although the exposition surely contains the standard RC doctrine (usually in the Tridentine formularies), the opening paragraphs 1357-1358 twice identify the Eucharist as “a memorial of Christ’s sacrifice,” — a formulation more typical of the Byzantine tradition. This is certainly appropriate since the CCC is a document which intends to present the Catholic faith as expressed in the diverse theological traditions of the Catholic Church (i.e. also Byzantine Christian). In this case the two traditions are properly witnessed, though an uneasiness remains about how they are to be harmonized, but I guess that lies outside the possibilities of the projected Catechism. But then I wonder whether it’s possible (or desirable).
    Hope this is helpful to a wider understanding of Catholic Eucharistic doctrine.

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