The Eucharist as a Sacrament of Brotherhood

I spent a couple of hours the other day reading an essay titled The Open Circle: The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood. It was written by Pope Benedict XVI while he was still Fr. Ratzinger, a decade before he became an archbishop and a cardinal and long before he became head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. Although published in book form in English in 1966, it is based on an essay first read to the Theological Congress of the Austrian Institute for Pastoral Works in Vienna at Easter 1958. The views expressed in the essay, as well as other writings of then Fr. Ratzinger were influential in conciliar documents of the Second Vatican Council.

In light of the enthusiasm among many for the return of the Tridentine Mass, I found the essay’s discussion of the Mass to raise considerations worth thinking about. Fr. Ratzinger writes

The recognition that ekklesia (church) and adelphotes (brotherhood) are the same thing, that the Church that fulfills itself in the celebration of the Eucharist is essentially a community of brothers, compels us to celebrate the Eucharist as a rite of brotherhood in responsory dialogue – and not to have a lonely hierarchy facing a group of laymen each one of whom is shut off in his own missal or other devotional book. The Eucharist must again become visibly the sacrament of brotherhood in order to be able to achieve its full, community-creating power. This does not imply a social dogmatism: the vocation of the individual Christian can often be fulfilled quietly in a life of retirement. But even a vocation like this is a form of brotherly service and therefore, far from invalidating the brotherly nature of the community rite of the Church, further confirms it.

I think we should pay heed to Fr. Ratzinger’s words in this essay and make sure we are promoting a Eucharistic celebration that is “visibly the sacrament of brotherhood in order to be able to achieve its full, community-creating power.” Some of what I have heard people say in arguing for the Tridentine Mass seems to call for a return to exactly what Fr. Ratzinger criticizes here – a noncommunal celebration where the priest does his own thing and the people do theirs.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that there is an inherent problem with Mass in Latin. It happens not to be my personal preference – I don’t think in Latin and I want to listen and speak in a language I understand. However, I appreciate the beauty of Latin and that many people may understand the language better than I do and want to worship in it. But we need to be sure that we retain a Mass that is able to accomplish the worthy aims of which the essay speaks.

As an aside, Fr. Ratzinger’s comments in the essay about the importance of local church communities also raises important points in light of today’s realities. He suggests that the size of a parish community ought to be governed by the original Christian meaning of ekklesia, “which at first meant the actual realization within the particular local community of the one Church.” That means, he says, that a parish should be of such a size that it is “possible for everyone to know everyone else.” How one achieves this in practice in today’s world is not an easy question to answer.