In a 2018 essay published after his death, Pope Benedict XVI said a Protestant-like understanding of the Eucharist and strong calls for intercommunion are often found together.
Commenting on the current situation of eucharistic life in the Catholic Church, the pope emeritus said: “One process of great impact is the almost complete disappearance of the sacrament of penance.”
There is also the understanding of Communion as merely “a supper,” he added. “In such a situation of a very advanced Protestantization of the understanding of the Eucharist, intercommunion appears natural.”
Benedict’s essay on the Eucharist is part of a series of texts the pope emeritus wrote after his resignation in 2013. The essays, letters, and reflections have been collected into a single volume, “What Is Christianity?” which was published in Italian last month.
According to Vatican journalist Sandro Magister, Benedict XVI had arranged for the writings to be published after his death.
The Italian magazine L’Espresso published an excerpt of one the essays, a 17-page text on “the meaning of Communion,” which was finished in June 2018, when the Church in Germany was debating intercommunion: whether Protestant spouses of Catholics could receive the Eucharist at Mass.
In his essay, Benedict recalled other moments in Germany’s history when there were calls for intercommunion and said that today, sometimes those same calls are based more on outside forces than on the desire for unity in Christ.
“Especially during the years of the war, in the evangelical camp a division developed between the Third Reich and what were called the ‘deutsche Christen,’ Christian-Germans, on one side, and the ‘bekennende Kirche,’ the confessing Church, on the other,” he explained.
The split led to a new accord between evangelical Christians and the Catholic Church, he said. “One result was a push in favor of common eucharistic Communion between the confessions. In this situation there grew the desire for a single body of the Lord that today, however, risks losing its strong religious foundation and, in an externalized Church, is determined more by political and social forces than by the interior search for the Lord.”
The pope emeritus described another time, shortly after the reunification of Germany, when a eucharistic act, drinking from the chalice, was used “as an essentially political act in which the unity of all Germans became manifest.”
“Thinking back on it, still today I feel anew with great force the estrangement of faith that came from this. And when presidents of the Federal Republic of Germany, who at the same time were presidents of the synods of their Church, have regularly called aloud for interconfessional eucharistic Communion, I see how the demand for a common loaf and chalice may serve other purposes,” he said.
Benedict XVI also noted a growing support, starting from Protestant exegesis, for the opinion that Jesus’ meals with sinners prepared the way for the Last Supper, in which he instituted the Eucharist.
It is argued that the Last Supper, then, is only understood on the basis of Jesus’ other meals in the New Testament, “but [it] is not so,” he said.
“The offering of the body and blood of Jesus Christ has no direct connection with the meals with sinners,” the pope emeritus explained, adding that “Jesus celebrated Passover with his family, that is to say with the apostles, who had become his new family.”
“Thus he complied with a precept according to which pilgrims who went to Jerusalem could join together in companies called ‘chaburot,’” he said. “The Christians continued this tradition. They are his ‘chaburah,’ his family, which he has formed from his company of pilgrims who travel the road of the Gospel along with him through the land of history.”
“Thus celebrating the Eucharist in the ancient Church was from the beginning linked to the community of believers and with this to strict conditions of access,” he said.
Benedict, in the essay, also comments on the language used by Catholics and Protestants.
“In the ecclesial communities arising from the Reformation, the celebrations of the sacrament are called ‘Supper,’” he said.
“In the Catholic Church the celebration of the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ is called ‘Eucharist.’ This is not a casual, purely linguistic distinction. In the distinction of the denominations there is manifested instead a profound difference tied to the understanding of the sacrament itself.”