Thursday, April 15, 2010

Rediscovering the Sacramental Sense

Rediscovering the Sacramental Sense

by Russell Shaw

FEBRUARY 21, 2007 ( - A friend of mine tells this story: Not long ago he took some students and parents from the public high school where he teaches on a trip to Italy. There were twelve or 15 of them, and they shared the tour bus with others. The trip was a success. Everyone had a lovely time visiting some of the most beautiful places in a beautiful country.

But after a while my friend realized that something strange was going on.

Whenever they pulled into a town square and parked in front of the local cathedral, everyone piled off the bus and immediately started shooting photos of the church. "They began taking pictures before they even looked at it," my friend said. "What mattered was shooting those photos. They could see the cathedral later, if there was time."

My friend thought that was odd. But I couldn’t help thinking that this behavior isn’t so different from what happens at a Sunday liturgy today. The two things may even be related. The emphasis at such a liturgy is on doing things, keeping busy, allowing little opportunity for reflective quiet. Seeing things—not just with the physical eyes, but with the eyes of the spirit—gets short shrift.

In liturgical celebrations like this, the ideal of full, conscious, active participation that the Second Vatican Council spoke of has been externalized. This is liturgy for people more interested in taking pictures of the cathedral than in seeing it.

Participation in the Liturgy

Some time back I came across a remark by H. Richard McCord, the executive director of the laity office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, that inadvertently suggests where this thinking comes from.

Participation in the liturgy is a common means of spiritual formation. Though weekly Mass attendance has declined, laity are participating in worship more extensively and in greater depth through the ministerial roles of reading, singing, distributing communion, assisting at the altar, providing hospitality, and so on.

I take this to be a typical statement of a viewpoint common today. There are several things to be said about it.

First, the casual dismissal of the decline in Sunday Mass attendance by American Catholics, from two out of three 40 years ago to one out of three today, is happy talk. Second, to equate doing things—"reading, singing, distributing communion . . . providing hospitality, and so on"—with full, conscious, and active participation is seriously confused.

Third, there is absolutely no evidence that this approach involves liturgical participation any deeper and more prayerful than the participation of the largely silent congregations several decades ago. Claims to the contrary are statements of ideology, not empirically verified fact.

Fourth, even if one is willing to grant, for the sake of argument, that lay people who do these things at Mass are more deeply engaged in liturgical worship than people were 50 years ago, the number of those who do them is extremely small, compared with the vastly larger number who do not.

And fifth and finally, what a comment like this mainly expresses is the mindless enthusiasm for lay ministries so common in official circles today. A rational, well-considered concern for full, conscious, and active participation by the laity wouldn’t concentrate on the ministries of a few but on the baptismal priesthood—the non-ordained priesthood of the faithful—in which all Christifideles participate.

As the Catechism says: "Through Baptism and Confirmation the priestly people is enabled to celebrate the liturgy" (1138). How often these days do you hear homilies saying that instead of urging lay people to give Father Bob and Deacon Tom a hand by distributing Communion?

The Loss of the Sacramental Sense

But the fundamental problem—the problem of seeing the liturgical celebration with the eyes of the spirit—goes much deeper, operating on a very different plane. A lot more is involved than questions of liturgical translations and the structuring of liturgical rites.

This is the problem of the loss of the sacramental sense in Western culture, and it’s that above all else that makes full, conscious, and active participation so difficult. Our immanent, externalized liturgical celebrations merely reinforce this underlying problem.

In modern times, we see a pervasive loss of the sacramental sense and a concurrent hollowing-out of our understanding of what "sacrament" signifies, leaving behind only the shell of symbol. The difference between sacrament and symbol is crucially important.

A symbol points to another reality extrinsic to itself; whereas, in the case of a sacrament, the other reality is embodied within the sacramental sign and intrinsic to what the sacrament is and does.

Conventional symbols have a kind of radical arbitrariness: They are subject to being changed. When circumstances dictate setting aside one symbol for something, there is no difficulty about adopting another, as advertisers adopt new logos for products depending on which of their aspects they wish to highlight and which audience they mean to attract.

It’s very different with a sacrament. The sacramental sign and the reality it signifies are inseparably joined. Fundamentally alter a sacramental sign, and the reality it signified is no longer there. For example: Substitute something else for bread and wine, and you no longer have the Body and Blood of Christ. And, as this suggests, the reality embodied by sacraments is itself unique.

Pope John Paul II said in Crossing the Threshold of Hope:

What else are the sacraments . . . if not the action of Christ in the Holy Spirit? When the Church baptizes, it is Christ who baptizes; when the Church absolves, it is Christ who absolves; when the Church celebrates the Eucharist, it is Christ who celebrates it . . . . All the sacraments are an action of Christ, the action of God in Christ.

Where people suppose that sacramental liturgy is only a symbolic act to which those who perform it assign its meaning, the devising of liturgical settings naturally emphasizes values like novelty, ingenuity, relevance, experiment, excitement.

Practically speaking, as then–Cardinal Ratzinger has pointed out, they aim to entertain. But the more entertaining the celebrations become, the more support they’ll lend to the belief that what is going on is symbolic, nothing more.

By contrast, where it’s supposed that the central action is a sacramental act that is primarily Jesus’ rather than ours, the approach will be fundamentally conservative. It will stress values like dignity, gravity, decorum, reverence, devotion, piety, awe.

The test of good liturgy will be a test of faith: whether the worshiping community grows in holiness by full, conscious, active participation in the action of Christ.

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