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The Liturgy and the Sacraments

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

There is a special reason for opening our teleconferences on the sacraments with a presentation on “The Liturgy and the Sacraments.” Since the Second Vatican Council, with its emphasis on the corporate or community worship of God, there has been a diminishing stress on the sacraments instituted by Christ.

This is unfortunate because liturgy is a broad term that all religions use to identify their public worship of the God in whom they believe. We may speak of the Hindu and Muslim liturgy; and Protestants from the dawn of their break with the Roman Catholic Church have, what they call, liturgical services.

Our purpose in this conference will be very simple. We shall first briefly explain what we mean by the liturgy. Then, at greater length, identify the sacraments. And finally, in the time at our disposal, show how the sacraments belong to the heart of the liturgy.

What is the Liturgy?

The original Greek term leitourgia (from leos people] and ergon [work]) was used of any public duty or service. But by the time of the Greek translation of the Old Testament in the third century before Christ, it had come to apply particularly to the services in the Temple. Liturgy in present-day usage refers to the official public worship of the church, and is thus distinguished from private devotion. Within this ambit of the Church’s service, it is the special title of the Eucharist and the administration of the sacraments with the annexed use of the sacramentals.

The clearest way to understand the liturgy is to see it as the exercise now on earth of Christ’s priestly office, as distinct from the Church’s rule and moral guidance, by which the Savior lives among His people as Christ the King. Since the priestly work of Christ concerns itself with worship and man’s sanctification, we should expect the liturgy to be specially directed toward giving due honor to God and making the faithful more holy and pleasing to Him.

As Catholics, we understand the liturgy to be primarily the worship of God. We further understand the liturgy to be divine worship, not only as individual persons, but as a community; indeed the community, which is all the faithful who form the Mystical Body of Christ. We worship God, and He, in turn, sanctifies us. In fact, we may say that worshiping God is already a form of sanctity. Why? Because in worshiping God, we are conversing with Him, are in contact with Him, as only spirit can touch the Spirit who is the Author of our being and the Goal of all our desires.

The book of Proverbs has a sentence that should be memorized. It is God speaking, “I love those who love me;” in Latin, Ego diligentes me diligo. What are we being told? We are being told that God is indeed infinitely loving. In fact, except for His almighty love, we would not even exist. But God has also given us a free will. The more generously we love God, the more God, dare we say, responds to our needs.

To be kept in mind is that our worship of God is to be done not only by us as individuals but as members of the society which came into existence the moment Jesus died on the cross. Another name for this corporate or public worship of God is the Liturgy.

I am speaking to Catholics about the Catholic Liturgy. The moment we say this we must immediately add that the Liturgy as public worship depends on the Church’s hierarchy. This is so distinctively Catholic as to almost define its essence. This is more than a dependence on regulation or surveillance. It means that the Liturgy is bound up with the Apostolic hierarchy established by Christ in such a way that, except for the hierarchy, there would be no public worship as the Catholic Church understands the Liturgy.

Vernacular in the Liturgy

After the Second Vatican Council the vernacular was introduced into the Liturgy on a scale that is nothing less than astounding. The Church decided to allow the use of the native language of the people along side the Latin in the Roman Rites. One reason for this major change was to allow the faithful to participate more fully in the sacred Liturgy. They could thus understand the language in which the Liturgy was celebrated and profit more deeply by sharing their thoughts with God and with one another in words which they could comprehend.

It is no secret to anyone who knows what is going on in the Catholic Church that the introduction of the vernacular opened the door to widespread abuses that have no counterpart in the last half millenium of the Church’s history. This is not the place to evaluate these abuses except to say that they must be corrected; otherwise nothing less than the survival of the Catholic Church is at stake in more than one part of the world.

A recent declaration of the Holy See brings out just one aspect of the problem which the vernacular in the Liturgy has created. The entire ritual for the ordination of priests, translated from the Latin into English was rejected by the Holy See. The ICEL, International Commission for English in the Liturgy had revised the ordination ritual in such a way as to devaluate the priesthood, to put it mildly, by changing “priest” to “presbyter.”

A recent parish bulletin in Michigan, entitled “Liturgy: Praying the Mass”, had the following question and answer:

Why do we use inclusive language in our prayers and Scripture reading?
We use both male and female language to refer to God; we also avoid using “man” in its various forms when we want to refer to all people and not just to males. We do this because the way we speak shapes the way we think, and we want to think of men and women as equally human and equally the image of God. These are the points the bishops have made.
Sometimes folks who are not used to inclusive language in their church services find this way of speaking strange. Some think that we are simply giving in to popular political fashion at the expense of a long, noble tradition. This is a misunderstanding. First, we change the language because we think that is brings a fuller experience of God and human life to both women and men. This is not a minor point but one intimately related to the core reason for the Church’s existence. Second, most of the changes that we make simply correct poor translations from ancient languages into modern English.

This is a poorly disguised expression of radical feminism, which is the dream of historic Marxism. Its underlying principle is that men and women must be equalized, even when the equalization means the blasphemous feminization of the all-holy God.

The Sacraments at the Heart of the Liturgy

As we all know, the Liturgy covers a larger spectrum than just the Sacraments of the Catholic Church. The Sacraments are the heart of the Liturgy. But the Liturgy includes the whole spectrum of the Church’s public worship of the Holy Trinity.

We speak for example of the Liturgy of the Hours. This is the recitation or chanting of the Divine Office, either individually or, as in monasteries, corporately by all the members of a religious family. The Liturgy includes the elaborate ceremony that accompanies the administration of the Sacraments. The Liturgy covers the ocean of Sacramentals which are things or actions which the Church uses after the manner of Sacraments in order to achieve certain effects through the merits of the faithful. Some writers even speak of the Sacramentals as lesser Sacraments to distinguish them from the principal Sacraments of the New Law. But our focus here is on the Sacraments themselves as not only forms of the Liturgy but as the essence of the liturgical life of the Catholic Church.

For the sake of convenience we shall divide the Sacraments of the Church into three liturgical categories. This will be the prelude to our study of the Sacraments individually. There are the Sacraments of sustenance and reconciliation, the Sacraments of permanent character and the Sacraments of enduring grace. In making this classification we are not implying that only certain Sacraments are sources of sustenance or reconciliation of the spiritual life nor that all the Sacraments are not somehow channels of enduring grace. Rather our hope is to make more clear how the seven Sacraments differ among themselves and may therefore be classified according to these three major categories.

Sacraments of Sustenance and Reconciliation

The moment we say that certain Sacraments were instituted by Christ as channels of sustaining and reconciling grace, we imply that there are two very distinct levels of life among human beings. We have a natural human life that comes to us the moment we are conceived in our mother’s womb. By the most basic premises of sound philosophy, a living being must have a principle of life. Plants and trees, insects and bees, animals and flees all have a principle of life which sustains them. Once this principle of life leaves them, in plain language, they die.

Human beings are no exception. We too have a principle of life which we call the soul. Once the soul leaves the body, the body dies. I like St. Augustine’s rhetorical question, “What shall I call man’s life on earth, a living death or a dying life?”

But this human life of ours must be sustained in a thousand ways, but especially by the food and drink that we begin to take almost as soon as we are born. In the language of all nations we know what starvation means. It means dying for lack of nourishment.

Something similar to this, but on a much higher plane, is necessary for the preservation of the spiritual life of our souls. As Christ foretold to the crowd of listeners in Galilee, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood you shall not have life in you.” What was He saying? He was simply stating the obvious. Either we are nourished on the Eucharist or the inevitable happens, our spirit dies.

With almost no exception in history, human beings become ill or diseased or experience some bodily calamity. They need healing. In the order of grace, the soul may be not only sick or crippled, it can be spiritually dead, while the body is still alive. Far beyond any medical care that the body can receive to recover its health, the supernatural life of the soul can be literally brought back to life. That is why the Savior instituted what is popularly called the Sacrament of Confession, but could just as well be called the Sacrament of spiritual restoration to life.

There are three Sacraments that are commonly identified as Sacraments of permanent character. They are Baptism, Confirmation and Ordination.

To sustain our comparison with the life of the body, these three Sacraments confer a permanent, shall we call it personality, on those who receive them which change the persons’ character for time and eternity.

Once we are baptized we become different persons, different in so many ways that our spiritual personality will never be altered even into the endless ages of eternity.

Once we are confirmed, again we become changed individuals beyond anything that we were before our Confirmation.

Once a man is ordained, whether as bishop, priest or deacon, to put it mildly he is modified in a way and to a degree for which there is no counterpart in human natural experience.

Behind all three changes of character is, of course, the almighty and selective will of God. As the omnipotent Maker of heaven and earth, He has the power not only to make what did not exist before but to change what had been made into something much higher and more noble than whatever had been possible except for God’s exercise of His mysterious omnipotence.

We speak of two Sacraments as channels of enduring grace. They are marriage and anointing. When God became man, we might say He had no choice but to institute the Sacrament of Matrimony. He told his married followers that they were to be two in one flesh in a lifetime commitment that no power on earth could divide. He told them to love one another and accept the children that the Lord wanted to give them. To make both of these even possible, not to say deeply enjoyable, He had to provide the means. In one word these means are the Sacrament of Marriage.

None of us are meant to remain in this valley of tears forever. Thank God! In His loving wisdom, Christ provided a Sacrament to enable us to prepare for entering eternal life. We have been sinners here on earth. We are naturally fearful of what awaits us when our bodies die. We are understandably reluctant to leave a world that, in spite of its trials we had found quite enjoyable. For all these reasons we need the help that only God can provide to leave the only life we had so far experienced and enter the unknown mystery of eternity. To put it mildly, we desperately need help. That is why the Savior instituted what we casually call the Sacrament of Anointing. It is an anointing, indeed, but it is also an anticipation. We would not be human if we were not afraid. But the loving Lord assures us He is waiting to receive us with open arms if only we have served Him with open hearts until what we should not call the last day, but the first day for which we were made.

Song in the Liturgy

It would not be fair to close this conference without touching on a very critical area of the present day Liturgy in the Catholic Church. The issue touches every aspect of liturgical life and, with emphasis, the Eucharistic Liturgy of the Sacrifice of the Mass.

We might begin by quoting a memorable statement of St. Augustine from his Confessions. He is speaking to our Lord.

I wept at the beauty of Your hymns and canticles, and was powerfully moved at the sweet sound of Your Church’s singing. Those sounds flowed into my ears, and the truth streamed into my heart: so that my feeling of devotion overflowed, and the tears ran from my eyes, and I was happy in them.

This has been the history of the Catholic Liturgy over the centuries. As the same St. Augustine observes, “He who sings, prays twice.” Liturgical song is not only praying with the lips, it is praying with the heart. That is why the Church has always been concerned, indeed solicitous over the melody’s sound during the Liturgy and the character of the music in Liturgical celebration.

What we are saying deserves more than just these few closing comments. It deserves nothing less than a massive reassessment of what is going on in the Catholic Church. Titles like, “Cool and Jazzy Liturgy” are featured in professedly Catholic periodicals. When in England the atrocity of the Tyme Mass was celebrated to the tune of nightclub music with young dancers participating in what should be the re-enactment of Christ’s death on Calvary, we get some idea of the drastic need for liturgical reformation.

The net result of such profanation is inevitable. What should be the Catholic Liturgy becomes nothing less than a pagan orgy. How I wish I did not have to say what I have just said. But I would not have been either honest or courageous as I believe Christ wants me to be.

The need for a massive reformation of the liturgy in one so-called developed country after another is simply part of God’s will. I like G.K. Chesterton’s definition of courage. He says, “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die.”

That is the kind of Catholics the Church needs in our day. The liturgy is the soul of our profession of the faith. Needless to say we must have the courage of martyrs to preserve this faith in the face of such widespread desecration of the sacred in our day.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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