To discuss Catholic sacramental theology is to enter into a discussion about the very essence of what it means to be Catholic. Even in a secular country like this one, you only need mention the words ‘Mass’ or ‘Confession’ and most people will realise that you are talking about the Catholic faith. The sacraments are an essential part of what identifies us – even though most of us do not have much of a clue of what they are really about.
The first thing we should note is that whether or not we understand the nature of the sacraments is not always the most important thing. It is desirable, but not essential. We will discover that the more we know, or the more we think we know, the more there is to know. Why? Because we believe that sacraments are not primarily human constructs. These are not actions that we perform and participate in because we fully understand them and think they are a good idea. To have any idea of what a sacrament is, you first have to try to see it from God’s point of view. This is of course an impossible thing to achieve, and it is for this reason that you can spend your whole life engaged in reflecting on the sacraments and realise that you have only just got started. However, start you can.
Imagine for a minute that you are God and that You are looking at the men, women and children who You love. You are very aware that you are a spiritual being, existing outside time and space. Just how do You set about communicating with beings who are affected by time and space? You can approach them on a spiritual level because these beings, over whose creation You have presided, do have a spiritual dimension. They have souls, consciences, and they can pray – they can be communicated with ‘spiritually’. However, unlike You they are not purely spiritual beings. They have a physical dimension, and that side of life is essential to them. They eat, drink, make love, have children, bang into things, fall over, and they die. So it is not enough to communicate with them purely spiritually because that is not entirely who they are. As a result, You do two remarkable things so that You can communicate with them in a way that is meaningful to them.
Firstly, in the fullness of time, You become one of them. This is the single greatest act of generosity ever performed. The Lord of all heaven and earth becomes a human being so that, among other things, we can be reassured that he understands who we are and intimately knows what we experience. The incarnation (literally, the ‘becoming flesh’) of God is the foundation of all Catholic theology, spirituality and mission. To fail to understand the centrality of God becoming a human being makes understanding even the most basic of Catholic theological principles impossible. This includes understanding Catholic sacramental and liturgical principles.
Secondly, precisely because You have become human (and therefore You cannot be around forever, and You cannot be accessible to all people simultaneously) You do something ridiculously simple and amazingly profound: You take a piece of bread, and You say ‘when You gather in my name, this becomes me’. A portion of bread allows us to touch and to receive into ourselves the Lord of all. And You do this because the beings You love and for whom You have given everything are physical and need the physical. The spiritual communicating itself through the physical is the essence of Catholic sacramental theology.
That God is manifest in physical form in the person of Jesus changes how Catholics relate to the world, their experience, one another and their own bodies. The dualism that plagues spirituality, where the spiritual is seen to be divorced from and superior to the physical has no place in Catholic spirituality (although it has to be admitted that it mistakenly often appears there too). Instead of being a rarefied experience, Catholic spirituality is at its clearest and best where every person, every sunset, every created thing is recognised, to varying degrees, as a reflection of (and a manifestation of) the One who has called everything that exists into being.
Openness to the interconnection between all aspects of reality is an essential presupposition for a holistic view of sacramentality. All life’s dimensions – individual persons and society, the past, the present and the future – are dynamically interrelated and constitute a single sacramental whole.
It is this sensitivity to the interconnection between the spiritual and the physical that means that Catholicism can be accurately described as a ‘sacramental’ religion. This is not just a reference to the seven sacraments with which we are familiar. Instead, it is the inherent sacramentality of the Catholic worldview that makes the seven sacraments possible and gives them meaning.
Needless to say, modernity does not cope with the sacramental universe particularly well. When a lab technician places the consecrated host under a microscope, he does not see the face of Jesus looking back at him. In today’s secularised society, the seven primary sacraments have still not become meaningfully operative in the lives of most Christian people. For many, the seven are individual (perhaps ‘supernatural’) commodities - objects of spiritual consumerism - rather than what they are intended to be: foundational highpoints representative of a Catholic worldview. The seven liturgical sacraments only have any validity in a spirituality that recognises God at work around us as a continuing force that nurtures an experience of conversion and freedom, growth and transformation. A decline in an appreciation of the significance of the sacraments of the Church can be said to equate to a lack of awareness of God in our experience of everyday life.
Increasing our sensitivity to the reality and action of God in our world is a central task of the Christian spiritual life. The fact is, people who have no awareness of the action of God in their personal lives will not easily experience the liberating and transforming power of the sacraments. Even if we have a worldview that is open to the Transcendent – to God – it is only through prayer and experience that we come to appreciate the sacraments as the expression of life’s most profound mysteries and to experience life itself as sacramental. This presupposes a continuing and personal spiritual growth before, during, and beyond the experience of the sacraments. The spirituality of daily life and sacramental spirituality are not distinct, but inextricably complementary, leading to and flowing from one another. Every aspect of our lives - what we do, how we relate to others, how we pray, the rituals we participate in - are all part of the same reality.
Original text by Shane Dwyer
Photo of Lectionary by Grant Whitty on Unsplash
Fr Anthony Mellor, 30 October 2019
Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Archbishop of Brisbane, 30 October 2019
30 October 2019