A Baker's Dozen of Obstacles to an Appreciation of the Sacraments


We have been studying the sacraments and their place in Catholic life. To conclude, it might be a good idea to identify those elements of personal or communal life that keep us from appreciating in all their fullness these avenues of grace and holiness.

I have assembled what I have termed "a baker's dozen of obstacles to an appreciation of the sacraments". I have not arranged them in any special priority order and, regrettably, the list is not exhaustive. But let us consider each of them.

1. The Lack of Eschatology

"Eschatology" is an intimidating word for a most essential aspect of Christian faith, namely, conviction about the afterlife. Sacraments, you see, ultimately make no sense if we do not view our life here below as the prelude to something bigger, better, and more enduring. Cardinal Ratzinger maintains that the gravest error of the postconciliar period has been the shunting off of eschatology to the sidelines of the Catholic experience. Admittedly, forty years ago one could get the impression that life on earth was little more than a troublesome way station through which we had to pass to get to the "real thing". But we've now gone to the other extreme in many cases, both in our preaching and in our teaching. Twenty years ago, people were already remarking that one never heard homilies on hell anymore; now, it is hard to discover homilies on heaven, except from some silly but well-meaning priests who canonize every body brought into the center aisle of their churches for a funeral – you know, even as the widow sits there wondering if the homilist could be talking about the man she knew!

Seriously, though, we must get back to a balanced notion of how the present fits into the future; we must strike the happy medium that loves life to the full, all the while being able to nod in agreement to the conviction of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews: "For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come" (Heb 13:14). The sacraments are the meeting place between time and eternity, between heaven and earth; hence, a one-dimensional view of things does irreparable damage to the sacramental system as God willed it for our salvation. Sacramentality without eschatology is meaningless and ineffectual sentimentality.

2. A Misreading of Sacrosanctum Concilium

Please do not think me irreverent when I say that the greatest Catholic secret is not the "third secret of Fatima". Without fear of contradiction, I believe it is the material contained in Vatican II's Sacrosanctum concilium, with the General Instruction of the Roman Missal giving it competition for the most neglected. Before anyone is allowed to declare something a desideratum of the Council, it should have to be proved that the person in question has indeed read the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy – and has read it with the same lenses as the Council Fathers who approved it. A careful reading of that text reveals that the goal was to be liturgical renewal, not a liturgical reform that has devolved into liturgical choreography, which, in turn, has led to little more than an incessant rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Some may remember Father C. J. McNaspy's book entitled Change, Not Changes. In other words, what the Council had in mind was enabling us to engage in an interior conversion, so that we could approach worship with minds and hearts renewed; only then would incidentals make any sense. Instead, especially in the United States, we have been made to think that the heart and soul of the liturgical movement was adding and deleting prayers or moving furniture and persons around the sanctuary. That idea is both superficial and wrong, and no justification for it can be found in Sacrosanctum concilium; if anything, the document condemns such a view:

"[T]here must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them, and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing" (no. 23).

3. Spiritualism/Neo-Gnosticism

Through signs and symbols, the created, visible world brings us into contact with the uncreated, invisible world. Ironically, not a few liturgists who press mightily for a deeper appreciation of sign and symbol are the gravest offenders when it comes to what I dub "neo-gnosticism". The "old" gnostics had no use for the material universe and so despised the use of sacramental signs. Their contemporary descendants do not see how important it is to take symbols seriously – which means, among other things, not tampering with them unnecessarily.

As the priest-sociologist Andrew Greeley is fond of saying, "When you're talking about a symbol, you can never modify it by the adverb just'." Nothing is "just a symbol". As a body-soul unity, man needs signs and symbols to direct and focus his being on affairs outside the normal scope or range. When people sneer at the attachment of the faithful to certain forms of worship, we are face-to-face with a cynical intellectualism run amok. St. Thomas Aquinas understood man well when he asserted that "we arrive at the invisible through the visible."

4. Exaggerated Immanentism

One of the more tragic developments in liturgy has been an anthropocentrism that has pitted itself, with a vengeance, against theocentrism, that is, an approach to liturgy that has so emphasized the horizontal as to obfuscate or even, in some instances, obliterate the vertical. Now, no one would be foolish enough to suggest that human considerations and realities should not be given due attention in the celebration of worship; after all, as Pope John Paul has put it so well, "man cannot live without adoring." So, yes, there must be concern for what "makes us tick", so that worship can be "meaningful" in the most profound way we can interpret that word. However, the focus must nonetheless be clear: It is God Whom we must adore, not ourselves. How many times we have read or heard: The liturgy is a celebration of ourselves – who we are, as persons and as a community. There is a truth there, but it is "out of sync". The imbalance reminds me of a freshman boy in high school who decides that he wants to become another Arnold Schwartzenegger: He works out day after day, with such concentration on his chest that no other part of the body is attended to. As a result, within a few months he has a 45-inch chest but spindly legs and no biceps or abdominal muscles to speak of. And our reaction? The sight is silly at best and grotesque at worst!

In much the same way, when we lose sight of the sacred and the transcendent, we distort the nature of Christian worship so fundamentally as to make it of little use, in the end, to man and an abomination to God. We desperately need to recapture reverence, awe, and mystery in our rites; without those basic components, it is no surprise that our young people inform us that they find the liturgy "boring". Believe it or not, they are not thereby saying that they want to be entertained – inviting us to bring on the clowns and the dancing girls; on the contrary, they are saying they want – and need – to be uplifted. How else to explain their fascination with various cults or even their rather improbable attraction to Gregorian chant CD's? As G. K. Chesterton put it, "The world will not starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder."

5. A Lost Sense of Sin

If we have lost our sense of the sacred, even more have we lost our sense of sin, so much so that more than two decades ago, the non-believing psychiatrist Karl Menninger could author a book entitled Whatever Became of Sin? Granted, we Catholics are not Lutherans or Calvinists or Fundamentalists, who almost delight in sin. But we must take account of sin – it has been an indispensable element of the human equation since the sin of our first parents. In fact, the ever-quotable Chesterton once quipped that the only dogma of the Catholic faith that is absolutely provable from human experience is original sin. And it is precisely because of the existence of sin and our weak human natures that God, in his goodness, gave us the sacramental system. Adam and Eve, in the state of original justice, did not need sacraments; they communicated with God face-to-face.

Therefore, any effort to diminish the sad truth about man as a sinner brings in its wake an even sadder fact of life, and that is the fact that the alienation between God and the individual then becomes much more acute and the alienation within the self that much more intolerable. Any good psychologist will tell you that denial is a most unhealthy defense mechanism. Only when we confront the bad news of human sinfulness can we latch onto the good news of salvation in and through Jesus Christ. Those who have taught primary school children to read know that, whether the teacher calls the reading groups blue birds or cardinals or sparrows, the poor readers know who they are- and euphemisms or outright disavowal of real differences only makes things worse – for the overall educational process and especially for the children themselves. Similarly, we must recall that each and every sacrament is, in some way, connected to returning man to his lost innocence. And that awareness should make us rejoice in the goodness of God and in the nearness of our salvation. Anything less is but a shadow of the fullness and brightness of the whole truth.

6. Excessive Subjectivity

In the "old days", it is probably fair to say, the sacramental principle of ex opere operato may have been overemphasized, but now that is being done with the companion principle of ex opere operantis. What do I mean? When the Church affirms that the sacraments act ex opere operato, this means that they "work" simply by virtue of the power of Christ's grace, so that with a duly ordained minister, proper form and matter, and a right intention, a sacrament is valid (CCC 1128). This reminds us – in a powerful way – that Christ is the principal celebrant of every sacrament and that his grace is sovereign. That truth should be most consoling and reassuring to us for any number of reasons, but it can lead to some unfortunate developments, such as many of us witnessed in the preconciliar liturgical experience of the Church: a desiccated formalism and minimalism that all too often asked only what was needed for validity, thus deeming everything else "icing on the cake". And so, we often found rushed, mumbled prayers, hasty gestures, irreverent attitudes, and unprepared homilies.

Nowadays, we suffer from the flipside. The teaching ex opere operantis holds that human cooperation is needed in order for the offer of divine grace to be fruitful. And that has brought about a new form of Pelagianism. Pelagius, in the fifth century, preached the sufficiency of human effort for salvation; he was mightily resisted by none other than one of the greatest Fathers of the Church, St. Augustine. The Doctor of Grace acknowledged that, to be sure, there is a human element to man's salvation, but he stressed that God's work is primary and indispensable. In much of the liturgical practice of the day, we encounter both implicit and explicit denials of the necessity of grace. In all too many of the ICEL translations, for example, the Latin word gratia is totally ignored in the English renditions. Liturgists who resort to gimmicks smacking of manipulation of both God and man are concrete indicators of this phenomenon. Switching the focus in Confirmation from God's gracious gift of himself to strengthen us in our battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil to one of a "personal choice" or an "adult decision" is a good example of what I am talking about.

Catholic truth always takes account of the adage: In medio stat virtus. Therefore, ex opere operato because Jesus said, "without me, you can do nothing" (Jn 5:5). But also and equally, ex opere operantis because, as St. Augustine put it so beautifully, "The God who created us without us will not save us without us." Our liturgical praxis must keep those two sides of the one truth in a creative and positive tension.

7. The Reduction of Language, Art, and Music to the Least Common Denominator

Thomas Day tweaked the members of the liturgical establishment with his insightful and popular book Where Have You Gone, Michelangelo? The sign of their discomfort was their near-total silence in response. So much of the external dimension of Catholic worship in the postconciliar period is impoverished, banal, and bleak. A visitor from Mars would never imagine that we are supposed to be the spiritual descendants of a Giotto or Vivaldi, a Da Vinci or Vittoria, a Boromini or Palestrina. Style and class have been banished from most Catholic sanctuaries in our land – and we are all the poorer for it. The transient, the ephemeral, the cheap have replaced the beautiful, the uplifting, the inspiring. The perfect symbol of all this is the disposable missalette, for there is little of permanence to be found therein.

When we survey the landscape of the would-be liturgical arts of the past thirty-five years, what do we behold? Truth be told, we find little, except for what was created last year or the year before. Think about it: When did you last hear "Kumbaya" or "Sons of God" (even allowing for its "sexist" title!)? Has there been any artwork that anyone will want to preserve into the next millennium, let alone look at? What do ugly vestments that resemble horse blankets do for a person's aesthetical sense? Have you ever wondered what be came of the clay and pottery vessels of the sixties, and why we should think their glass or crystal substitutes of the eighties will be any more enduring?

As we turn our gaze toward the language of worship, what could be more confusing and upsetting than English translations that are of a lower quality than most tabloids and of dubious theological worth? Only a fool would imagine that the average worshipping Catholic on any given Sunday morning is a Shakespearean scholar, but he is not an idiot, either. The genius of the Book of Common Prayer was that it used elevated language to elevate an entire nation, so that words, phrases, and thought patterns of that liturgical text became the very fiber of language of the English people from that day forward. Aside from the theological value of translating "et cum spiritu tuo" as "and with your spirit", who can deny the incredible graciousness of it as an alternative to the crude, crass, and abrupt, "and also with you"?

We are not faced only with a question of taste, so that the whole discussion can be dismissed with a wave of the hand and the adage "De gustibus non est disputandum." Far from it. Eamon Duffy has shown from history, in his Stripping of the Altars, how the liturgical terrorists of the English Reformation saw their barbarisms as a necessary element of their overall program, which was not really reform but revolution. Fore-warned is forearmed.

Please do not get me wrong. I am not arguing for a "bells and smells" attitude in regard to liturgy, so well exemplified by the Anglicans, because, in sadness, we must admit that most of them are "all dressed up with nowhere to go". But once again, there is a happy medium between foppishness and the contemporary cult of the slob. Beyond that, it is crucial to recall that Aristotle taught us that "the good, the true, and the beautiful" coinhere, that is, you cannot have one with out the other. Having lost the beautiful, should we be amazed to wake up and find that we have eventually lost the good and the true as well?

8. Celebration of Sacraments without Requisite Faith or Knowledge

Someone has observed that the contemporary problem may be summed up in the line that all too many of our people are "sacramentalized but not catechized". I would go yet a step farther and say that in many in stances they are not even evangelized. Granted, we believe that sacraments confer grace by their very operation, but Sacrosanctum concilium, which spends several paragraphs talking about this matter, makes the point that all this presupposes recipients who are "well-disposed" (SC, nos. 59-61). In addition to the obvious element of being in the state of grace, proper disposition includes faith and a basic grasp of the doctrines involved. Without those two dimensions, the Church's sacramental life would be little more than magic – a caricature of her teaching and tradition from time immemorial.

In its modern garb, this phenomenon has often taken on the form of so-called "community-building rituals", so that the spiritual significance of the sacraments has been eviscerated and replaced with nothing more than a communal, humanistic dimension. How critical, then, it is to ensure that children and adults alike are brought to an explicit faith in the mysteries we celebrate and receive strong, on-going formation in the nature of these saving rites. Experiential, affective aspects must always be grounded in objective, theological truths. In my priestly ministry, not uncommonly I look out onto a congregation of predominantly blank stares, signalling a lack of awareness of what is happening; this is especially true at weddings, baptisms, funerals, first communions, and confirmations – but increasingly so at the Sunday Eucharist – all of which suggests that faith and/or knowledge are missing. Priests and catechists must address this problem in a unified manner, inasmuch as we have already lost most of two generations and now many who once believed and knew are also losing their moorings.

9. American Pragmatism

We Americans are notorious for being satisfied with the "quick fix", which leads to a poor sense of liturgy and is revealed in minimalism. The old "get 'em in and get 'em out" mentality did not die with the last celebration of the preconciliar rites. We find it today when people ask questions like: Is incense required? If not, forget it. It is operative when pastors decide that they will use extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion "because otherwise it will take too long". It comes to the fore when we go for a vessel or vestment that is ugly and cheap because it "works" just as well as something beautiful and more expensive. We need to recapture the idea of liturgy as having no practical purpose – only to adore God and elevate man. More than two decades ago, Hugo Rahner wrote a book called Man at Play. Father Rahner used the expression in its best and most profound sense, namely, that the most important thing man can do is to "waste" time and energy before his God. In this context, it is also worth recalling that someone as devoted to holy poverty as St. Francis could say that while his friars would wear rags, the vessels and vestments associated with the altar would always be of the finest quality. Mary Magdalen teaches us a valuable lesson in her lavish behavior toward the Lord, who, it must be remembered, praised her generous abandon. I believe it is also important to appropriate the Eastern concept of liturgy as something done "outside time". In practice, that would eliminate clock-watching or the intrusion of "worldly" things; not by accident, the Liturgy of the Eucharist of the Byzantine Rite begins with a hymn in which the faithful pray for the ability to put aside "all earthly cares". This is not escapism; it is ac-knowledging that love demands one's full attention to be focused on the Beloved.

10. "Monkey" Bishops/Liturgy Offices

By this term, I refer to those in authority who are committed to hearing, seeing, and speaking no evil. In other words, they don't want to be confronted by reality and do not wish to confront it, either. Therefore, when liturgical abuses are reported, they are ignored or glossed over or, worse yet, the complainer is labeled "negative" or "legalistic". I am firmly convinced that demands for the Tridentine Mass are directly related to the inability of those in authority to control the celebration of the sacred liturgy according to the revised rites. Many indult-Mass devotees mistakenly equate the new rite with aberrations, forgetting that, without enforcement of norms, the old rite would go in exactly the same direction. After all, if a priest or other minister has no intention of following the rubrics and his superior has no intention of making him do so, were a liturgy handwritten by the Son of God himself, it would be ruined as well.

But another disturbing pattern has emerged in this regard over the past thirty years, and that is what I have dubbed "rewarding disobedience". Three examples stand out: Communion-in-the-hand, Communion from the chalice on Sundays, and altar girls. Now, regardless of what you think of any or all of these developments, one must admit that all three were strictly forbidden and only by gross disobedience were they perpetrated; but the worst part of it all was that eventually authorities caved into the pressure and "legalized" the practices. No matter how you slice the cake, this is the recipe for liturgical chaos. I am put in mind of a young priest who insisted on celebrating Mass facing east and was told by the diocesan office of worship he could not do it (even though the rubrics do presume every priest is facing east); he continued and was finally called in by the bishop and ordered to cease. He told the bishop he intended to go on as usual and that he was sure the old way of celebrating Mass was going to return imminently and he was just preparing his people for the change. He sealed his argument with the line, "You know, Bishop, the way you encouraged altar girls for ten years because you said you knew they would be permitted somewhere up the line."

Put simply, disregard for liturgical law – whether coming from the left or the right – must be dealt with if we are to have a liturgy that is sacred, closed to political influence, and conducive to the peace of the Church.

11. Pseudo-Sophistication

One of the most justified gripes against the liturgical reform is the charge of an inordinately verbal/cerebral approach to worship. We are awash in words and short on symbols – and that is not the Catholic way. The Protestant reformers shied away from signs and symbols because, whether consciously or not, they had a fear of the Incarnation. Catholic sensibilities have always been very keen on celebrating the beauty of created things and their ability to move us beyond to their Creator – and ours. The Baroque in art, architecture, and music was the Catholic response to Protestant skittishness with beauty. Nowadays, we often come up against a mindset that suggests that what can not be quantified, objectified, and analyzed is little more than magic, superstition, or peasant spirituality. Pascal was right to warn us that "the heart has reasons the mind knows not of." In good catechesis, in good liturgy, as in all fully human experiences of life, there is not, nor should there ever be, any dichotomy between the head and the heart; they are intimately, inextricably related and mutually reinforcing.

12. An Attitude of "I Know Better Than the Church"

This frame of mind is devastating. The sacred liturgy is the possession of the whole Church and not the hobbyhorse of any individual or group. When discussion is going on about proposed changes, every qualified person has the right to participate in the conversation. Once a text or ritual is decided upon by competent authority, the issue is settled and demands compliance. That does not mean that I leave my own critical facul- ties at the church door, but it does mean that I will refrain from imposing my private judgments on the rest of the Church in the liturgical setting. I certainly have the right – and even the responsibility – to continue to present the rationale for my position in appropriate forums and even to press for a change, but that does not translate into license to "do my own thing" during the Church's worship. Where legitimate options exist, I have the right to opt for my preference, and no liturgical bureaucrats can take away such an option.

The "I know better" syndrome cuts across all ideological lines. It is demonstrated by the priest, cantor, or lector who insists on tinkering with texts so as to make them "inclusive"; it is apparent in the actions of a priest who is determined to reintroduce Tridentine rubrics into the revised rite of the Mass, with the excuse that the General Instruction does not specifically forbid such additions – even though we know that rubrics always and only tell us what to do, not what not to do. Catholics are not "Lone Rangers"; that is the Protestant principle, writ large. Our paramount concern is the communal good, advancing that for the sake of unity, peace, and the safeguarding of the rights of all.

13. Antiquarianism/Trendiness

Many observers have remarked that so-called liberals and conservatives have much more in common than they would like to admit. One wit said of an arch-conservative priest-friend, "He's gone so far to the right that he's on the left." In liturgical matters, it is not uncommon to hear proponents of a particular practice imagine that they have secured their argument with the line, "And it was done that way in the Early Church." In Mediator Dei, the landmark liturgical en cyclical of Pope Pius XII, the Church was cautioned against "antiquarianism". We judge something on the basis of its value, not its age. Therefore, simply because something is old does not necessarily mean that it is good. Trendiness makes the opposite presumption, and it is equally wrong.

I must say I am amused by people who push for particular liturgical innovations on the grounds that such things are "ancient". I reply by asking, "If you favor Communion-in-the-hand for that reason, are you also ready to accept public confession of sins, confession once in a lifetime, and life-long penance? That is all ancient, too." No, our principle of discrimination must be far deeper than that. If something existed in the Early Church and was eliminated, we need to ask why it was eliminated; if conditions have changed today, so that the abuse is no longer possible and a great good can accrue to the worship of the faithful, by all means, let us talk about it. If something has never existed before, can we foresee the implications upon its introduction at the levels of theology, spirituality, psychology, and sociology? If all those areas give us green lights, again, let us discuss the matter.

To the shallow partisans of antiquarianism and trendiness alike, I echo Shakespeare: "A plague on both your houses."

Well, we have come to the end of my laundry list; I am sure that I have written things some will agree with; I suspect I have also written some things others may deplore; and undoubtedly I have left out some "pet peeves". But this has been more than a thrashing out of annoying practices or a big wish list. I have thought long and hard about matters liturgical and sacramental over the years, coming at them from a variety of perspectives in theology, sociology, pedagogy, psychology, and pastoral practice. Because truth is one, all the various disciplines should lead us to a stronger hold on it, for everything is interrelated. To the extent that we perceive the "connectedness" of the Catholic vision of truth and life, we shall experience the full meaning of the sacraments. Vagueness, fogginess, and confusion in one area, on the other hand, undermine the overall picture, depriving us of clarity and sharpness of focus.

I think it fair to say that when people outside the Church think about Catholics, invariably their thoughts turn to our constant involvement with the sacraments. And rightly so. Yet the question still imposes itself. Why this preoccupation with sacraments? Sixteen centuries ago, St. Ambrose put it succinctly and powerfully: "You have shown yourself to me face to face, O Christ; it is in your sacraments that I meet you." May that always be so for us as well – and evermore, until time becomes eternity.



Rev. Peter M.J. Stravinskas. "A Baker's Dozen of Obstacles to an Appreciation of the Sacraments." Epilogue from Understanding the Sacraments: A Guide for Prayer and Study (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), 97-118.

Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press. All rights reserved. Understanding the Sacraments ISBN 0-89870-605-x.

"A Baker's Dozen of Obstacles to an Appreciation of the Sacraments" was an address delivered on the occasion of the Peoria Diocesan Summer Institute, June 6-8, 1996, at Bradley University.


Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D. S.T.D. is the editor of The Catholic Response Magazine, publisher of Newman House Press, the executive director of the Catholic Education Foundation and founder of the Priestly Society of the Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman. He has written and edited many books, including Advent Meditations, Lenten Meditations, The Bible and the Mass, Priestly Celibacy: The Scriptural, Historical, Spiritual, and Psychological Roots, Constitutional Rights and Religious Prejudice: Catholic Education as the Battleground, The Catholic Church and the Bible, The Catholic Encyclopedia (available on CD-ROM), Catholic Dictionary, Mary and the Fundamentalist Challenge, Understanding the Sacraments: A Guide for Prayer and Study, and others.

Copyright © 1997 Ignatius Press

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