Messing Around with the Sacraments?

You perhaps remember Nicola Bux, author of Benedict XVI’s Reform: The Liturgy Between Innovation and Tradition. Msgr. Bux had been a consultant of the Office of Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff under Benedict XVI but was among those removed by Pope Francis early in his papacy. He has just come out with a new book, Con i Sacramenti non si Scherza (roughly, “You Don’t Mess Around with Sacraments”), and there was a presentation of it in Rome last night at which Cardinals Burke and Sarah were among the speakers. Salutations were sent by Cardinals Müller, Erdo, and Piacenza, and also from papal MC Guido Marini and Vittorio Messori of The Ratzinger Report fame, who wrote the new book’s introduction.

I gather this was not exactly an agape feast celebrating the “Spirit of Vatican II.”

This from Cardinal Sarah:

As Pope Benedict XVI repeatedly pointed out, in the decades since the Council we have witnessed deformations of the liturgy which are hard to bear, in a never-ending crescendo.

And this:

Not messing with the sacraments means above all emphasizing the sacrament of sacraments, the Blessed Sacrament, now inexplicably downgraded because of an imaginary conflict of signs, just as happened with the cross. But the tabernacle provides guidance ad Dominum, so necessary at this time when many would like to live as if God did not exist, and do whatever they want.”

In the church today there is “too much man and not enough God,” according to Sarah.

Cardinal Sarah has suggested to Pope Francis that he forbid the taking of photographs during the liturgy.

Cardinal Burke had his own bit of gaudium and spes to add to the occasion: there has been a “deformation of the sacraments in the name of creativity” since the Council. It appears that sacraments have become “private property” in some communities. But “Christ is the protagonist, not the priest.”

The cardinals are not entirely wrong, in my view. Sure, lots of things have gone wrong with the liturgy since the Council – lots of silliness, tackiness, misunderstanding, failed experiments, and all the rest. Might as well admit that.

But overall, the cardinals’ diagnosis of the situation misses the mark. Their proposals are unhelpful and could even end up doing more harm than good.

I think there’s an attitude problem here. Such unrelenting negativity does not help build up the church.

I suppose there are many people who “would like to live as if God did not exist” today – atheists, non-churchgoers, and so forth. But dear Cardinal Sarah, unlike you, I wouldn’t include my fellow Catholics doing liturgical ministry in that group!

Let’s talk about creativity. It often feels to me like Cardinal Burke, and people like him, are fighting yesterday’s battles. So much of the misplaced creativity since Vatican II, which probably peaked sometime back in the 70s or so, has long since calmed down. If one were to trek around and sit in on lots of parish liturgies, I suspect one would find more of the opposite problem, especially among younger clergy: a rigid and off-putting ritualism, a formality that feels contrived – which is deadly to the true liturgical spirit, and a legalism that gets lost in minutiae and sometimes excludes and hurts people. Rather than focusing on yesterday’s problems, it would be more forward-looking to deal constructively with today’s. Let’s talk about ascendant tendencies now that merit critique and need some gentle redirection.

Burke is on to something when he says that the priest is not the protagonist, Christ is. But I observe that there are two ways for the presiding priest to draw attention to himself: by being a game show host, and by conspicuously imposing his Tridentine piety on the community’s liturgy.

Furthermore, instead of just railing at silly creativity (and I’m capable of that too – my personal liturgical tastes can tend toward the elitist and elegant), why don’t we talk about why it went off the rails at times? A little understanding and empathy would be helpful. Let’s admit that the old liturgy before the Council wasn’t working, that the energies demanding reform were snowballing in the 50s, that the frustration was at a boiling point. With strong feelings like that, and with such a huge paradigm shift (from clericalized sacred drama to community celebration) called for by the Council, the implementation was bound to be messy. In the worst of the mess, as I look back on it and hear about it from people who were there when I wasn’t, I see misunderstandings and mistakes, but I don’t see malice or lack of faith or conspiracy with evil. I see good intentions, lots of hard work, and admirable courage.

But as I say, so much of this is yesterday’s problem. Let’s just give it all to God and move beyond it. Today’s problem, seen in so many who want to fix Catholic liturgy, is a skepticism toward the Vatican II, an attack on Pope Paul VI, and in many cases (all over the web, for example), a rejection of the Church’s liturgy as reformed by Paul VI. Mixed with plenty of questionable and uninformed theology.

And in those parishes mentioned earlier that one might trek around to visit nowadays, I suspect that in many cases one would find neither silly creativity that has everyone in a froth nor contrived ritualism aping the Tridentine liturgy, but a disheartening boredom and lack of engagement on the part of the people. The collects of the new Missal (OK, I’m hitting where it’s most vulnerable) are working just fine – because no one is paying any attention to them. Could we talk about that?? When my undergrad theology students do their required attendance at and report on Catholic liturgy, many of them find a “going through the motions” that seems to them insincere and unappealing. We just haven’t learned yet how to internalize the reformed liturgy and make it our own. We just haven’t yet developed a real liturgical spirituality among our people, an attitude that relishes and lives from every sight and sound of the reformed liturgy.

Here’s my radical proposal for fixing the liturgy: let’s all start by uniting around the pope and our bishops, uniting around the Second Vatican Council, uniting around all the official documents of liturgical reform (they explain quite well why the whole things was done), uniting around the Church’s liturgy as reformed by Pope Paul VI.

Let’s avoid the lure of magical solutions that are supposed to make it better by undoing the reform and going backward. I can see why that might be alluring for some, but it’s no solution. It just introduces more division in the Church. It just causes more confusion among the faithful. (My mother’s parish is about to get a new pastor, a young guy who has been doing the Tridentine Mass for the tiny group that comes out for it. I’m told he’s a nice guy. I sure hope he doesn’t confuse people like my mother and stir up things unhelpfully in the parish!)

Under our leaders, let’s all move together toward the center. Then, with respect for our people, just where they’re at right now, and with respect for all those hard-working liturgists and musicians who are doing their very best, let’s all work on developing a liturgical spirituality based on the reformed liturgy. Let’s keep on slogging on with the slow, incremental work of drawing people into the liturgy – through catechesis, education, better celebration, and all the rest. All that is hard work, it’s slow work, and it won’t yield immediate results. But it’s a better solution than these grand schemes to “reform the reform” or to redo the past 50 years in a “hermeneutic of continuity” of our own making which is not based on the foundational documents issued under Paul VI.

Part of that work will involve getting over this suspicion toward the big bad liberal “liturgical-industrial establishment” and learning from the very best theologians and liturgists who get (or got – many of them have gone to their reward) the liturgy of Paul VI. They will help us develop the liturgical spirituality I’m talking about.

Here’s some key theological information: the tabernacle is not the center of things, Cardinal Sarah. It is not the orientation point to God. The altar is, along with the baptismal font and the ambo. With all due respect to the Blessed Sacrament (I believe in the Real Presence! I genuflect to the tabernacle!), there is a reason why most genuflections during the liturgy have been eliminated. There is a reason why tabernacles have been removed from the center. (They weren’t in the center of our churches for about 1,500 years, could we all please reflect a bit on that?) Emphasizing the reserved Sacrament during the celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass is just wrong. It’s not the way to respond to the lack of reverence or awareness of God. Go, rather, for the central things.

And please: “more God, less man” is not the best theology. Karl Rahner had it right when he said that humans don’t need to become less for God to become more. This is a false opposition – at least for Catholics who believe that the human person is capax Dei.

And while we’re talking about false oppositions, let’s take up a misunderstanding Cardinal Burke has been putting about: the liturgy does not become less of a sacrifice when it becomes a true communal meal, it becomes more of a sacrifice. The sacrificial dimension has not been underplayed in the reformed liturgy, it has been renewed and deepened.

But eliminating taking photographs during the liturgy? I agree with Cardinal Sarah on that one.


This report also draws on the story at,Kardinäle beklagen Banalisierung der Sakramente” (“Cardinals Lament the Banalization of the Sacraments”).