Sacraments After the Pandemic…Business as Usual?

Endgame, the 22nd installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, focuses on the mission of the superhero team, The Avengers, to reset time after the catastrophic elimination of half of the world’s population. (You can look up the reasons why this happened on Wikipedia). They succeed in doing so albeit with the loss of Iron Man. (Robert Downey Jr, who may have wanted to go on to other roles after so many years as Iron Man.) The film served as a conclusion, but maybe not really a conclusion, to one of many story arcs that currently comprise the Marvel Studio franchise. A bittersweet denouement, leaving the movie-goer with both satisfaction that the good-side won and a bit of regret at not knowing what follows. (There was no teaser trailer at the end of Endgame — darn it!)

In one of the scenes from the film a debate takes places about whether time should be reset or not; to go back to the way things were or remain on the course of history now lived. The post-“Snap” world (that is how half the population disappears — with the snap of a finger) is less polluted, nature balances itself, the atmosphere stabilizes, whales are seen in the lower Hudson River, etc… Amid the grief of unspeakable loss, creation is renewed. The debate ends in favor of reversing time and…success! The Avengers restore the pre-“Snap” world — sans Robert Downey Jr.

What the film fails to mention, or at least not makes clear, is whether or not anyone learned anything from this experience? The world appears merely reset to the same issues and problems it had prior to the catastrophe. So, did war, famine, pollution, poverty, inequalities, racism, failed government all make a return? Marvel movie-lovers may have got all their superheroes back (save, again, poor Iron Man), but what difference did any of this make in the long run? In the great desire to return reality to what it was, there seems lacking an assessment of what that “was” was in the first place.

And after that last infelicitous sentence, what, you may ask, has any of this to do with liturgy?

Well, as art imitates life at times, we might see ourselves at this point in the Coronavirus pandemic strangely on a parallel with the narrative arc of Endgame. Because of stay-at-homes orders the air is cleaner, the Ozone layer is repairing itself, and you can see a jellyfish or two languidly cruising along Venetian canals. Live-stream Eucharists and worship services become the norm for Christian liturgy as dioceses postpone or modify other sacramental rituals to deal with the pandemic’s restrictions.

It has been roughly ten weeks since the restrictions imposed by the Coronavirus pandemic prevented believers from active “in person” participation in the sacraments, most notably in the Eucharistic liturgy. A difficult, frustrating, anxious, and stressful time, made all the more disheartening by our inability to gather as the Body of Christ to receive the Body of Christ. And yet, the time comes, if not already here, for relaxing restrictions or removing them altogether. Religious gatherings in open air spaces become more and more permissible, and concessions to assemblies in numbers greater than 10, promising. These developments lead to questions and reflections on how we should move toward greater personal interaction, or even if we are ready for such a move. The concern is the risk of further infection and continued care for public health and the common good.

But might there be another consideration, one to which I wonder we are only beginning to give thought. In effect, making the return to celebrating our sacraments as we have always celebrated them, what have we learned from this time without regular access to them? What has this time revealed to us about the role that the Church’s sacraments play or should play in our lives as believers? Far from ever ever advocating doing away with the sacraments, a topic some drastic sources have broached due to our long (although it hasn’t really been that long) absence from them, it is time to further discern, along the cogitation of French philosopher Michel Foucault, what “doing” sacraments truly “does.” What is the efficacious impact of sacramental ritual upon our daily human lives?

The Second Vatican Council freed sacramental understanding from what J.D. Crichton named its “fossilized medieval rites,” which turned religion into “the non-worship of an inoperative Deity combined with a tedious moralism and an emphasis on duty.” This freedom retrieved an awareness that sacraments, as Kevin Irwin writes, “draw the church into an experience of Christ’s paschal mystery,” facilitated and enacted through active participation by the whole assembly of believers and the ordained who preside, employing scripture, rites, and prayer texts “describing the save act of God…occurring through them.” The reform of our sacramental rituals sought to actualize such awareness.

The question is, though, have we as a church effectively engaged such an encounter with God through the reform of our sacramental liturgies? If and when we return to regular assembly and celebration of our sacraments, will it be just “business as usual,” or could it become much more? Might this time we find ourselves in, where again and again we hear about slowing down, and learning to appreciate more the things we took for granted, also give us time for profitable reflection on “what we have done, and what we have failed to do” when it comes to sacramental encounter.

Let’s just take a one example. In many dioceses the virus has either delayed the episcopal celebration of the Sacrament of Confirmation, or has led to the delegating of the sacrament to pastors. According to Canon 1 of the Council of Trent’s Decree on the Sacraments-On Confirmation (1547): If any one says that the confirmation of those baptized is an empty ceremony and not a true and proper sacrament; or that of old it was nothing more than a sort of instruction, whereby those approaching adolescence gave an account of their faith to the Church; let him be anathema.

And yet, some parishes present Confirmation as a sacrament of Catholic adulthood or an adult acceptance of the faith. Could this time of delayed reception or reception facilitated by the immediate pastors of the faithful enable believers access to a fuller envisioning of how Confirmation acts in our lives? Could it restore Confirmation’s link especially to Baptism and Initiation?

The pandemic has carelessly tossed our sacramental experience — what was familiar, ordinary, common and comfortable — high into the air. We call upon God to restore it back to what it was. But might God be asking more from us? In our prayer and lament, are we missing, perhaps, a deeper and more profound invitation from God to an abounding embrace of our sacramental rituals. God drawing us out and into — duc in altem! — something new about what sacramental ritual calls us to be?

If we are attentive to Sacred Scripture we realize God is anything but business as usual. The transformational nature of sacramental ritual actualizes the extraordinary in the ordinary. As Crichton also wrote, “it is in the daily living of Christians that manifests the great mystery of Christ, which is the mystery of salvation. It is in this daily living that the non-believer will (or will not) find, as it were incarnated, the love God has show to humanity.” For Crichton and for Irwin, sacramental life is a dare that should not be taken lightly. 

Salvation is messy, just look at the way we can baptize, especially adults. We drench, if not immerse, our candidates in life giving water. We slather them with Chrism to seal within them the Holy Spirit! In our earnest desire to reclaim our pre-pandemic experience of the sacraments, we should not neglect what profound wonders God can reveal to us in this very messy time about what it means to be a sacramental people. This pandemic has taken us through the Paschal Mystery, which affirms again and again that life can come from death. In this time in our human history, God indeed may be asking us to rethink and reorient ourselves to what it means to give and to receive these seven fundamentally central encounters new life, so that they in turn immerse us more fully into the life of the risen Christ.

7 comments

  1. Father Sabak, congratulations on your new job as Director of Liturgy for the diocese. As I read through your post I was struck by the extremely harsh quote which said The Second Vatican Council freed sacramental understanding from what J.D. Crichton named its “fossilized medieval rites,” which turned religion into “the non-worship of an inoperative Deity combined with a tedious moralism and an emphasis on duty.”

    As the new director of liturgy shouldn’t it be your job to help guide people towards a deeper appreciation of the liturgy and the mass? I grew up in the 1970’s and have no memory of the Pre Vatican II mass. It wasn’t until I was in my forties that I attended the Extraordinary Form. Attending the Extraordinary Form occasionally has helped me appreciate the Ordinary rite and vice versa. From your post it appears that you believe the church had it all wrong until VII.

    1. Chris, it seems to me that the scope of this praytellblog is most often priests and liturgical professionals talking to each other about the liturgy- so its a kind of shop-talk. The names cited as authorities above by Fr. Sabak have to be understood as having “classroom authority”- the weight and importance of scholarship and perhaps informed opinion, and no more. The clergy and church professionals who use this blog as a forum are familiar with the names of these scholars and the context of their research, and, if they are researchers in their own right, will call to mind other scholars, other opinions, which we cannot draw upon. So we should keep in mind that there is a bigger conversation that we, as people who have not studied in this scholarship, cannot take part in. We just don’t have the context. In this article, he is like a professor speaking to other faculty. Speaking as a parishioner, I’ve heard many of Fr. Sabak’s homilies, and I can assure you that he does not use a professor’s voice when he preaches. The context, then, of his remarks is important, and it should not offer scandal.
      Fr. Sabak goes on to quote from the canons of the Council of Trent as a definitive source of the sacramental nature of confirmation, which he brings to bear on the question of how we should value and prepare for resumption of the liturgy in a post Covid-19 world. So, we go from the opinion of a scholar, to the dogmatic definition of a sacrament as his article unfolds. The two voices are not given equal weight or importance.

    2. It’s probably worth mentioning that J.D. Crichton was not only a liturgical scholar but a very pastoral parish priest. His debunking of the fossilization and clericalization of the past and his desire to bring the liturgy to a level where churchgoers could understand it and truly participate in it was founded in a profound knowledge of the Liturgical Movement and in particular the work of Romano Guardini, who was also had a high pastoral motivation. Despite being the author of a number of standard textbooks, Crichton wore his learning very lightly.

      1. I got that JD Crichton is a standard guide or authority, but can someone unpack the phrases “non-worship” and “inoperative” for me?

      2. As far as “non-worship” is concerned, Crichton was unhappy with the mindless following of rubrical prescriptions — going through the motions, if you like — and thought that calling these “worship” was a travesty of the real meaning of the word. And I think “inoperative” simply refers to the way some people put God in a glass case and “worship” an idol, rather than a person.

        In all of this I am reminded of the story of The Guru’s Cat — well-known to liturgy students at Notre Dame — where the unwanted jumping of the cat into the guru’s lap in the middle of worship is transformed over many centuries into a tradition whereby worship cannot begin until a cat has been tethered to a golden hitching-post outside the building, the point being that we have forgotten where we have come from and why we do what we do. Crichton’s mission in life was to explore, analyse, unpack and explain. When he encountered flummery and nonsense he would express himself in trenchant language.

    3. Chris – Much of what was wrong before Vatican II was a failure to implement two things Trent had called for. Frequent Communion, and frequent explanation of the the prayers and readings. Lacking these, the life had largely been squeezed out of the celebration. You now have the advantage of coming to the EF with a knowledge, through experience of the Ordinary Form, of what is being done and said. We (I am 81) only had classroom knowledge of what was happening, and that was sufficient to show us that much of the silent prayer was being gabbled so fast that it appeared to be meaningless to the celebrant. The obituary of one of the monks whose Mass I often served said “for him the Mass was the still point of a turning world” and I thought “exactly”, but the same was not evident in most of the others.

      1. Anthony, thanks for putting light on the subject based on your own experience. However, it seems like we still need to implement the recommendation to frequently explain the prayers of the Mass!

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