Apr 15, 2008

Liturgy, Laity, and the Sacramental Sense

Online Edition:

April 2008

Vol. XIV, No. 2

Liturgy, Laity, and the Sacramental Sense

by Russell Shaw

Russell Shaw presented this address at the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars convention on liturgy, held in Kansas City, Missouri on September 24, 2006. It is published here with the author’s kind permission.


A friend of mine tells this story. Not long ago he took some parents and students from the public high school where he teaches on a trip to Italy. There were twelve or fifteen of them, and they shared the tour bus with others. The trip was a success. Everyone had a dandy time visiting some of the most beautiful places in a beautiful country.

But after a while my friend realized that something funny was going on.

Whenever they pulled into a town square and parked in front of the local cathedral, everyone piled off the bus and immediately started shooting photos of the church. “They began taking pictures before they even looked at it”, my friend said. “What mattered was shooting those photos. They could see the cathedral later, if there was time”.

My friend thought that was odd. But I couldn’t help thinking this behavior isn’t so different from what happens at a Sunday liturgy today. The two things may even be related. The emphasis at such a liturgy is on doing things, keeping busy, allowing little opportunity for reflective quiet. Seeing things — not just with the physical eyes, but with the eyes of the spirit — gets short shrift. In liturgical celebrations like this, the ideal of full, conscious, active participation that the Second Vatican Council spoke of has been externalized. This is liturgy for people more interested in taking pictures of the cathedral than seeing it.

Some time back I came across a remark by a Church official that inadvertently suggests where this thinking comes from:

Participation in the liturgy is a common means of spiritual formation. Though weekly Mass attendance has declined in the past two decades, laity are participating in worship more extensively and in greater depth through the ministerial roles of reading, singing, distributing communion, assisting at the altar, providing hospitality, and so on.1

I take this to be a typical statement of a viewpoint that is common today. There are several things to be said about it.

First, the casual dismissal of the decline in Sunday Mass attendance by American Catholics, from two out of three forty years ago to one out of three today, is happy talk.

Second, to equate doing things — reading, singing, distributing communion, “providing hospitality”, and so on — with full, conscious, and active participation, is seriously confused.

Third, there is absolutely no evidence that this approach involves liturgical participation any deeper and more prayerful than the participation of the largely silent congregations several decades ago. Claims to the contrary are statements of ideology, not empirically verified fact.

Fourth, even if one is willing to grant, for the sake of the argument, that lay people who do these things at Mass are more deeply engaged in liturgical worship than people were fifty years ago, the number of those who do them is extremely small, compared with the vastly larger number who do not.

And fifth and finally, what a comment like this mainly expresses is the mindless enthusiasm for lay ministries so common in official circles today. A rational, well-considered concern for full, conscious, and active participation by the laity wouldn’t concentrate on the ministries of a few but on the baptismal priesthood, the non-ordained priesthood of the faithful, in which all Christifideles participate. As the Catechism says: “Through Baptism and Confirmation the priestly people is enabled to celebrate the liturgy”.2 How often these days do you hear homilies saying that instead of urging lay people to give Father Bob and Deacon Tom a hand by distributing Communion?

But the fundamental problem — the problem of seeing the liturgical celebration with the eyes of the spirit — goes much deeper, operates on a very different plane. A lot more is involved than questions of liturgical translations and the structuring of liturgical rights. This is the problem of the loss of the sacramental sense in Western culture, and it’s that above all which makes full, conscious, and active participation so difficult. Our immanent, externalized liturgical celebrations merely reinforce this underlying problem.

In modern times, we see a pervasive loss of the sacramental sense and a concurrent hollowing-out of our understanding of what “sacrament” signifies, leaving behind only the shell of symbol. The difference between sacrament and symbol is crucially important. A symbol points to another reality extrinsic to itself; whereas, in the case of a sacrament, the other reality is embodied within the sacramental sign and intrinsic to what the sacrament is and does.

Conventional symbols have a kind of radical arbitrariness: they are subject to being changed. When circumstances dictate setting aside one symbol for something, there is no difficulty about adopting another, as advertisers adopt new logos for products depending on which of their aspects they wish to highlight and which audience they mean to attract.

It’s very different with a sacrament. The sacramental sign and the reality it signifies are inseparably joined. Funda-mentally alter a sacramental sign, and the reality it signified is no longer there. For example: substitute something else for bread and wine, and you no longer have the Body and Blood of Christ. And, as that suggests, the reality embodied by sacraments is itself unique. Pope John Paul II said:

What else are the sacraments … if not the action of Christ in the Holy Spirit? When the Church baptizes, it is Christ who baptizes; when the Church absolves, it is Christ who absolves; when the Church celebrates the Eucharist, it is Christ who celebrates it…. All the sacraments are an action of Christ, the action of God in Christ.3

Where people suppose that sacramental liturgy is only a symbolic act to which those who perform it assign its meaning, the devising of liturgical settings naturally emphasizes values like novelty, ingenuity, relevance, experiment, excitement. Practically speaking, as Cardinal Ratzinger — now, Pope Benedict XVI — has pointed out,4 they aim to entertain. But the more entertaining the celebrations become, the more support they’ll lend to the belief that what is going on is symbolic, nothing more. By contrast, where it’s supposed that the central action is a sacramental act which is primarily Jesus’ act rather than ours, the approach will be fundamentally conservative. It will stress values like dignity, gravity, decorum, reverence, devotion, piety, awe. The test of good liturgy will be a test of faith: whether the worshiping community grows through holiness by full, conscious, active participation in the action of Christ.
How did the loss of the sacramental sense happen? There are various accounts. It is suggested, for instance, that the problem began with the fading, somewhere between the Patristic era and the Middle Ages, of a sense of symbolic realism, according to which symbols participate in the reality of what is signified and make it concretely present.5

At least three important sources of the problem stand out in modern times.

One is the Reformation and the emergence of the Protestant view of sacrament. Luther believed in the Real Presence, at least in the context of the Eucharistic celebration itself, but his general leaning against sacramentalism is well known. Calvin believed in a “virtual” presence, but over time it was not his view that prevailed among Calvinists but Zwingli’s: namely, the view that the Lord’s Supper was a purely symbolic rite.

Father Benedict Ashley sums up the implications of the de-sacramentalizing trajectory in Protestantism like this: “For many Protestant theologians this de-sacramentalization of Christian life did, and perhaps still does, seem [to] progress toward a more spiritual understanding of the gospel. External rites were replaced by interior experience. But as Luther himself pointed out to those who tried to dissuade him from his belief in the Real Presence, this kind of excessive spiritualism undermines the fundamental Christian belief in the Incarnation”.6

The second stream in this development is the body-soul dualism identified with Descartes: Cogito ergo sum. Spinoza revised and refined that into ego sum cogitans — I, in being conscious, am existent. And so we have a radically dualistic account of the human person, which takes it for granted that the fundamental reality of such a being is mind or spirit; that the body is not very important — indeed, is hardly relevant — in defining the reality of this person; that the external, material world in which bodies live and act has only a kind of attenuated reality and inferior value; and that both things, world and body, can be manipulated to the extent one is able to manipulate them and cares to do that. There is not much room here for incarnationalism and a sacramental sense.

Finally, the critic George Steiner, in his book Real Presences, speaks of what he calls the dissolving of the “contract” with language and other media that occurred in literature and the arts between the late nineteenth century and the middle years of the twentieth century. Before then, Steiner says, there was in literature and art, and in those who practiced them and enjoyed them, “a central supposition of ‘real presence’”: artists and audiences took it for granted that these were signs pointing to a realm of ontological reality beyond themselves.7

Steiner attributes the “ontologically crucial first step” away from this central supposition to Stephane Mallarme. The crucial move by this prominent French poet of the Victorian age was the conscious repudiation of the idea that language refers to a reality beyond itself. Mallarme was the precursor of a school of poets who held that what really matters about poetry is sound, not sense. At their most extreme, some of these writers strung together nonsense syllables and called them verse.

So, in Steiner’s account, we pass rapidly through Nietzsche and Freud, and arrive at deconstructionism, whose lesson is that “where there is no ‘face of God’ for the semantic marker to turn to, there can be no transcendent or decidable intelligibility. The break with the postulate of the sacred is the break with any stable, potentially ascertainable meaning of meanings”.8 Which, whatever else it signifies, certainly signifies a state of mind according to which any meaning there may be in our sacred gestures — our prayers, our liturgies, our sacramental acts — is meaning we place there, not meaning that is simply present as a given. It is pointless to look to prayer, liturgy, and sacraments for the threshold to a realm of transcendence with which they put us in touch.

Ordinary people are not deconstructionists, but avant garde theologians and catechetical and liturgical theorists often more or less are. Through them this kind of thinking has a trickle-down effect on the liturgy. And in this way, too, ordinary people are cut off from crucially important dimensions of sacramental faith.

Where shall we find solutions to our present difficulties? If these difficulties have causes as deep-rooted as I suggest, that is not easy to say. But as a preliminary attempt at suggesting an answer, here’s a story about a songbird and a cellphone.

As I was attending Mass one morning some months ago, a bird outside the window of the church burst into ecstatic song just at the moment the priest elevated the Host. It was an epiphany that moved me to murmur: “My God, how beautiful that is!” Here was a small intimation of transcendence, an intuition of sacramentality, of the sort that, experienced more intensely and on a larger scale, led the psalmist to sing: “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 18.1). Or William Blake to write:

To see a World in a grain of sand,
And Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.

Auguries of Innocence

A few weeks later, at Mass in the same church, something very different happened. With diabolically precise timing, somebody’s cellphone went off just at the Consecration. My reaction also was different. “[Expletive deleted]”, I said to myself.

But later, as I thought about these two incidents, I started to see them in a different light. After all, I asked myself, why shouldn’t one find sacramentality and transcendence in the cellphone as much as in the songbird? The cellphone is a striking illustration of human communication, and human communication is an image of the divine communication that has its fullest expression in God’s self-revelation in and through the Word made flesh. In the cellphone, too, we see extraordinary application of human genius that, as Pope John Paul pointed out, is best understood as a form of co-creation with God.9 The pope calls the idea of co-creation a central element in a spirituality of work; and we might add that it also is a central element in recapturing the sense of sacramentality whose loss is at the root of our liturgical woes.

Now, admittedly it’s a stretch to imagine someone distracted by a cellphone during Mass adverting to a papal encyclical in order to be recollected and regain the sacramental sense. Still, the ideas in play here do point to something important. To put it simply: the world can be seen in a sacramental light even now.

Here are well-known lines from another poem:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

God’s Grandeur

This of course is the opening of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sonnet “God’s Grandeur”, which was written in 1877. It is a magnificent poem, and for our purposes it’s interesting in a particular way. The first line — “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” — announces the sense of natural sacramentality that the psalmist and William Blake also expressed. But there is genuine novelty about what follows: for Hopkins affirms that the divine grandeur flashes out “like shining from shook foil;/It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil/Crushed”.

Here is something new. Writing in the same years as Mallarme, whom George Steiner links to the collapse of transcendence in modern literature and art — Hopkins finds the raw material of sacramentality precisely in the detritus of industrial civilization itself. In this vision, “shining from shook foil” and “the ooze of oil crushed” declare the glory of God.

So, it can be done. The sense of sacramentality remains a possibility. But the question that the example unavoidably raises is this: Must one have the same sensibility as Gerard Manley Hopkins in order to have this sacramental sense? If so, most of us are out of luck. And so, too, is any realistic possibility of full, conscious, and active participation in the liturgy, since it absolutely requires the sacramental sense.

In a way, the answer to the question — must we all see with Hopkins’s eyes? — is yes. We do need a sensibility like that. But not, thank God, to the same degree or with the same fineness of refinement. We simply need to do the best we can to acquire the habit of contemplation and the way of viewing reality that comes with it. Few of us will be contemplatives of a high order; but if we persevere, by the grace of God we are entitled to have at least modest hopes.

Of course our hope should be realistic. Monsignor Robert Sokolowski calls attention to a certain intrinsic limit arising from the fundamental Christian distinction between God and the world: “The world and the sacred have a Christian tone for us because of the Christian distinction in whose light we experience them, and the tone can become more pronounced for those who live the Christian life with greater dedication and love. But such experiencing insists precisely on a unique absence, on a term that must prompt faith and hope but not direct vision”.10

This is the voice of philosophy, and in its frame of reference it is correct. But operating within the Christian tradition, we also are entitled to appeal to the voice of contemplation and Christian mysticism.

Philosophy tells us what we can manage on our own. The sense of transcendence in this case is an interpretation of some natural reality — a glorious sunrise, a mighty mountain range. Contemplation also is something like that. But contemplation and mysticism also offer access to a real presence of another sort — a direct apprehension of the presence of the divine which takes place on the initiative of God. At its highest reaches, this experience is shared by very few — a Teresa of Avila, a John of the Cross. But to judge by anecdotal evidence and personal testimony, in its less dramatic forms such direct experience of the presence of God is by no means so very rare.

What does all this have to do with the liturgy? I think it might be put as follows.

The problem of the liturgy today is that for forty years we’ve been trying to do something that was certain to fail. We tried to have full, conscious, active participation without cultivating the sacramental sense. Our immanent liturgies today are in fact obstacles to doing that. It’s like shooting pictures of the cathedral without stopping to see it. Now, if we wish to recapture the art of seeing, we must seek the help not only of philosophers and theologians and liturgists, but especially of poets and saints.

Saint John of the Cross speaks of a “renovation” of the spirit, which he describes as a direct divine illumination of the human intellect and will, such that the soul becomes “a soul of heaven, heavenly and more divine than human”.11 But this probably is well beyond realistic expectations for most of us. Something more modest and more within our grasp is suggested by the full eight lines of a poem by Emily Dickinson that in its quiet, understated way exemplifies the kind of sacramental seeing I am talking about.

The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth, —

The sweeping up the heart,
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
Until eternity.

—The Bustle in a House



1 H. Richard McCord, Jr., “Full, Conscious, and Active Participation: The Laity’s Quest”, in Anthony J. Cernera, ed., Vatican II: The Continuing Agenda. Fairfield, CT: Sacred Heart University Press, 1997, 160. Mr. McCord is executive director of the laity office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

2 Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1119 — Forming “as it were, one mystical person” with Christ the head, the Church acts in the sacraments as “an organically structured priestly community.” Through Baptism and Confirmation the priestly people is enabled to celebrate the liturgy, while those of the faithful “who have received Holy Orders, are appointed to nourish the Church with the word and grace of God in the name of Christ.”

3 Pope John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994, 130.

4 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger with Vittorio Messori, The Ratzinger Report. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985, 126.

5 See Robert Sokolowski, Eucharistic Presence: A Study in the Theology of Disclosure. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1994, 198-199.

6 Benedict Ashley, OP, Theologies of the Body: Humanist and Christian. Braintree, MA: The Pope John XXIII Medical-Moral Research and Education Center, 1985, 175.

7 George Steiner, Real Presences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989, 96.

8 Ibid., 132.

9 Laborem Exercens, n. 25, 1981.

10 The God of Faith and Reason. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995, 142.

11 “The Dark Night”, in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross. Washington: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1979, 361.


Russell Shaw, who lives in Washington, DC, is the author of seventeen books, contributing editor of Our Sunday Visitor, member of the communications faculty of the University of the Holy Cross, Rome, former information director of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference and Knights of Columbus, father of five and grandfather of nine.



Russell Shaw