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Getting Personal with Modernity: The Sacraments as Cultural Embodiments of Mercy

The person of the future—“technopolitan man”—will be fundamentally pragmatic. He will not be concerned with the supernatural or the metaphysical, but what he can do now and practically to improve the world.

Mercy and the Person

This article presents a theology of the sacraments. However, it will not do so from the perspective of a general theory of the sacraments as is often found in theology textbooks. Rather it will propose an understanding of the sacraments as efficacious and essentially “personalizing” signs. Implicit in this proposal is an understanding that within Western culture, and in certain attempts to renew the liturgy, a depersonalization has taken place. Additionally, it must be stated that the purpose of such a proposed theology is to bring into dialogue the current rediscovery of mercy (especially in light of the pontificate of Francis and the recent Jubilee Year of Mercy) with sacramental theology.

In establishing a dialogue, this article will first discuss the secularization of the sacraments that occurred after the Second Vatican Council. Secondly, in light of the aforementioned increased focus on mercy in the Church’s pastoral ministry it will then present a theology, or more precisely a theological anthropology, of mercy as “personalizing.” In essence, this means that mercy is a person, Jesus Christ, and it is directed towards each human person as an elevating grace. Finally, it will present the manner in which the sacraments personalize our experience of time, matter, and interpersonal relationships. Thus, the present article will ultimately argue that what is required in the Church’s preaching of mercy is a properly sacramental understanding of the person and culture.

“Secular Sacraments”?

There was an effort in the 1960s and following to make the liturgy more relevant. Obviously, there was a fear that the liturgy, and in fact Christian life in general, had become irrelevant. The concern was that somehow the liturgy no longer spoke to contemporary people and what was therefore needed was a re-conceptualization of sacramental grace and the liturgy. This effort continues today in Leuven’s “Post-Modern Sacramento-theology” project that argues for a recontextualization of the Christian and sacramental narrative.[2] While this Leuven project consciously distances itself from its so-called “modern” antecedents, nevertheless, the same desire for relevance and plausibility is decidedly modern.

Some prominent thinkers in the post-conciliar period proposed the path that this re-imagining of the sacraments should take. First, was the Baptist theologian Harvey Cox (b. 1929) who wrote the enormously influential book, The Secular City. Cox posited that the person of the future—“technopolitan man”—will be fundamentally pragmatic. He or she will not be concerned with the supernatural or the metaphysical. The concern of the modern person will not be incense and ceremony, but what he can do now and practically to improve the world.[3]

The second major figure was the theologian Karl Rahner (1904-1984) who, in order to make the sacraments more meaningful to the modern person, proposed a Copernican revolution in the theology of the sacraments. Rahner argued that whereas the old model of the sacraments thematized them as divine incursions into a world devoid of grace, the new understanding presents the sacraments as effectively signifying the grace that is already present in the world.[4]

The goal here is not to vilify Rahner who, incidentally, is respected by the author as a modern “Father” of the ecclesial nature of the sacrament of Penance. The main argument however is that at this critical moment in history, by the Church attempting to present her sacraments as relevant to modernity, she unwittingly withdrew mercy from the world. This is no doubt a controversial claim, although it is based upon the nature of modernity, which has led to the depersonalizing of human existence, as we will see shortly. It also has to do, more fundamentally, with the “personalizing” essence of mercy as it will be discussed next.

Mercy Gets Personal

At this point it is important to define mercy. The classical definition is that mercy involves pity for those who are suffering. In his encyclical on God the Father, Rich in Mercy, Pope St. John Paul II taught that what was new in the Judeo-Christian revelation of mercy is its nature as pity for those who are suffering by their own fault. In antiquity, it was unheard of to have pity on one whose suffering was self-inflicted. Second, the Christian concept of mercy as pity toward those who have made themselves suffer is predicated of God. God himself shows mercy to sinners. John Paul also spoke of mercy as a form of fidelity and tenderness. It is often this “tenderness” that most associate with when we hear of mercy. But it is important to note that mercy involves a faithful tenderness and a tender fidelity. These two integral dimensions of mercy must not be placed in opposition to each other.

Furthermore, for John Paul mercy is concentrated on each person’s dignity. Mercy sees those who are suffering as persons, created in God’s image and likeness. It looks at each person as she should be and was created to be. Essentially, mercy is personal. First, mercy is a person: Jesus Christ. He is truly the mercy of the Father and reveals the Father of mercy. He is the tenderness and the fidelity of the Father who comes down to us when we sin in order to raise us up. The Blessed Virgin Mary is literally the Mother of mercy.

Second, as a personal reality mercy focuses on our dignity as persons created in the image and likeness of God. Mercy restores us as adopted children of God, just as it did in the parable of the prodigal son. In this story, the father does not see the returned prodigal as a sinner or a slave but as his contrite son. Seeing his son, restored and alive, the father puts a ring on the son’s finger, and dresses him in his robe and shoes—these are all symbols of royalty. The father sees who the son is and could be, and in his mercy, raises him up. It would seem that Pope Francis’s doctrine of mercy presupposes much of John Paul II’s theology. Pope Francis writes: “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy.”[5] In discerning a distinctive theme of Francis it appears that his specific emphasis is on the mercy that takes the form of concrete action.[6]

In its most basic essence, mercy is not only personal but is personalizing, that is, it elevates us to our true dignity as sons and daughters of the Father in and through the Son and by the gift of the Holy Spirit. To this end, the sacraments are “personalizing” signs. They are so through their effective and efficacious elevation of the Christian, making him a sharer in the life of the Son, who each Christian (in the Church) encounters in the sacraments.

Here’s the essential point: if mercy is personal—and the sacraments are personalizing—then the sacraments are essentially signs of God’s mercy. The sacraments effect, enact, and make present, the mercy of the Father. For the remainder of this article I will discuss the manner in which the sacraments uniquely and efficaciously personalize us, transforming the way we interpret and participate in time, the material world, and personal relationships.

The father does not see the returned prodigal as a sinner or a slave but as his contrite son. Seeing his son, restored and alive, the father puts a ring on the son’s finger, his robe and shoes—he sees who the son is and could be, and in his mercy, raises him up.

Personal Time

How do contemporary westerners view time today? To help understand the modern understanding of time it is essential to consider the notion of “boredom.” Interestingly, the English word boredom did not exist before the mid-eighteenth century.[7] There were other words that approximated it, such as acedia, melancholy, ennui, yet none of these are the equivalent of what is meant by the experience of being “bored.” Boredom is a modern phenomenon. In particular, it enters human experience with the Industrial Revolution that effectively mechanized the appropriation of time.

From this perspective, time then becomes empty, that is, something to be filled. Related to this is the sense of an existential restlessness and the corresponding need to escape from the drudgery of time. On the other hand, people also experience time’s unrelenting progress and the feeling of fragmentation and busy-ness through which time seems to exert a tyrannical hold over us.

In St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, however, we see that time is not empty. Time is full. St Paul writes that in the fullness of time God sent his only Son (see 4:4). God has entered time to save us. The Christian participates in this time of salvation through the liturgy and the sacraments. When we enter into sacramental and liturgical time, past, present, and future do not become mutually exclusive. That is, they are not discrete, sequential, and disconnected moments.[8] Instead, this time begins with the Cross and the sacramental invocation of the Blessed Trinity.

This time can certainly be measured—there is a beginning and an end to the liturgy. Liturgical celebrations are bound to historical events and concrete times. For example, regarding the liturgy of the Passion of the Lord, the Missal states that the celebration should take place at three o’clock, the time that the synoptic Gospels record that Christ died (Matt 27:45-50, Mark 15:34-37, and Luke 23:44-46). However, sacramental time is not bound by the clock. One day can become three days (as in the Triduum) or eight days (an Octave). Far from existing as a mechanical or empty reality, sacramental time—the encounter of human time and divine “time,” or eschatological time—becomes a mediator of salvation.

What’s the Matter?

The second issue is the modern view of matter. I would describe modernity as essentially anti-sacramental or non-sacramental, especially in its approach to matter and bodiliness. This is actually a view expressed by Joseph Ratzinger in 1965: “The contemporary understanding of the world is functionalist: it sees things merely as things, as a function of human labor and accomplishment….”[9]

For the modern person, matter has a functional value. It is dependent upon one’s will and free choice in order to manipulate it and modify it according to a particular end. So too, for the modern person, the body has no meaning or signification beyond what I want it to mean or to be.

Proposing that modernity is anti-sacramental does not simply mean that the world is opposed to the seven sacraments or does not believe in the sacraments, although that might be true. After all, the modern person wonders how pouring water over a baby’s head can become salvifically decisive for the child. Rather, in describing the modern secular mind as anti- or non-sacramental, I am arguing that from this viewpoint matter is merely physical “stuff.” It has no meaning and there no sense in which one can look at matter and see a world of meaning beyond it.

On the other hand, consider a Catholic and sacramental understanding of matter. Water is not merely one oxygen atom bonded to two different hydrogen atoms. Water can symbolize death (the flood, the crossing of the Red Sea, Christ’s descent into the waters of baptism), yet it can also symbolize washing and cleansing such as in the story of Naaman the leper (cf. 2 Kings 5). Similarly, bread has a multiplicity of significations. It can certainly be a sign of sustenance (the manna in the desert), although it can also signify escape from death (cf. Exod 12:8). Finally, bread can operate as an image of unity through which those who participate in the one bread, who are many, become one (cf. 1 Cor 10:17).[10]

The Christian believes that God created the world—the divine architect has left his imprint, his signature, on this world. Furthermore, this creation originated from a superabundance of divine love. When one loves, nothing is plain, mono-significant, or meaningless. Everything has meaning, is rich, luminous, polyvalent and transparent to the beloved. The sacraments reconfigure the way that we perceive time and matter because they change time and matter.

This reconfiguration does not just change them; it does something to us. We become changed. St. Augustine said, in his Confessions, and here he is speaking the words of Christ: “You will not change me into you, as food for your flesh; but you will be changed into me.”[11] Thus, in a sense, through the sacraments we become transubstantiated. In addition to the substantial transformation of bread and wine, our being changes as well. We become assimilated into Christ, becoming his body in the communion of the Church.

“Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy,” Misericordiae Vultus, as Pope Francis writes. Mary, his mother, is Mater Misericordiae, the “Mother of Mercy.”

Privacy, Please

The last point to be addressed is the modern understanding of personal relationships. These relationships are marked by their individuality and privacy. That is what personal means for the modern. In terms of marital and familial relationships, I would argue that this individualism and privatization of the most intimate relationships is ultimately expressive of what the encyclical Humanae vitae (1968) described as the separation of the “procreative” from the “unitive” in the marital act. This results in the alienation of spouses from one another and children from their parents. It is evidenced by the new phenomenon of the dual-master bedroom. It has been predicted that in the U.S., 60 percent of custom homes will have separate master bedrooms (“snore rooms”).[12]

What is the sacramental understanding of relationships? It is communion. We are made to live in a communion of persons, not as private individuals but as one who is always related to another, through love. One of the great recoveries in sacramental theology is the understanding that the Eucharist makes the Church, not just that the Church makes the Eucharist.[13] With this recovery of the Church as originating from the Eucharist, we see that the fundamental form of the Church is communion. The Church is a communion of persons and through her union with Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit, she shares in the Communion of the most Holy Trinity.

Sacramental relationships then have been formed according to the logic of communion—this is not communalism, for it is a communion of distinct persons—who find themselves, not in escaping from the demands of love through isolating themselves from each other, but always in a sincere gift of self to another.

Mercy in Person

At the beginning of this article the claim was made that in the effort to make the Church more like the world, to become “relevant,” the divine became merely natural and the faith and the sacraments became secularized. I also posited that modernity understands time as something to be filled with busyness, that matter is malleable and meaningless, and that relationships are reduced to an individualism.

This modern and secular approach similarly affected the way we understood the sacraments and the liturgy. It resulted in liturgical celebrations often marked by a freneticism, a focus on the “active” part of participation, and experimentations with sacramental matter. Finally, the Church became a mere sociological gathering in which the sacraments were often reduced to celebrations of this local individual community. It is for these reasons that I make the claim that efforts to present the sacraments as relevant to modernity resulted in the Church withdrawing mercy (and its personalising effects) from the world.

In other words, in the way that we viewed time, matter, and relationships, Christians had become secularized and depersonalized. What we need now more than ever is We need to continually encounter the person of Christ, mercy in the flesh, in and through the sacraments.

I have termed this encounter a “sacramental personalization” in which we become determined by Christ, the mercy of the Father. He actively shapes and transforms who we are, how we live, how we spend our time, and how we relate to others. Through a personal and sacramental encounter with him we become more fully what we have been made by baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist—persons redeemed by Christ, adopted by his Father, and sealed with the Holy Spirit within the communion of the Church.


[1] An earlier version of this article was presented at the Evangelium Summer School in Melbourne (Australia) in 2016.

[2] See Lieven Boeve, “Thinking Sacramental Presence in a Postmodern Context: A Playground for Theological Renewal,” in Lieven Boeve and Lambert Leijssen (eds) Sacramental Presence in a Postmodern Context: Fundamental Theological Perspectives (Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium, 160) (Leuven: Peeters, 2001), 3-29.

[3] Harvey Cox, The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 76. Originally published in 1965.

[4] Karl Rahner, “Considerations of the Active Role of the Person in the Sacramental Event,” in Theological Investigations: Volume XIV, trans David Bourke (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1976), 166.

[5] Francis, Misericordiae Vultus: Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, no. 1.

[6] Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, nos. 1, 3 and 6.

[7] Barbara Dalle Pezze and Carlo Salzani, “The Delicate Monster: Modernity and Boredom,” in Barbara Dalle Pezze and Carlo Salzani (eds) Essays in Boredom and Modernity (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009), 11-13.

[8] Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2011), 124.

[9] Joseph Ratzinger, “The Sacramental Foundation of Christian Existence,” in Collected Works: Theology of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 154.

[10] Ibid, 89.

[11] St. Augustine’s Confessions, VII, 10: “Nec tu me in te mutabis, sicut cibum carnis tuae; sed tu mutaberis in me” (You will not change me into you, as food for your flesh; but you will be changed into me). [italics added].

[12] Gail Rosenblum, “Suite idea: Dual master bedrooms,” Star Tribune, April 13, 2005 (http://www.startribune.com/suite-idea-dual-master-bedrooms/299360941/) (accessed April 4, 2017)

[13] Henri de Lubac, Corpus Mysticum: L’Eucharistie et l’Église au moyen âge (Paris: Aubier, 1944), trans Gemma Simmonds as Corpus Mysticum: The Eucharist and the Church in the Middle Ages (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), 88.

Dr. Owen Vyner

Dr. Owen Vyner

Dr. Owen Vyner is currently a lecturer at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, Australia. In August this year he will take up a position in the Theology department at Christendom College, Front Royal.