The Church is in crisis. Mass attendance has dropped to historically low numbers, and even of those still attending Mass, gray-haired people far outnumber young people. The Church is facing a demographic implosion. Many Catholics lack even the basic catechetical knowledge of their faith. The catechumens entering the Church are instructed in the mystagogy of the faith, but the greater Body of Christ is also in need of a renewed catechesis. Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger, diagnosed the solution accurately. “What the Church needs in order to respond to the needs of man in every age is holiness, not management,” he states in The Ratzinger Report. Father Philip-Michael Tangorra seeks to address this need in the Church with his well-written and timely book Holiness and the Sacramental Life. Part of the problem in the Church today is that “the sense of mystery and understanding of the faith has been lost,” Father Tangorra writes. What is truly of “vital importance in the Church today” is a return to the mystery and beauty of the Catholic Church, in order “to wake up the sleeping Catholic.” If Catholics do not see mystery and beauty in the Church, he argues, they will not be drawn to it, or drawn back into it.
Seeing Is Believing
The Church must reflect this mystery and beauty. This happens first, naturally, on a sensory level, as we witness beauty in a church’s sacred art, sacred architecture, and sacred music. These should draw us to the source of all beauty, who is God. The beauty in the arts should lead us to the beauty of God. The Church should reflect the surpassing grandeur of our heavenly Father. Beauty is also reflected in the sacred mysteries of the Church, the seven sacraments, and especially in the sacred liturgy of the sacrifice of the Mass. It is in these seven mysteries of the Church that we make our spiritual pilgrimage of this life.
Father Tangorra frames his whole work around this spiritual pilgrimage, with the exitus, God’s self-revelation and communication to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, and in the reditus, humanity’s return to unity with God. This is the journey every individual must make, with varying levels of success and failure. God’s exitus towards us reached its climax with the Incarnation—the revelation of the Son of God. Our reditus is our response to the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. Our reditus is also our return to God through the sacraments of Christ mediated by his Church. It is through the mediation of the Catholic Church, the “universal sacrament of salvation,” that the faithful are especially blessed to receive the sanctifying grace of Christ. In the mysteries of the sacraments, we encounter Christ and are “purified, illumined, and perfected” by him, and through them. This is the theme throughout Father Tangorra’s book: the threefold process of purification, illumination, and perfection of the faithful through the sacramental encounter with Christ. In this spiritual pilgrimage of exitus and reditus, we assume our respective spots in the ecclesiastical choir before God.
Through the open side of Christ on the Cross, the comingling of blood and water flowed out. We must receive the sacramental water of Baptism and the sacramental blood of the Eucharist in order “to enter the kingdom, the Body of Christ.” Yet, when we deny the efficaciousness of the sacraments, the Church loses its sense of mystery. If the sacraments are merely signs and symbols, and not truly efficacious in giving sanctifying grace, why would one continue with them?
In his book, Father Tangorra notes that the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, in particular, make one ontologically different. A real difference exists between the baptized and the non-baptized, as the baptized has been incorporated into the mystical Body of Christ. In Baptism, Christ makes “all things new” (Revelation 21:5). We are anointed to share in Christ’s threefold offices as priest, prophet, and king. The sacramental character imparted in Baptism is brought to maturity and fullness in the Sacrament of Confirmation. In Baptism and Confirmation together, we become adopted sons of God, partakers in the divine nature, “living stones,” a spiritual house, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1268). How many Catholics consider this in our daily lives?
The baptized and confirmed constitute the common priesthood of the faithful. As Father Tangorra points out, this means that all of the laity have “a mediatory capacity.” The laity can and should offer intercessory prayers and sacrifices, by virtue of our sharing in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. In Baptism, one dies with Christ into the water and rises with Christ out of the water. The Christian must live out the vocation of picking up his or her Cross and following after Christ on his via dolorosa. We must die to ourselves and share in the suffering of the Cross. Yet, this suffering is not void of meaning. It is suffering that dies and falls in the ground, but also grows again to new life. As Catholics, our suffering, united with Christ, can be efficacious, intercessory, and mediatory for ourselves and for others, as part of the Communion of the Saints. We are priests offering sacrifices in our lives, for the salvation of souls and to the glory of God. As Father Tangorra states, “even the way we drive our cars should bear witness to the resurrected glory of Jesus.” In other words, offer up that road rage—and any other challenges in life—as a sacrifice and allow it to be crucified with Christ.
As part of the common priesthood of the faithful, we offer not only sacrifices, but also prayer. The Church is called to sanctify the whole day by praying without ceasing. Such prayer is an integral aspect to living a holy and sacramental life. Father Tangorra mentions various forms of devotions and sacramentals to aid in our sanctification of the day, including praying the Divine Office or the Liturgy of the Hours. In praying the Liturgy of the Hours, we seek to sanctify the day by praying seven times from morning to nighttime. “Praying without ceasing,” as St. Paul says (I Thessalonians 5:17), could also include the rosary, chaplets, novenas, and the Stations of the Cross, among other devotionals. In response to Our Lady of Fatima’s urgent request to pray the rosary every day, our daily routine should include at least five decades of the rosary. This is truly a minimum effort we should be making as part our vocations as Christians.
In Baptism, we receive the white garments of Christ’s sanctifying grace. Yet, we know as sinful, fallen people, these white garments are dirtied regularly—and often. Christ has left us the means to wash our sullied garments clean, to make them white again in sanctity and righteousness, as Isaiah says, “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (1:18). This is the blessed assurance we have in the Sacrament of Penance, or Confession. The priest, acting in persona Christi, is able to forgive us of our sins and offer absolution through his ecclesiastical mediation of the fruits of the paschal mystery. Christ’s sanctifying grace is transmitted to the Church most commonly through the sacraments. Confession enables us to maintain our friendship with God, and continue on our spiritual reditus journey back to him.
The final approach of our reditus journey comes to us at the hour of death. Christ provides forgiveness of sins and healing at this late stage with the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, or Extreme Unction. We can partake of this at any point in our lives, but it is especially important in that fateful moment before passing over to our final judgments and eternity. This moment of death is our last chance to wash the garments of our souls, to be as white and clean as possible. As with water, bread, and wine, the use of olive oil is an ordinary substance used in sacramental anointing to transmit holy and extraordinary graces.
The ordinary signs and symbols of the sacraments make present the invisible realities they signify. This is especially true in the holy Eucharist, where ordinary bread and wine become the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ. Father Tangorra, citing St. Cyril, writes that the Eucharist is the pinnacle of mystagogical instruction. Christ is spiritually present in the Word of God in scripture and in the faithful of the Church, but Christ is bodily present in the Eucharist. Our consuming of his body is not cannibalism, as some understood Jesus’ words at the time, but a partaking in his resurrected body in a sacramental way. It is through the mediation of the priesthood of Christ, Father Tangorra writes, that “divine things are made available to humanity.” He further explains, “The whole purpose of the sacred liturgy is to offer humanity, through the priesthood of Jesus Christ, entrance into the inner communion of love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
Bridegroom and Bride
But in order to have this greatest of sacraments, the vocational sacrament of Holy Orders is necessary. Through this sacrament, the priest perpetuates and promulgates the sacramental mediation of Christ to humanity. For without Holy Orders and the ministerial priesthood, there are no sacraments at all. The ministerial priesthood is able to consecrate the Eucharist and, in effect, nourish the Church. The ministerial priesthood enables the other vocational sacrament too, that of, Marriage. The Sacrament of Marriage serves as an authentic image for the love of Christ the Bridegroom for his Bride, the Church. The spousal love of husband and wife is an efficacious sign and symbol of the spousal love of Christ and the Church. As part of a symbiotic relationship, the priest through Holy Orders witnesses to marriage, and fruitful marriages are meant to nourish religious vocations—and, most importantly, a call to the priesthood.
Father Tangorra concludes his book by noting that the spiritual pilgrimage of each Catholic reaches its apex in the Mass: “The exitus-reditus movement of purification, illumination, and perfection is stamped throughout the sacred liturgy, but the Mass, above all, is that sublime act of worship that, through a union with the Paschal mystery, elevates humanity and draws it back into perfect harmony with the divine.” One cannot attain saintly holiness apart from the sacraments.
The liturgy of the Mass, Father Tangorra states, “imitates the journey of Christ’s life on earth.” The Mass reaches the sacrifice of Golgotha in the consecration of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood; but it also proclaims the reality of the Resurrection event in Communion. The one Church partakes in the one Eucharist, mediated by the one High Priest Jesus Christ. In the liturgy, all of humanity is offered up to God the Father, so “that they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11). Father Tangorra mentions that there are numerous sacred liturgical rites throughout the Church, but his book focuses considerable discussion on the Roman Liturgy, in both its ordinary and extraordinary forms. In a Church where there is, at times, some misplaced tension between those who practice the ordinary form and those who practice the extraordinary form of the Mass, it is good to hear Father Tangorra write that “neither of the two forms of the Roman liturgy are in any way deficient for our spiritual and intellectual formation as Christians.” Both the ordinary and the extraordinary forms of the Roman liturgy, he reminds us, are valid.
Father Tangorra’s book is in many ways a tour of the Catechism. It points us towards the way to look for beauty and mystery in the Church and the sacraments. Rediscovering the beauty and mystery in the sacramental life of the Church is ultimately how the Church can be revitalized. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by Me” (John 14:6). If Father Tangorra’s book does nothing else, it reminds us, at a time when we need such reminding, that the Catholic Church is the mediator of Christ’s sanctifying grace on earth, and as such, it is through the sacraments that we find the way, the truth, and the life. The sacramental life is our spiritual pilgrimage to bring us back into communion with God. Holiness and the Sacrament Life is itself a well-guided and timely journey through this ultimate pilgrimage.