by Archbishop John Vlazny/Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon
At heart we Catholics are a sacramental people. The whole liturgical life of the church revolves around the Eucharistic sacrifice and the sacraments. These sacraments have both a visible and invisible reality. The visible reality is the way in which they are administered and received. The invisible reality is God’s grace, the precious gift of God by which we share in his life and through which he shows us the way to salvation.
Sacraments are not simply holy rituals that people of faith have devised over the centuries. We do have such actions but we refer to them as sacramentals. Holy water, blessings with ashes and veneration of sacred objects fall into this category.
Sacraments are different. Again, the Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs us that “the sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the church, by which divine life is dispensed to us.” The old Baltimore Catechism definition which many of us learned in our youth was even simpler, “Sacraments are outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace.” My generation will never forget that definition. The present generation may not be acquainted with any definition. No wonder there is confusion at times.
Because of this confusion and consequent uncertainty, all-too-often there are sacramental celebrations which lack integrity. In fact, many of them are not even sacraments. But their agents pretend they are and gullible people go along. Good Catholics become frustrated with us pastors who don’t speak up and condemn such practices. Most of us aren’t very good at condemnation because we know our own failings. But clarification about important matters is very much a part of the responsibility of us pastors. I would like to offer some clarifications.
In recent years the media has informed us about the so-called “ordination of women priests.” There are those who proclaim that it’s a matter of justice that women be allowed into the priesthood. Jesus was clearly an agent for justice in his time and he did not call women to the apostolic ministry as he did the twelve apostles. Priests share in that apostolic ministry with their bishops.
Certainly a woman can pretend to be a priest. There are also many men who pretend to be priests but who are not ordained validly, let alone legitimately. But because they claim to be priests and are talented and generous, many choose to accept them as priests and participate in their alleged sacramental celebrations. This is a serious blow to the sacramental integrity which is a hallmark of our church.
In recent times marriage as we know it has been challenged to the limit. People presume that civil marriage can be whatever civil society wants it to be in this present age of secularism and relativism. But that is not how marriage has been understood over the centuries both by civil society and by the church.
This matter is all the more significant for us Catholics because in our community marriage is a sacrament, the love of husband for wife mirroring the love of Christ for his spouse, the church. Even if civil society acknowledges same-sex marriage as legitimate, this is impossible for the church. Because we also see this as harmful to family life, we speak out against such civil marriages and we certainly work to preserve the integrity of sacramental marriage.
Recently the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome had to offer a clarification about Baptism. Because of the concern some folks had about exclusive language, there were actually some church ministers who were baptizing “in the name of the Creator and of the Redeemer and of the Sanctifier.” But that is not the form for the sacrament of Baptism. Remember! What is a sacrament? A sign of grace instituted by Christ and entrusted to the church. It is not entrusted to individual Christians. It is entrusted to the whole church under the leadership of its pastors. People who take these matters into their own hands cause problems for others. Sacramental integrity requires that ministers of the sacraments follow the rituals as defined by church authority.
Even the sacrament of Reconciliation has been too often misunderstood. I heard about a Reconciliation service where participants were instructed to go and confess their sins to any adult, priest or lay person. Yes, we can all confess our sins to whomever we wish but only an ordained priest is able to confer sacramental absolution. Confessing sins to a friend or neighbor may be helpful. But it is not a sacrament, not a sign which produces the effect of forgiveness from God through the action of the church.
The Anointing of the Sick is also something which is at times non-sacramental. Because priests are not always available, some folks take it on their own initiative to anoint sick persons as a sign of their prayers for healing. This can be a gracious gesture, one that leads people to a closer union with God at a difficult time. But it is not a sacrament. It is not that sacred sign entrusted to the church through which God confers physical, emotional or spiritual healing.
The celebration of the Eucharist is our central action as a Catholic people. Over the past forty plus years many changes have been introduced into the rituals of the church. Unfortunately, because some things changed, there were people who thought all things were about to change and they themselves would decide what to change. Other Catholics who do not appreciate the Novus Ordo, the new rite proposed by Vatican II, have chosen to participate in schismatic liturgical celebrations presided over by ministers not in union with the local Catholic bishop.
From the earliest days of the church, there has been a principle which defines integral catholicity, “ubi episcopus, ibi ecclesia.” In other words, the true church of Christ is one that serves the mission of Christ in union with the local bishop. A bishop is the chief shepherd, the chief catechist and the chief liturgist in the diocese. It is his responsibility to define sacramental integrity. His teachings may be challenged, but when they are clearly in union with those of the Bishop of Rome and the other members of the college of bishops, it is more than likely that the challenger is way off base.
In this local church it is my duty from time to time to insist upon sacramental integrity where abuses may occur. Overall, I am greatly impressed with the liturgical life of this local church. But I am also aware that there are those who think they can do things better and as a result cause great harm to the integrity of our sacramental life. When all is said and done, it is important for all of us to remember what the Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs, namely, that “liturgical services are not private functions but are celebrations of the church.” Enough said. I thank God for the good Catholic people among us and those who have gone before us whose good works and holiness are attributed to the power that comes from prayer and especially from the sacraments.