ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
79. The sacramentals are to undergo a revision which takes into account the primary principle of enabling the faithful to participate intelligently, actively, and easily; the circumstances of our own days must also be considered. When rituals are revised, as laid down in Art. 63, new sacramentals may also be added as the need for these becomes apparent.
Reserved blessings shall be very few; reservations shall be in favor of bishops or ordinaries.
Let provision be made that some sacramentals, at least in special circumstances and at the discretion of the ordinary, may be administered by qualified lay persons.
Sacramentals were a “big thing” in my upbringing, and a quick look at Wikipedia reminded me that Sacrosanctum Concilium, the inspiration of this blog stream, had previously treated sacramentals in paragraph 60, in these words: “Holy Mother Church has, moreover, instituted sacramentals. These are sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments: they signify effects, particularly of a spiritual kind, which are obtained through the Church's intercession. By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy.”
In the catechetics of my era, we were taught that sacramentals were things or actions that made you think or act holier. I was introduced to sacramentals probably earlier than I should have been; my parents hung a framed reproduction of what was reputed to be the face of Christ from the Shroud of Turin. That portrait is still somewhere around our homestead up north, even though radiocarbon tests put the date of the Shroud at no earlier than 1300 AD. And yet, the Shroud remains in its own way as a sacramental or reminder of the suffering of Christ, by whom our sins are forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance.
Like sacraments, sacramentals are outward signs, intended to move the heart of at least the person engaged in observing them. SC is explicit in connecting sacramentals with corresponding sacraments, instructing that “they [enable] the faithful to participate intelligently, actively, and easily.” “Participation” refers to involvement in the official worship of the Church, i.e., the sacraments. With some sacramentals, this connection is easily seen. Take the example of a home holy water font, like this Irish font with the Celtic cross. Our home in the 1950’s had several, each by a house entrance and another one upstairs near our bedrooms. Dipping one’s finger in the water and making the sign of the cross is a sensual reminder of one’s birth into Christianity at baptism as well as giving meaning to passage into the home, what Pope Paul VI described as “the domestic Church.” While it is not necessary to use water blessed in church, taking water from a living sacramental baptismal font does add to the experience.
The direct relationship of a sacramental to a sacrament does not need to be geometrically precise. Many sacramentals are devoted to the Virgin Mary and the saints, created to inspire a general sense of piety and goodness. I suppose that were he alive today, Sigmund Freud would discuss sacramentals in terms of projection, i.e., we project upon the picture or statue of a saint a belief or attribute of that individual that brings us comfort. When my father died in 2002, I noticed that he had been laid out with a shopworn plastic rosary. I remember wishing that I had had the opportunity to buy him a pricey rosary before flying up from Florida. What I learned later was that the simple, shopworn rosary was his constant companion through World War II. Here was a sacramental of multiple dimensions: honor to Mary and remembrance of his own devout Catholic faith.
Sacramentals create a reminder of who we are. Rosaries, crucifixes, pictures, candles, Advent wreaths, creches, sacred places in the home, to name several, situate us in our baptismal state. Church instructions issued later, after Sacrosanctum Concilium, provide more concrete instructions on sacramentals and church art in general. A genuine reform in the post-Council era was emphasis upon quality; part of the religious experience of sacramentals is the aesthetic impact. I have found over the years that parish catechetics never gets this right. For many, to spend church money on quality art for worship is a betrayal of the poor. However, to clutter a church—or a home, for that matter—with the cheap and the chintzy is to make a discouraging statement of value about what rests at the heart of our being. I will admit that some churches go way overboard to scratch an edifice itch in terms of budgetary priorities, but a few articles of beauty in our churches and our personal and domestic space represents the happy balance of soul.
For those of us who are married, our wedding rings are probably our most precious sacramentals. Blessed and exchanged in the heart of the sacrament by which we are bound to Christ and each other, the ring symbolizes infinity. But with each year the ring develops added layers of meaning and faith as we accumulate life experiences and grow to understand how our spouses are essential to our religious salvation. I had the misfortune of losing mine this week, probably in a public place during a mental health workshop. Every time I touched it or gazed at it, I was reminded of my married partnership and how God, through my wife, saves me. I will replace the ring, primarily because I need that sacramental reminder all the time. And in a broader sense, sacramentals of all sorts constantly remind us of who we are.
ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
77. The marriage rite now found in the Roman Ritual is to be revised and enriched in such a way that the grace of the sacrament is more clearly signified, and the duties of the spouses are taught.
"If any regions are wont to use other praiseworthy customs and ceremonies when celebrating the sacrament of matrimony, the sacred Synod earnestly desires that these by all means be retained".
Moreover, the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 52, of this Constitution is free to draw up its own rite suited to the usages of place and people, according to the provision of Art. 63. But the rite must always conform to the law that the priest assisting at the marriage must ask for and obtain the consent of the contracting parties.
Paragraph 77, like the preceding post on the rites of ordination, reflects a mood of reform while at the same time bearing a touch of caution about marriage rites and what the rites imply in the Church’s teachings and catechetics. A few years later the Council would produce one of its most remarkable and controversial documents, Gaudium et Spes, [Joy and Hope, December 7, 1965, esp. para 50] which defined the end or purpose of marriage as both procreative and unitive.
I am feeling my age today in reviewing Council teachings on Marriage, particularly Gaudium et Spes, for I have lived through two crises involving reconsideration of long-standing Catholic theological thought resulting from conciliar documents on the nature and purpose of marriage. The first occurred in the late 1960’s when Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which taught that any artificial interference in the sexual act which impeded conception was sinful. This teaching is presently incorporated in the Catechism, para. 2366. Pope Paul’s teaching met much resistance at the time, as “the pill” was coming into wide use among couples in the industrialized nations. Theologians argued that HV contradicted the intent of Gaudium et Spes, that the purpose of sexual intercourse was unitive as well as creative. My reaction at the time of HV [July 1968] was that the distinctions in the encyclical were too academic and metaphysical to be of much help to the Catholic public.
A generation or two later the discussion of marriage as love and procreation as framed by the Council would take on a new dimension as the practice and legislation of same-sex marriages became part of our cultural landscape. The Catechism of the Catholic Church was published in 1993; its discussion of homosexuality itself is unfortunate [paras. 2357-2359] for many reasons. It draws heavily from Old Testament Law, which decried homosexual acts as capital offenses worthy of death. The CCC does not sufficiently distance itself from this draconian language. It maintains the teaching of Paul VI that all sex acts must be open to the conception of new life, a moot point in same sex committed relationships. I do respect the Catechism’s candor when it concedes that “[homosexuality’s] psychological genesis remains largely unexplained.” [para. 2357] That said, Catholic moralists have a great deal of work ahead of them in developing a pastoral philosophy and language
In 1963 the Council Fathers were coping with the formularies of the sacrament of marriage then in use. If you have been a Café reader for a while, or are widely read in sacramental history, you are no doubt familiar with the nagging tensions that have plagued the Church regarding management of the sex drive in the context of procreating children. It is indeed true that St. Augustine regretted the need for libido in fulfilling the act of creating children, believing as he did that concupiscence or sexual longing was a permanent scarring of original sin.
The stereotype of the Church as a guilt-producing machine which judges all things sexual as intrinsically evil is not without merit. I am reminded of the pro football coach who referred to the NFL as the “No Fun League.” I noted St. Augustine’s philosophy above, his belief that instinctual sexual drive is an intrinsic and inevitable result of Adam and Eve’s original sin, passed on to all humans through biological inheritance. But this does not explain why all sexual sins are defined as “grave” in the morality books of the last millennium. This language is not employed in commentaries of other commandments or issues. In the present catechetical context, the umbrella of grave deeds [i.e., mortal sins which sever one’s relationship with God] covers sexual abuse of minors, marital infidelity, human trafficking, use of the pill, pornography, and masturbation. As all sexual transgressions are termed “grave,” there is no hierarchy to distinguish moral conversation.
My training in patristic theology [i.e., the writings of the Fathers—and now Mothers—of the Church] is not my strong suite, but I sense that the marriage-sexuality matrix of Church thinking predates Augustine and rests upon a deeper foundation. For example, the author of the three New Testament letters [c. 100 A.D.] attributed to St. John may have written in part to counter the heretical ideas of one Cerinthus and his followers, whose cosmology portrayed a dualistic world of good and evil. In this line of thinking, Jesus could not have possessed a human nature because the material world was evil. In fact, this heresy was called Docetism, from the Greek “to show” or to “appear;” Docetists would say that Jesus thus appeared as a man but was never incarnated or possessing a human being’s existence, the opposite of what Catholics believe to this day.
It is easy for us today to overlook the great challenge of the Doctrine of the Incarnation for early believers, as well as its impact upon human life and creative love. To hold to this doctrine, one must face the reality that the God-man Jesus is a product of human love. While his father is the Holy Spirit [Luke’s Gospel], his mother is of human stock, coming into the world as we all do. There was probably a consciousness among Christian believers that marriage and birthing were forever sanctified by God’s becoming one of us, in a family setting. From the moment of the Annunciation, there would be nothing mundane or routine about intense human love and the creation of life.
There are those in the Church today who use literal adherence to such marital teachings on contraception as the litmus test of orthodoxy to Catholicism. This is most unfortunate, for Church Tradition has much to explore in developing new catechetical explanations and pastoral practices that describe the marriage sacrament as a full interpersonal encounter with Christ, in the way that we speak of the other sacraments. Sexual union is an essential component of the full union of couples sacramentally joined. With apologies to Augustine, an element of joy in the sacramental rite of marriage needs no apology.
Paragraph 77 reflects the language of the time, particularly the term “duties” of the spouses. Unless my memory fails me, the term “duty” referred to “conjugal duty.” It goes without saying that marriage is filled with sacrifices, but the Council did not close without suggesting that sexual intimacies, far from being duties, might be the blessing that keeps a couple together in good times and bad.