ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
7. To accomplish so great a work, Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, "the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross" , but especially under the Eucharistic species. By His power He is present in the sacraments, so that when a man baptizes it is really Christ Himself who baptizes . He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. He is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matt. 18:20) .
Paragraph 7 speaks of the ways that Christ is present in the sacraments how he is encountered by the faithful in the rites. Of primary importance is the belief that Christ is always present in his Church. The phrase “especially in her liturgical celebrations” is an important qualification, avoiding suggestion that Christ’s presence is found only in sacramental rites. Vatican II devoted considerable discussion to God’s relationship with the unbaptized in other documents. For our purposes here, the Council wisely speaks of sacraments as the optimum encounters with Christ, which is why the Church constantly encourages mission and evangelization.
The first sentence does raise an issue of frequent misunderstanding in parochial and catechetical settings, namely the definition of “Church” itself. It is habitual to assume that the Catholic Church in full unity in Rome is the intended subject. However, in view of all the Council documents, the term “church” cannot automatically exclude all communities and individuals who are baptized in the name of the Trinity and profess faith in the Creed, which would cover the Protestant churches, at the very least. Catholic Canon Law reinforces this broader understanding in many ways, one example being that Catholic law forbids the baptism of a Protestant who is entering full communion with the Catholic Church, thus recognizing the saving legitimacy of Protestant baptism.
The question that logically follows is whether Protestants celebrate valid sacraments. In the question of Baptism, it would certainly seem so, as Catholics and Protestants understand a common purpose. Beyond Baptism, our understandings of sacramental experience do digress—there is significant disagreement on the very definition of sacrament in many cases—so it would be inappropriate to suggest a commonality of sacramental experiences. That said, para. 7 proceeds past explicit definition of sacraments to speak of other moments when Christ is present: in the reading of the Scriptures, and in common singing and praying. To suggest, then, that Protestants do not meet Christ meaningfully in private prayer and common worship is a position Vatican II could not and would not ever endorse.
The document’s second sentence talks of Christ’s presence in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, using language from the 1563 Council of Trent. Trent was the Catholic reform council, called to address Lutheran and Calvinist deviations from Catholic teaching. On the matter of sacraments, Catholic teaching was and remains ex opere operato, “by the work of the work.” What this means is that Catholic sacraments, celebrated per Church law, are effective (i.e., sins are forgiven, the bread and wine changed, etc.] The character and disposition of the priest offering the Mass had no bearing on the effect of the sacrament, at least in principle.
Martin Luther and his successors took issue with this Church teaching. Protestant theologians were more at home with a conflicting principle, ex opere operantis, “By the work of the one doing the work.” Essentially, by this principle the priest or minister’s spiritual disposition counts a great deal in the religious experience of the ministers of worship. It is helpful to remember that Luther’s theology of worship included only two sacraments, Baptism and Sunday worship. (The other five he believed were inventions of the Roman Church with no Biblical basis.] If you permit me to paint with a wide brush, the critical post-baptism encounter with Christ is the Sunday sermon, and Luther was logically consistent that a bad priest/minister probably would not preach an effective sermon fired with faith and worship rhetoric.
The second sentence is admittedly unclear. Prior to the Council it was very common to speak of a priest as an alter Christus or “other Christ.” At the moment of consecration, the priest became Christ and thus possessed the sacramental power to transform the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Vatican II reaffirms the spirit of this teaching in the context of explaining Christ’s presence through the sacraments. Para. 7 goes on to use the example of the sacrament of baptism in the same way. In the continuing discussion over the possibility of women priests over the years, one of the Church’s arguments against the idea has been the symbolism of the male priest assuming the alter Christus role, and whether the priest’s masculinity is indeed part of the sacramental sign. [We will have a more detailed discussion of this matter down the road.]
Para. 7 comes to its completion with a description of what we might call para-liturgical or para-sacramental practices familiar to all of you. While the language of the text seems to imply that the subject here is happenings within the church building—reading of the Word, singing and common prayer, etc.—I believe the use of the word Church should be taken in its universal sense, inclusive of all the baptized wherever they may be, alone and in group. The citation of Matthew 18:20 puts no restraints upon the presence of the Lord in terms of who is praying, where they are praying, or how many are praying. A family at prayer, a religious community reciting or singing the Liturgy of the Hours, a Christian studying the Sacred Scriptures in his or her own home—Jesus is present in every example, to the benefit of the pray-ers.
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