“The Unintended Sabbatical” has given me an opportunity to investigate some works and meditate upon mysteries of Catholic life, not least of which are the sacraments, not least the holy Eucharist. It was just last summer that PEW released its findings that about 30% of Catholics believe in Real Presence, the shorthand term for the full presence of the living Christ in the form of bread and wine consumed at Mass. I was not surprised because I had studied the history of the Eucharist in the seminary and even today my own eyes can see that while communicants approach the altar with generally good intentions, no one’s body language portrays much sense of awe or fear at holding the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, either. While I am a weekly communicant, receiving at every Thursday noon Mass with my wife when few others are in attendance, in my meditations I am not always clear to myself which spiritual nerves are being touched by reception of the Eucharist.
Given the shock of the American Bishops at the PEW results [poor Bishop Barron was apoplectic], about three weeks into Florida lockdown I purchased a book whose subject could not have been more propitious. Brett Salkeld’s Transubstantiation  was released within a few weeks of the PEW study. In fact, just after the PEW study became public and just before the release of the book, Bishop Barron posted an in-depth interview with the author, a Catholic theologian with the Diocese of Regina, Saskatchewan. Salkeld had undertaken his book [his doctoral dissertation, actually] with an eye toward the other Christian Churches for whom the consumption of sacred bread and wine was held in as high esteem as Catholics embraced holy communion, and common points of faith and understanding between the Churches, which are more numerous than one might think. This interview link is an excellent summary of a challenging but profound book.
I will review the text in a few weeks—I have just started the author’s treatment of Calvinist eucharistic theology—but for this post I want to draw some comparisons from Catholic sacramental experience to our culture’s practices of memorializing and symbolizing, specifically the present-day controversies over matters of race.
Something that has always troubled me about the primary definition of the Eucharist as reservation and veneration of God in a local and spatial setting is this: as sacred as this might be, one can wonder how the reservation of Christian Eucharist differs from the Holy of Holies in the Temple, aside from the Christian democratization which allows access to its sacred space along with its high priest. [Luke 1: 8-11] When the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., Christianity, born from the side of Jewish tradition, might have been expected to continue the Jewish practice of maintaining a “holy of holies” site as a physical orientation to matters of faith.
Christianity did bring with it the Jewish sense of history as purpose oriented; most cultures of the era viewed time as cyclic, not linear or heading toward a definitive ending. Jesus consistently spoke of the future coming of the Son of Man and the Holy Spirit. And, like Judaism, there arose among the followers of Jesus a collection of symbolic acts based upon the acts and commands of the Savior. As the years passed along, the Church evolved in both its rites and its understandings of what was happening in those rites. In the case of the Eucharist, it is an interesting point that the first non-Christian description of a Eucharistic gathering describes the symbolic action, not the doctrine. A Roman Governor, Pliny the Younger [61-121 A.D.], wrote to his emperor seeking advice on whether to arrest professed Christians as dangerous to the state. He writes:
They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.
The history of Christian sacramental theology is quite diverse, but for our purposes here I will stick to the communications dynamic between God and his people and how our sacramental model parallels events in universal human life, for now the George Floyd “Black Lives Matter” protests and their counterparts.
In my day, the late 1960’s, seminary training began with the nature of communication and how the mind is conditioned to read its environment, including divine revelation. Words, it turns out, can be poor coinage of interaction. If you want proof of the inadequacy of words alone, yell “fire!’ in a theater in Azerbaijan. In my very first semester at Catholic University in 1969, before studying anything dealing with faith, value, or religion, I took an introductory course [required of seminarians] in semiology. Yes, I had to look up the word, too, and Merriam Webster defines semiology as “a general philosophical theory of signs and symbols that deals especially with their function in both artificially constructed and natural languages and comprises syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics.” [My paper for the course: “Do large high-priced convertibles in D.C. neighborhoods symbolize black crime, specifically pimping, to white Washington residents?” I got a B.]
As I learned, faintly, communication is about signs and symbols. Ashley Montagu, a noted anthropologist and a favorite guest of Johnny Carson in the 1970’s, has defined a sign as a "concrete denoter" possessing an inherent specific meaning, roughly analogous to the sentence ‘This is it; do something about it!’ The nineteenth century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead described symbols as “analogues or metaphors (that may include written and spoken language as well as visual objects) standing for some quality of reality that is enhanced in importance or value by the process of symbolization itself.” Put another way, words alone are inadequate communicators of deeper human realities, though they can be part of a broader symbolic communication event. We worship in visible events; we express pain in demonstrations.
The great Catholic thinkers developed such understandings of symbolic communication many centuries earlier. As early as the Christological Councils [325-451 A.D.] Catholic theology had learned to live with the inadequacy of language alone and incorporated working definitions of sign and symbols into doctrine and practice. The English creed statement “three persons” in one God is a crude translation of the Greek persona, a term for the mask in dramatic plays and/or the essence of the personality of the actor. By St. Augustine’s time [354-430 A.D.] the science of complex expression of matters of faith [theology] was turning to the Church’s worship, specifically its sacraments, and by the thirteenth century St. Thomas Aquinas had put together a multi-dimensional understanding of “how sacraments worked.” He identified  the visible sign itself, [the sacramentum tantum] which to the eye of faith, explained itself in the gesture, such as washing or feeding;  the deeper meaning of the deed [the res et sacramentum]; and  the res tantum, the ultimate reality at the completion of the rite, or what God hoped the outcome would be.
While the Latin terms sound hopelessly medieval, let us apply them to real life. Take, for example, an organized protest against police brutality sparked by the scandal of the George Floyd killing. Perhaps you live in a small town and 250 persons gather. The visible sign itself  is a collection of purposeful individuals with wholesome intentions, at least judging from demeanor and interactions with law enforcement and the banners and speeches. In modern lingo, we are describing the “optics,” the outward sign as the catechism used to say of sacraments. In my opinion this “optic” here is applicable to a standard weekend Mass as well, people gathered for generally good intention.
The res et sacramentum  is the deeper intentionality of this gathering. There is more mystery here, just as there is in Church sacraments. In the case of sacraments, we know—or should know—what God’s intentions are, though poor catechetics or inadequate orientation can obfuscate the divine purpose. Now with the public demonstration, we can see from its signs, songs, and speeches that the assembly is moved. It is possible to draw from history that this assembly is mindful of American constitutional law that permits gatherings and free speech, with an eye toward fixing a problem. In our example, there must be a measure of anger and grief since the murder of Mr. Floyd is the proximate cause of the gathering. It may be that others have experienced or seen police misconduct in the past and have come to call upon city commissioners to make appropriate policies or departmental changes. There are always historical factors in public acts, some collective and many personal. Some in this group, for example, may have lost relatives in circumstances like Mr. Floyd’s.
Even Catholic doctrine—in its interpretations—is not always in agreement on every aspect of the res et sacramentum  of a specific sacrament. A good example is the sacrament of marriage, specifically the meaning of sexual expression in marriage. The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes  caused quite a stir as the first formal Church teaching to state that the purpose of marital sex was both procreational and unitive [read: endearing]. Prior to GS, the Church had generally followed St. Augustine’s pessimistic view that the pleasure bond of marital intimacy was sinful taint justified only to continue the species. GS notwithstanding, the Church still states that every sexual act must be open to the creation of life, which is why contraception is formally banned in the Catechism.
This brings us to the res tantum  of sacramental theology, translated into English as “the only thing” or the ultimate thing. In Catholic parlance, what is it that God ultimately wishes to give us in a sacrament? As numerous authors point out, despite the clarity of manual theology, there is considerable mystery here. Ultimately, God wants to save us. Our kiddie catechisms taught that sacraments “give grace,” a simple way of translating the Greek word charis for God’s gift, God’s love, God’s charism. Life is a constant discovery of how God loves us. It is thus particularly important to remember that sacraments are provisional, i.e., that a day will come when the need for sign and symbol is over because we behold the presence of God as God is. The sacrament is not over after the final hymn, but depends upon how we are motivated to act. The traditional ending of Mass, “Ite, missa est,” is subject to multiple translations, the best one in my view is “Go, the Church is sent…” [based upon feminine pronoun use.] And consider, too, “we eat this bread and drink this cup until you come in glory.”
The critical question is whether we, as Church, take our communion with Christ into the world. As we slowly make our way back to church and out to the streets—wearing masks, hopefully—the pressing communication question is precisely how God would wish us to react to the massive civil sacrament playing out before us. According to multiple sources, including the New York Times, the London Guardian, and the Wall Street Journal, the number of persons who have participated in the George Floyd/Black Lives Matter protests collectively is the largest protest in the history of our country, estimated at between 16 and 25 million. Our little group of 250 faces the same challenges that every Catholic assembly—every Catholic, for that matter—must confront: what does this national and international movement call forth from me? And from my assembly?
The Church—its leadership and members--have sinned in its long history. History teaches that all major movements have been devalued by thuggery, opportunism, and the comforts of unexamined consciousness. No easy answers, but no place to hide, either. I am struck by the fact that we mourners of “I can’t breathe” victims worship a Savior who, on Easter Sunday night, gathered his disciples and breathed upon them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
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