What part of “Word and Sacrament” don’t we understand?

In the discussion on the “strategies” for the priest shortage and future of Catholicism in Australia, I was just wondering today whether there wasn’t something more fundamental going on than just how we are going about our mission here in Australia.

As usual, if I have some question going in my head, anything I read will make me ask “Is that pertinent to my inquiry?” So today, I was reading (in preparation for my class in 3/4 of an hour) a section on the Reformed Churches in the book “The Christian Church: An Introduction to the Major Traditions” edited by Paul Avis.

The writer of this chapter, David Fergusson (a Scot, maybe?) commented on Calvin’s (and by implication, Luther’s) ecclesiology:

The sovereignty of God is such that persons outwith the institutional church may nonetheless be redeemed, although God for the most part has chosen to mediate the divien decree by the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. …Calvin argues that salvation comes only through the Christ who is present in Word and sacrament… The emphatic insistence that ‘there is no other way’ illustrates the necessity and importance of the church in Calvin’s theology. Yet the dependence of the church upon the Word of God is revealed by the way in which Calvin exalts the preaching of true doctrine… The visible church, though everywhere mixed and impure, is identified by the preaching and hearing of the Word ad the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution…

…In stressing this christological constitution of teh Church, Calvin argues for the indivisibility of Word and Spirit. Christ is known to us through the Word of God, and it is to this Word that he directs us. This linkage of the second and third articles is crucial in his polemics against both anabaptist and Roman Catholic opponents. He charges each side with abstracting the Spirit from the Word…

Calvin’s strict warnings against unnecessary separation [of congregations from one another because of doctrine] may have been designed to counteract the centrifugal tendencies of the Reformation churches. Its fragmentation and repeated subdivisions were weaknesses by contrast with the more unitary nature of the Roman Catholic Church.

Now, my reason for quoting those sentences is that the Catholic Church also sees the essence of the Church’s existence to be the Word and Sacraments, but places the emphasis directly opposite to the Calvinist. The Calvinist exalts the Word of God as constitutive of the Church, with sacraments as a kind of “add-on”, whereas the Catholic Church (and the Orthodox Churches) see the Eucharist as foundational (“source and summit”) for the life of the Church (and hence the other sacraments as well). As the author notes, by the very nature of the two different emphases, the one tends toward heirarchical unity and the other toward congregational fragmentation.

Be that as it may, I wonder if one of the fundamental reasons for the current situation in the life of the Australian Catholic community is that we have emphasised our Sacramental unity and belonging at the expense of a deep communion in the Word of God? The current Holy Father has certainly done all he can to indicate that he believes it is necessary for the good of the universal Church that we find new ways into a living relationship with the Word. I wonder if in fact a renewed emphasis on the Word as the “fount and source” of the Spirit in the life of the Church would not go astray? Indeed, is not a strong proclamation and deep familiarity with the Word of God necessary for Evangelisation? For Catechisation? For Conversion? Is this not precisely what paragraph 1072 of the Catechism means when it speaks of the necessary preparation for involvement in the Eucharistic liturgy and sacramental life of the Church?

If so, then the “strategy” for facing the priest shortage and the future life of the Catholic Church in Australia (and elsewhere) is a renewed emphasis on the Word of God in the life of the Church (which was in fact the subject of the 2008 Synod of Bishops). Do we need our priests, teachers and families to be more deeply formed as “people of the Word”, both as teachers and spiritual leaders? So, if you are drawing up your “strategy” for the Church, give some thought to the question of where the Word of God fits in your plans!

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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14 Responses to What part of “Word and Sacrament” don’t we understand?

  1. Terra says:

    Although you come to it by a rathr roundabout route, I don’t disagree with your conclusion David.
    But I’m pretty sure you will disagree with the ‘strategies’ I would suggest to address the problem!
    Viz:
    1. At Mass return to a single year cycle of Sunday readings. The older lectionary meant people really knew very well the key texts of the Gospels and other parts of the NT.

    2. Drastically revise the Liturgy of the Hours. It is too complicated for most laypeople to follow (something more like the Little Office of Our Lady, with a strictly limited selection of psalms that can be learnt off by heart would be better for most) yet too selective in its use of psalms and too spread out to be really optimal for priests.

    3. Ban all the superficial approaches to lectio divina that are regularly advocated, and stress things like how we ‘feel’ about a text, and replace them with the emphasis on solid study of Scripture in the light of the Fathers and Theologians advocated by Pope Benedict in Verbum Domini.

    4. Commission some solidly orthodox commentaries that skip past all the irrelevant stuff so beloved by modern exegetes on how the text came into being, and instead seriously present the insights of the Fathers and theologians, and approach the texts both from a literal and historical perspective, not either or.

    • Stephen K says:

      Terra, I’d like to comment on 2 of your 4 steps, if I may. First, I myself thought a single year cycle of Scripture texts would be preferable, for the reasons of familiarity you mention, but though I definitely think the old yearly seasonal nomenclature made much more sense in conveying the idea of the Year (i.e. scrap the broken Ordinary time, restore the Sundays after Epiphany, Septuagesima, etc Sundays after Pentecost etc) and the thematic journey), I now think to restrict the Scripture extracts to a one year cycle would mean a comparative dumbing down: I can’t see how the aim of cementing and enhancing the relationship of Catholic people to the Scriptures with which they are, in the main, notoriously unfamiliar, is helped by restricting the range of texts.

      Second, my personal experience from my own years of reciting and singing the traditional office and the reciting of the new is that both involve some navigation skills, but a lot has to do with the layout and arrangement in the breviaries, and the way it is taught. The big trouble with the Office, either old or new, is that here in Australia most Catholics – even a large number of priests – have never had any exposure to the office unless they live right next door to a contemplative community which allows them into the public area to hear them. In general Australian cathedrals, even in yesteryear, only performed the office as special events. In Europe, the office is fed and made real by the monastic tradition. And simplifying the hours to the scope of the Marian office of little hours would, however, in my opinion, be a mistake, because it does not convey the substance and rhythm of the full office of psalms and readings (more Scripture!)

      On the other steps, and on the more general theme, once again, I am struck by the difference between the general comparative Catholic and Protestant experiences and comfort levels with the Scriptures. John Dominic Crossan once said that he was brought up to see the Scriptures as not much more than a quarry for the liturgy. Though commentary – as you suggest- is an important adjunct/companion to what might otherwise be obscure, contradictory or elusive texts, I still think that we can fall into the habit of always reading others’ interpretations but never meditating on the texts themselves. In the local Anglican church, the readings are not contained in the Prayer book but in the Bibles, and the congregation regularly hold the Bibles in their own hands. I think that is a powerful custom.

    • Schütz says:

      (ALERT: long reply!)

      Dear Kate, I agree that you and I are really not at odds with one another on the general points. But perhaps this is the thing, Kate: you are very quick to get down to specifics of the “strategy”, whereas I believe that the real spiritual problem needs deeper reflection. Your suggestions are cases in point. They are very specific, but none of them quite address what I was getting at by saying that we need to be both a “Sacrament AND Word” community.

      In a post on your own blog, you said “But God spreads his grace in part through human agents, especially priests in the sacraments; the Holy Spirit works through us.”

      That is absolutely true, but is precisely what I was trying to get at in this post: as Catholics, we focus on the sacramental graces, and of course, priests are central for that.

      But God’s grace also flows through his Word – which cannot be separated from the Sacraments, but which nevertheless does not require priestly mediation in the manner which the Sacraments do.

      What I was calling for was not just “ways” of doing more “Word” things, but actually a deeper encounter with the Word and appreciation of the Word in the life of the Church.

      By “encounter with the Word”, I mean what Pope Benedict wrote in the first paragraph of “Deus Caritas Est”:

      Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.

      For us Catholics, the premiere locus for that encounter has been and always will be in the Eucharist, hence the importance of liturgy as you point out. However, an equally privileged locus for that encounter is the Word of God in Sacred Scripture. At this point in time, I do not believe that Catholics routinely expect to encounter Jesus in the Scriptures, nor do they regularly go looking for him there, nor do they clearly hear him speaking directly to their hearts from that source.

      Once we properly grasp and appreciate the size and shape of “the poverty of the Word” in our communities, then I think we might be in a place to start doing something more about it. But first we actually have to understand: how are we failing to provide, encourage, allow an opportunity for people to encounter Jesus for themselves in God’s Word?

      Now from there, let me address your specific proposals in this comment:

      1. The Lectionary.

      Actually, from the fact that just about all Protestant churches have eagerly embraced the three year lectionary, I think we can safely say that this is one of those things that goes with a strong spirituality of the Word. It is a “good thing”, in other words. However, it does need some fixing. The Old Testament readings especially are particularly difficult to understand, given the short snippets, and the fact that they are read in the liturgy without their biblical context. The proddies have done a revision called the “Revised Three Year Lectionary” which is now in wide use, and the big difference is an alternative cycle of Old Testament readings in Ordinary time, designed for a sequential reading of some of the “historical books” of the Old Testament. In other words, telling the bible stories. I think this is a good move on their part.

      2. The Liturgy of the Hours.

      The Liturgy of Hours in the West is not really designed for lay people, but for priests and religious. Nevertheless, the use by laity is another “good thing” and it can be encouraged with simpler editions (“Shorter Morning and Evening Prayer” works well, for eg.). Actually, now there are a host of internet cites, including The Divine Office which provide the whole thing ordered out for you for every day. They have a great iPhone app, which I use on a daily basis which includes a recording of the office for you to pray along with. This is “good strategy”. There is also the far simpler and more devotional booklet called “Magnificat” which I know some parishes promote. This is another “good thing” to get people praying the Scriptures. They also have an iPhone app!

      3. lectio divina

      Again, Lectio Divina is a “good thing” – but lets drop the nonsense and just call it what it is: “Bible Reading”. Forget the whole business about the “methodology” of lectio divina and just read the Bible and have a few moments of quite prayer afterwards. If we could get that to be a regular form of Catholic devotion – as it is with the proddies – that would also be a “good thing”.

      4. Commentaries

      Commentaries are all well and good, but none are “perfect”. You will note that the Church has never published an official “commentary” on any part of Scripture, let alone all of it. In a sense, it would be better if every Catholic home just had bible story books like we had as Protestants, and that these stories were read and taught from infancy in the home. That way the biblical narrative becomes rooted in one’s own life and less confusion arises when reading any particular passage of the bible. More general education on the bible, including parish bible studies – led by the priest even perhaps? – would help here.

      All this sounds very Protestant – I know. But this is one area in which the Protestants excel, and it isn’t “un-Catholic”. To all this, I would add:

      5. Preaching

      Our seminaries must teach our priests to teach the scriptures in their preaching. At the moment, the scriptures are generally used as an excuse for the priest to say whatever he wants to say, rather than a case of him leading them deeper into the scriptural word itself. This does not exclude, of course, doctrinal teaching in the homily (since the doctrines of the Church are all based on Scripture). But it does mean treating the text for the homily as more than just the “Guest of the Day”. The Word of God is the host, and it needs to be heard.

  2. David, a comment ‘en passant’: was Calvin a Calvinist?
    Whatever arguments you or I may have with Calvin’s theology, I don’t think it could be said that for him that sacraments were an “add-on”. He was much too good a student of the Fathers to make such an error. Not that you were saying that, to be sure, but some of your Catholic readers might draw that inference. I do think we need to be scrupulously fair when representing the opinions of those we differ with. There’s been a lot of Calvin scholarship published in the last 20 or so years, and most if it has taken note of how far Calvinists have departed from their namesake. Fwiw, I still think Francois Wendel’s volume is the best and most accurate intro to the man’s life and thought.

    • Schütz says:

      This wasn’t really a post about Calvin. Nor even about Calvinism. But since you point it out, yes, of course Calvinism does not equal Calvin or vice versa. The Arminian controversy and the Synod of Dort changed a lot of what passes for “Calvinism” among the Reformed today.

      That being said, even the architecture of Calvinist churches and their “liturgical” traditions proclaims the dominance of the Word over the Sacraments. Perhaps “add-on” was a little pejorative, but the Word was the driving factor in Calvin’s theology and ecclesiology, which found a particular kind of expression in the Sacraments, rather than the other way round.

  3. William Weedon says:

    From the Lutheran side of things, one of the greatest blessings to us as a church has been the publication of *Treasury of Daily Prayer* which basically makes the Daily Office be a cinch for laity or pastors to learn, pray, sing, and grow into. Very easy layout; full psalter (pointed for chanting); daily Scripture readings in full; replete with writings from the Church fathers and our Symbols. So we have laity and pastors across our Synod all joining in reflecting on the same passages each day, and supplementing the readings from the Divine Service (for which I totally would argue that the historic lectionary is superior precisely because repetition is the mother of learning).

  4. Jim Ryland says:

    Hats off to the posters above. The suggestions all have merit and Pastor Mark’s comments are a clear signpost pointing to the injustice of tarring John Calvin with Huldrych Zwingli’s brush. Calvin was certainly more catholic than the portrait painted by the Counter-Reformation and by other reformers.

    I had to really analyze what I was going to say here before releasing it into cyberspace. Our current state of affairs within the Roman Catholic Church has less to do with the encyclicals from Vatican-II than it does with the seemly intentional distortion of the content and the misuse of liberties designed to enrich the church and her liturgy. The Novus Ordo is central to that distortion and the crime is exacerbated a really terrible “translation” into gutter English. The revision is an improvement but does not address the really serious flaws.

    The orientation of the celebrant changes the basic demeanor of the Mass from its roots in the worship of our ancient Jewish brothers. It becomes the “Father Bob Show” with prayers and offerings designed for the Almighty delivered to the populace instead. There is the distinct shift from an understanding of the priesthood, now replaced with the role of “minister”. The more penitential aspects have either been removed or dumbed-down to a point where they are little more than lip service. The musical offerings are, for the most part, simply insipid elevator music.

    I realize that whole generations have grown up with the NO as the only rite that they know. Resistance to the several other liturgies authorized by the Church is a natural reaction. We are reluctant to release our hold on the familiar. However, if that “familiar is a weak and crumbling structure, one ought to reassess that stance.

    What has gone missing is the sense of bringing only the finest, the spotless offering, to the sacrifice. The awe and mystery are largely gone and with it a keen sense of the divine. We celebrate our humanity rather than God’s divinity. This seems a strange state of affairs in a world that searches for awe and mystery but now must search the occult and the “New Age” offerings when the Church had it all along.

    • Schütz says:

      It becomes the “Father Bob Show”

      ROTFL, Jim! From your home there in the States, you have no idea just how pertinent that comment is here in Melbourne!

  5. Terra says:

    Stephen K – I agree with you about the need to actually see the Office being performed live as a help, and with all those who noted breviary layout is important! Part of the problem in moving to more user friendly approaches has been the reluctance of bishops to approve liturgical books (viz the struggle Baronius has had to get its new version of the trad Roman breviary approved) and unnecessary restrictions on translations used (as per the US in particular – I mean why only the grail psalms when other versions ahve been used liturgically previously and are used in other countries?).

    I’m not sure about the Bible in hands idea though! While it would encourage catholics to realise that they are actually hearing or reading Scripture (not just some odd bits and pieces that mysteriously appear in their missals!), wouldn’t it undermine the overall impact of the liturgy much of which is direct quotes from Scripture anyway (though more so in the traditional rite, with both the ordinary and propers).

    • Schütz says:

      Yes, no bible in the hand (or readings printed in the bulletin) on Sunday please. But it wouldn’t hurt to have an opportunity during the week where people did actually hold the bible in their hands at (for eg.) a bible study or prayer group. We need to become familiar with this book!

      I agree about the revised Grail too. Someone owns the copyright and so are restricting its use. What is the point of a psalter which no-one has access to?

      • Stephen K says:

        Why don’t you like the idea of having bibles in the hand on Sundays, David? (Just asking).

        • Schütz says:

          The same reason I don’t like the readings printed out in bulletins. The “Reading” is just that: an exercise in “Reading” and listening. It isn’t something we’re particularly good at in our text based society, but I rather think the iPod generation might be better at it than we are. In the ancient world (and still when I read stories to my daughters – 12 and 10 years old and still eager for “storytime” with Dad before bed – currently reading Terry Pratchett’s “Wee Free Men” – taking a break from “Lord of the Rings”) reading aloud and attentively listening is a communal act at a very deep level. When someone reads and an whole assembly listens, that assembly is drawn together in the act of listening. Reading a printed text on the other hand is an individualising activity (as in the classical Protestant bible reading quiet time: me in my small corner and you in yours). That’s the reason. Of course, you need good readers for the whole thing to be effective. My kids think I am a pretty good reader. They will often choose to listen to stories rather than watch a video (its a close call though…)

  6. John Nolan says:

    The problem with the Liturgy of the Word in NO Masses lies in both what is proclaimed and how it is proclaimed. Most parishes use the JB whose less than elevated prose style is quite unmemorable. Then there are the readers. I have attended Masses in London where the reader obviously did not have English as a first language and was more or less unintelligible. There are those who ham up the text in the manner of a bad 19th-century Shakespearian actor, with excruciating effect. Others have annoying mannerisms, such as pronouncing ‘Christian’ as if it had three syllables. Over here we also have the problem of regional accents; you have to have lived in Glasgow for several years to understand what the hell they’re talking about. At the Newman Beatification Mass the deacon made a pig’s ear of a long Gospel by reciting it far too slowly. I could go on.

    I know of permanent deacons who flatly refuse to sing anything. Surely that comes with the dalmatic? The corrected translation envisages more of the Mass being sung and this should apply ceteris paribus to the Lectionary. Do you have a cantor to lead the Responsorial Psalm? Then let him (or her) sing the first two lessons. And unless it’s a church the size of Westminster Cathedral, bin the microphone. Don’t you just hate cantors who croon into the mike like X-Factor contestants?

  7. John Nolan says:

    Apropos of your Oz elective monarchy, are we going to see Queen Edna or King Les?

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