Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Liturgy Reflections
Sacramental minimalism

by Father Jan Larson

(From the Jan. 15, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Jan Larson It was only a matter of time, in Christian history, until someone would begin to analyze and dissect the Church’s rich sacramental rituals. In medieval times, theologians and experts in the Church’s canon law began to ask not only how sacraments work to bring God’s offer of grace, but the question that can be even more devastating to ritual symbols: at what precise moment does a sacrament work? At what point during a liturgy does God’s grace and power become present? Another question would soon follow: how much of a sacramental ritual can be omitted before it is no longer a true and valid sacrament?

These might be technical questions important for determining how to celebrate sacraments in emergency situations, but unfortunately “sacramental minimalism” very often became the norm for people. Rich sacramental rites were reduced to the bare minimum, and Christians naturally began to think in terms of the sacraments as somewhat mechanical motions performed by the priest in order to produce grace.

Remnants of sacramental minimalism are still around in this age, despite heroic efforts of Vatican II reforms. People still speak today about wanting a “quick wedding,” or a “private baptism.” Older Catholics remember learning how much of the Sunday Mass one could miss without committing a sin. People still speak today of “having a Mass said” for a special intention. Before that, Catholics spoke of “having a Mass read.” A rather mechanical performance of the ritual was all that was expected. One’s deep personal involvement and full, active participation in the rite was not essential. Indeed, people who asked to have Masses said for a special intention rarely intended to be present at the liturgy they requested. Grace would be produced without their further involvement, provided the ritual was carried out correctly. The Mass itself was reduced, in its barest essentials, to the words of consecration. For the Mass to be valid and true, the priest had to say at least the words of Jesus, “This is my body” and “This is my Blood,” and then he had to receive Communion. The celebration of the Eucharist had been successfully dissected, and since the 12th century the words of consecration were the most sacred words the priest could utter, and the words without which there could be no true liturgy of the Eucharist.

Fortunately, sacramental minimalism is giving way to what some theologians call “sacramental integralism,” understanding and celebrating the sacraments in the fullest and richest way possible, for sacraments are best celebrated with the fullest of signs and symbols. One revolutionary development that challenges minimalism happened in 2001 when the Catholic Church officially acknowledged that a valid and true Mass does not depend on certain words of consecration being explicitly spoken in the liturgy. Rather, it is the whole Eucharistic prayer that changes bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. The Vatican declared that the liturgy celebrated for centuries by the Assyrian Church of the East (not in communion with Rome), which does not contain the familiar words of consecration, is a true and valid celebration of the Eucharist – a liturgy at which you or I, under certain circumstances, could receive Communion.

(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)

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