Faith & Thought

Sacramentality and The Renewal of Liturgy and Us

by Father Robert Lauder 

I have a vivid memory of myself as a young priest in the early 1960s standing in the pulpit preparing the congregation to move from the Latin Mass to having the liturgy in English. 

I had attended at least two national conventions on the Liturgical Movement when I was a seminarian and so liturgy was one of my special interests as a young priest. Even recalling those days when the liturgy was moving from Latin to English, I feel again the excitement I experienced at that time. 

I suspect that I may have been guilty of thinking of sacraments as almost working magic. Though I knew that the disposition of those receiving sacraments was important for the sacrament to accomplish what it was meant to accomplish, that was not the primary emphasis in my mind. 

In his excellent book, “Sacraments & Sacramentality” (Mystic, Connecticut: Twenty-Third Publications, Revised Edition, 1994, 241 pp., $14.95), Bernard Cooke writes the following: 

“What this book hopes to do is to show that ‘sacrament’ is not something limited to formally religious actions. ‘Sacrament’ includes much more than liturgical rituals; as a matter of fact, it touches everything in our life that is distinctively human. 

“Moreover, this book is written with the conviction that sacramental rituals themselves can never be revitalized until ‘sacrament’ is understood and lived in this broader sense. Nor, for that matter, can people thoroughly understand what it means to be Christian if they do not understand the fundamental sacramentality of their human and Christian lives. 

“I hope this book will be part of the process of Catholics and other Christians regaining a more down-to-earth understanding and appreciation of the significance, that is, the sacramentality of their lives. So, while its purpose is certainly that of making sacramental liturgies better understood, this book is about a broader topic: the sacramentality of Christians and their everyday lives” (p. 2). 

Though Cooke has done his homework and offers important insights into the history of the sacraments in the Catholic Church, this book definitely should not be limited to scholars. 

One of the great gifts that Cooke had as a writer was to translate his scholarship into writing that would be accessible to an interested reader even though the reader had no degree in theology. I think this book could be of enormous help to anyone — celebrant, leader of song, lector, server, or anyone with a role in celebrating liturgy. 

In fact, the book could help any Catholic or Christian interested in gaining a deeper understanding of how Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection can transform every aspect of their lives. The book is an excellent example of a skilled theologian sharing scholarly insights with a reading public who might not be trained in theology. 

The opening four chapters of Cooke’s book are extraordinary. He suggests that friendship is the most basic sacrament and develops his view of sacramentality from that insight. This was a new approach to the sacraments for me. I find it very appealing. His insights into friendship are marvelous. 

Looking back at my attempts to help parishioners experience the liturgical changes that were endorsed by Vatican II, I think that I just did not appreciate what Catholics call sanctifying grace. My view of sanctifying grace at that time may have been that people who had sanctifying grace in their souls were free of serious sin. 

Of course that is true but what is so wonderful and awesome about the Church’s teaching concerning sanctifying grace is that we share in God’s life, that we have an intimate love relationship with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Once we believe that, what Cooke calls sacramentality takes on an exciting and beautiful meaning. 

What I should have done many years ago was to preach as best I could the awesome gift of himself that God has made to us and then the meaning of a sacrament would take on a new depth. 

Cooke’s first four chapters have so many insights into friendship that I am thinking of making them required reading in a Philosophy of the Human Person course that I will be teaching at St. John’s University in the fall. 

There is a great deal of philosophy present in Cooke’s reflections, and I am wondering if that might not both challenge my students and inspire them without the course becoming a course in theology. 

Actually the philosophy mixed in with Cooke’s theology is the philosophy of the human person that I embrace and teach. 

I am going to continue to reflect on whether assigning Cooke’s pages to freshmen taking an introductory course will be a good way to initiate students into philosophy. I am also going to continue re-reading Cooke’s wonderful book.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.