September 16, 2011

Seeking the Face of the Lord

We need the nourishment that the sacraments give us

(Editor’s note: While Archbishop Buechlein continues to recover from a stroke, we offer some reprints of his various columns for your enrichment. The following column is from the May 16, 2003, issue of The Criterion.)

Once in awhile, I enjoy watching a good hour of Gospel music on TV. By coincidence, I recently caught a good old Southern Gospel Hour staged from the Orpheum Theater in Memphis. It was inspiring and heartwarming, and was featured as an Easter celebration. I felt good after it was over, and actually hated to see it end.

I thought to myself that many Easter services and some Holy Week services attract lots of people because they are heartwarming, much like the Gospel hour I watched. It also got me to thinking about the difference between our Catholic approach to worship, and that of other denominations and faith traditions. Heartwarming without the sacraments is a serious impoverishment.

Of course, we also want our Catholic liturgy to be inspiring and a place where one finds solace and peace of mind. But we remember that the primary reason we assemble in our churches is to worship God and not—first and foremost—for what we can get out of it. We gather to praise God and, then, also to receive nourishment.

Our worship also differs from other church services in that what we do receive most importantly is the strength and grace that the sacrament of the Eucharist gives us.

We must seek more than heartwarming entertainment. The marvel of our eucharistic liturgy is the fact that no matter how simply or elaborately celebrated, God gives us the unseen grace to live a life of faith, hope and charity. Good music is enriching and in a sense nourishes our spirit too, but not with the kind of nourishment received in Communion at Mass.

A fundamental tenet of our faith is at work in our understanding of Catholic liturgy: God takes the initiative and we respond, not vice versa. Christ established the sacraments of the Church in rudimentary form in order to provide a means for our salvation. The Catholic Church did not invent the sacraments. Through our history, our Church developed the ritual by which the sacraments are celebrated, but we did not invent them. They are a gift to us from Christ, without which our lives are essentially impoverished.

It bothers me deeply that—because good religious education in our Church programs, schools and family homes has been lacking—understanding the need for and the value of the sacraments for the very meaning of life has waned.

I worry because some folks choose to go to a more entertaining Sunday service without missing the reception of Communion. Rather than participating in a eucharistic celebration, the experience sought is that of being entertained. Or if there happens to be a communion service, it is viewed as symbolic. We Catholics believe in the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ, and that is an absolutely fundamental difference in faith.

This topic is on my mind because a few weeks ago I remarked to one of our pastors that our Church is going to get smaller because of a lack of knowledge of the essentials that we hold, especially the sacraments.

He said, “That’s already happening.” As an example, he said that in his rather large and well-to-do parish, the number of marriages is down.

When I asked why he thought this was happening, he gave a couple of reasons. In addition to the fact that cohabitation without marriage is becoming all too common, he said couples are preferring to have their wedding in one of the new evangelical

mega-churches in the suburbs. He said they like the benefit of having orchestras, professional choirs, power-point presentations and the like for worship. The service is more entertaining, and that’s what they want.

Marriage is such a radically important event in the life of our society. No marriage is private; every marriage has consequences for our society. And so our Church emphasizes that it should take place in the community of the Church, more precisely in a home parish.

It is not an event, merely to be “watched” by family and friends. And because it is a monumental step in the life of a man and woman, they surely need God’s blessing mediated through the sacrament of the Church. It is sad when a couple does not recognize the importance of celebrating the sacrament of matrimony.

The Eucharist and marriage are not the only sacraments that are undervalued. The sacrament of penance and reconciliation are, perhaps, even less appreciated. Yet, sin is a reality and we need God’s tribunal of mercy, which is mediated through the priest.

We pastors, teachers and parents have a catechetical challenge before us, but it is not insurmountable. And the grace comes from God. The sacramental life of the Church is too precious to be diminished. And the need has never been greater. †

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