Holiness and the Sacramental Life, A Review – July 2019

The Church is in crisis. Mass attendance has dropped to historically low numbers, and even of those, gray-haired people far outnumber young people.  The Church is facing a demographic implosion.  Many Catholics lack even the basic catechetical knowledge of their faith. The catechumenates entering the Church are instructed in the mystagogy of the faith, but the greater body of Christ is also in need of a renewed catechetical mystagogy.  Fr. Philip-Michael Tangorra seeks to address this need in the Church with his well-written book Holiness and the Sacramental Life. Part of the problem in the Church today is that “the sense of mystery and understanding of the faith has been lost,” as Fr. Tangorra writes.  A catechetical understanding of the faith is necessary, but what is truly of “vital importance in the Church today” is a return to the mystery and beauty of the Catholic Church, in order “to wake up the sleeping Catholic.”  If people do not see the mystery and beauty of the Church, they will not be drawn to it, or for those who have left, drawn back into it.  

This is reflected at first on a material level, with beauty of the Church in sacred art, and sacred architecture and sacred music.  These should draw us to the source of all beauty, who is God.  The beauty in the arts should draw us to the beauty of God. The beauty in the Church should reflect the surpassing beauty and grandeur of God.  However, beauty is also reflected in the sacred mysteries of the Church, the seven sacraments, and especially in the sacred liturgy of the sacrifice of the Mass.  It is in the seven mysteries of the Church that we make our spiritual pilgrimage of this life.   

Fr. Tangorra frames his whole work around this spiritual pilgrimage, with the exitus, of God’s self-revelation and communication to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, and in the reditus, humanity’s return back to unity with God.  This is the journey all mankind must make, to varying levels of success and failure.  It is through the mediation of the Catholic Church, the “universal sacrament of salvation,” that the faithful are especially blessed to receive the sanctifying grace of Christ.  It is in the mysteries of the sacraments that we encounter Christ and are “purified, illumined, and perfected” by him, and through them.  This is the theme throughout Fr. Tangorra’s book, that is, the threefold process of purification, illumination, and perfection of the faithful through the sacramental encounter with Christ.  In this spiritual pilgrimage of exitus and reditus we assume our respective spots in the ecclesiastical choir before God.  

It was through the open side of Christ that the comingling of blood and water flowed out.  We must receive the sacramental water of Baptism and the sacramental blood of the Eucharist in order to gain admittance “to enter the kingdom, the Body of Christ.”  Part of the problem with the loss of the sense of mystery in the Church is the denial of the efficaciousness of the sacraments.  If the sacraments are merely signs and symbols, and not truly efficacious in giving sanctifying grace, why would one continue with them?  Fr. Tangorra points out that the sacrament of Baptism, and Confirmation, in particular, make one ontologically different.  An ontological difference exists between the baptized and the non-baptized, as the baptized has been incorporated into the mystical Body of Christ. In Baptism, Christ makes “all things new.” (Rev. 21:5)  The sacramental character imparted in Baptism is brought to maturity and fullness in the Sacrament of Confirmation.  We are anointed to share in the threefold offices of Christ as priest, prophet, and king. Taken together, through Baptism and Confirmation, we become adopted sons of God, partakers in the divine nature, “living stones,” a spiritual house, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.” (CCC 1268)  

As the baptized and confirmed, all of the laity is a part of the common priesthood of the faithful.  And so, what are the implications of that?  As Fr. Tangorra points out, this means that all of the faithful, including the laity, have “a mediatory capacity.” The laity can and should offer intercessory prayers and sacrifices, by virtue of our sharing in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.  In Baptism, one dies with Christ into the water, and then, rises with Christ out of the water.  The Christian must live out their vocation of picking up his or her Cross and following after Christ on his via dolorosa.  We must die to ourselves and share in the suffering of the Cross.  Yet, this is not empty suffering.  This is suffering that when it dies and falls in the ground, it grows again to new life.  As Catholics, our suffering, united with Christ, can be efficacious, intercessory, and mediatory for ourselves and for others, as part of the Communion of the Saints. We are priests offering sacrifices in our lives, for the salvation of souls and to the glory of God.  As Fr. Tangorra states, “even the way we drive our cars should bear witness to the resurrected glory of Jesus.”  In other words, offer up that road rage and allow it to be crucified with Christ.  

As part of the common priesthood of the faithful, we offer not only sacrifices, but also prayer. The Church is called to sanctify the whole day by praying without ceasing.  This is an integral aspect to living a holy and sacramental life.  Fr. Tangorra mentions various forms of devotional sacramentals to aid in our sanctification of the day, including praying the Divine Office or the Liturgy of the Hours.  In praying the Liturgy of the Hours we seek to sanctify the day by praying seven times from morning to nighttime.  Praying without ceasing should include other devotionals as well, such as the Rosary, chaplets, novenas, and the Stations of the Cross among other meditations and prayers.  In response to Our Lady of Fatima’s urgent request to “pray the Rosary every day,” our daily routine must include at least five decades of the Rosary each day. This is truly a minimum effort we should be making as part our vocations as Christians.              

In Baptism, we receive the white garments of Christ’s sanctifying grace.  Yet, we know as sinful, fallen people, these white garments are dirtied regularly, and often.  Christ has left us the means to wash our dirty garments clean, to make them white again in sanctity and righteousness, as Isaiah wrote, “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”(Is. 1:18)  This is the blessed assurance we have in the Sacrament of Penance, or Confession.  The priest, acting in persona Christi, is able to forgive us of our sins and offer absolution through his ecclesiastical mediation of the fruits of the paschal mystery. Christ’s sanctifying grace is transmitted to the Church most commonly through the sacraments.  Confession enables us to maintain our friendship with God, and continue on our reditusspiritual journey back to Him.  

The final approach of our reditusjourney is as we come to the hour of death.  Christ provides forgiveness of sins and healing at this late stage too with the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.  We can partake of this sacrament at any point in our lives, but it is especially important in that fateful time before passing over to our final judgments and eternity.  This is our final chance to wash the white garments of our souls to be as clean as possible.  As like water, bread, and wine, the use of holy oil is an ordinary substance used in the sacraments to transmit extraordinary graces.          

The ordinary signs and symbols of the sacraments make present the invisible realities they signify. This is true in the holy Eucharist, where ordinary bread and wine become the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ. Fr. Tangorra quotes St. Cyril that the Eucharist is the pinnacle of mystagogical instruction.  Christ is spiritually present in the Word of God in scripture and He is present in the faithful of the Church, but Christ is present bodilyin the Eucharist.  This is not cannibalism, as many understood Jesus at the time, but a partaking in His spiritualized resurrected body in a sacramental way.  Through the mediation of the priesthood of Christ, “divine things are made available to humanity.”  As Fr. Tangorra writes, “The whole purpose of the sacred liturgy is to offer humanity, through the priesthood of Jesus Christ, entrance into the inner communion of love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”  

The vocational sacrament of Holy Orders is necessary to perpetuate and promulgate the sacramental mediation of Christ to humanity.  The ministerial priesthood is able to consecrate the Eucharist, and in effect, nourish the Church.  The other vocational sacrament is that of Marriage.  The Sacrament of Marriage images the love of Christ, the Bridegroom, for His Church, the Bride.  The spousal love of husband and wife is a sign and symbol of the spousal love of Christ and the Church.  Marriage and fruitful family life is meant to nourish vocations to the Sacrament of Holy Orders as part of a symbiotic relationship.                

The liturgy of the Mass, Fr. Tangorra states, “imitates the journey of Christ’s life on earth.” The Mass reaches the sacrifice of Golgotha in the consecration, and then the Resurrection event in Communion.  The one Church partakes in the one Eucharist mediated by the one High Priest Jesus Christ.  In the liturgy, all of humanity is offered up to God the Father so “that they may be one, even as we are one.” (Jn. 17:11)  Fr. Tangorra mentions that there are numerous sacred liturgical rites throughout the Church, but he focuses considerable discussion on the Roman Liturgy, in both its ordinary and extraordinary forms.  In a Church where there is, at times, some tension between those who practice the ordinary form and those who practice the extraordinary form of the Mass, it is good to hear Fr. Tangorra write that “neither of the two forms of the Roman liturgy are in any way deficient for our spiritual and intellectual formation as Christians . .”  Both the ordinary and the extraordinary forms of the Roman liturgy are valid.  The sacramental mysteries are valid too, despite any shortcomings of the priest, as declared by the Church doctrine of “ex opera operato” (i.e., “the work which is worked”), is valid regardless of the holiness, or lack of holiness, of the individual priest. 

Fr. Tangorra concludes with the spiritual pilgrimage that reaches its apex in the Mass: “The exitus-reditusmovement of purification, illumination, and perfection is stamped throughout the sacred liturgy, but the Mass, above all, is that sublime act of worship that, through a union with the Paschal mystery, elevates humanity and draws it back into perfect harmony with the divine.”  Fr. Tangorra’s book is in many ways a tour of the Catechism.  It points us towards the way of looking for beauty and mystery in the Church and the sacraments.  Rediscovering the beauty and mystery in the sacramental life of the Church is ultimately how the Church will be revitalized. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by Me.”(Jn. 14:6)  The Catholic Church is the mediator of Christ’s sanctifying grace on earth, and as such, it is through the sacraments that we find the way, the truth, and the life. The sacramental life is our spiritual pilgrimage that brings us back into communion with God.      

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