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Celebrations of Grace: The Sacraments of the Catholic Church

By Jack Hartjes

1. Preface

In the early 1960's my classmates and I at Sacred Heart, the minor seminary for the Green Bay Diocese, felt we were living at a lucky moment in history. We loved the Church, were studying her teachings, and had made a start at devoting our lives to her—and this Church was changing. The Second Vatican Council, a 4-year series of meetings of the world’s bishops and other experts, was setting new directions for the familiar Church. Who could tell where this movement of the Holy Spirit would take her! I still feel privileged to have known both the pre-Vatican II Church and the renewed Church. When you've lived through a major change, it is much harder to take the way things are now for granted.

Being able to remember that exciting time and before or learning about it second-hand is of more than historical interest, though. It can help one understand what the liturgy has become. Having the old to compare with the new gives clues that guide one’s thinking about the meaning of the sacraments today. The changes are far from superficial. They lie at the heart of what liturgy is about.

The Church’s liturgy, her way of celebrating the sacred mysteries, her sacraments, always had a strong hold on me. That fascination only grew as the liturgy changed. Meanwhile I was growing from youth to adulthood, and my attention focused on many things besides liturgy. I would experience God really present in our liturgies, but then pretty soon I would be on about everyday occupations again. That’s the way the Christian life is lived for the most part—from the heights of a sacramental celebration back to the ordinary world with hardly a breath in between. 

If I were to become friends with a professional chess or basketball player, the thing I’d want us to do most is spend some time over a chessboard or on a basketball court. Maybe I could learn some new moves. If it were a great artist or musician, I’d want to see some painting or hear some Mozart. A scientist or philosopher—there’d be all sorts of questions I’d want answered. I would want to imitate, and so honor, these masters. I meet Jesus in the liturgy and what do I do? Go home and eat and maybe see a movie. Go to a friend’s house. Go to work. Go and live. And so I honor Jesus, the master at life. I like to think of the Sunday liturgy as the high point of the week, but it’s not as if liturgy outshines everything else. Rather, liturgy affirms everything else.

In writing these pages I tried to make the celebrations of the Church’s new liturgy tell some, not all, of their meaning. I imagined an extremely sharp observer coming afresh to the sacraments and asking myself over and over, “What does this particular item or activity say?” That extremely sharp observer is a fiction. When we participate in a Mass or another sacrament, there are many things that we don’t pay attention to. We feel them under our minds’ surface. When liturgical celebrations are done well, the feelings that seemingly insignificant details evoke, often without the help of conscious thought, approach liturgy’s deepest meaning. I found that looking at the ways liturgical celebrations have changed was a good way to uncover details in which a good deal of liturgy’s meaning lies.

I try to give credit in the bibliography to sources that have enriched my understanding of sacraments. Many able teachers go unreferenced. It’s hard to show enough appreciation to the lay leaders and pastors of St. Paul’s Church in St. Cloud, Minnesota. They are ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

This post contains minor revisions from an earlier version of “Celebrations of Grace” that I wrote in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.

 On to 2, Introduction