There Are No Private Sacraments
It has become a cultural phenomenon in the reception of the Sacraments to make them a private, personal event. This perspective on the sacraments is especially visible in the reception of Baptisms, Matrimony, and Funerals. As a Church we hardly ever gather for these central and pivotal events of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Some people go several years without witnessing the Rite of Baptism or Anointing of the Sick; which leads to awkward lack of familiarity when they do attend. These events are personal acts of covenant between God, the individual, and the community and so often the community is only present by delegation (i.e. the priest). While this “minimum” is sufficient for the efficacy of the sacrament, it is hardly ideal; it is definitely not what was intended.
To be fair, the creation of this minimalist culture is not the fault of any one party. In the past Baptisms were simply not allowed as part of the Sunday liturgy, the practice of concelebration was not permitted and so priests celebrated their own “private” Masses, while anointing of the sick was reserved for death bed situations and so were done in the privacy of the home or hospital. People went to daily Masses, but were hardly ever encouraged to attend Baptisms, funerals, or weddings. While smaller, village communities might all show up for such events; our larger, metropolitan communities tend to make very little effort. Thus, they have tended to be merely family events, not events for the Parish community.
This is especially evident in a growing tendency of couples to ask for permission for a wedding at their home, the ball room, or some outdoor location like the beach. Without a proper understanding of the nature of the sacraments, and only knowing what they have experienced in the secular world, they are quite startled when their request is denied by the Church. Why will the Church not allow me to have a wedding on the beach? Why will the Church not allow me to have “my wedding” outside of the physical church?
Place matters; where we celebrate something is a sacred part of expressing the significance of an event. The presidential inauguration ceremony is done at the capitol building, not at the local McDonald's; the Thanksgiving meal is ideally celebrated at the home and not at a local restaurant; and the Texas Fighting Aggies play on Kyle field, and not the marching field. Where an event is held is just as significant a statement about the meaning of the event as persons, clothing, words, reactions, and documents.
The most ideal place for all the sacraments is in the church surrounded by the community. This is what the Church documents, in so many ways have been expressing to us. No one asks the Bishop to come to their home to administer Confirmation (unless they are dying) or asks the priest to come over to their home to celebrate the Sunday Mass because it would be a more intimate setting for them. Ordinations do not occur in small chapels but somewhere that facilitate the attendance of many participants. Yes there are exceptions to the rule, but the exceptions are always for a just cause (emergency Baptism, Communion to the home bound, administering sacraments to the dying in the hospital, etc. . . .). In the same way weddings are ideally done in the church, before the community, as a public event and only by exception should the vows be exchanged in a different location. This, however, should not be some rule that the bureaucratic Church imposes on couples, but the fullest expression of the Marriage covenant and something the couple would want for their wedding day.
This topic however, includes far more that simply where weddings are celebrated. As I stated above, all the sacraments are enhanced when done in a sacred space. Here are some concrete examples of what communal celebration of the sacraments might look like:
- The participation in weddings and funerals should have precedence over daily Mass. This might mean that:
- The parish could announce when funerals and weddings are occurring and encourage parishioners to attend.
- Weddings and funerals could be celebrated during times when the community can join; even during daily Mass times. I would even be in favor of the occasional wedding at a Sunday Mass.
- That it be presented as an act of charity, support, and ministry.
- That the Church be the preferred place for confession; but more importantly, that all those preparing for confession should see themselves as praying for each other and the one in the confessional.
- Upcoming Baptisms should be announced and people should be invited to attend.
- Baptisms during Mass should also be something done from time to time.
- The rite of the Anointing of the Sick should be done, when possible, in a Church, with a community present, even during Mass.
Are there not ways that we can reimagine the way that we celebrate the liturgy; reconnecting the sacramental signs with persons, places, and community? It is true that the sacraments act, give grace, independent of their context; but the context and expression by which they are given is also important because the externals express our readiness to receive and honors what is sacred. How can we all work towards facilitating a celebration of the sacraments as events that involves all the people of God?