What happens when the Church, as a sacrament, fails to do what it signifies?
Sacraments signify and perform that which they signify. Generally speaking, a sacrament is any created reality imbued with the hidden presence of God. Therefore everything in the universe either can be or is a sacrament. And sacraments signify and do what they signify. Therefore sacraments are intelligible, more or less.
Catholics often think that there are only seven sacraments. While that is how we officially count the Church’s sacraments, beyond that, there are many, many more, including the Church itself. Thomas Aquinas knew that the whole universe was a tremendous sacramental system, a Sacramentum Mundi.
But what happens to sacraments that are less intelligible, or distorted, or misrepresented? When we, members of the Church, treat people like dirt, what happens to the sacramentality of the Church? Watch here…
A Catholic, I am part of the sacrament that is the Church. My actions sometimes tarnish its sacramentality, obstructing the goal for which the Church exists—the final Kingdom of God. All Church members are sinners and do this, from time to time.
Being a sinner means that I am a fellow dying inmate in the mental asylum that is our world. Among many other things, I am a fundamentalist in recovery. What broke me out of the crack house of Catholic fundamentalism? Hitting many rock bottoms. It didn’t happen overnight, and it is not finished yet—addiction-recovery is ongoing.
But essential help came from the many Catholics surrounding me.
All people can be sacraments, realities imbued with the Presence of God. This includes Catholics and non-Catholics, people doing good, and people doing bad. Good people as sacraments helped me awaken, both Catholics and non-Catholics. But no sacrament ever helped me so much in waking up like my fellow terminally ill sisters and brothers behaving terribly.
Don’t get me wrong!—I would be dead right now without amazingly kind and decent Catholic people. That is no exaggeration. Twenty-one years ago, homeless, Catholics were there for me. They were sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers, helping me. Among them were kind and just priests. And that’s the way it has been for these last 21 years. I will never forget them and always will be grateful. This signifies what?
And there was the well-to-do family that smirked at me, homeless, sitting in the last pew behind them, refusing my hand at the sign of peace. Viejas were coming into Mass early weekday mornings, looking down their noses into my driver’s side window with blistering hate as I woke up in my home-on-wheels. Years later, cowardly manipulative ministry leaders tried to destroy anyone against their agendas, myself included. This signifies what?
I’ve met fanatics telling people, “You must never criticize a priest” as the world reeled from the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” revelations. And there were “pro-life” Catholic businessmen with their affairs and misogyny and violence. I’ve known Catholic pastors of wage theft and abuse, bitter from decades of repressing their homosexuality, who would lash out at the poor. This signifies what?
I’ve seen bishops living in mansions, demanding sacristans act as bartenders taking liquor orders when they arrive for morning Confirmations. I have seen a diocese terrorize its teachers with termination should they dare to unionize. There are so many stories to tell!
Signifies Cruelty & Healing
As August ended, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis once more extended eviction protections. Of course, this protection was in place back in June, as COVID-19 raged on. But some Catholic pastors and landlords, princes of the Church, disregarded that. Imagine that kind of cruelty during this pandemic.
What do you think that signifies? In persona Christi? Or Antichrist?
To make the great good chocolate takes both bitter and sweet ingredients. When I was threatened with being illegally forced out of my home by tyrannical forces, two amazing Catholic friends kept me from living on the streets. They lavished me with generosity and kindness for more than two months. They didn’t hesitate to take me in, now again made homeless. Both are at high risk for COVID-19, and lacked any guarantee that I was not infected. Now two other friends have also been amazingly generous, providing me with shelter through Halloween at high expense. I am not in the best health, and these are dangerous times.
These couples are two sets of real friends. One Catholic couple in a non-traditional arrangement, being Christ to me. The other Catholic couple originally from a Caribbean nation being Christ to me. The love of these four people signifies the Mystery of God. They opened themselves without hesitation in vulnerability and gave me a space to heal. What they did signifies life.
The Significance of Solidarity
Two of my very close brothers, “Sorge” and “Antonio” (I must call them that because of sadistic forces in the Archdiocese), provided for me generously throughout 2020. They led an effort to care for me in numerous ways. They moved me up and down Florida, putting their needs second. Throughout these months, my fellow bloggers have stepped up and been in solidarity with me. This love signifies real hope.
But I will not limit the kindness shown me to only good Catholics. Atheists, agnostics, Evangelicals, Muslims, homosexuals and lesbians, and many other walks of life have been with me through these trials. You know who you are, and I am indebted to you.
My walk has been a mixed bag. What should any of you expect from a terminally ill patient? Like “Doctor Sleep” Dan Torrance says, “the world is one big hospice with fresh air.”.
Without the humble collegian wearing the Tau cross entering the bookstore on a dark summer evening, I might have killed myself 21 years ago. But then I met the daily Mass communicant who stalked his young adult leader girlfriend. We had to move heaven and earth to get him away from her.
I thank God for meeting the Godly policeman who was on call Christmas Day when my buddy and I discovered a friend hanging in his stairwell. I also thank God for making me see another Catholic officer. He relished telling stories of slamming black youths and homeless “bums” onto his blazing car hood. He proclaimed that all the evils in the world originate from “those f—–g Jews!” I can list the ultraconservative priests in Miami who enabled this racist. A pair of whom a naïve bishop hailed as the holiest priests in the Archdiocese.
Despite this, I have experienced holiness in priests. How blessed I am to know a Burundian priest who didn’t hesitate to help our young adults at FIU and parishes. His love signifies much about Christ in the world. Father served us with joy, often at a moment’s notice, like the time he rushed over to lead a mourning family in prayer when asked. (Meanwhile a few of us, in the master bedroom, sponged up blood and brains, leftovers from a father’s suicide.)
But I am likewise blessed by working under pastors who sadistically caused poor immigrants to be fired for accidentally parking in their space. These cruel feudal overlords always put rules above mercy and justice. Especially for a former Miami-Dade pastor who told me, “Let them wipe the sh-t with their hands!” when Sunday Masses became expensive with toilet paper. His bullying and cruelty signifies what?
Signifies Undying Goodness
I am grateful for the Catholic students I served at Florida International University, for everything they have taught me. For amazing Begoňa and Lauren, Gabby and Vivian, for Z and X, and for Omar and Sergio—thanks be to God. And for Elga and Cassandra, Tatiana and Natalie, for long nights cleaning up with Christian, for Tatiana and Jose and Alicia, I am so very grateful for my AWAKE young adult servant leaders.
And there are many others. They all signify the truth of God’s active presence in the world.
The Significance of Evil
I know other Catholics. Those who style themselves as self-proclaimed defenders of the faith. Consider a lawyer like this, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, toasting to Barack Obama’s assassination—in front of horrified witnesses from a Bible study. Now imagine him calling a Brazilian server a “negroid”—in front of similar witnesses. He was subsequently barred from my parish Scripture study and ministries.
I know another Catholic “political hero.” Him my FIU students jokingly named “Pro-Life Dracula.” He made all pro-life events we’d go to toxic. He would creep around us, and succeeded at getting many email addresses to my supreme displeasure. At election time he sent my students, including African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans, emails of racist cartoons depicting President Obama as a monkey. When I furiously complained to the Respect Life Office, nothing came of it. Despite the many festering racists jam-packed into Catholic South Florida, the problem is ignored as the evil grows.
There are many like these two. I thank God for exposing me to many such Catholics. I can’t afford to close my eyes to those who think that black and indigenous lives don’t matter. We need to see those Catholics who disdain gays, lesbians, and transpersons. Many parishioners marginalize and seek to criminalize the poor.
We, this whole messy lot, are the Church. The Church is a sacrament, the fundamental sacrament. Sacraments signify. They do more than that, indeed, but they certainly signify something. That leads me to ask: what do we, the Church, signify?
When we degrade our brothers and sisters, what do we communicate about Christ to others?
We continue lumbering onward with the Tridentine hyperfocus on sacraments as causes of grace. We dare not speak about them as signs, even though we must, following the liturgical renewal of Vatican II. “But Vatican II is altogether evil!”—I was once told by a seminarian, making his best Gandalf impression. All that matters is the proper administration by an authorized male using precise matter and form. Who cares if the “dumb laity” in the pews understand the meaning?
But Trent was clear (Decree on the Sacraments, Session VII, 1547), as was Thomas Aquinas, whom Trent followed (Summa Theologiæ III, qq. 60–65). Do sacraments cause grace? Indeed, but only insofar as they signify it.
The Significance of Being Unbalanced
I laugh out loud when I hear about Vatican II haters claiming Thomas Aquinas as their patron. I think they are oblivious to St. Thomas’ balanced perspective (Summa Theologiæ III, q. 60). Since the time of Augustine, who defined sacraments as “a visible sign of invisible grace,” the sign aspect had dominated. But Aquinas presented sacraments as signs of efficacious grace. In other words, sacraments cause what they signify.
Unfortunately, his balanced perspective was lost in more than just practice. After Aquinas, until Vatican II, sacraments were emphasized in the Latin Church as instruments of grace. So long as they are performed accurately in an authorized way, sacraments automatically produce their spiritual effects. We’ve seen this taken to nonsensical heights recently.
The Significance for Change
The Church is not a societas perfecta—in any way!—and thank God, because I can belong. I have tasted more than a little of the nasty side of imperfection these past two decades, and it’s exhausting. Catholics of the Trump-Cult, enabled (and unofficially encouraged) by many priests and bishops, rev up for upcoming “pro-life” hypocrisy.
More about what sacraments signify, later.