Living Sacramentally

Earlier this year Britain and much of the world was mourning the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in a tragic car accident. The people cried out for a due honoring of their "Queen of Hearts," and criticized the royal family for not hearing the nation’s pain. In the end, the queen addressed her subjects, and the court adapted their protocol to honor Diana, amid talk of it being "too little, too late."

The church could do well to adapt and develop rituals according to the needs of the people. And this is precisely what Megan McKenna calls for in her recent book, Rites of Justice.

McKenna is a Catholic scholar and retreat leader who would be well-suited to preaching, judging by her book. The Catholic Church might not let her take the pulpit, but in her writing she calls passionately for a greater commitment and recommitment to lives of faith and service. In addition to the Bible and church teaching, McKenna says we can find in the sacraments themselves an ethic to guide our daily lives.

The fairy-tale-like stories McKenna offers to introduce us to the ethical points she draws out of each sacrament make this book a joy to read. She quotes thinkers and activists such as Dorothy Day, Elie Wiesel, and Abraham Heschel, from which she has obviously drawn inspiration and strength; their presence forms a supportive community within her own book. McKenna claims that "Sacrament is symbol, mystery, an icon, a doorway where God comes in." Many post-Vatican II Catholics might not know rituals as a channel for grace, or even be able to name the sacraments. (They are baptism, Eucharist, anointing of the sick, confirmation, holy orders, penance-reconciliation, and matrimony.) Unfortunately, for readers unfamiliar with the traditional rites, McKenna’s descriptions of the various rituals may not provide a clear picture of how they are performed.

But the enactment of rituals is not the heart of the book. Nor does she assume to prescribe what rituals should look like.

McKenna writes that the "Sacraments are, after all, the heritage of Christians and can be claimed and re-created according to need." Yet for some Catholics, the appeal of the church is its avowed certainty and resistance to quick change. While McKenna criticizes Catholics who pick and choose among church teachings, she herself selects areas of human experience for which to develop rituals. Thus, the ongoing tension between tradition and change remains unresolved.

McKenna seems to value tradition and points to the inherent power of the current sacraments. If we lived by their ethical imperative, we would better minister to the material and spiritual needs of our neighbors.

The Rite of Eucharist, for example, calls us to remember Christ and share bread. If we acted on this, there would be less hunger in our world. McKenna writes convincingly on this sacrament’s ethic of serving the poor and standing for justice, but doesn’t call for any change to the rite itself.

The church’s position on the sacrament of marriage has been a source of alienation for some Catholics, and McKenna is perhaps most radical in her recreation of this rite. Acknowledging that not all people marry, and that not all marriages are permanent, McKenna proposes additional rites for those who are single, entering a second marriage, or widowed, as well as for those who wish to commit to a friend. In McKenna’s understanding, friendship and support of another in Christian life forms the base of the marriage commitment. Additional rites would embrace Catholics who don’t meet the "one size fits all" model of marriage.

Of course, people often reach the milestone of marriage before developing a firm commitment to a life of faith. Infant baptism doesn’t require much of the initiated, nor does confirmation of teen-agers in many churches. In addressing this vital issue of commitment, McKenna says we would do better by developing age-appropriate rites for children.

Older Catholics would benefit from taking part in an intensive preparation such as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), a model of which is included in the book. The RCIA can be performed in an evening or, better yet, over a few years. If the church is to help individuals explore and connect to the ethical implications of the sacraments, it needs to provide opportunities for such intentional and shared searching.

For anyone who has found rituals incomprehensible and liturgy little more than empty words, Rites of Justice is a helpful resource, illustrating how sacraments act as a guide for ethical living. Even in a modern society, we need rituals; for Christians, the sacraments are milestones and markers of our shared life in Christ. McKenna doesn’t address how rituals act on a symbolic level of awe and mystery, but she achieves her task of showing that sacraments are, at their core, about how we live with God.

McKenna cannot institute what she proposes. But on a lay, church-community level, she may get people talking about their commitment to a life of justice, and their need to affirm it through rituals.

MARCY TVEIDT, a radio producer at Minnesota Public Radio, is a member of the Community of St. Martin’s in Minneapolis.

Rites of Justice. By Megan McKenna. Orbis Books, 1997. Available from

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