Spring 1985, Vol. 37, pp. 33-46.

David J. Leigh:
      Toward a Sacrament of the World

At the levels of need for sacraments, of sacred sign, and of effect in our lives, the sacraments point beyond personal and ecclesial growth to remaking the world into a sacrament of God.

Father Leigh, S.J., is director of the honors program and a teacher of English at Seattle University. This article represents part of his larger writing project of relating the various areas of spirituality to social concern.

WHEN I asked a number of very active Catholics the simple question: "How do your work and your sacramental life influence one another?" the replies showed a striking discord. One professional man frankly admitted, "I can't say." Other people, busy in a variety of social works, said that they gained strength from the Eucharist, or kept their union with Christ alive at Mass, or asked for light, or brought in social concerns as a theme. A few even found the Eucharist "painful" because of the experience of the brokenness of modern life as brought together in the brokenness of Christ in the Eucharist. Not one of these highly trained and theologically educated persons could find one intrinsic connection between his or her sacramental life and work with the poor or the hungry or the oppressed. Why are we so out of tune? Are we perhaps tone deaf? Are we sacramental schizoids?

I doubt that our tone deafness comes primarily from a lack of understanding of the theology of the sacraments as communal celebrations. Most Catholics know by now why Vatican II insisted that "communal celebration involving the present and active participation of the faithful . . . is to be preferred, as far as possible, to a celebration that is individual and quasi-private."(1) Most of us have also come to see that the entire Christian community is a sort of worldwide "sacrament," or sacred sign, of Christ's dynamic presence in our world. But do we experience where this sign is pointing and pushing us?

We most likely see the Christian community throughout the world pointing us toward the mystery of God -- and this direction is fundamental. Since Vatican II, we also probably see the church pushing us toward one another in the mystery of community and this is also crucial. But do we see clearly the worldwide church as a sacrament "for the world"? Does it point and push us again and again into action on behalf of the wretched and the hungry? We have learned as Catholics to hear the Spirit calling us to the Father and to one another in communal celebrations. But the call must not stop there. For the Spirit in a world come of age calls us to be driven through personal experience of communal celebration outward toward all of society's needs. Within the church as sacred sign to the world, the sacraments are not only personal and ecclesial encounters with Christ. The sacraments are also vital societal symbols.

But how? This question baffled most people I have asked it of. It still baffles me, but I have come to see -- with the help of thinkers like Monika Hellwig, Bertrand de Margerie, and Teilhard de Chardin -- that, by reflecting closely on three aspects of each sacrament, we can find in our sacramental experience a deep societal dimension.

When we imagine ourselves entering into a sacramental action, such as receiving the Eucharist or going to confession, we find three levels: (1) our basic need for the sacrament; (2) the sacred sign in the sacrament itself; (3) the dynamic effect of the sacrament in our life. In each of these levels, we discover more than merely personal or community life, for each step contains a much wider range of urgency. Let us examine each of the sacraments at these various levels.


Lord Jesus Christ . . . Help our brothers and sisters who hear the message of the Gospel and keep them safe from the spirit of selfishness and greed .... As your disciples, may they see true happiness in poverty and hunger, in mercy and cleanness of heart. May they work for peace among men and joyfully endure persecution. (Prayer from Christian Initiation of Adults).(2)

This prayer is one of the few in the present Catholic ritual of initiation which puts into words the social responsibilities of the person becoming a Christian. But the sacrament itself at all its levels -- its basis, its symbolic action, and its effects -- contains the seeds of vital social involvement. Let us examine each level. What is the basis of baptism? What need do we all experience that makes us cry out for what God offers through this initial sacrament? Some call this fundamental experience "helplessness," others "slavery," others "alienation" -- but in every case, we all cry out for what St. Paul called "freedom." Whether we recognize this need in the total absorption of a child in its own narrow drives or whether we feel it ourselves in our helplessness before the entangled history of crime, bigotry, corruption, and poverty, we resonate when we hear Christ's promise to his followers: "You will learn the truth and the truth will make you free" (John 8:32). This freedom includes not only personal liberation from the dictates of inner compulsions but extends to include a drive toward freedom from the dictates of world systems of slavery and injustice. Baptism in prison or concentration camps is a beginning, but only a beginning, of a movement toward freedom.

We cannot escape by ourselves. The church recognizes the social dimension of both our enslavement to sin and our release from it when it fosters the baptism of children. As Monika Hellwig puts it: "What Christian baptism asserts is that no one can really offer a solution and live sinlessly in the world alone, but that through the death and resurrection of Jesus it has become possible and not futile for the community to strive together to do this. In the baptism of the infant the community of believers pledges itself to welcome him into that common effort and not leave him to struggle against unredemption alone."(3)

Furthermore, on the level of sign, the symbolic action of baptism -- cleansing by water poured by the community -- expresses (in many cultures) this wider social dimension by the very universality of water itself as a natural, if paradoxical, sign of life, washing, and chaos. These contradictory meanings -- life, washing, chaos -- suggest not only the paradox of redemption by being baptized into Christ's death and resurrection, but also suggest the paradox of one social dimension of the human predicament. This paradox is the conflict between water as a scarce resource of life in desert societies like the lower Sahara and water as an overabundant power of destruction in maritime societies like Nova Scotia. Those of us in affluent nations where we can turn on a faucet and get water at any moment often lose touch with this basic death-dealing and life-giving power of water. Yet even we are blindly dependent on society for the very fact that any water comes out of our faucets! We have covered up, by the magic o technology, both our thirst for water and our interdependence it satisfying this thirst.

But what about the effects of baptism? Does it instantly transform us into Mother Teresas or Martin Luther Kings? Hardly, but I suspect both those heroes of our age would trace their social concerns back to their personal liberation from the slavery of self-centeredness, a liberation that began with their baptism. For by baptism, people "are inserted into the choice of the People of God for the development of the world."(4) In baptism, we became part of a community with a worldwide mission, both religious and social, a purpose that we only gradually began to realize as we grew up Every year in the Easter vigil liturgy, we are challenged to renew our baptismal promises, a renewal which "for a Christian . . . is to bind himself anew to combat misery, disease, ignorance, death." In baptism we come into first sacramental contact with the community of God infiltrating the unrealized community of "all of us."


You must be witnesses before all the world to his suffering, death, and resurrection; your way of life should at all times reflect the goodness of Christ . . . . Be active members of the Church, alive in Jesus Christ. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, give your lives completely in the service of all. (Instruction at Confirmation)(5)
As the ritual indicates, one of our deepest needs is for strength to propel us from being passive adolescent believers into active adult Christians. However closely linked historically or liturgically with baptism, the sacramental effects of confirmation are more visibly social and worldwide than the obvious effects of baptism. Baptism brings us alive as Christians within our family and local church; confirmation, I propose, makes us able to leave these havens and move with courage and zeal into the threatening adult world. This larger adult world, as we have seen, is much more than a circle of friends. For it includes fellow human beings trapped in the cycle of poverty in India or the systems of violence in Russia or Uruguay.

Perhaps the complexity of our responsibility for influencing these social structures in the community beyond our families provides a clue to resolving the ongoing debate over the proper age for confirmation. If the societal world demands an adult commitment, and if confirmation is the sacrament of maturity, is there not a good reason for linking confirmation with the step into this adult world? As Monika Hellwig speculates: "If it is . . . the sacrament of active assumption of Church membership and apostolic responsibilities, then there is much to be said for waiting until the candidate is both ready and truly willing to make a fully adult commitment."(6) Father de Margerie himself suggests the same conclusion in his statement on the purpose of confirmation: "The Christian is confirmed by the Spirit in order to bear public witness to the choice of the whole Church for the social and personal progress of each and every man."(7)

How does the symbolic action of confirmation express this social potential in adult Christians? Like many Catholics who have been confirmed in grade school and never been consciously influenced by the sacrament, we might review the history of the sign of confirmation -- the anointing with chrism in the form of a cross. Theologians remind us that oil was used in the ancient world to strengthen soldiers for battle and also used to anoint prophets. This combination makes us think, for, like Isaiah or Amos, the militant prophets of justice in Israel, the adult believer today must speak and live in a manner that dramatically opposes the violence and exploitation of the modern world. The sign of the cross, of course, reminds the maturing Christian of the suffering which makes up the life of a prophet and a soldier. But the cross should suggest more than just suffering; it should also remind us of the ultimate change needed in our society -- a transformation of the instruments of death (weapons, gas chambers, bombs) into instruments of life (food labs, hospitals, grain ships). The cross-shaped swords of modern war, cry the contemporary prophets confirmed with the sign of Christ's cross, must be beaten into the plowshares of a modern peace. This is a mind-shattering cry in a world which insanely named its first Trident nuclear submarine Corpus Christi -- The Body of Christ!

EUCHARIST: BUILDING BY SHARING THE BODY OF CHRIST Father, make your Church throughout the world a sign of unity and an instrument of your peace .... In that new world where the fullness of your peace will be revealed, gather people of every race, language, and way of life to share in the one eternal banquet with Jesus Christ the Lord. (Eucharistic Prayer for Masses of Reconciliation II)

For all of us, the Eucharist is the central Christian sacrament. In a recent ceremony on the feast of Corpus Christi a priest was being sent to five years of missionary work in Zambia. The homilist had little difficulty showing this missionary the many ways in which the Eucharist was a sacrament of mission, and also a sacrament that kept him in close union with all of us working in the United States. For him and all of us, Christ in the Eucharist is both drawing us to himself and driving us to make him present to our brothers and sisters in every nation. Perhaps more clearly than other sacraments, the Eucharist not only nourishes our personal and parish lives but also suggests to us the importance of its connection with a variety of social concerns. In 1976, at the Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia, this connection made headlines in the American press. For the first time in history, the church focused an entire international event on the essential link between the Eucharist and the "hungers of the human family." The congress captured the hunger for simple bread expressed in the very bodies of delegates from Africa and Asia. It captured the hunger for the bread of justice and freedom expressed in popular Spanish hymns by delegates from Latin America who brought their "Mass of Protest." And it captured the hunger for nourishment and unity between rich and poor nations expressed in speeches by Mother Teresa and Fr. Pedro Arrupe, General Superior of the Jesuits. Arrupe summed up the message of the congress when he said:

This rediscovery of what might be called the "social dimension" of the Eucharist is of tremendous significance today. In the Eucharist . . . we receive not only Christ, the Head of the Body, but its members as well .... Wherever there is suffering in the body, wherever members of it are in want or oppressed, we, because we have received the same body and are part of it, must be directly involved. We cannot properly receive the Bread of Life without sharing bread for life with those in want.(8)

This same theme was most recently reasserted at the 1981 Eucharistic Congress in Lourdes. As Cardinal Krol said at a Mass for 3,000 English-speaking participants: "Jesus is bread broken for the world not only that he might heal our wounded nature through eucharistic nourishment but that we might see him in the broken bodies of those who are starving in Somalia; of those who are refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia; of those who are victims of violence in Lebanon and El Salvador."

Making this connection between Eucharist and hunger is not an artificial straining to be relevant. For, as Monika Hellwig reminds us, the desire for Eucharist is anthropologically based on the profound experience of hunger. This basic need, too often forgotten in supermarket societies like ours where most of us are never hungry for more than a couple hours, this basic need preys upon the lives of most people in the Third World today. For most people in most new nations are hungry most of the time. They are so hungry with this obsession for a few crumbs of bread or a handful of rice that they cannot concentrate on anything else. Only if we can share their hunger -- by voluntary fasting, for instance -- can we experience the fullness of Eucharist. For the Eucharist answers to several hungers on many human levels, all of which presuppose that we have helplessly and obsessively experienced the simplest pangs of physical hunger. If we know what hunger for very life is, then we can learn what hunger for the fullness of life might be. The experience of hunger stretches us out to share the common hunger of millions in our world and drives us deep into human hungers on many levels. Only after such primal experiences of hunger are we ready to enter into the hungers for communion, for nourishment of spirit, and for sustenance on our mission as Christians. All of these hungers are satisfied in the symbolic action of sharing Christ in the Eucharist.

What precisely is this symbolic action? Is it "receiving the host"? Is it "drinking from the cup"? Is it "encountering Christ at the altar"? All of these phrases touch on the truth, but they do not convey the full "significance" (sign-with-meaning) of this central human sacrament: sharing Christ as food. The simple human activity of "sharing food" becomes both the answer to our spiritual hunger and points us beyond ourselves toward the principal solution to the physical hungers of the world. We who are rarely hungry must share Christ as food so that we may share our food with others who are always hungry. The very sign in the Eucharist (as in all the sacraments, I am suggesting) -- the very sign points and propels us to the type of activity that Christ in the sacrament wants to bring about. In traditional terms, theologians told us that sacraments "cause what they signify"; the Eucharist "signifies" sharing Christ as food and thereby "causes" us to share food for Christ. As Cardinal Gracias forewarned us at the 1964 Eucharistic Congress in Bombay: "To wish to unite all men in the partaking of 'spiritual' bread, without at the same time providing 'material' bread, is only a dream."

Thus, one of the primary effects of the Eucharist, beyond uniting us with the body of Christ in his real presence and in his presence in the mystical body, is to drive us into solidarity with the hungriest members of his body. Recognizing Christ in the breaking of the bread at Mass in our parishes should urge us to recognize him in the bodies of people broken for lack of bread in the ghettoes of Calcutta. Conversely, our sharing in the hungers of the world should deepen our need for nourishment, communion, and apostolic strength found in the Eucharist. To receive Christ at a banquet is to be reminded and required to make a banquet possible for more and more people -- both for their sake now and as a preparation of all of us to share in an everlasting banquet where all hungers shall be satisfied. The urgency of this eucharistic demand for effective justice is no minor matter of the sacrament. As Mark Searle has said: "When the community fails to practice justice, it fails to celebrate as Christ intended. Then we have the laconic and chilling verdict of Paul: 'It is not the Lord's Supper that you are eating' (1 Cor. 11:20)."(9)

Finally, the very use of physical elements of bread and wine "which earth has given and human hands have made" can suggest the cosmic interdependence of all peoples today. In our mutual dependence on such elements, we are linked with one another and with all of creation. What is more, as Teilhard de Chard in tells us so eloquently, the use of this material world to communicate divine life in this sacrament of unity reminds us that not only entire peoples but also the entire universe is to be transformed by "Christ:

As our humanity assimilates the material world, and as the Host assimilates our humanity, the Eucharistic transformation goes beyond and completes the trans-substantiation of the bread on the altar. Step by step it irresistibly invades the universe. It is the fire that sweeps over the heath; the stroke that vibrates through the bronze. In a secondary and generalized sense, but in a true sense, the sacramental Species are formed by the totality of the world, and the duration of the creation is the time needed for its consecration.(10)

Do I share my possessions with the less fortunate? Do I do my best to help the victims of oppression, misfortune, and poverty? Or do I look down on my neighbor, especially the poor, the sick, the elderly, strangers, and people of other races? (Form of Examination of Conscience)(11)

The rise of parish penance services has begun to broaden our experience of the sacrament of reconciliation to include more of our brothers and sisters. Yet few people confess their need for healing of the social effects of sin. just ask yourself: "How often have I asked forgiveness in confession for doing nothing (or caring little) about the millions dying of hunger? for tolerating the horrible arms race that my taxes and my representatives have supported? for passively allowing pornography, abortion, and drug traffic to increase all around us?" If we were active members of a crooked business or a crime syndicate, we would certainly feel a deep obligation to admit our responsibility and to ask forgiveness for these "social sins." Why do we find it so hard to admit responsibility and ask for reconciliation for our sins of social indifference and omission? Most of the time we do not even recognize our need for healing and reconciliation on the societal level. In our felt sacramental life, we are very private persons.

Once we come to feel our need for a renewal of our baptismal liberation from the social effects of sin, we must recall the two essentials of Christian forgiveness. First, our moment of recognizing our sinfulness must not be separated from our recognition of God's gift of forgiveness. Without this double recognition, as most of us will admit when we think of the arms race or world hunger, our sinfulness paralyzes us with neurotic guilt. Second, a recognition of common sinfulness and forgiveness can be most hopefully experienced in a communal setting. The importance of communal experience of this sacrament has led Monika Hellwig to say: "The attitude and commitment of penance relates not only to one's own particular sinfulness but to all that needs to be put right in the world, to the whole vast network of unredemption . . . . Since it is precisely out of this enslaved and fearful state that we need to be redeemed or converted, it may be assumed that none of us has within himself the freedom to accomplish the conversion, the turning around, alone without support."(12)

Since our sins do not occur in isolation, then, our reconciliation with God and his people should not occur in isolation. As de Margerie has written so movingly, "It is to all mankind, mysteriously and indirectly represented by the priest as minister of Christ and of the Church, that the penitent confesses his sins .... It [sin] is at once and inseparably a war against personal, ecclesial, and social development. Furthermore, all the tears . . . of laboring mankind mingle with and transfigure the tears of the penitent."(13)

This inborn need we have for a "social" sacrament for the "social" effects of our brokenness fits in well with the central symbolic action of penance. The sign of this sacrament is precisely a social event -- a "conversation" with a representative of God's people. In the conversational process of confessing and receiving counsel and forgiveness, the human actions of the penitent and confessor point and urge us toward the worldwide process of reconciliation called for by the "sin of the world" today. Only by mutual dialogue, forgiveness, and reconciliation can the individual be reunited with God's people; only by the same process can violent nations or classes be reunited with one another under God. The inner and community "peace" that is the ordinary result of a good confession also serves as a model for the wider "peace" sought for in the reconciliation of people today.


Hellwig reminds us of the traditional experience of preparing for communion, confession, or the other sacraments. Most of us were taught not to just "go" to the sacraments; instead we were to follow our families and teachers in getting ready by examining our conscience or recollecting ourselves, and so on. In addition, we had been prepared by years of human social experience of the "signs" of each sacrament -- of washing, of eating, of conversing. Most immediately in penance and anointing, we were usually well disposed and ready to celebrate our meeting with Christ in these sacred moments because we had been reconciled by our family or served by nurses or assisted by friends to be ready for what all of us experience -- suffering and dying. To receive a two minute anointing during a surprise visit by a busy hospital chaplain on his late rounds was to experience a truncated sacrament (and perhaps to experience what Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace"). These two sacraments of healing demand strong support from those around us so that we honestly encounter the fullness of Christ's risen presence as reconciler and healer. In the sacrament of the sick, particularly, where we face the darkness and pain of suffering and death, we desperately need the closeness of others who are -- facing the same challenge. For we are all encountering our share in the worldwide brotherhood and sisterhood of the final mystery. Fortunately we need not face this mystery alone, as Jesus did, nor need we cry out, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"

The scriptural passage in James 5, often recognized as the biblical basis of this sacrament, reminds us that the symbolic action of the anointing of the sick involves several social aspects:

If one of you is ill, he should send for the elders of the church, and they must anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord and pray over him. The prayer of faith will save the sick man and the Lord will raise him up again.
Here we notice the whole people of God are present through the "elders"; here the "anointing" reminds us of the special share the sick person has in the universal priesthood of the faithful; and here the "prayers" are not private but public pleas to God uniting the entire community of believers with the sick person in his or her encounter with Christ suffering, dying, and rising. In this sacred moment, as in all others, we are not left orphans. De Margerie sums up the wider social meaning of this often forgotten sacrament: "Far from being anointed merely to secure an individual and temporary healing, . . . the body of the sick person is consecrated in order . . . to draw with it the rest of the baptized and even all mankind towards complete definitive healing of soul and body in the beatific vision and in the glorious resurrection."(14)


The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lord's year of favour. (Luke 4: 18-19 -- Suggested reading for Admission to Candidacy for Ordination)(15)

What social need calls for a special sacrament of orders? I would suggest that the world today is crying out for a new type of leadership. I might describe this new leadership as "transforming service for all people." This new form is found in the model of the sacrament of holy orders within the Catholic tradition. For in this sacrament, a person is officially and publically sent to represent and communicate the transforming presence and power of Christ to all people. The symbolic action of the ordination ceremony -- the laying on of hands -- suggests this handing on of power is unusual for the use of hands in this nonviolent yet empowering gesture expresses and directs us toward the very nonviolent but transforming power of love in Christ's own life, death, and resurrection. Unlike other newly created leaders, the priest does not receive through a handshake, a crowning, or a public oath any power over armies or treasuries or laws. He simply receives the community's and God's approval to lead as Jesus led.

What makes the priest distinctive as a social leader? Precisely his powerless power to bring about a transformation of the cycles of power in the world -- the arms race, the racial conflicts, the family and the national feuds -- into cycles of reconciliation. The priest present in these social conflicts is able to offer all of us a way out of these endless absurdities by breaking in with the transforming "law of the cross." This is the "law," or pattern, by which death leads to higher life, frustration leads to patience, and suffering leads to joy. Christ's active presence in the midst of our social upheavals calls not only for the efforts of all Christians but especially for those of the priest as Christ's official and marked representative wherever the cycle of power needs to be broken. In this way the priest as prison chaplain, social worker, parish leader, academic administrator, teacher, arbitrator, and so on, has a strangely powerful role to play. He is anointed to help create a community of faith and love by changing the limitations and absurdities in each area of social conflict into the occasion for new life. Thus, for instance, the nonviolent efforts of Martin Luther King in the South or the prison reforms of Fr. Dismas Clark in St. Louis or the call to civil protest against the arms race by Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle -- all of these are expressions of the social challenge of the ordained ministry of Christ.

In reflecting on this transforming call of priesthood, which all the faithful share in their own way, we see that priests in their social responsibility also bring this to others as they lead them in the other sacraments, particularly in the Eucharist. Monica Hellwig reminds us of Christ's own chosen need for "all of us" to join him throughout history in bringing liberation to others: "He called forth life in others so that he could summon ever widening circles of people to collaborate in the radical reconstruction of all human society . . . . The gesture of the multiplication of the loaves is extended in the world today in WHO, UNICEF, OXFAM, Food for Millions . . . ."(16)

Each of the sacraments -- in its basic need, its symbolic action, and its effects -- draws us into Christ's unending call for collaboration in building a new heaven and a new earth.(17) His new world will be its own sacrament.

  1. Vatican Council II, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no. 27.
  2. The Rites of the Catholic Church (New York: Pueblo Publishing Co., 1976), p. 56.
  3. Monika Hellwig, The Meaning of Sacraments (Dayton: Pflaum, 1972), p. 14.
  4. Bertrand de Margerie, The Sacraments and Social Progress (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1974), p. 7.
  5. The Rites, p. 317.
  6. Meaning of Sacraments, p. 28.
  7. Sacraments and Social Progress, p. 8.
  8. Fr. Pedro Arrupe, "The Eucharist and Hunger," Justice with Faith Today (St. Louis: Jesuit Resources, 1980), pp. 176-77.
  9. Marke Searle, "Serving the Lord with Justice," in Liturgy and Social Justice, ed. Mark Searle (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1980), p. 32.
  10. Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu (London: Collins, 1960), p. 125-26.
  11. The Rites, p. 443.
  12. Meaning of Sacraments, pp. 83, 85.
  13. Sacraments and Social Progress, pp. 90-91.
  14. Ibid., p. 115.
  15. The Rites, p. 755.
  16. Monika Hellwig, The Eucharist and the Hungers of the World (New York: Paulist Press, 1977), pp. 38-39.
  17. The sacrament of matrimony has been omitted in this article, for I treat it with other ways of life in another article in progress.