Summer 1985, Vol. 37, pp. 160-169.

Clare Wagner:
      Current Trends: Can We Be a Sacramental Church?

Sr. Wagner, O.P., currently working in the Office of Catholic Education in the archdiocese of Chicago, spent several years preaching retreats and parish renewals in the Chicago area, gaining a sense of grass-roots Christian spirituality.

In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are,
to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstacy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not. T. S. Eliot     (1)
AS I begin this essay about the Christian community as sacrament, what is clearest to me is what we do not know and where we are not. T. S. Eliot's poetry of paradox is an appropriate lead into this expression of search and struggle and questioning about the sacramental identity of church in 1985. The lines are reminiscent of familiar gospel themes -- the one who loses life will find it; the seed must fall into the ground and die in order to bring forth fruit.

No one familiar with post-Vatican-II theology would question the fact that, as Jesus Christ was the sacrament of God in the world, so the Christian community is the sacrament of the risen Christ in the world. A new awareness of identity as sacrament is, however, growing among us. Can it be that this, in one sense, old model of church is what this age calls Christians to and what needs to be rediscovered?

Eliot's lines describe the disconcerting way the upbuilding of church as sacrament, as body of Christ, is occurring now. Experience of the brokenness of the body seems to be the incentive to create sacramental community. People in recent years have gone ways wherein there is no ecstacy, ways of ignorance, ways of dispossession to discover what they are not. One thing the Catholic church at this time in history is not is sacrament for and in the world. The time in which we are forced to admit this, is the very same time in which there are signs that the body of Christ is being born anew. It is important not to move quickly to what fragile new reality is being born without pondering, even savoring though the taste is unpleasant -- the brokenness of the body, the revelation of what we are not.

The way "wherein there is no ecstacy" is to read on the cover of Time (4 February 1985): "Discord in the Church -- The Pope Takes a Tough Line; A Radical Theology Challenges Rome; Women Demand a New Role." It is anything but ecstacy-producing to realize, after reading the lengthy and fairly accurate account of the "discord," that there is much more internal pain and anguish of which Time knows nothing. We traveled by "the way of ignorance" when we thought we knew something about Christian community and how to create it. Now we are aware we did not know and a bit humbly we search for the secret. We go by "the way of dispossession" when we experience that our security about the future church seems to be taken away. Those predictions about the church of the twenty-first century spoken in a glib and all too certain tone fade; and, necessarily, we are driven to trust God and one another and to plan as well as we are able.


The church is dying as sacrament; it is being born as sacrament. This is not heresy, but a paschal-mystery statement. In these past months a staff of the education department of a large metropolitan archdiocese met to discuss the meaning of faith. I am a member of this well-educated, Catholic group of people intent on articulating together what we believe. We did some reflection in solitude on a list of "Things Catholics Believe," to remember and clarify our thoughts on those elements before we spoke of them in groups. Areas such as gospel values, spirituality, spiritual and corporal works of mercy, and Christology evoked some comment, some understanding, some questioning, and much agreement about the significance of each. But when the area of sacrament was considered, there were explosions and very lively expressions of thoughts and feelings in the groups.

The personal histories of many adult Catholics with the sacramental system are marked by negative experience and by a conviction that change is essential. What was immediately clear was that, unless individuals had had current sacramental theology courses, post-Vatican-II understandings of church as sacrament and sacramental celebrations as community events were a well-kept secret. An old understanding of sacrament was incompatible with this group's current sense of lay Catholic identity. They named their former experience (present for some) as bordering on magic, threatening, inhuman, and unsatisfying. Remembering sacraments as actions performed by the church (meaning the ordained clergy) to grant grace to recipients was disturbing now. A strong connection was made by some between sacraments and individual sin: they either took sin away or fortified one to avoid sin. The sacraments were seen by a few as the church's way of having power over the faithful. I realized we had to talk together about a new way of seeing sacrament, a shift from thinking of sacraments in individualistic terms to appreciation for the communal dimension of every sacrament which has always been there but not always emphasized.

An ironic aspect of this experience is that, in the four long meetings during which this staff studied, discussed, clarified, and actually shared faith, we were becoming a little church together; we were becoming a sacramental reality. Through our prayer, study, table communion, risk to share faith and doubt and to search together we were becoming a community which, as Bernard Cooke describes, locates the risen Christ in space and time and implements the vision and purposes of the risen Christ.(2) In this instance we were dying to one understanding of sacrament and being born as sacramental community without a consciousness of just that. The new consciousness is yet to come; awareness of the significance of the proliferation of small faith communities for the sacramentality of the entire church is also yet to come.

Rather than focusing on more accurate understandings of the meaning and communal dimension of each of the seven sacraments right now, this adult community and others can benefit by looking at the sacramental nature of church itself. Consideration of infant Christianity brings about some nostalgia for the "good old days" before the church got so very big. Recalling this past also has the power to fire believers to re-create the body of the risen Christ in this space and time. "Christianity began as a people who shared an experience of the risen one, shared a vision of what human life was all about and shared Christ's own Spirit."(3) The communities that developed were animated by resurrection faith, by the Spirit continually given them by the risen Christ. They embodied the presence of the risen Jesus; therefore they were sacramental and their actions as communities were sacramental. People in those early communities -- while never using or knowing the word sacrament -- did understand that it was the presence of the risen Christ which they desired, and felt responsible, to keep alive in the world. They knew that the word, memory, and spirit of Jesus was continually creating them to be the body of Christ and do God's ministry of healing, teaching, forgiving, and preaching as Jesus had done. What held them together, in spite of difficulties, was their conviction that God's definitive act of salvation had occurred in Jesus' death and resurrection. In one sense, Jesus "instituted the church" by becoming the risen Christ and enlivening these peoples with the Spirit. Awareness of what Jesus founded to continue the mission God gave to him clarifies what we are not as sacramental community -- and what we are struggling to become.


A question often thought and seldom spoken these days is how much polarization can church tolerate and, remain one church. How wounded can the body be within itself and still be able to heal itself? Our need for reconciliation within the church is a survival need, and the dialogue that has to precede it must begin now. Unpleasant as it is, let us look together at signs of distress within. Differing ecclesiologies are splitting parishes or pitting one parish against another: some long for and work for a church of coequal disciples, while others strongly support the hierarchical model. Catechesis is in crisis: some insist on content and methodologies which predate Vatican II, while others insist on the most currently developed ways of communicating the faith to new believers and developing Christians. Sacramental experience varies: while eucharistic celebrations unify certain communities, they have become alienating experiences for a large number of Catholics. Conscience moves some to civil disobedience, others to build more nuclear bombs; some never to question leadership, others necessarily to dissent. These differences reflect more than diversity; they are threatening to unity and certainly to church identity as sacrament. What, then, does church signify to the world community?

What it signifies to individuals and groups in this world depends on people's perception. Certainly history attests to discord, disharmony, sinful behavior in the church (remember Galileo, Catherine of Siena's time, the inquisition, dissension even in the communities of Paul, Peter, John). We are too immersed in the present realities of church to have completely clear vision or make completely accurate judgments. What Jesus Christ founded will survive -- that we know. That a world church is being born, we can see. That lay ministry is a recognized reality, we can see. That martyrs and holy people are in our midst, we can see. That small communities based on gospel values and ready to act out of them are emerging, we can see. These things we see with eyes of faith.

While the tension, disagreement, sinfulness in us and around us seem overwhelming, hope comes out of a commitment to the birth process, to the reconciliation process, to the spiritual awakening process, to the search for God incarnated in our experience. An expectation of perfection of anyone or any group or oneself only promotes despair. For a community to be sacrament for the world means that it recognizes and believes in the sacred union of God's Spirit and human flesh. This union is necessarily imperfect but also empowering. This union makes it possible to signify to the world a people struggling to develop enough strength within itself to contribute to a new order in the world.

The place where any people begin to enter into the re-creation of church as sacramental presence in the world is their own experience. Attention to experience as the place where God speaks now is essential to spiritual development; it is also the underpinning of sacramental presence.

A recent experience of my own has made me particularly conscious of differences within church and of the personal and communal pain those differences effect. It is common knowledge that last December the Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes sent letters to the leaders of twenty-four religious women and three religious men who signed a statement which appeared in the New York Times. The statement concerned the existence among Catholics of different positions on abortion and the need for dialogue.

In order not to jeopardize the current process going on between the signers, the religious leaders, and the Sacred Congregation, I will not discuss here the issues inherent in the actions which occurred. What I want to illustrate is the way in which an experience which is difficult and negative can give rise to some healthy developments which give every sign of being of the Spirit of God. By focusing on this dimension, I do not in any way intend to diminish the pain and anguish this event has caused. We go clearly by "a way wherein there is no ecstasy."


Listening to other women speak about it assured me that my personal response to this incident was not an isolated case. After lengthy and intense discussion with my community group, which included one of the signers, and after a restless night's sleep, I realized that I felt as if I was struck by a bolt which rather thoroughly disconcerted me. Things which I had taken for granted and which, I since realize, gave me security were called into question. This left me fearful and threatened. I had been confident that membership in my religious congregation and the church would go on, with perhaps some rough times, as long as I would live. I had been confident, too, that my sisters who chose to share this common life-style with me could do so as long as I would live. I had seen ahead of me a path of life which stretched out a great distance before me toward a distant horizon; and I had seen securely situated on this path myself and those with whom I traveled, taking one step at a time toward the future. Suddenly none of the above could be taken for granted and the path was abruptly shortened, the future less certain than ever. Numerous "what ifs" were raised by this incident.

How "at home" can I become with insecurity? Are God, women travelers, friends, family (not a negligible company of folk, certainly) all I have now? Do I need to be prepared for dispossession? Is not knowing what is down the road, or not even knowing if the road is solid underfoot, some kind of gift? Kathy Fisher writes: "Detachment is the freedom to allow our entire worldview to be turned upside down and our deepest values challenged."(4) Is this kind of forced detachment which is going on now a prerequisite for "new" church?

Though I have written in the first person because this was indeed my experience, I could as well have used we. I am sure of that. It is no wonder that, at least in this city where five signers minister, groups began to gather. People needed one another for support and clarification of thoughts and feelings. We had always seemed too busy to get together, yet seven gatherings occurred now in less than a month! Two of them illustrate the phenomenon which has begun to occur. Out of an experience of threat of exclusion or oppression -- which this event was for many -- emerged a strong desire to support one's own and to dialogue about the issue and its significance for our lives.

In the first meeting of thirty-three women of one religious community, we prayed, we heard a chronology of the events related to the issue of the signing, and we asked questions for clarification. In recent years we have met dozens of times for chapter preparation and for the renewal process, but this meeting was different from any of those. Views in the group about the statement in the New York Times and Rome's reaction were mixed. There were no mixed views, however, concerning the fact that one among us -- one of our own -- was facing a difficult ordeal and her very membership in the community was involved. No mixed views either about the fact that we wanted to support her. Some of the things said at the meeting are revelatory of its tone and many other such gatherings during months past:

We're a family. No matter what a member thinks, you don't put her out.

One and one half million women have left the church in the past several years -- what does this mean?

The power of Rome can make one afraid -- but our power is in the bondedness among us.

We need to get together with other women; we need to talk and pray together.

How will we handle reconciliation? What does Jesus' call to enemy love mean in this context?

What is the future of our sisterhood? What will I give my life for?

This meeting ended with a pledge of support, love, and prayer for the signers and religious leaders involved. Someone suggested the song "Spirit of the Living God" for the closing. During the song the women spontaneously reached out to one another to join hands.

The second gathering was a prayer service at which about four hundred women and men came together to pray with, and stand with the signers. It was a solemn service which began with a procession and the chanting of the Taize Veni Sancti Spiritus. We listened to the word of God and to excellent preaching on Luke's Gospel by a sister who, in one portion of her homily, used as a refrain the phrase "Have you forgotten . . . ?" In essence, have you forgotten the values and actions of the disciples of Jesus Christ as expressed by Luke? If we had, she raised them up in our memories so that we could acknowledge them again, be moved by them, and notice where those values and actions are in our world and in our midst. Toward the end of the service we were invited, not to hold hands, but to clasp wrists because it was a stronger symbol of the bonding among us. Once again we pledged support to the signers, naming them litany-style and responding after each name, "We stand with you." We closed our prayer with song and the peace greeting.

Someday the entire story of the signing of the statement and the future of its signers who belong to religious congregations will be known and written about. Now I want to attend to this sampling of initial response described here with restraint.

Three things one can notice in what was just described are feelings of loss, a sense of powerlessness, and a solidarity among those gathered. The feelings of loss were dominant because what had provided security might be taken away; a major shift in where security could be found was required. The expressions of fear, the questions about the "future of our sisterhood," the feelings of confusion came out of a sense of loss that became more pronounced day by day.

We seemed to have little control over the future, over membership, over our lives; we felt powerless. But we began to gather to talk about these feelings; we began to tell one another we were a family and we would be there; we consistently prayed for the Spirit of God to influence and empower us. We reached out to one another; our motives were partly insecurity, partly support, and partly a new sense of our identity as community. In a recent address on sacramental church, Philip Murnion says that the community of faith is better described in terms of solidarity than of intimacy, and that the solidarity is based on the fact of God's action in Christ (5) -- and, one might add, on the action of God's Spirit in the people of God right now. We Christians have been long in search of the "ingredients" and the experience of faith community. Both are available in reflection on what has happened here.


The large institutions of the world would regard as insignificant the incident just related, or Etty Hillesum's note which said, "We left camp singing," or a procession in Brazil to the Church of the Poor Devil, or a joyous festival in a ravaged Nicaraguan town.(6) On the contrary, from God's point of view (excuse the audacity), those incidents are very significant. They signify the presence of the Spirit of God alive in the world. They are sacramental moments, words, groups. What the human family needs is the church as sacrament in the world.

Central to Jesus' way of being God's sacrament in the world was parable and paradox. The magnificent reversals in the stories of the widow's mite, the vineyard workers who came last and received the full wage, the publican and the Pharisee who pray these reversals are signs Jesus spoke. Losing life to find it and the seed's falling into the ground and dying to give fruit indicate the way Jesus lived and died. Constant in Jesus' ministry was the upbuilding of the community that would bear his name through preaching, teaching, and healing. It is impossible to be sacrament in the world without entering into this way of reversal and of paradox.

The cultural milieu which predominates in the Western world is forcing the issue of sacramentality. To espouse the values of the culture and claim the name Christian is more and more seriously a mockery of the alternate way of life Jesus lived. In our churches we may dispense the sacraments vigorously from altars and baptismal fonts around the earth, but we are not church as sacrament until we are a sign to the world of the love Jesus brought into the world. And we have miles to go.

Fear and insecurity and powerlessness and loss of our way are forcing us out of our individualism to extend hands to one another and pray to be empowered by the Spirit. This in itself is a seed falling into the ground with promise of life, and this movement away from individualism toward community built on common faith is counter to the worst in our culture. Are we learning through the way "wherein there is no ecstasy" the truth that "the gospel is not a matter of individual soul; it is the communal proclamation of the life-giving power of Spirit-Sophia and of God's vision of an alternative community in the world."(7) The world could be so deeply affected by such a proclamation that all life might again be seen as sacramental -- the beginning of a new creation.


  1. "East Coker" Four Quartets (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), p. 29.
  2. Bernard Cooke, Sacraments and Sacramentality (Mystic, Conn.: Twenty-Third Publications, 1983), p. 73.
  3. Ibid. p. 70.
  4. Katthleen Fisher, The Inner Rainbow: The Imagination in Christian Life (Ramsey, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1983), p. 84.
  5. Philip Murnion, "A Sacramental Church in the Modern World," Origins 14 (21 June 1984): 88.
  6. See my "Current Trends: Spirituality in a Dark Age; Some Reflections," Spirituality Today 37 (1985): 59-71.
  7. Elizabeth Schülssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her (New York: Crossroad, 1983), p. 344.