Just a few days before the publication of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on the family, a book launch was held in Rome featuring several distinguished cardinals and prelates from around the world. The book, Con i sacramenti non si scherza (The Sacraments Are Not a Joke), is by theologian and Vatican liturgical consultor Msgr. Nicola Bux, professor of sacramental theology and author of several books on the liturgy, including 2010’s Come andare a messa e non perdere la fede (How to Go to Mass and Not Lose One’s Faith) and Benedict XVI’s Reform: The Liturgy Between Innovation and Tradition (Ignatius).
The book launch on April 6, organized by Italian publisher Cantagalli, took place in a crowded hall of the ancient Palazzo della Rovere (now the Hotel Columbus). Speakers at the event included the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Cardinal Robert Sarah; Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta; and Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, former president of the Institute for the Works of Religion, the “Vatican bank.” Also present were Cardinals Raffaele Farina, Walter Brandmüller, Velasio De Paolis and José Saraiva Martins, as well as Archbishops Agostino Marchetto, Carlo Maria Viganò—the recently retired apostolic nuncio to the United States—and Guido Pozzo, the secretary of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei. The audience also included large numbers of priests and seminarians, many dressed in traditional cassocks.
Messages of support for the book were sent by senior clerics, including Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Cardinal Peter Erdo, primate of Hungary and president of the Council of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe; Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary; secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Family Msgr. Jean Lafitte; master of Pontifical Liturgical Celebrations Msgr. Guido Marini; and former theologian of the papal household, Cardinal Georges Cottier, who died just a few days before the book launch on March 31.
The book’s preface was penned by Catholic writer Vittorio Messori. Messori writes that in his book Msgr. Bux clarifies the purpose, meaning, and history of each of the seven sacraments, and includes a warning about the distortions, misunderstandings, additions, or subtractions that threaten each sacrament today. According to Messori, at the root of many of these distortions is something Msgr. Bux has denounced in previous books: the “anthropocentric turn which brought into the Church much presence of man, but little presence of God”—sociology instead of theology, the horizontal without the vertical. These trends are reflected in the book’s cover, which features a photo from a wedding that took place in the UK in 2010, at which the bride and groom were dressed as Wonder Woman and Batman.
Cardinal Sarah was the first to take the floor at the book launch. “How can one possibly make fun of God’s presence?” he said. “The sacraments are effective signs, medicines that heal you from sin; how can you fool around with medicines that save you and restore your health?”
“As [we are] repeatedly reminded by Pope Benedict XVI, in these decades after the Council we are witnessing deformations of the liturgy [that are] hard to bear,” Cardinal Sarah continued. “Therefore Pope John Paul II wrote the encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, which was followed by the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, restating that the lex credendi is at stake in the sacraments. The same concern prompted Pope Benedict XVI to promulgate the apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis and the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum.”
For Sarah, “not to joke with the sacraments means to give center stage to the sacrament of sacraments, the Holy Eucharist…. The tabernacle provides orientation ad Dominum, so necessary at this time when many would like to live as if God did not exist, and do what they want.”
“Today the need to understand [the sacraments] is increasing, because of deformations and bad decisions deliberately taken by many priests who confuse the faithful,” Cardinal Sarah said. “Some priests behave like television hosts.”
Referencing the words of St. Ambrose, Cardinal Sarah stressed that the sacraments “are like mysteries.”
“To understand the sacraments we need not open our eyes, but close them. The sacraments are not understood with the eyes of flesh, but with the inner, spiritual ones.”
Cardinal Burke recalled, among other things, that after the Second Vatican Council “a worldly-minded, secular mentality had spread that despised the rich tradition of the Church,” a phenomenon he said he experienced directly in the United States as a seminarian. The consequences, he said, have included the fact that large numbers of American Catholic have ceased going to church and no longer believe that the Eucharist is the Body of Christ. This loss of faith and moral decline have their roots in liturgical abuse and a misunderstanding of the sacraments, Cardinal Burke said. “There is anarchy in the liturgy, the liturgy is submitting to creativity,” he said. “But the liturgy is not anyone’s private property, no one can take away or add something of his own initiative.”
Economist Ettore Gotti Tedeschi spoke next at the book launch, arguing that the 21st century will see global consequences of the widespread failure to teach Catholic doctrine. A conversion of hearts will be necessary, he said, and the Church has three ways to change the hearts of men: the Magisterium, prayer, and the sacraments, above all the Eucharist. The liturgy is an instrument of salvation: if we allow the culture to transform it, it loses its effectiveness, he said.
The evening concluded with an address by Msgr. Bux, who called on those present “to ask for the Lord to accomplish his work in the world with the victory over evil and death.”
“I think all of us are convinced that the raison d’être of the Church in the world is to defeat evil and death through Jesus Christ, for he has triumphed over evil and death,” Msgr. Bux said. “So he wanted the Church for this victory over evil and death to continue in the world,” through the sacraments he instituted.
“We already have the tools to respond to the human crisis,” Msgr. Bux continued. “And the fundamental instrument is precisely the Sacrament.”
There is, however, a crisis of faith within the Church herself, he said; “the whole question of the presence of Christ in the greatest sign of the tabernacle…that we do not believe that Christ is truly present and that he is operating [in our lives].”
Msgr. Bux said he understands those of his confreres who try to make the liturgy more attractive by making changes they think will be popular with those in the pews, “but in so doing they end up forgetting that the participation of the faithful, as written in the liturgical constitution of Vatican II, is by means of ritus et preces, that is, through these rites, seemingly insignificant and sometimes enigmatic…not [by means of] our words, our explanations, our speeches, but by letting the sacrament operate.”
This is nothing new, Msgr. Bux noted. The Church Fathers did exactly this—spoke as little as possible, celebrated the sacraments, and gave explanations for the faithful’s comprehension as needed. Today, he argued, priests speak for at least half the Mass, indicating a lack of confidence in the rite’s ability to communicate. “But this is not only the death of the liturgy,” Msgr. Bux said. “This is the death of faith.”
Msgr. Bux further contended that if Christ considered the establishment of the sacraments decisive in the victory over evil and death, who are we to devise “pastoral plans” of various kinds? At least with regard to Italy, he observed, after 40 years of pastoral planning, the Italian people are increasingly turning away from the Church, and the corruption of which Pope Francis speaks so often is rampant.
“I think it is about time to take back what Christ himself has instituted for us,” Msgr. Bux said in his closing remarks. “The sacraments are a divine institution and have been entrusted to the Church…in fact we are administrators, and not the masters, of the sacraments. The problem is that these medicines, or these tools, or these effective signs, as the liturgy defines them—we must know them much more deeply in their effectiveness. … And it is not us ministers, with our captivating stunts, that will attract more people.”